It’s almost ten years to the day that Frank Turner played his first solo show, and here we are at the Cambridge Corn Exchange for show 1613. That’s essentially a show every other day for a decade. Why, I ask him, is he still touring so relentlessly? Turner chuckles ruefully, as if this is a question he asks himself more often than he once did.
“I definitely think that the foundations of whatever success I’ve had have been based on essentially refusing to fuck off, and just constantly being around and touring. It was never particularly a chore because I love touring, I love playing music, I love being on the road and it’s something that comes easily to me.“
His show later that evening does nothing to disprove that theory. He’s performed in almost 40 countries now, living a transient life on tour buses and in airport terminals, so doesn’t it ever get a bit much? “Obviously there are days when you feel like shit and you don’t want to do it and you just want to go home, but then I think that’s true of any walk of life. In any job you’ll have days where you’re fucked off and you don’t want to do it, and I’m sure I get less of them than most so I’m not going to complain about it.”
It seems that there’s a definite case of supply and demand with Turner as well, and that as long as people want to see him, then he’ll play. “I enjoy it” he shrugs, “and as far as I can tell people want to come to the shows and they seem to enjoy it too, so yeah, why not?” With fame though, come detractors too, and Turner has had his share of those over the past few years. It’s an odd one he says, something he can’t quite get his head around. “I play gigs to people who want to come to the gigs, and they have a nice time hopefully – if you don’t want to come then don’t come – and there are days when I’m slightly mystified at which part of that process means that I’m the worse cunt in the entire universe.”
Live music is at the core of his ethos, and only last week Turner launched an Agent of Change petition to the Culture Secretary Sajid Javid in an attempt to protect small live music venues across the land. It’s clearly something he feels passionately about. “This is one I wanted to get involved with as I think it’s an evidently sensible idea and I think it’s a clear limited goal, sometimes you get these petitions which are like ‘please make everything better’ and it’s just a bit vapid and unfocused. But this is one very small change to a piece of legislation which would make a really positive difference to a lot of people’s lives and the industry that I work in.” It was after all, the very same small venues being closed due to noise complaints and abatement notices, where Turner first plied his trade. “I owe a debt of gratitude to that infrastructure that allows underground music to exist, and without it we’ll still have music, but it’ll just be Simon Cowell and if you want an alternative to that, you’ve got to have an infrastructure in place for that to exist.”
These days, Frank Turner is mostly found in larger venues than those he’s trying to protect, certainly in the UK, but there’s clearly still a fondness there for the pub back rooms he once played. “I do pop up gigs here and there where I can in pubs and stuff because they’re fun and it’s kind of cool and it’s a bit less pressure in a way as well,” before adding “that there’s pluses and minuses to both. I know it’s terribly punk rock to go ‘yeah I prefer the small sweaty shows’ but it would be bullshit to deny the fact that walking out on stage in front of 15’000 people doesn’t feel fucking great, do you know what I mean?”
The venue options open to him “keep him on his toes” he tells me. From arena and small town tours in the UK and abroad, to the summer festival circuit which he’s just finished another round of, which almost included it turns out, another visit to our very own Cambridge Folk Festival. “I love the Folk Festival, it’s a great thing. We were trying to work it out for the 50th anniversary this year…so I got my booking agent to send them an email saying I’d just rock up and do an acoustic set for shits and giggles, but it didn’t work out in the end which is a shame, but next year maybe.”
His last appearance at the Folk Festival in 2011 coincided with his album ‘England Keep My Bones’, an album heavily influenced by the roots of English folk music. His next, and most recent album ‘Tape Deck Heart’ was something of a break-up record, his relationship woes laid bare on record. Does he plan ahead for albums and set a theme when he’s writing? “Generally speaking, no. As that feels a little bit concept album, prog-rock kind of territory and it’s not my thing. I try quite hard not to be analytical while writing, as that seems slightly kind of arse about face to me. It seems more important to me to more naturalistic when I write, and let what comes, come.” He elaborates further. “Because I tend to write autobiographically and chronologically, generally speaking you’ll end up with a pile of songs and when you choose what’s going on the record you can massage things and create narratives. So with Tape Deck Heart it became apparent I was writing a lot of songs about one thing, so it was like ‘Yeah, let’s put that one on the record’ and it ends up having a theme, or a vibe, but it’s not a question of writing towards that.”
His writing is something he takes seriously, citing American singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt as an inspiration, ‘He’s like the platonic ideal songwriter, his kind of minimalism and perfection with syllables and words and meter and measure is just mystifying to me, and I’ve spent a lot of my life pulling his songs apart trying to find the secret trick and there isn’t one.’ Pulling his own songs apart however is something he struggles with more however. “I can never be objective about the music I make myself, but with a degree of hindsight Tape Deck Heart is a kind of weird record to me and it’s quite dark and quite difficult in places.” Does it make him wince a bit? “Yeah, people said that at the time when it was coming out and I was like ‘naaaah’ and now I look back on it and go ‘ah yeah, fair enough, that’s a fucking evil thing to say in a song’. But the new record is a bit more about picking yourself up and dusting yourself down and embracing life a little bit more.”
So how about that new record then? “We are playing a lot of the new material on this tour, that’s part of the point of the tour really to road test a lot of that. We’re going to the studio once the tour is done.” And the testing of that new material on tour is more of a headache than you might imagine it seems. “Writing a set list is a fine art that I’ve spent a depressingly large amount of my life thinking about” he ponders, scratching his beard thoughtfully, “The road testing thing is a funny one as that I feel it’s almost more for my benefit and the bands benefit than it is for the crowds benefit. But you realise what’s wrong or right about a song a lot more quickly in front of a crowd than you do in a rehearsal room.” It works both ways though. “There’s ways of mixing it up that keeps it interesting for me and for the band and for the people who come to more than one gig, of which there are a few, and I always try to throw in a couple of curveballs from B-sides or old stuff and where we play the new stuff, you’ll notice that we drop an old favourite immediately after a new song.”
Several times during the interview Turner apologises for rambling, for turning what could be simple answers into lengthy exasperations of his take on the world around him, but eventually, he’s stumped. Does he feel any kind of responsibility for his work, I ask him, and perhaps for the legion of younger singer-songwriters that seem to have spawned from that?
“That’s an interesting question and one that I’ve been thinking about lately and I’m not sure I have an answer to yet. My kneejerk reaction to that is to go ‘fuck, no, it it’s not my problem’ and you can say the same thing for people getting lyrics tattooed, and anything really which people might take away from my songs, but yeah my initial reaction is that it’s nothing to do with me, that I’m a private individual. But I’m not sure if that’s an entirely realistic answer to the question. So I don’t know.”
“It’s very flattering if someone who makes art or writes music says they’re influenced by what I do, I think that’s really cool and I’ll take the compliment. But I’m still thinking that one over, ask me again in a year and we’ll talk about it some more.”
Working on the very probable basis that he’ll still be touring again in a years time, then we just might.
Photographs courtesy of Richard Etteridge Photography