INTERVIEW by ZAK SLOMAN
For almost the past two decades, Frank Turner has been on a journey that has taken him from being a member of much-missed post-hardcore outfit Million Dead, to being a well-respected singer-songwriter – specialising in a diverse range of musical genres – and a best-selling writer of non-fiction.
Prior to his recent set headlining the Karnage Festival at Keele University, I had the privilege of speaking to him in-depth about a wide variety of subjects, and in the first of what will be a two-part interview, Frank talked about such things as his earliest musical memory, recently published book, and how he thinks Brexit will affect the British music industry.
What would you say was your earliest musical memory?
I think my earliest musical memory was being in the car with my mum and dad. My parents don’t really listen to any modern music – I think 1900 is the cut-off point for them (laughs) – but having said that, there were two tape cassettes in the car which I remember loving, one was a copy of ‘Sgt Pepper’s‘ that my mum had brought, and I think that was her going, “This is what pop music is!“, which is pretty hilarious in retrospect, and the other was an album by an old music hall duo called Flanders & Swann, and we had their records as well, which I absolutely adore, so for me, that was my earliest musical memory.
Was there a specific moment in your life when you decided that a career as a musician was for you?
Yeah. I had this kind of light switch moment when I was about 10, and I listened to Iron Maiden for the first time, and then at around the same time, I watched the Freddie Mercury tribute concert live on the telly, and I was like, “What the fuck has just happened?“, and pretty much straight away from there, I wanted to get involved, and that Christmas, I got my first guitar, and formed a band with a friend.
If you had asked me when I was 11 if I wanted to be a musician for a living, I would have said yes, but there’s quite a big gap between the aspirations of an 11-year-old and realistically thinking about it, but it never sort of wavered, as each time, I came to better understand what that would meaningfully involve.
However, there was a period of time when I thought it wouldn’t happen, and even if it had done, it wouldn’t have lasted, and probably my proudest achievement in life up to now is the fact that I’m still doing this in my mid to late thirties – touch wood – and that’s something I am very grateful for.
You recently brought out a new book, entitled ‘Try This At Home: My Adventures In Songwriting’, which is a personal exploration of your songwriting process. How did the idea for that come about?
Well, I did a book in 2015 (‘The Road Beneath My Feet‘), which was about touring, and that kind of grew out of the fact that I had started to write a few things down, and I was worried about forgetting them, as up until then, I had had this bizarrely encyclopedic memory of the shows I had done, and what had happened and everything, which my friends would often react to by saying, “I can’t fucking believe that!“, but then it started to fade, so I started to write everything down, and those notes became the first book, which did really well.
After that, the publishers said to me, “Why don’t you write a sequel?“, but that would have been boring, as I had pretty much written everything about life on the road with the first book, but then it occurred to me that in those 300 or so pages, I had written about approximately 1500 shows, yet I hadn’t really written anything about the music I had played in any of those, so I thought there was a gap that needed to be filled.
And how, for you, was the process of writing the new book?
I had gone into the first book with a huge degree of hubris, as I thought, “Well, I’ve written a few magazine articles in my time, so writing a book isn’t going to be too challenging“, but then – of course – I realised, “Is it fuck?” (laughs)
With the first book, there was definitely a moment halfway through writing it where I went, “Oh shit, I don’t know what I’m doing!“, but this time around, I went into it with a clearer appreciation of just how much work was going to be involved, but I mean, essentially for six months, I tried to make myself write around 1000 words between breakfast and sound check, and just discipline myself with that.
You’re known for your libertarian political views. What is your opinion of Brexit and the current parliamentary deadlock?
(laughs) I think – like everybody else – I have no idea what’s going on, as there are several conflicting imperatives that I do not see an easy resolution to. You know, I genuinely think we need to respect the outcome of the 2016 referendum – if we are to have any meaningful sense of democracy – but if it’s going to cause complete political and economic catastrophe, then that would be bad, but to be honest with you, I have no idea.
I used to be very up-to-date in regards to politics, and I was very confident in predicting what was going to happen, but I gave that fucking game up a long time ago! (laughs) I’ve got literally no idea what is going to happen, as I think all of my contempt for political parties at the moment is even-handed.
I suspect there needs to be a real realignment of British politics – which has happened before – it happened in 1832, it happened in 1911 – so I suspect we will soon be going through something like that again, but it’s not that fun to live through.
And how do you think Brexit will affect the British music industry?
That is a live question right now. My tour manager and my production manager – who are both in charge of all of the logistics of my business, if you like – you know, there’s a busy festival season in Europe this year, and at the moment, we have no idea if we will be allowed to do that, as I don’t know if we’ll even be allowed to ship our gear over there.
I know this sounds boringly technical, but we’re currently thinking of actually shipping over over American backline to Europe, as there are clear protocols for that, and we may not have any of those by then, and we might be able to get equipment over there, but we might not be able to bring it back.
The other day, Roger Daltrey was going on about how bands were going around Europe before the European Union even existed, and yes, they did, but the problem is first of all, figuring out customs and logistics for travel and business, which take time, so I’m probably not going to suffer too much personally, but what worries me is all of these new and emerging bands who will want to embark on their first European tour, but may not be able to, and for me, that’s a real problem, but I think – in the long run – economics tends to win arguments, and I suspect that if there is enough business involved, then things will get sorted out quicker than some people – who just look at politics and don’t pay any attention to business – would imagine, but I have no idea, and it’s something I am genuinely worried about.
IN PART TWO, FRANK TALKS TO ME ABOUT SUCH THINGS AS PLAYING THE OPENING CEREMONY OF THE LONDON OLYMPICS, OTHER STANDOUT MOMENTS OF HIS CAREER SO FAR, AND HIS EIGHTH ALBUM, COMING OUT LATER THIS YEAR.