Frank Turner: Two lines are more powerful than 4,000 syllables at 200 miles per hour
Courtesy of the Artist
English folk-punk journeyman Frank Turner has seen his stock skyrocket over the past few years, especially in his beloved home of the U.K., where's he's now selling out arenas and moonlighting in Olympics opening ceremonies.
Not bad for a foul-mouthed, tattooed ne'er-do-well who made his first mark in the post-hardcore outfit Million Dead. Thanks to a relentless touring ethic that still manages to stay true to his DIY roots, the singer-songwriter has taken a strong foothold in America as well. Standing as a brash, acerbic counterpoint to more pandering Brit-Folk imports we've seen recently, Frank's songwriting is still barbed and thought provoking, even as he tries out more mellow territory on Tape Deck Heart.
Gimme Noise caught the singer in Calgary, Alberta to chat about his love of our local music scene, his evolving process, and hints of heavier material to come.
Gimmie Noise: So, you've been on record as a big fan of the Hold Steady, which are kind of a hometown band for us despite them being based out of N.Y. As an Englishman who's been here on tour a number of times, how has their music colored your view of our city?
Frank Turner: Well, it's not just the Hold Steady, you guys are home to an awful lot of fantastic bands, you know, The Replacements and Prince also give a picture of the city. But the Hold Steady are one of my favorite bands, and I think a lot of my view of what Minneapolis was going to be like before the first time I went there came from Hold Steady songs. I've been through many times, and the nature of touring is that you get a know a venue and maybe a few blocks around it very well, but I'm kind of ginger about saying that I know the city because of that. But I've always had a good time when I've been there!
Ever tried to see any of the landmarks he sings about between shows? Did you go down to Lowertown? Maybe you tried camping by the banks of the Mississippi during your busking days?
[Laughs] I would love to, and I played the Lowertown Music Fest, but the nature of what I do is that often my free time comes in half-hour blocks and so heading out on wild tourist binges isn't all that practical.
And you've really got a THS tattoo?
Yes, that's right, "Damn Right I'll Rise Again," on my lower back.
Like the character, Hallelujah's tramp-stamp? Does that make you a hoodrat?
[Laughs] I think you could draw that conclusion. Yes, that's exactly what I have. I actually met Craig [Finn, frontman of The Hold Steady] finally for the first time this summer in Toronto, and I showed him my tattoo and I think he was tickled by it.
You're also a big Replacements fan. As a Riot Fest veteran yourself, were you able to catch any of their reunion gigs?
I was not, unfortunately. I've kind of given up looking at the bills of the festivals we play until the day we actually play them, because more often then not you get really excited about a bunch of bands that you want to see and then find out that they're playing the following day when you're on the road to somewhere 500 miles away.
Let's talk a little about Tape Deck Heart. This was the first album you've recorded in America, right?
Yeah, that's right. It was something I was a little apprehensive about, actually. Not because I've got anything against America, I love America, it's great, but it's such a cliché for a band from Europe or elsewhere. It gets to become something of a success and then goes to L.A. and makes a record about freeways, and the whole thing becomes kind of California-ized or whatever, and it becomes a little dishonest, essentially. Regardless of how much I'm over here I still come from Southern England and I wanted to kind of have a sense of that in the music. So I was a bit nervous about losing some of my roots in a way. But in the end I really wanted to work with Rich Costey, I think he's an amazing producer and that won out because he wanted to work there. So we went there and worked 14-hour days every day so I don't think it really made a difference in the record at all.
Your last album was very England-centric, almost provincial, and this one seems to be a little more personal . At the same time, I think that translates a bit more universally. Everybody's got a Hungry Heart, ya know?
One of the things that was nice in a way about Tape Deck was going into it and knowing that I didn't have to say anything particular about England. England Keep My Bones [my last album], that was kind of the T-shirt I was wearing for that record. Also, it was kind of getting that topic out of my system because it kept rearing its head in my songwriting. It always blows my mind how conservative some music fans can be. Everytime I put out a record somebody goes "It's not exactly the same as your last one!" And I say "...yeah." That's the point isn't it? I'm really not interested in repeating myself. So yeah, in a way, it was kind of fun to write, and obviously there are some kind of geographical references in some of the songs related to London or U.K. stuff or whatever, but it's more about universal topics.
"The Fisher King Blues" even mentions some of your observations on the U.S. "All you broken boys and girls..." and not just about English ones anymore?
Yeah, but it also mentions Battersea Power Station, which is not something that I think that many people who don't live in London get. Battersea Power Station is this very impressive ancient brick and chimney structure just south of the river. It used to be a power station in the Victorian era and it's been abandoned for about 50 years. It's vast, and no one can decide what to do with it. It's this huge gothic and imposing structure and I always figured that if the Fisher King lived in London he would live there.
Your songwriting on this album really reminds me of what the Decemberists did on their album The King is Dead. You've honed your craft to the point where the songs seem more directly melodic and the lyrics work to serve the overall melody of the song, rather than always being the spotlight.
Well, thanks very much! That's a compliment. That new Decembrists record is my favorite of theirs that they've done to date. It sounds like a weird thing to say, but I do try hard not to think all that analytically about songwriting. But I do so because of that whole idea that you can break the mechanism by examining it too closely. By dissecting the frog, you kill it, or whatever. I'd like to think my songwriting improves over time, with practice, but to date it's still kind of working, and I think if I sat there and tried to be all academic about it then I would be in danger of losing that spark. So I try not to do that.
Another example might be the transition of "Wordy Springsteen" circa The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle to the more concise Darkness on the Edge of Town. Do you find yourself editing more these days?
Not sort of all that consciously, but I suspect unconsciously before the pen hits the page. In terms of my kind of pace, or I suppose "influence" would be the word, in songwriting, I've definitely gone on a journey. When I was younger I was interested in very very complicated, word songs. People I idolized were Chris Hannah from Propaghandi, Chris Leo from the Van Pelt, people like that, where it was definitely a case of wordy complicated-ness. Overwriting above all consideration, for the lyrics.
As I've got older, there's something you suddenly realize, that there's perfection in the simplicity of a Townes Van Zandt lyric that says everything and nothing in two lines. That's in a way more powerful, more interesting and more affecting then it is to shout 4,000 syllables at 200 miles per hour. Particularly if you take into account the stuff I was doing in the band before I was doing solo records, I think you can definitely see a process there of me trying to simplify simplify as I go along. Just trying to cut away the chaff and say what it is I want to say in the best possible without beating around the bush.
The record also got a bit cleaner, production-wise, and a bit more downtempo. Do you find that your muse has mellowed a little in your 30s, or did it just fit the subject material?
On the production side of it, I wanted to try to work with Rich, I think it was a great experience and I really enjoyed it. Whether or not we work with him or someone like him for the next record is something I'm in the middle of thinking about quite hard. It's basically, if I wanted to make another record like Tape Deck Heart then I would, definitely. I'm kind of in the middle of wanting to make a really raucous punk record, actually, at the moment, so I guess we'll see what happens.
But I think you're right that Tape Deck Heart was a bit more of a midtempo record with a considered pace, but I think that's not part of a permanent long-time trend. I think that the next record, judging by the new material I'm writing right now, is going to be a lot more wild and crazy.
There's a bit of wistful nostalgia on your new song "Oh Brother" about the bad old days of slugging it out in the punk trenches. Do you ever get the urge to turn off the phone and sneak out on one of your busking tours like you once did?
You know, I've certainly thought about that, and occasionally I'll hit up an open mic night in the U.K. to try out some new songs, and more often then not there's like one or two people who know what's going on and get really excited about it. Everybody else is like "What the fuck?" and don't care. But I think there's a lot of value to doing that.
I spend a lot of time thinking about context in music, and something that I'm always keen to do is...I think a lot of bands when they get on and become "established" as artists, suddenly they get a lot of passes on stuff. Some of that is justified, because if you've built up a catalog and a head of steam and a positive respect, fair enough, you do get certain allowances made. But I don't want to make records that are considered "good for somebody on their fifth album." I'd like to be considered as a new artist all the time, because I think people are harsher critics of new artists, and I'd like to be able to stand up to that kind of criticism as well, if you know what I mean.
On the U.S. leg of this tour you're actually bringing with one of our local bands, Koo Koo Kangaroo, to open. How'd you link up with them? They're not super close to your normal musical palate.
I played the Lowertown Music Festival three years ago in St. Paul and they were on right before me, and I did what everyone on this tour has been doing, which is spend the first ten minutes of their set wondering what the actual fuck was going on. [Laughs] Then I slowly crumbled and then finished the set by wondering where I was going to get my Koo Koo Kangaroo tattoo done. I honestly think they're one of the best live bands I've ever seen in my life, and I just love having them on the road. I mean, they're great guys as well, but I feel like they drive a Trojan horse through hipster reserve, if you know what I mean. If you're not having fun by the end of their set, then you're just kind of a dick.
I've watched them pretty much every night of the tour, and I'm watching them more for the crowd reaction, and it's really interesting, because again I feel like at the beginning of their set there's a lot of confusion and skepticism and by the end of it 99 percent of people are on board with it. It's great, and I feel like it makes for a better show for us because everybody is loose and smiling by the end of it.
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