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Frank Turner: “They all told me not to do this, including my music teacher, who told me to do something else with my life…”

In our latest cover story, folk/punk lifer Frank Turner talks about his incredible journey after ignoring advice from his music teacher…



Frank Turner
Frank Turner, photo by Shannon Shumaker

Other than Frank Turner’s ten albums of up-front vocals in a “folk/punk” style, one of his most notable attributes is his exhaustive work ethic. Nearing his 3,000th gig next year, Frank has spent this year releasing new album Undefeated which was released this month, touring as always, curating his seventh annual Lost Evenings Festival in Toronto for September and perhaps his most staggering achievement, a 24-hour gig-a-thon from Liverpool to Southampton, performing 15 gigs in 15 towns in an aim to strike his place in the Guinness Book of Records.

This isn’t so unusual as Frank and his band, The Sleeping Souls, have already completed a staggering 50 shows in 50 States in 2022, the first non-US artist to achieve this challenge.

Despite the obvious fatigue of his record-breaking two-day tour, and album launch in the same week, Frank took time out to join V13 for our Cover Story and to tell us how the event went, to discuss his tireless work ethic and to share his future plans. To say this man never stops is an understatement, and once started he doesn’t stop talking either.

I imagine you’re pretty tired at the moment, you’ve had a busy weekend haven’t you?

“I have had a busy weekend, and I had a busy week afterwards as well. When we were planning last weekend it sounded like a lovely idea, and doing it in album release week seemed obvious, but album release week is the busiest week of my life also so… they gave me the rest of Sunday off (laughs).”

How did it all go?

“Well, I’m talking to you now. I lived to tell the tale. There are a few things on my docket now like 50 states in 50 days, I come up with the idea then my crew and everyone makes it happen, then it happens, and I spend the whole time complaining and wondering whose fault the whole thing is, and it’s my fault (laughs). At the end of it, to the extent that it matters which is limited, I get to put it on my CV and thank the Gods that I never have to do it again.”

My impression of you is of someone who is tireless, why do you put yourself through it?

“Ha Ha, a fine question, well there’s clearly something there about my essential character and I like to keep busy, avoiding being idle would in a sense be the same thing. There is a sense that I have of gratitude I would say. It seemed unlikely that I would ever get to do this at all you know, when I was starting out when I was fifteen, and I told everyone about it, and everybody laughed. They all told me not to do this, including my music teacher, who told me I had no aptitude for it and to do something else with my life, so fuck her, haha.

“They all told me not to do this, including my music teacher, who told me I had no aptitude for it and to do something else with my life, so fuck her!”

But you know, ten albums, again I know that doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of the world, but it is unusual, let’s say that, to have these ten records. It’s a tough and fickle business and to still be doing stuff at as big a level as I’ve ever done it is something I’m very grateful for, and I spend a lot of time thinking about people I started out with, who were just as talented if not more so than me, and in many cases have the requisite drive, but luck didn’t go their way or whatever happened.

I don’t want this to be a patronising statement, but I feel that given that I’m the one who lucked out from my particular social circle, I feel duty-bound to enjoy it if you know what I mean. Do it properly. And who knows how long this will last? No one knows, this may be my last record… I hope not, it’s not the plan. You get the opportunity to travel around the world and play music for a living you know, and it’s such a wonderful thing to do, so I want to do as much of it as I can, I love it.”

You’re from Winchester, and I know Winchester quite well having worked down there for 16 years, in the time I was there Winchester didn’t appear to be the sort of place that had a huge music scene.

“Well, there very much wasn’t. Winchester is on my CV and I lived there when I was a kid and a little bit into my 20s, but I live in Essex these days and lived I London for two decades. My beginnings lie in Winchester in many ways, but in terms of music it’s quite oppositional, with all respect in the world to The Railway Inn and The Joiners Arms (nearby Southampton), there wasn’t very much going on. I remember figuring out how to jump the train into London when I was about 14, which you could do back then, and I remember going to Camden for the first time in my life.

Even the first show I went to in The Joiners, I was a bit nerdy, I was a bookish kid, and I got into this kind of outsider art form, and I didn’t know anyone else who was really into it, it was all kind of correspondence based, buying magazines etc, and there were a few turning points like The Joiners and Camden for the first time and The Reading Festival in ’95 and walking in and seeing people wearing band tee shirts, where I knew who the bands were, and I knew that my friends back home wouldn’t know who the bands were. And it was like this is my drive, these are my people. So, you know, I love Winchester to pieces but there wasn’t anything going on there in terms of a rock scene, it has to be said.”

V13 - MagazineCover - Issue57 - FrankTurner

V13 – MagazineCover – Issue57 – FrankTurner

As you said before it’s a privilege to have that lifestyle and that drives you, but how do you stay fit?

“Physically speaking I’ve damaged myself pretty comprehensively. People always ask what would you tell your younger self, and it’s a dumb question as the real answer is nothing because finding out is the fun part. But I would say stretch more. When I first really damaged my back, the physio helped me stand up again, it was like “What’s your stretching routine for your shows?” and I was like “Fuck off, what are you talking about?” I hated sports as a kid, but the shows are physical, so I have to do stretches now, and I do planking and stuff like that. In terms of my cardio to be specific, that’s covered, I jog on the spot and scream for two hours every day. It’s fine.

In terms of keeping your mental health together, that is more of a challenge. I’ve been doing this on and off since I was 16 years old, so on some levels, it’s not like there’s this hypothecated other life that I’m on holiday from, and I’ve spent many many many more nights sleeping on a tour bus or a Travelodge floor than I have in a house, so this is what I do. There are challenges to it and, I don’t want to martyr myself, but you miss an awful lot of weddings, birthdays funerals and all that kind of thing and it is quite an odd way of existing sometimes.

You will notice, by the way, you ask me a short question and I talk for ages about it.”

It’s fine, you carry on…

“I had a lovely breakthrough in about 2017, are you familiar with Jason Isbell, he’s an American country singer, he is stadium famous in The States, He’s in Killers of the Flower Moon, he’s the guy who gets burned to death. He used to be an alcoholic and is now sober, his tours aren’t dry but because of the nature of the beast they’re not stag do’s either. We toured with him a couple of times in The States in 2017, and it was eye-opening to me because there is this cliché and temptation that touring is an endless stag do.

Some people try to live like that, and it will kill you, and I speak from experience, so it was so nice to see a band who were touring with their kids and who were having a glass of wine every other night after the show, and reading books, doing physical exercise and stuff. Me and my crew on the first night were all like “Jagerbombs!!”, we’d misread the room and we were all like “Ohh OK”, and it taught me that it is not advertised or much discussed, but there is more adult way of doing this.”

“Physically speaking I’ve damaged myself pretty comprehensively. People always ask what would you tell your younger self, and it’s a dumb question as the real answer is nothing because finding out is the fun part.”

Do you think life on the road has changed much in general, I’m thinking of the focus on mental health here too?

“To a degree yes, and this is a difficult one for me really on some levels because first of all things are moving in the right direction. In 2003 if you’d have told me I was going to be having a conversation with anyone about my mental health I would have thought you were out of your mind, it just was not a topic of discussion in the music industry, and it is these days, and I think that’s a positive.

I actually don’t think artists are particularly socially important but the one role that we can play is the leading by example thing. If you look back to the 1980s, people like Elton John and Stephen Fry, who were normalising being gay in public, which made quite a big difference. So, if people like me discuss mental health a lot of the time, then that’s a good thing, happy days.

The difficult part of it for me is just that I cannot fully entangle myself from a degree of a kind of bravado about the road, and I’m aware that it is broadly unhealthy. But you know it’s not easy and it is wild, and a lot of the bacchanalian excesses of the 70s and 80s are in the past, and mostly that’s a good thing, certainly in terms of sexual relations, then clearly that’s a good thing cause there was a lot of terrible shit that went on in that period of time.

But some of my favourite stories are about when I was made to lie on the floor of my hotel room and drink the biggest bottle of Jamesons I’ve ever seen in my life and then go skateboarding in Austin Texas at 3 a.m. That little bit of wildness is inherent in what I enjoy about the road, but I do less of that now as I’m in my 40s.

I don’t want to completely turn touring into one long discussion group, a little bit of wild is still good, broadly speaking though, the industry collectively and musicians generally are paying more attention to mental health.”

I guess we should talk about the album. There’s one song that jumped out for me, your new single, “Girl in the Record Shop” which reminded me a long long time ago very much of a single from the 70s by The Dickies’ “I’m in love with the girl on the Virgin Megastore checkout desk”.

“Wow! Fucking Hell, Good spot. Jesus Christ. I am familiar with the song. You are the first person in an extremely long promo schedule who’s mentioned that, so 10 points, well done. Clearly it’s a flight of fancy and a bit of fun and it’s very Elvis Costello, but Fuck it, well done.”

Your music does change a lot over your albums, You’re not a one-trick pony put it that way…

“Ha Ha Ha. Thank you.”

I mean are you trying to embrace that retro feel? I know you have worked with Billy Bragg and people like that.

“Me and Bill have done some shows together and I consider him a friend although we’ve never actually recorded together. I would say I try and change what I do as I go, I think that repeating yourself is a dereliction of duties. That’s not to say I’m like fucking Aphex Twin or something, but I don’t want to just tread water let’s say. There’s a strange brand of conservatism in your average music fan, who wants bands to remain exactly as they were when they got together… which I reject.

I don’t need to write “I Still Believe” again because I still fucking play the song so whatever. But you know I listen broadly, and it is funny that Elvis Costello is in the conversation just because being 10 albums in there are not that many paths to follow. There are many cliches about your 2nd and 3rd records, but not so many cliches about the difficult 10th album, do you know what I mean? If it’s not too pretentious to call them peers, but I spend a lot of time thinking about Nick Cave and Elvis Costello, and how do you keep things interesting over that amount of time?

Sometimes I’ll listen to a song and think “I don’t have a song like that” and it’s not like I want to copy it, and it doesn’t even have to be stylistically you know, songs have feelings and twinges, and it is like “Ooh that song made me feel that way and I’ve never tried to make anyone feel that way with a song before and I wonder what it would be like if I did”. That’s a very fancy way of saying “Wouldn’t it be cool to have a kind of new wave song in my set” and now I do”.

You suggested that song is quite throwaway and fun but I still feel your music is quite heartfelt.

“It is fun, but I try and mean what I say, and often people have thrown the word “sincere” at me as an insult, and I’m slightly puzzled as to what the fuck that’s supposed to mean.

Quite a formative thing for me is that I kind of came of age in the heat of Britpop and hated it. Because it was so culturally overbearing and I was into underground and outsider arts. I was like 13 or 14 during the Oasis and blur chart battle, and I went home and made a tee shirt that said “Shitpop”, I wore it for school and got the shit kicked out of me.

One of the things about that phenomenon of Britpop was that it was very irony-laden, and it used to bore the piss out of me. It was like, “If you don’t care – then why should I care?”, do you know what I mean? It was all just a bit of a laugh that you don’t care about, and I wasn’t going to invest my time and energy.

Obviously, in some ways, you could say that getting into second-wave emo as I did was a bit of an overcorrection, but ultimately, I don’t really see the point in spending all this time and effort to write, arrange, rehearse, record, mix, master and then press a song if I don’t really mean it. Just save your breath! But you know, if irony is your bag, then happy days.

Indeed I did miss out on quite a few great bands that were happening at the time like Gomez and Pulp and I’m now pretty annoyed about that because they’re both bands that I love. But that’s because I was angry and listening to Black Flag… so fuck it, haha.”

“One of the things about that phenomenon of Britpop was that it was very irony-laden, and it used to bore the piss out of me.”

You have talked a lot recently about the importance of independence in the music industry, why does that mean so much to you?

“It is primarily a social/cultural thing. As I said earlier, going to my first gig at the Joiners Arms was a real life-changing experience for me. I seem to remember pogoing to all the bands and the music between the bands, thereby annoying the shit out of everybody. But I was like 13 so whatever! It felt like a refuge though, like a special club that I was able to join, where the only barrier to entry was showing up… which was really important to me, you didn’t need to be cool, you didn’t need to be rich, you didn’t need to be any of these things, you just had to want to be there.

More broadly though, the culture I love is noisy, and it needs a place to happen. Maybe I’m being optimistic, but I like to think that one of the things the pandemic proved was that whilst we can do quite a lot of stuff sitting at home on our computers, we can’t quite do everything, because we are social animals.

So I saw all my favourite bands playing small venues, I figured out how to play shows at small venues, I learned how to talk to an audience, and how to write songs that connect with people – I owe them a debt of gratitude for my career, its pretty basic, and I still just love them. Also, a lot of my friends run small venues. In lockdown I did a series of shows, live streams raising money for indie venues, I did 26 and at least the first 10 were all just favours for friends. It wasn’t like an anonymous reach out to the industry – My mate Chris in Tunbridge Wells called out to me and just said “Help!”, and I thought, “I can do something here”.

There are some great small, venues around, I saw Big Special in District in Liverpool’s Baltic Quarter last week and it was a fantastic gig, the atmosphere was incredible, and it was such a small room.

“The new space they have at the Jacaranda, which is where I played the first show of my 24-hour mid-life crisis, was a great space for a show.

Unfortunately I missed the Zutons there last week.

“Excuse me, correct me if I’m wrong, but that would be fucking mental The Zutons in there, right? Just ascertaining what level of Zutons you would see in there.”

I read how you were talking about the price of things in major venues. I saw Seb Lowe the other week who is very political and very socialist, but then I paid £41 for a round of drinks at the 02 Academy, which is outrageous (No fault of Seb’s).

“It is, but this is a thorny subject shall we say. I’m not saying you but it’s amazing to me the amount of people I talk to who are surprised when I mention there are costs when going on tour. I full time employ 13 people which I’m very proud of, and they raise families and inflation hurts them too, I’d like to give them a raise, but to do that I have to raise ticket prices myself. There are all of these things going on, but I think ultimately, one can have conversations about the specific maths and mechanics and stuff, but broadly speaking I think there is a question of intention somewhere in there.

I want to set a ticket price and I’m not the only one involved in that, but I don’t have a say about alcohol prices sadly. I want to put on a show that is value for money, and where my end gets paid, but doesn’t break the bank for the people coming to the show. There has been a phenomenon in the last few years which has been sped up by covid, of more heritage acts going out on tour and charging 3 or 4 hundred quid for a ticket, which I feel is verging on indefensible, and it’s frustrating because it sucks money out of the live economy because if somebody is going to see a singer play for 400 quid, they’re probably not going to go to a bunch of other shows, because they have to save all of their money to go to that one.

And that applies to festivals as well, and of course, I appreciate that festivals are a difficult business to survive in right now, but I think that there is a perfectly reasonable middle ground right now, it’s a complicated subject on a lot of levels, but on another level, it’s not, it just like “Don’t take the piss”.”

“The amount of people I talk to who are surprised when I mention there are costs when going on tour. I full time employ 13 people which I’m very proud of, and they raise families and inflation hurts them too…”

You are doing your Canada Festival later in the year. Why Canada and what can you tell us about the event?

“Well, the festival moves every year, we’ve done London, Berlin, California, Boston and I do well in Toronto, which doesn’t hurt. I think growing up in the UK, I didn’t differentiate between North American bands all that much, and then once I start going over there and learning more about bands, I suddenly realise that shitloads of my favourite bands are Canadian. I don’t know if that’s a coincidence or not. So, I love the music culture in Canada, I love Toronto as a city, it’s a cool city to do it. I’m going to do it somewhere else this year, I’m not going to tell you where, but it is going to be on this side of the Atlantic.

In 2024, you have done an incredible amount of things, how will you top that in 25?

“This is going to sound like the lady doth protest too much but… the big sort of plan I’ve had for a while… I count my shows right, and it’s getting to the point where I’m about to hit my 3,000th show, which doesn’t matter inherently, but it’s a good excuse for people to have a party for people who want to be there. So, I’ve booked Alexandra Palace (in North London), which I love, I used to live next door to it and it’s the biggest standing room in the UK.

It’s the Peoples Palace which ideologically I’m behind, and it’s 10,000 people, and it is been a while since I played a show of that size, 10 years pretty much. We put it on general sale on Tuesday and honestly, the plan was to get it across the line by the time of the show in February, and it sold out within 24 hours, which is sort of brilliant, it’s also a bit of a spanner in the works in terms of my long term plan, because I’m now not entirely sure what to do about that.

I will say this though, I’m very proud of this record and I’m very excited about this record and I hopefully haven’t been guilty of churning them out as they say, but I’m aware that I’ve made records quite quickly at certain points in my career, and I want to linger on this record both creatively and touring-wise, so the plan is to go around the houses a few times with this one, so there will be more touring.

This is the point where I would say I’ve got a million shows coming up, but they’re all sold out. So… sorry, haha.”

It’s safe to say that you have quite a cult following, it’s a very specific kind of audience. Why do you feel that is?

“People tend to either know who I am and love me, and they’re really into what I do, and lots and lots of people have never heard of me and have no idea of who I am. There are lots of people who don’t love what I do, of course there are. I had a conversation about this with my sister yesterday, and she was saying that in her work, her colleagues either know who I am and lose their fucking minds when they find out she’s my sister, or they’re like “Who?”

It seems to be those two opposites in life. And I don’t struggle to go to the supermarket, and that’s not terrible. I remember Robbie Williams saying he had the world’s biggest DVD collection because it was just impossible for him to go out, so he just stayed in, and that made me feel a little bit sorry for Robbie Williams. I can go to the Co-Op!

Frank’s album Undefeated is on sale now, and has upcoming tour dates (more details here.) that are all sold out!

Del Pike is a University lecturer in Film and Media in Liverpool (UK). He writes film, music, art, literature and culture articles and reviews for a number of websites. Del loves nothing more than snuggling down in a dark cinema, getting sweaty at  a live gig or drifting off late at night to a good book. He loves cats. He enjoys promoting new talent online so please say hi if you have something to show.