Frank Turner is a rare breed of musician who has truly had to work his way to success. He hasn’t shot to instant fame on the strength of an amazingly hyped debut, nor has he continued to put out record after record without moving up the ladder. His most recent album England Keep My Bones charted at number 12 in the UK charts and last week he played his biggest UK headline show to date - a sold-out gig at Hammersmith Apollo. Next year he will go one better by playing Wembley Arena with a special gig that will feature a bill of six acts.
Earlier this year he celebrated playing his 1000th solo show and he rarely has a day where he isn’t either performing or travelling to his next gig – so worked is definitely the word to stress when it comes to Frank Turner’s gradual rise. In this interview he speaks exactly how he performs – barely pausing for breath and with boundless passion. He talks about the year he has had, Wembley, hardcore and Build Me Up Buttercup…
How did you feel playing your 1000th show this year?
When I first noticed it was going to be coming up I decided that I didn’t give a shit and that it was just an irrelevant number. And then it got a bit closer and I decided it was at least a good excuse to throw a party, so we had a show in London and had a good time. On the one hand it feels good and I’ve played a lot of gigs but looking at it from the other angle if you add up the number of shows I do a year and look at the number of days per year there are in a regular nine to five, Monday to Friday, office job then you’re looking at a pretty similar number. So I don’t really feel like I deserve any mass plaudits and accolades for just kind of working in a job. And I always feel nervous calling it a ‘job’ because obviously it’s the best job in the world and I fucking love it and I’m not trying to denigrate in any way but I feel like if I wasn’t playing shows the whole time I’d be slacking.
Can you choose any highlights from all of those shows?
Playing the main stage at Reading this year. Reading was a festival I went to when I was a kid growing up, so getting to the main stage this year was amazing. I also remember when we headlined the 100 Club in London and sold it out and that’s like 300 people and I remember thinking, “Fuck yeah! The 100 Club!”… But I could talk about this for days…
On his upcoming Wembley Arena show…
That show is an experiment almost. Basically we’re at a point where I can legitimately book that venue and it’s not stupid. So we’re going to try it. I don’t know if I’m then going to decide that I’m going to only want to play arena shows. I think there’s a fair chance I might do it and think actually it’s not working on this level. I will obviously be working my arse off to make it a good show. The main thing in terms of booking it was that I can book it now and who knows maybe I never will be able to again - so fuck it – I think in life generally you should try everything once. I rarely get nervous before gigs but I think that might be one where I am a bit nervy. I got back from the American tour that we just did and we got to Switzerland and it just so happened the first thing on TV was a Michael McIntyre show at Wembley Arena and the camera did a 180 pan of the crowd and I just though “Fuck! It’s a big place!” But we’ve sold a lot of tickets so far, which I’m amazingly happy about.
We’re going to have two stages and six people are going to perform including me and Billy Bragg. I can’t say who the other supports are just yet because they’re not properly confirmed.
The super-scenester punk kids all want to pretend that they just woke up one morning and bought a Crass record or a Black Flag record and it’s like bullshit man - you got into punk because of Green Day or Blink 182.
Do you ever get the inclination to merge music and politics in the same way that Billy does?
When I first started doing this solo thing I kind of dipped my toe into the waters of political music and I realised it wasn’t what I want to do. There are a fair few people in this world who surprisingly get outright angry with me for not wanting to be political on that level. I enormously respect Billy for what he does because I think it takes a lot of energy and lot of balls to put yourself out there like that. Personally I’m not political enough in the right way for that to be what I want to do. I want to be a musician, I’ve thought long and hard about it. It’s funny because every time I talk about this I feel like I have to apologise and actually I don’t think I should. I think it’s great that Billy’s out there doing what he does. I saw an interview with him the other day saying that he thought I should be down at the Occupy protest. The thing about that is – I have actually quite complicated mixed views about the Occupy protest and it’s really not as simple as “there’s a protest and I should be there”. For me it’s more complicated than that. I’m not interested in associating what I do permanently with that political angle. And without sounding too defensive it’s my music so I will do with it what I want to.
On the release of The Second Three Years…
With The First Three Years - obviously the title is a rip on Black Flag – but the whole idea was to make it easy for people to get all the music that I’d done. I didn’t want people to be running around on Ebay trying to buy weird out of print EPs just to get songs that I’d released. Obviously people can still do that if they want to but it just seemed fairer to do it this way. I guess when we did that one it was kind of in my head that maybe we could do another one if I was still making music three years down the line. And it turned out that I was and that there was another pile of songs that people wanted to get their hands on – so it just kind of made sense.
There’s a cover of Build Me Up Buttercup on there…
That song was done for the Centrepoint charity. They asked me to do a song. They were set up in 1966 I think, unsure of the exact year, but the idea was that you had to cover a song that was released in that year and I went through some iTunes lists and saw that and thought man that’s one of my favourite songs – I’ve got to do it.
Dammit by Blink 182 is another song you’ve been known to cover…
One of the things I love about playing that song and I say this before I play it - is that it calls the more scenester people up on their shit. Because the super-scenester punk kids all want to pretend that they just woke up one morning and bought a Crass record or a Black Flag record and it’s like bullshit man - you got into punk because of Green Day or NOFX or Blink 182. And I don’t understand why people want to try to hide that fact. I remember playing it at this house show I did somewhere in California, which was full of all these super-hipster bike type punks and I went into that song and everyone knew all the fucking words! I was like “yeah not so bomb the music industry these days are we?”
I like the idea that someone who got into me through the Cambridge Folk Festival might buy this record and be genuinely upset by it.
When you play so many shows how do approach set lists?
I spend a long time thinking about a set list and for me it’s actually an art form in itself. You want to start strong, you’ve got to find the right place to put in a new song if you want to play a new song and if you want to play something obscure you have to play it somewhere where you aren’t going to lose people’s attention. And then you want to finish strong too and basically you can spend all day on a set list. I remember I was teching for Reuben and Jamie was writing these set lists that were just mental because he would start with all four of their biggest songs and then finish with a B-side. And I thought “what are you like?” It got to the point where I said “sit down - I’m writing your fucking set list for you tonight!” Because you want people to walk out with a big satisfied feeling rather than finishing on a song that just two people know.
You’ve got Greg Nolan documenting your current tour - is this perhaps the early stages of a DVD release?
Yes, potentially. Greg is an old friend of mine – he took the photo on the cover of Love Ire and Song. And in the bar Nambucca that I used to hang around at, he was sort of the photographer of that scene. He’s also completely fucking mental in this absolutely adorable way and he’s a great guy to have around and he’s a great photographer. We’re going to film the Wembley show, of course, and hopefully do some sort of documentary around that but it’s a bit of an unformed idea at the moment. I’m also working on a book of tour diaries, which is taking me forever – it’s kind of 75% done and I will finish it one day.
Earlier this year you teased some fans by talking about doing a new hardcore project – any news?
I learned the hard way that you should not talk to the NME about plans when they aren’t solid plans. And within about 24 hours of me saying that every music blog was writing a story about it and I thought - “calm down”. But yeah now we’ve got a line-up – it’s going to be me, Ben from Million Dead and Matt who’s the keys player in Sleeping Souls and he’s going to play guitar. It’s not going to sound like Million Dead, it’s going to be a lot nastier than that, I’m thinking about bands like Pig Destroyer and that kind of thing. Fucking aggressive, super in your face, horrible shit. I like the idea that someone who got into me through the Cambridge Folk Festival might buy this record and be genuinely upset by it. We haven’t agreed on a name yet but we’re going to be rehearsing and writing in January. The problem with it is that it has to be a second-level priority to my solo work, so it’s a question of finding the time to slot it in. I want to get a record out and tour it but I’m also hoping to get in the studio for myself as well. What’s fun about the hardcore thing is that I’m not going to be involved in the music so much, I’ll be concentrating on the lyrics and it’s fun because it means that I can write in a very different style to what I do in my day job – if I can use that expression. It’s more just surrealist, weird kind of stuff and I’ve always liked for example Slayer’s lyrics, which are just kind of twisted and based around imagery. I think a lot of the time when people do a side project it just kind of sounds like their day job and I really like the idea that’s it’s going to be radically different to what I normally do.
Frank will be playing London’s Wembley Arena on 13 April 2012.
Other stories you might like…