British folk-punk singer and musician Frank Turner was one of a number of artists directly impacted by the onset of the coronavirus earlier this year when his solo tour around the country was cut short. Since the lockdown began in the UK, this famously hardworking musician has continued this approach to non-stop industry. With a new album titled Live in Newcastle released on April 24th via Xtra Mile Recordings not enough to satisfy his creative urge, Turner also performs a different release from his extensive back catalogue live on Facebook each Thursday evening, taking donations to support independent venues across the nation. We caught up with Frank over the phone to discuss his tour, his time at home performing these solo shows, and also to touch on the heavier side of his musical tastes.
Discussing what was an odd time as the severity of the virus increased, Turner reflects on his solo tour positively up until its inevitable shutdown. “It was going really well, my wife (fellow musician Jessica Guise) was on tour with me for the first time which was lovely, and my friend Mike (Schnabel) from Ohio from the band Two Cow Garage was on the bill too and it was really a pretty idyllic tour. The shows were great and they were sold out and it was lovely, then a fucking global pandemic showed up. It was a major bummer to have to pull the last week of the tour and to have to come home, but what can you do.”
Turner’s tour was shut down one week before its conclusion, with his final show being in Southend and bringing with it the first half-empty room he had experienced for some time for someone who is now used to selling out large capacity venues.
“Certainly (the first half-full show for a while) at that kind of level, the whole vibe was just really odd by that point on the tour. It was the last show and the audience, I don’t mean to insult anyone by saying this, had the vibe of the kind of people you need to kick out of a pub at closing time. You know, the defiant people that were going ‘fuck it all, I’m still going to a gig.’ There’s a part of me that really sympathizes with that mindset and that approach because in normal times that would be mine too. But one of the weirdest things about everything that’s happening now is that to date, up until this sequence of events, my mindset’s always been knuckle down, head down, keep going and carry on, don’t let anything stop the show and that’s stood me in good stead over the years. Now we’ve suddenly, finally, encountered something where that’s actually a bad idea, and it’s quite difficult to get used to that.”
With the tour recorded for his Live In Newcastle album, show number 2,429 in his career, being an acoustic full band performance, his subsequent (part-cancelled) one a solo show, and the weekly live-streams being acoustic and more stripped down in their nature, Turner reflects on his habit of revisiting and re-imagining his material, as well as others he’d like to see do similar. “The solo tour was partly due to me noticing that I hadn’t done a full UK solo tour since around 2010, 2011, and there are some people who enjoy the solo shows more than band shows, and I enjoy them in their own way as well. So we thought we’d revisit that and it was so much fun to do, we were just having a blast before the wheels came off.
I try to keep in a way where I’m intellectually curious and keep changing up what I do. I feel with the live shows, part of the reason why we did the seated tour that we did last year that Live In Newcastle comes from, that my live shows have been getting more and more raucous and more focused on the punk rock approach to a show, by which I mean they’re about energy and frenzy and dancing and bodies flying, all that sort of thing, and I love all of that, but it’s only one thing I know how to do and I know how to do other things as well. So I was interested to try something else. Having said all of that, given the nature of my mind, the next thing I do is likely to be considerably heavier and considerably more raucous simply because I’ve done so much not raucous stuff, and I’ve got to keep moving.
It’s not an idea that’s 100 percent original to me, there are other people who’ve done this. In fact, it’s worth mentioning that one of my early musical passions was Counting Crows and they always put out reworked versions of their songs as B-sides, back in the day when I used to buy music singles on cassette which feels like it was 100,000 years ago now, so that was a big inspiration to that approach to me. In terms of who else I’d like to see do versions of it, a lot of the people I’d instinctively answer that question with already do, such as Nick Cave or Tori Amos. It’s a good question, so to nominate someone else off the top of my head: I’d like to hear NOFX change up their own songs a bit more.”
Whilst staying home during the lockdown, Turner has been playing weekly online shows to raise money for venues he supports across the country, in an initiative he has titled #IndependentVenueLove with donations taken from generous viewers as they go on. “The livestream thing is structured around the fact that I’m trying to not repeat material too much, or not at all, across the weeks because I’m trying to do a lot of these shows because there’s a lot of venues that need help. So I’ve taken the decision to go album by album, go through it that way, and I can’t play with anybody else at the moment anyway so solo shows they will have to be”
Asking about whether he feels pride for the accomplishments of the shows so far, helping to save The Joiners Arms in Southampton as well as raising a significant amount of money for London’s Nambucca (among other venues), Turner adds, “I feel proud about it, but one of the central motivations for doing these venue shows for me is that I feel that I owe a debt of gratitude to a lot of these places that I’m doing the shows for. An artist like me comes up in rooms like that and if we didn’t have those rooms I wouldn’t have come up. The Joiners has always been there for me – everything from the first gig I ever went to, Million Dead (Turner’s pre-solo career band) played there and I’m pretty sure that Kneejerk, my old band, played there too. I’ve certainly played there a million times. It seems like the absolute least I could do is lend a hand when I’m required.
On some levels my industry has collapsed and I have no idea when I’m going to earn money from touring again, but at the same time I’m not about to get evicted, I have income from t-shirts and stuff like that. I think I have the opportunity to help and it seems like a no-brainer, it’s the least I can do. I feel very good about it, it feels like a positive way of spending my time during this lockdown.”
When asked about the highlight of these shows it’s his unlikely feline co-star that’s been causing the most joy for him and viewers. “My cat seems to have become an internet star unwittingly – I’m not sure that she’s 100 percent sure what the internet is, being a cat. It’s been fun, one of the interesting things that’s been happening is that in normal times my wife and I are a bit circumspect about how much of our house and our home life we reveal in any public format because you’ve got to keep some areas of your life private and sacrosanct. Obviously that’s changing now out of necessity, so lots of people have been seeing my cat now on the internet and enjoying her cameo appearances.”
Despite the core of his music being punk-tinged folk-rock, Turner’s fanbase spans many genres and he can count numerous fans from those who typically enjoy their music a little heavier. When asked why, he provisos initially that he’s “not the best person to analyze my own career in that way, or at least if I did I would probably go up my own arse quite quickly.”
“Metal was my first love, and punk and hardcore defined my musical youth and I still play with Mongol Horde and still listen to a lot of heavier music. It’s not easy for me to say whether any of that bleeds into my music, but there’s the occasional stylistic flourish I’m sure which will be familiar to fans of heavier music.
It’s a funny thing, I remember years ago when we played at Download Festival which was great, it was a huge honour to play Download, but it was really funny on the day. When we played the tent was full, but it was full with guys who were creeping off and seemed to be trying not to be spotted creeping off to my show – it was a bit like ‘Don’t tell the guys that I’m off to go see Frank Turner.’ Then they all ran into each other when they got there and all relaxed about it. It was pretty fucking funny, there was definitely a lot of people who were trying to be clandestine about the fact they were coming to see my show.”
When the concept of some fans potentially feeling guilty about coming to see his show at a rock and metal festival is raised, Turner’s answer is emphatic: “you didn’t ask it but anyone who asks me who my guilty pleasure is (told) ‘go fuck yourself’ – I don’t feel guilty about what I like.” An attitude that serves his fans well in appreciated his music as a welcome change of pace, even if it’s not their central ‘scene.’
Looking at the heavier bands which have stood the test of time for him, and that he still enjoys listening to now, Turner mentions, “it’s important for me to say that I’m not the most clued-up, finger-on-the-pulse guy when it comes to heavy music these days. My areas of passion in the past included a lot of techy hardcore stuff, metalcore and that sort of thing. The whole Boston ‘90s thing with Converge, Cave In, Coalesce, Brutal Truth, Neurosis, that sort of thing and Dillinger (Escape Plan) and Botch. I could go on and on and on, those were the bands that I absolutely loved.
In recent years I’ve gone through a big black metal phase, not necessarily stuff that’s up-and-coming, but I’ve found myself listening to shit loads of Mayhem and Darkthone and stuff like that. My other major taste in heavy music is grindcore, I’m a really big grindcore fan and there’s nothing I love more than an album that’s got about 85 songs on it that’s 20 minutes long. Within that I think stuff like Nails is cool as shit, I really fucking like Nails. I think they sort of broke up a little while ago and now they’re back together again, but I definitely think that they kick arse.”
There’ll be a lot of people to whom Turner’s appreciation for some of the more extreme ends of the musical spectrum comes as a surprise, however, one of the standouts in his career has been “One Foot Before The Other” off England Keep My Bones, a track which can also boast having some of the most metal lyrics outside of the genre of any song. When asked if there’s any chance of him re-imagining it as a grindcore track himself there’s an unfortunate reason following the laughter.
“The funny thing is I definitely have the heaviest taste in music out of anybody in my regular band, The Sleeping Souls, by several orders of magnitude, but we’ve been a band for over a decade now and we’ve all checked out each other’s taste in music. It’s funny that whilst Nigel my drummer might take the piss out the fact I like grind and black metal and stuff like that, he can’t fucking play it! I say that with huge respect to him as a drummer, he’s one of the best I’ve met in my life, but blastbeating is a particular skill.”
Having discussed his most recent touring, releases and some heavier music, Turner and I close our conversation by talking about what his plan is for when things get back to ‘normal.’ “I’m going to question the premise of ‘normal.’ On some levels I’m not convinced we’re ever going to get back to normal in the way things were before, I think that this is an event which is changing our society in permanent ways. Also, more directly, a lot of people at the beginning, including me, were thinking there was going to be some sort of light switch moment when someone clicked their fingers and all of a sudden we could run into the streets and hug and go to gigs. I don’t think that’s a realistic way of looking at it.
The first thing I’m going to do when I’m allowed out of my house is go and see my mum, which may not be the most metal thing that anybody’s ever said, but it’s true. After that, the main thing I’m doing at the moment is watching news and government announcements like a hawk trying to figure out when it is I’m going to be able to do shows again. And I’m going to do them as soon as I’m allowed, but there’s no part of me that wants to make a prediction as to when that’s going to be right now.”