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Interview: Frank Turner

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Image credit: Joel Bombardier
Image credit: Joel Bombardier

Read the full interview transcript of music editor Magda Cassidy‘s catch up with folk-punk singer Frank Turner as they talk about university life, touring and the importance of a punk ethos.

Magda: As a graduate of London School of Economics, what was your most memorable experience of University?

Frank: The thing for me being at uni was that I was in a band called ‘Million Dead’ at the time which was a going touring concern, so I wasn’t there very much. Like, I wrote my third year dissertation in a tour bus driving around Europe, which was a terrible way to write a dissertation (laughs), not least because everybody else on the bus was having fun immediately outside my bunk while I was sitting there cross referencing my notes from the library. So, I don’t know, I played a lot of shows while I was there – sometimes at the uni – and that was a good time.

M: So, did your previous band form while you were at uni?

F: No, we knew each other before – it kind of wasn’t linked. I went to university in London but I was living London before that anyway, and I sort of didn’t really socialise much when I was at university. I sort of went in and did the work. I am one of those people who fervently believes in academic pursuits. I think if you’re going to go to uni and study a subject then study the damn thing, you know, care about it! So I did that and then once I was done with work I’d go and hang out with my friends on the punk scene and that’s kind of where the band came from. I was thinking about this the other day. There is that old adage – and certainly my mum told me – that you make your friends for life at university. I think I’m still in touch with one, maybe, so yeah that wasn’t true for me.

M: Did studying history link in anyway to your decision to play music, or was that always going to be something you were going to do?

F: Well, They’re my two passions in life, and the music thing was kind of always there, it long predated going to uni and is currently long postdating it as well. I wanted to do music since I was a kid but, yeah, I’m really passionate about the study of history, it’s all I do these days in between gigging and that: read history books, that’s all I do, and try and keep up and try and learn more about different parts of the world, times, and places. And I mean there is a bit of a crossover, I do kind of dump history references in my songs.

M: You certainly do!

F: Its not a calculated thing. I don’t sit there thinking ‘I must put history into this song to make myself sound cleverer’. It’s more just that I’m an incorrigible nerd and it just sort of comes out. The guys in the band and crew will tell you every now and again I’ll get off on a history rant and everyone kind of goes” fucks’ sake” and makes their excuses and tries to get out of there!

M: So how come you didn’t decide to study music? Was it always going to be history or was it a difficult decision?

F: Not really, I don’t have any formal music training at all really. I had some piano lessons when I was a kid and I hated them and didn’t practice, and that was before I’d ever picked up a guitar. And then I’m basically self-taught in the rest of music. I had a couple of guitar lessons here and there but mainly self-taught, and then it never really crossed my mind that I would study music – my conception of music is something that’s a bit more hands on. I can’t read or write music, I certainly have a sort of code but its not accepted or understood by anyone else. Music is something more visceral.

I think bands reach a certain point where they become too withdrawn when they receive greater exposure, and it all becomes too calculated and guarded” – Frank Turner

M: How do you approach song writing?

F: Well, if I can say this without sounding like a total hippy, I feel like song writing kind of approaches me. It’s just this kind of buzzing going on in the back of my head and there are days when I really wish I could shut the fucking thing off. The new record comes out tomorrow and I’ve got 10 new songs already – which is nice cause I like writing songs, but there are days when I just want to be just not constantly pinging possible combinations of chords and words around in my head.

M: With your fifth album coming out tomorrow, how do you maintain longevity and keep producing fresh material?

F: Well, there’s the million dollar question! I do try quite hard to repeat myself – I say that within the context of the fact that I know that I’m not a radically original musician. I write traditional rock and roll or country songs, or whatever you want to call them, but I don’t want to kind of repeat myself, and I don’t want to use the same melodies and the same chords the same styles or whatever. So I’m constantly trying to push around the edges a little bit, and I feel like I’ve done an alright job of that so far. But at the end of the day I’m not the one who should be answering that question.

M: So talk to us a little bit about your latest release Tape Deck Heart. Has it got similar patriotic themes that pervaded England Keep My Bones?

F: It’s quite different – as I say I don’t really want to repeat myself and it was quite refreshing to sit down and not have anything more to say on the subject of England. I’ve sort of finished that topic for the time being for myself. It’s a really personal record, its quite raw; there are certainly large chunks of it that I’m really, really uncomfortable about releasing. But then art is not supposed to be comfortable. I’m not saying that I want to change it. There’s some really dark and raw shit on there y’know, which is kind of what I wanted to do partly because I’ve had things in my personal life which made me want to talk about that kind of thing – it’s catharsis – but also I think bands reach a certain point where they become too withdrawn when they receive greater exposure, and it all becomes too calculated and guarded as band’s think ‘should we sing about that?’ And when you start writing songs that’s not how you think at all. You just pour your guts out into a piece of paper, and that’s how you should write. You shouldn’t be sitting there wondering ‘Is this going to go down well in Wembley arena?’ or whatever. It’s just a shitty way to write songs. So, yeah, I tried really hard not to think about who was going to hear it.

M: As luck would have it they do tend to go down very well which is exciting!

F: It’s a relief!

M: So what are you listening to at the moment?

F: Well, the two support acts on this tour who are both worthy of mention. A band called ‘Larry and His Flask’ from Portland, Oregon are totally incredible, one of the single best live bands I’ve ever seen in my life – they’re giving me a run for my money everyday. And then a guy called George Frakes who is a singer/songwriter from London who I stumbled across in a pub and is amazing. Other than that I’ve been listening to ‘The National’ a lot lately.

M: Obviously you’ve got the ‘Sleeping Souls’ touring with you as well as your two support acts, what’s the tour bus dynamic like?

F: I’ve got quite a bit production for me now, including 16 people in my crew. We‘ve toured with Larry and His Flask before, my band Sleeping Souls, who we should talk about a lot because they’re great and a huge part of what I do. They’re in the studio with me and we arrange the songs together, and they come on the road with me and they’re part of the family. And the crew as well! I love them very much and they work their arses off – they work way harder than I do so kudos to them.

M: So what are your upcoming plans, any festivals, any plans for a 6th album?

F: Fingers crossed if everything goes well with this record then we’ll keep powering along. The new record coming means I’ve got endless touring a head of me. In terms of festivals in the summer, I’ve got 2000 tress festival, Reading and Leeds, T in the park, loads of stuff in Europe and America, keeping busy, and then more touring, more touring, more touring!

M: And finally, what would you say to any aspiring student musicians hoping to go the same way as you?

F: I think the thing to do is, for me, harness the DIY punk ethos. It’s something that’s really important, and remains important to me now, and there are some people who think I’m not allowed to say that because I’m working with big labels. But what the DIY ethos means is seizing the day and not waiting around for someone else to provide opportunities for you. If you’re in a band, book your own shows, make your own recordings and sell them yourselves. It’s so easy to do these days, with the internet and technology and all the rest of it. Don’t wait for somebody to bring you the world on a plate: go out and grab life by the throat and make it listen to what you do. And if later in life you get a manager or a booking agent or record label, fantastic, let them do their thing and that frees you up more time to do whatever else you want to do. But there are people in bands who sit around waiting for opportunity to come to them. Don’t do that. Go out and find it.

Tape Deck Heart is out now

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The music section of Exeter's independent student newspaper.