Punk with Empathy: An Interview with Frank Turner

Frank Turner – who headlined Upstate Concert Hall on Wednesday Nov. 2 with support from Arkells and Will Varley – radiates passion and authenticity both in his on stage performance and work behind the scenes. Turner, who has six albums under his belt with 2015’s most recent release Positive Songs for Negative People, hovers the genre line between punk and folk. Defying categorization, he has amassed a fan following who packed Upstate Concert Hall to near capacity, the largest Turner has seen for one of his performances at the venue.

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Fans of Turner perhaps most identify with his honesty and tendency to not deter from difficult themes, even when those topics are self-deprecating. Turner was open about discussing authenticity, empathy, and his experience writing The Road Beneath My Feet.

Lisa Christopher: You tour pretty incessantly. Can I know what show number this one is?

Frank Turner: Tonight is 1,972.

LC: How do you keep all the different numbers and shows straight in all the shows from The Road Beneath My Feet?

FT: I just have a list. It’s on my website; it’s publicly accessible. That’s the thing, people think I’m sort of, more, sort of like “rain man” about it than I actually am. I write the set number on the set list every day, and I just write it down, and I just check when the number of the previous one was.

LC: Was it difficult transitioning from song writing to memoir writing with The Road Beneath My Feet?

FT: Yeah, definitely, that was a classic case of hubris for me. I sort of got, I was part reluctant about writing a book, full stop, at the beginning simply because I think people who write autobiographies when they’re young, I think that’s lame. But we talked about stuff like, Henry Rollin’s tour memoirs, which have been a big deal to me growing up. I know he’s in town today, actually. Get in the Van was like a bible for me as a kid. The publisher and I sort of came up with an approach that made sense. And then I was like, well I’ve written sort of three-page magazine articles plenty of times so this is kind of going to be like writing –

LC: A bunch of them all in a row?

FT: Yeah, and that’s obviously completely wrong. And there’s quite a serious intellectual effort to support the internal architecture of a 300-page book, you know?

LC: Absolutely.

FT: It was quite rough at times where I wasn’t sure if I would pull it off. It was immensely satisfying when I did. It’s always satisfying to finish a record, but I’ve done it a few times now. This was the first time I’ve finished a book. When I got a hard back copy it was great because you can gift it to your friends for Christmas, or indeed your enemies.

LC: Inflict it upon them.

FT: Yeah, you can hit people with it, it’s quite a solid thing. It felt pretty good.

LC: I noticed there’s kind of a big change and transition in the tone from Tape Deck Heart to your current album. Is it hard to include songs from both albums in a complete set?

FT: No, I don’t think so. The set list thing – I try to do something different every time I make a record because I sort of write autobiographically and I tend to write chronologically as well. You know, the mood of a record generally reflects my mood as an individual at the time. Part of the reason I find comparing the records I’ve made impossible – I think most artists do anyway – but it’s like asking me to compare my second record with my sixth record. It’s a slightly meaningless comparison to me because it’s like asking me to compare myself at twenty-five to myself at thirty-two. It’s just like…what?
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LC: So much has changed.

FT: Right, it’s so kind of time specific to me. So definitely, I think that Tape Deck Heart and Positive Songs are kind of flip slides of a coin. Tape Deck Heart is about things sort of falling apart and Positive Songs isn’t so much about them coming back together, it’s about kind of, dragging yourself out of the burning wreckage.

LC: I feel like the theme of recovery is kind of a theme among all of them.

FT: Yeah, it sort of is about dusting yourself off after falling off your bike, and trying to straighten out the handle bars. I mean, in terms of set list, I spend a really tragically large part of my adult life thinking about the set list. We generally have a kind of working architecture that lasts for about three months or so before we flip it up. There’s so much you have to do, I try to play something off every record I’ve done, I try to not put two songs in the same key next to each other unless you’re deliberately running from one into the other. There are transitions and technical issues…there’s just a million different things. You want to tell a story, you want to start strong, you want to bring people down…it’s endless. The consideration of which record and which mood is part of it, but those are two attributes of many things that come into consideration.

LC: In the same vein as that, your live shows are always so energetic and engaging. You always engage the audience. Your lyrics are so honest and personal, and I wonder, is it hard sometimes to juxtapose those song concepts into such an energetic set?

FT: Yes and no. There’s a degree of performance…I mean I am a performer among other things. I’m a singer and a songwriter and a musician but I’m also a performer. There’s something with the repetition of performance and the realities of a tour, where it sort of softens the emotional content of some songs, you know what I mean? And you have kind of an emotional…I am shying away from the word detachment. I don’t want to say that I feel detached when I play those songs, but you can’t go through the experience of everything that goes into writing a song every single time that you play it. So, there’s that. And there’s also, I think one of the most central concerns as a writer is empathy. And for me, there’s something fascinating and enormously rewarding about singing a song about your deepest darkest secrets and screw ups and having a room full of people sing it back again. At the very least there’s something interesting about that. So I don’t think that the two are philosophically opposed.

LC: That’s a good point.

FT: It sort of surprised me – sorry I’m rambling, I talk way too much – but one of things that sort of pleasantly surprises me, I always try to write honestly and about flaws and that kind of thing. But particularly with Tape Deck Heart, as well as many other things that went into that record – England Keep My Bones is quite a bombastic record thematically, and certainly in the UK it was kind of my break through record. I was definitely like, much more main stream after that record came out. And at that moment in time it kind of struck me as perversely interesting to then go inwards rather than outwards as to my subject matter, and I sort of tried to write the most broken down record about failure and my own failure that I could. Just because that seems – I’m kind of a contrarian at heart I think. It seemed kind of interesting to me. And then it was yet more popular – which was like oh my god what’s happening! But yeah, it’s weird singing the song “Plain Sailing Weather” in front of a room of people, because that’s a song that isn’t generous to myself, you know.

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LC: But I think it’s authentic and a lot of people can relate to that as a ubiquitous human experience.

FT: Yeah, that was kind of the intention so I’m glad the plan worked.

LC: How was working with Butch Walker?

FT: He was great. Butch is an amazing guy. He smells better than any man I’ve ever met.

LC: What does he smell like? Just curious now!

FT: He smells like, just like, goodness and adulthood and manhood. No, I don’t know. He’s just, anyway. He just sort of – I kind of got myself in a bind where I’d come up with a methodology to go with the songs I was writing and my record label were not convinced that it was a good idea. And I sort of fought tooth and nail for that but I needed an ally, and in the end Butch was my ally. I mean part because he’s a major league producer but also just like – I sort of contacted him not through management or whatever, I just got his e-mail address and dropped him a line – we met up for a beer and just instantly clicked. And one of the first things he said is that everything he thinks about song writing and production can be found on the first two Weezer records. And I said, I could not agree more strongly with that statement. So yeah, so we clicked straight away. And when I started explaining this methodology – which had to do with making things quickly and raw with a kind of pop heart to it – he just kind of started finishing my sentences before – we’d known each other for twenty minutes, you know. He’s a great soul and I’d love to work with him again.

LC: Is there anyone you haven’t worked with as yet who you liked to?

FT: Oh yeah – loads. On the production side of things, yeah. I’m fascinated by Rick Rubin. I have mixed feelings about Rick Rubin
as a producer but I think that’s kind of the point. Part of me is really interested in the idea of going off and making a record with something out of really left field…I’m really into Bjork and indeed electronica. Do something really deconstructionist –

LC: That would be interesting.

FT: Yeah, you know, it’s certainly – I think that being outside my comfort zone at this point in my career is extremely important and it’s certainly what I try to do.

LC: Are there any topics that you wouldn’t write about? So much that you write about seems so personal.

FT: Um, you know, I try to quite hard for the answer to that question to be no. My boundaries are more to do with stuff like…like consideration for other people, you know what I mean? There’s a song, which I’m not going to name because that’s kind of the point I’m trying to make, but there is a song I wrote about a situation with a friend of mine that it was an overstepping of the bounds in kind of revealing or just discussing – it didn’t name her in any way but – she was pretty pissed when the song came out. Retrospectively, I understand why completely and I feel pretty bad about it. So, you know what I mean, if like I choose to hang my dirty laundry out in public that’s my business but it’s not up to me to do that for other people.

LC: Right, choice and consent.

FT: Yeah, exactly. I mean, the counter argument to everything I’ve just said is Tape Deck Heart because I wrote quite in depth about a relationship which involves another person and I’m not sure I have a ready argument for that topic that I’ve just introduced. But, other than don’t date song writers.

LC: Or you’ll be written about?

FT: Yeah.

LC: I have one more question that is kind of silly. I’ve seen you in other places where you’ve Googled an anecdote of places you’re at and shared what you’ve found. Have you Googled Clifton Park yet and what did you find?

FT: That’s a good question, it’s not something I do every single time and it’s funny because – that shit works better in the states than it does in other places in the world. I think partly because American cities and towns have a sort of tradition of civic pride where they’re trying to distinguish themselves so it’s like you get a place that’s like, we have the biggest coke can in the continental united states! And it’s just like…what? But Clifton Park is sort of, we’ve played here before, and I think last time I cheated and googled Albany instead.

LC: I think more will come up if you Google Albany.

FT: But you sort of just reminded me to do that tonight.

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