An interview with Frank Turner
Cambridge Junction, 12.1.09

By Glitterbitch


Frank Turner stands alone in a spotlight with nothing but his acoustic guitar and the sound of a packed Junction singing back every single word to the aptly titled Ballad Of Me and My Friends. Slowly his band filter into the shadows behind him and together they launch into the blistering single Reasons Not To Be An Idiot, not letting up the pace even through new song Live Fast, Die Young, all of which seems to act as a poetic metaphor for the man himself but let us do as he says and ‘begin at the beginning…’

Frank Turner by Andy Hixon

Frank has just returned to the backstage area after dinner and is kindly offering me a beer. He’s not long finished an interview with Radio One. I wonder whether they got offered a beer as well considering he later confesses to me he enjoys my line of questioning more than most he faces where he normally gets asked groundbreaking things such as what his favourite colour is. I’m more interested, however, in finding out about the real Frank Turner though and so we start with him summing up 2008 in one event.

“The Scala Show in London. We sold out and it’s the biggest show we’ve done. It just meant a lot to me. It was conformation for me of things reaching a different level. I don’t really listen to the radio but I keep getting texts from my friends saying ‘what the fuck are you doing on the radio’? So definitely my profile has risen but it’s slightly academic for me because I’m not a radio listener but Scala – you know I’ve seen PJ Harvey and stuff like that there. It was just mental and that’s when it hits me.”

His rise onto the A list of radio stations up and down the country obviously hasn’t gone to his head and he even admits that he tries to not think about his level of success as otherwise he’s likely to ‘disappear up his ass quite fast’. Frank’s got more important things on his mind anyway like achieving his goal for 2009 of getting his third album, due for release in the summer, absolutely right. He admits; “realistically if I get this album right then I’ve got a shot at this for the rest of my life and if I fuck it up then I don’t.” Whilst the pressure may be mounting, the looming deadline appeals to Turner’s ‘puritan work ethic’ and the only issue facing him now is the fact that he has too much material. One key difference we can look forward to this time round, as opposed to on his first two albums (Sleep Is For The Week and Love, Ire and Song), is that he intends to record the band live instead of layering things up in the hope of capturing the more energetic and raw sound he has on stage which captures the real Frank Turner.

“I’d definitely say that the sound we make as a band when we play live is better than the album stuff that we’ve put out so far. I play with some amazing musicians and now we’re quite tight so I think it would be madness to not take advantage of that.

The communality and inclusivity is very important to my music. For me music is at its best when it transcends barriers between the performer and the listener and when you play a gig and everyone sings along that’s just the pinnacle of what I’m trying to achieve.”

This is only too apparent at tonight’s gig where you can hear every word that Turner sings echoed back at him from an audience that would put most football crowds to shame. When Long Live The Queen is thrown into the set like any other song you can feel every lyric resonating throughout The Junction and, whilst Frank himself apparently remains unmoved, you can see the visible affect of the sentiment on the people watching as couples hold each other tighter, facial expressions change and a lump is left in the throat. Everything Frank writes is real and not, he says, because of any ideological position but simply because that is what he is good at and finds most emotionally worthwhile. Whilst talking about his last single he admits that he simply can’t involve himself in the emotion of it every time as the crowd may do because otherwise he’d lose his mind. Likewise he also wants to discard the label that some seem to want to force upon him as the new ‘Billy Bragg for twenty-something punks’.

“I am by no means the first and I won’t be the last to be labelled with the ‘new Billy Bragg’ thing. I think he’s an incredible song writer but his song writing is neglected publicly and that’s depressing as he writes much better love songs than he writes political songs.

"I can’t think of anything I dislike more than the idea of revolution. Revolution ends in death and poverty every time and the only revolution that didn’t is the one that no-one talks about which is the American Revolution. I come from a leftist youth and I’m not pretending that I didn’t shout revolution, waving flags around, when I was younger but as I grow up its seems more and more apparent to me that the idea is a bad one. I’m not trying to change anything with my music. Music has never changed anything. Music is a soundtrack. I know people who are very political and I’ve got a lot of respect for those people but I’m a songwriter, I want to write songs, get drunk and have a good time. So there is politics in my songs and if I feel the need to say something then I will because I’m lucky enough to have a forum to express my opinions and I think that’s a valid and worthwhile form of expression but I’m not trying to change the world and, most emphatically, I’m not going to try and carry anyone else’s banner.”
After his stint with hardcore punk band Million Dead where ‘every snare hit had to be approved by everybody’ and resulted in the members all ‘hating each others’ guts’ by the time of their split in 2005, Frank is just happy to do things his way and he admits he’s a ‘very lucky camper’ who has got the best of all worlds. He gets to tour with amazing musicians and yet still retains the power of veto, surely every front man’s dream! Life hasn’t always been so kind, however, and when Frank first began to play solo acoustic shows he admits that ‘no-one gave a fuck’.

“I’m not trying to play the martyr but I did 18 months of touring on a train with a guitar and a back pack and no-one came to shows. I remember playing a basement somewhere in Cambridge (Cellar Bar 8) and it was me and Sam Get Cape and there were 10 people. I think I was playing through blind optimism which is why it makes me so happy that things are going well now.

For the foreseeable future I can’t imagine doing anything else. To a certain extent the length of time I keep doing this depends on my fortunes and I hope I’m able to do it for a long time but it’s just likely in the grand scheme of things that I won’t be, although I’d like to. So I will probably have to get another job at some point but I’ll put it off as long as possible.”

Which is good news for us as it means we can continue to enjoy his well observed words, his infectious punk-folk melodies and the parties he throws every time he is on stage. Tonight, in fact, turns out to be a triple birthday celebration as well which Frank is only too happy to allow to overshadow his own celebration tonight on the, much delayed, last night of his current tour. There’s only one thing that matters to him and even before I finish my penultimate question, which I naively thought may be a difficult one, Frank has already answered and made it quite clear that he’d choose music over love every time.
“My current missus knows that and I told her when we first got together that if she ever tries to force me to a choice I’m going to choose music. I’ve been wanting to do this since I was ten and I’ve known her for a year so it’s like ‘don’t fucking push it’. It’s part of the fabric of my life. I couldn’t do anything else.”

Tonight I’ve met the real Frank Turner and I’ve seen him live on stage. He may well not be the new Billy Bragg and he may not want to carry banners for anyone but he does remind us all that you can do as much good with feeling as you can with any form of political protest. As the evening draws to a close with Photosynthesis and Frank’s warning that this will be our last chance to enjoy ourselves, every single member of the audience can be heard chanting possibly the most poignant lyric of the evening – ‘I won’t sit down and I won’t shut up, and most of all I will not grow up.’ I conjure up an image of an old Frank Turner still making his sharp and witty observations as he enters the grave and when I ask him what words he would leave behind he simply quotes Leonard Cohen because that is life to him.

“Like a drunk in a midnight choir, I have tried in my way to be free.”

Word Glitter Bitch
Live Cambridge pix by Simon of Size Photography, more here

Thanks to Anthea at Press Counsel and The Junction for their help in organising this interview

wers to qum the 3rd album