Interview: Frank Turner
The Mic spoke to punk-rock legend Frank Turner in a discussion which covered all things Covid-19 and gigging from your front room, through to broken backs and elephant sized ducks…
Following the unfortunate cancellation of his South American tour, he set up a livestream through Facebook to raise money for his touring family. “I’m a bit of a technophobe”, admitted Turner, “but it’s just one button, I have a Facebook page with a lot of followers and all the money raised from the event went to my band and crew who are facing economic hardship from this situation”. Considering the huge success of this livestream, Turner began a series of gigs called #IndependentVenueLove, raising tens of thousands of pounds for local music venues. Turner stated, “an artist at my level is not going to be able to save the NHS, nor do I think it is my job to, I might add. However, I can help these venues… I feel I have a debt of gratitude to these kinds of venues as without them, I wouldn’t have been able to build up an audience and figure out my sound”.
He went on to discuss his previous work with the Music Venue Trust, Independent Venue Week. Explaining how “grassroot music venues struggle at the best of times and right now they need an awful lot of help,” the work he has done has raised enough money for venues including Nambucca and the Tunbridge Wells Forum to remain open until at least September time.
One thing I found especially interesting about our conversation was how down to earth he is; discussing our own lockdown experiences, Turner talked of living at home with his wife and how he felt privileged to be in the situation he is in. He explained how “initially I thought this lockdown situation was a real leveller and justified it to myself thinking we’re all in this together, but I’m not so sure that’s really true. Different people from different walks of life, different socio-economic backgrounds are having very different experiences of this. I’m fortunate enough to be living in an area with outdoor space so I think I’m at the more comfortable end so I’m trying not to complain. It’s very weird, but I’m just trying to work on new projects and stay busy and healthy”. This was really refreshing to hear in comparison to other celebrities, who have been criticised for moaning about staying in their mansions.
"An artist at my level is not going to be able to save the NHS, nor do I think it is my job to, I might add. However, I can help these venues…".
Turner’s awareness of socio-economic divides and hardships has encouraged him to make all of his livestreams free to join, so everybody can enjoy them. Discussing these events, he talked of “playing different albums every time which means that the sets are always different to give people a reason to tune back in. One thing I should add is that I’ve set it up so people don’t have to pay to be a part of the livestream, because I understand some people are in a rough economic shape right now – some people donated what they could last week, some people may work in these music venues or on the frontline of the NHS. I wanted them to also be equal opportunity gatherings, so everyone can be a part of it without having to put money in, but if you can please do!”.
I asked him if he had any advice for budding artists in this situation, seeing as nobody can gig right now. He basically said it comes down to just “being good”. I questioned what he meant by this and he explained, “It’s a difficult… it’s a funny thing, because on the one hand the internet gives us a lot of opportunities, technology has reached the point now where it’s very easy to record at home – definitely more so than when I was a kid. It is easy to get stuff out on social media and that kind of thing. The flip side is of course that social media is just this endless avalanche of information – this applies to before lockdown as well. It can be hard to cut through; you can get stuff out there and put it online, but it’s a case of why should people listen to you and not the 9000 other bands that are dropping a track or doing a livestream today? That is the difficult thing, I don’t quite know what the answer to that is in short form other than just being good”.
"Initially I thought this lockdown situation was a real leveller and justified it to myself thinking we’re all in this together, but I’m not so sure that’s really true".
Turner seems to be making the most of this rubbish situation with the livestream of his 2000th show at Nottingham’s own Rock City and the release of a new album, Live in Newcastle. Firstly, to have done 2000 shows is quite an achievement! Especially as this is only counting the shows on his solo ventures, but he explained how “it’s the only thing I’ve really engaged in with the level of passion I do. I stumbled across rock and roll music when I was about 10 years old, started playing shows when I was about 16; it’s the one thing in the world that I feel I can unashamedly say that I’m good at. I don’t mean to sound arrogant – at the very least, after 2000 shows you’d hope you have some kind of aptitude for it. It’s my passion, it’s also my career and it’s a thing I love doing! Even though I have to exercise my back daily from when I hurt it on stage in 2013, it was a damn good gig!”.
Unlike the Nottingham gig, Live in Newcastle will not be his usual punk rock show, as we chatted about how he was hoping to express another side of what he can do; “a versatile musical outlet” was how he spoke of his band. This album was a sit-down show that had a narrative arc throughout: “there was lots of explaining songs and telling stories and all that sort of thing. It was very, very different for us but it really well!”.
After much discussion about his upcoming music projects, we turned to a talk about fame, fan accounts and buskers belting out his top hits. “It’s amazing that people sing my songs, when I was a kid I used to sit around the kitchen table with my sister or around a campfire on a camping holiday with an acoustic guitar, playing songs that I like and singing them with my friends. I’ve said for a long time, in a way, that my greatest ambition is to have some of my songs be sung around kitchen tables or campfires by other people that I don’t know! I think that’s really good, that’s how I started out with music so maybe that will help others start out too. Putting a song out there that is appreciated by lots of people who I have never met is a wonderful, wonderful thing and I’m very grateful for it”.
His album No Man's Land received mixed reviews from critics last year (I chose not to bring this up with him) but the concept was great – each song was about a different forgotten woman from history. Turner revealed how this wasn’t a conscious decision: “I kinda stumbled into writing the album, I tend to write autobiographically most of the time and I thought it would be interesting to write songs that weren’t just about me for a bit. I’m a history fan as well, so I thought I could write some history songs. I got about 5 songs in and I realised to date all of the songs were about females and that struck me as an interesting thing, there’s an obvious politics to that. I decided to pursue that and go with that and the album came together that way!”.
"It’s the one thing in the world that I feel I can unashamedly say that I’m good at. I don’t mean to sound arrogant – at the very least, after 2000 shows you’d hope you have some kind of aptitude for it. It’s my passion, it’s also my career and it’s a thing I love doing!"
I quizzed him on which historical figure he would like go back and befriend, to which he answered: “Clive James… he was one of the great humanitarians of our age, one of the smartest cultural commentators. I would love to pick his brain”. Frank then explained how James’ book Cultural Amnesia is an excellent starting point for anyone who wants to brush up on their knowledge of 20th century culture!
Finally, I asked him to settle a debate my student house was having pre-phone call. Whilst it was nothing to do about music, I can now say I have asked Frank Turner: “would you rather have one elephant sized duck or 100 duck sized elephants?”. A question to which he obviously replied, “100 duck sized elephants. One elephant sized duck would be really hard to handle if he got pissed off”. Be sure to tune into Frank Turner’s livestreams over the coming weeks and support the #IndependentVenueLove initiative.