Since leaving successful UK post-hardcore outfit Million Dead, you can track Frank Turner’s musical progress by following his career at Reading Festival. Having stepped up by one stage per year for the past three (a record which, should he continue, will put him in the main stage next year), Frank’s new style – a witty, slightly angst-ridden take on upbeat alternative folk-rock – is a massive departure from his old band’s efforts, and has quickly won him something of a cult following. His vivacious, sing-along live shows have done nothing but build on the love, and these days he’s practically fighting off the attention from big name producers like Grammy nominated Alex Newport. State caught up with him as he grabbed a lunchtime sandwich in Oregon, midway through his US tour, to ask him about new album Poetry of the Deed, life on the road, and how he feels about Derry…
Tell us about the Poetry of the Deed. Is it much of a change of direction?
It certainly wasn’t any kind of radical departure. I think the main difference this time is I bought the guys on my live band into the studio with me, which I haven’t done before.
There’s a little bit of politics creeping into the album. Is that something you like in your music?
I don’t want to be a protest singer, that’s something I’m quite emphatic about. The moment you get labelled as a protest singer, people stop listening to the music you’re making and just try to catch you out on your politics, which personally I find really boring. If I wanted to be a politician, I’d go and be a politician, but I want to be considered and judged as a musician. So yeah, there’s a political angle to what I do, on occasions, and that’s fun, but it’s not a central point of what I’m doing. I’m not trying to change the world, or anything as naff as that.
A few too many people are already trying that?
Well I think the idea that music’s ever changed the world is laughably naïve. It may have sound tracked the changes, but that’s an entirely different proposition.
Your sound now is very different to Million Dead all those years ago. Is it a very conscious distinction?
I was involved in writing quite a lot of stuff for Million Dead, but then I saw myself as trying to write riffs and lyrics, now I’m trying to write songs. It’s a slightly different discipline, and I’m quite interested in song writing as a concept. I don’t want to sit here and say something as naff as “I’m trying to write classic songs”, but… I’m not trying to write something as scene specific as angular, quirky post hardcore songs.
‘Try This At Home’ off the new album has a fairly hefty Irish twang to it, we thought.
Okay! I grew up listening to a lot of stuff like Rancid, The Offspring, NOFX, stuff like that. To me, some of that was coming out in that song. But I’ve got no problem with the Irish twang!
Some of the songs from your previous album have an almost ‘early Arctic Monkeys like’ poetic quality to the lyrics. Is observation key to your song writing?
I try not to be overly analytical in my song writing. I just sit down and try and write the best song I can about the thing I feel like writing a song about. It comes from life, and things that happen, but I know that if I’m going to write a song I’m probably going to have to play it a fair few times around the world, so I generally try to write about something that bothers me enough to keep talking about it.
Do you ever play the Million Dead stuff now?
For a while I emphatically didn’t, as it was important to me not to remain ‘that guy who used to be in that band’, but recently there’s been at least one song that’s been making an appearance in the set every now and then, because I feel confident and established enough now to do it without it being the focus of the set.
We were stood a few metres from you watching Radiohead at Reading Festival, and a few people were coming up to you, saying hello. Does that feel a bit odd?
It is a bit strange, yeah. But it’s also a compliment, and my mum brought me up to be respectful when someone pays a compliment. I mean occasionally it’s too much, and they’re really in your face and stuff, but if someone comes over and says “I like your music”, something like that, I’m flattered.
Your touring is incredibly prolific, do you ever get bored of it?
No. No one every makes you go on tour, and if it was really so terrible, you could stop tomorrow morning, and really not that many people would care. I think it’s intellectually redundant complaining about something you don’t have to do. But I do a thing every now and then where I try to think about what I was doing two weeks ago, and every time I do that I feel blown away. You mentioned Reading Festival, which was about two or three weeks ago, and Reading Festival feels like a lifetime ago to me. Touring makes life last longer, it seems.
We think one of the things that attracts people to your music is that you take the piss out of yourself a bit?
Yeah, well if you can’t laugh at yourself, you’re a tedious git. People like that come across as a little false, because that’s not what real life is like. I think you can have a much more profound emotional effect my presenting life in technicolour than in tedious monotone, like life is terribly hard and awful.
Like in ‘Long Live the Queen’?
Yeah, it was important to me in that song in particular to mix up humour with what happened. The girl who died, she was so vivacious when she was alive, and I think she’d have been upset by a song that was all loss and sadness. She’d have told me to get my shit together and start having some fun. I wanted to honour that spirit.
You’ve got a fairly substantial name over here, now. As we speak you’re on the road in America, is it very different on tour over there?
It is a bit, yeah, not least because I’m a foreigner. I really enjoy touring the States and actually having an English accent’s kind of a head start. There’s a lot of anglophiles in this country, so you can get up on stage and go “cor blimey governor, strike a light” and half the crowd are on side already. But there’s something really iconic about touring around the States anyway. I’m going to spend the next few years going back and forth.
What have you experiences in Ireland been like?
I’ve had a lot of good times in Ireland. Particularly Derry, Derry you have to approach with caution. Crazy, crazy stuff happens in Derry. I’ll particularly blame the boys from the band Fighting with Wires for that. Cahir is an absolute liability of a human being. I love him deeply.
What’s coming up in Frank Turner’s future?
For the immediate future, I’m going to be on tour for a very long time, and that’s fine by me. I see what I do as an ongoing process rather than a journey towards an end point. I see myself as an entertainer, and my job is to get up every night and help people have a good time. I don’t see an end point as say Wembley Stadium, do you see what I mean? I just want to keep going, and playing, and I’m lucky enough at the moment that I can make a living out of what I do.
Frank Turner plays Dublin Academy on October the 13th and Belfast Stiff Kitten on October the 14th.
As published in State Magazine, September 2009 (click to view original).