Being Frank: An Interview with Frank Turner
Frank Turner‘s solo success has not been the slightest bit surprising to anyone who knows him. Part of that stems from an unblinking honesty when answering questions. Questions that have been of a significant quantity of late as his career has found firmer footing – some adoring and some outraged – but they’ve always been answered.
I first clumsily interviewed Frank something close to seven years ago, while we were both finding our feet in new careers. I thought I’d have another stab at it in 2013 and attempt to ask him questions he’d not usually be confronted with. I deliberately tried to make him feel uncomfortable with them, in fact, so it was good to see him rise to the challenge.
Rob: We know you polarise the masses – hugely so. It’s been wonderful to watch the zealous fanbase grow, but it’s kind of remarkable the hate you get. Without going into detail on specific instances: do you get it? Can you understand what an anti-FT person sees or is it just baffling? And I know you’re generally a confident man but does it get to you? Not the death threats – they’d get to anyone. But the general ‘oh fuck that guy’, relentlessly.
Frank: I can see it, sure, and I certainly make an effort to do so. I know, I know: I’m white, male, privately educated and all that shit – it’s a pretty easy target.
A lot of people seem to have a problem with me rejecting irony within the art that I make, which I find slightly confusing, but each to their own. A lot of people seem to miss my self-denigrating side, and think I’m really up my own arse, which I’m really not (am I?).
One of the things about being a solo artist is that the world (and indeed I) often doesn’t distinguish between the art and the person, because they go under the same name. So if someone hates my music (which they’re entitled to do) they quite often say they hate me, which is a little harder to stomach. It has certainly got to me at various times, not least the politics kerfuffle last year when I had a period of feeling pretty hounded and depressed.
But here’s the thing: it’s a facet of success in my chosen path. It’s easy to be in an underground band, because the only people who know about you are people who like you. If you extend your range beyond the underground, then more people will be exposed and some won’t like you. Big deal, deal with it, thicken your skin, it’s what you wanted.
Rob: There’s a lot of writing in your music that appears to be in ‘real-time’. Three or four songs match up to your current life circumstances in any given year and coinciding release. Do you worry that your life won’t provide enough drama to write about it? This is possibly a harsh way of putting it, but nevertheless: is it ever tempting to self-sabotage?
Frank: Well, they say that happy people don’t make great art, and I suppose that is something that has been at the back of my mind from time to time if I’m honest. I don’t specifically try to write about good times or bad times, but just to write about the things that move me enough to bother picking up a pen and then repeating those lines night after night.
More often than not, that involves talking more about the darker side of life – catharsis and empathy are more mineable, maybe, or we just don’t need to talk about being happy so much because we’re, well, happy. I don’t think I self-sabotage for the sake of songwriting – I think I’m perfectly capable of fucking my life up for myriad other reasons, or indeed no reason at all. It’s just nice to have songwriting as an outlet.
Rob: Trying to be objective, how much of a what-I-say-is-what-we-do frontman are you? The conscious division of ‘And The Sleeping Souls’ perhaps gives hints to an answer, but does that ever make things awkward?
It’s very, very easy to become pally and dick around with you, especially after work is done – but does that make you like the boss at work who’s cool and then has to shout occasionally, with everyone subsequently freaking out?
Frank: I am the boss of my shop – that’s the way I want to run things – and I guess deep down there are some uncrossable lines. To put it another way, there are rare occasions concerning people I work with where I have to pull rank. Thankfully that’s not very often these days – the machine is (touch wood) running pretty smooth these days. That’s a position it’s taken a long while to get to, though. My relations with the Souls has had its ups and downs, and establishing the lines of responsibility and authority hasn’t always been easy.
I should strongly emphasise the fact that they’re awesome, as players and musicians, and as my friends, and I don’t want to play with other people. I’ve put them in a pretty weird position, I know, and there have been some tense times working that out. I’ve made mistakes in there and “people management” is something I have to spend some time thinking about – I’m not sure how naturally it comes to me. But it’s worth it, and as I say right now everyone is fighting for the same cause, which is a great feeling.
Rob: How harsh are you with your own songs when it comes to those that make the cut and those that don’t? Do you write 50 and 10 make it in or do you write 10 and they remain unchanged? And how happy are you with other people fucking with your songs? Does it feel like collaborative harmony or does it encroach on your territory?
Frank: I’m pretty harsh, but that harshness usually comes before the point of finishing a song. If I actually reach the point of finishing and demoing something, it’s already been through a fair bit of quality control. That said, sure: there are songs I’ve done which have been less than excellent, haha. In recent years Ive got really into demoing, which is tedious but great for working songs over and making them better. We demoed the last record like five times.
As for other people fucking with my songs, well it depends what you mean. I write the songs alone, then take them to the Souls to arrange them, which we do collectively, though usually with pretty strong ideas and a power of veto from me. I’m also open to ideas from a producer – what’s the point in hiring one otherwise? Production is a delicate role, and if it’s done right it’s a matter of pushing an artist to better him or herself. Rich Costey did a great job of that, incidentally. If people start encroaching on my turf or compromising what I do, they know about it pretty fucking fast: I get pretty touchy when the line is finally crossed.
Rob: Are you a womaniser when you’re single, d’you reckon? And are you good at reconciling that if so? Do you get dark nights of the soul or is it – ‘hey, that’s rock!’ etc etc?
Frank: I don’t think the rules of social (or romantic) engagement are any different for musicians than for anyone else, so it’s definitely not ever a case of excusing myself by saying “rock’n'roll!” or whatever. I certainly have slept around when single in my time, and while it’s not something I’d say I’m proud of as such, I’m also not particularly shamed or bothered by it. Consenting adults and all that.
Of course I’ve fucked up, made mistakes, hurt people and all the rest – just like everyone, right? – and of course I can accept that some people do treat me differently because of what I do for a living or my “status” or whatever, but I try my hardest to avoid those people in the first place.
I’m not sure I like the word ‘womaniser’ much, it seems a little one-sided. I know plenty of ‘man-isers’ shall we say. Haha.
Rob: A lot of your fans are very awkward middle class people. Is that a badge of honour to wear or do you feel even a little uncomfortable about that? I know at artist level all the punks love you, but do you wish more ‘real’ punks were in the crowd? Do they even exist much any more?
Frank: I’m not sure what would constitute a “real punk” to be honest, and I don’t really care. I think it would be lame for me to be selective about my audience. I put my music out there and the people who like it come to the shows, and that’s my lot in life. I guess I am a little bit happy about the fact that I’m not (and have never really been) “cool” or “hip” in any way. Vice magazine and its readers probably hate my guts, haha.
Rob: Why haven’t you moved to the States? I thought you would you know. But here you are with a new flat in England… How come?
Frank: I’ve thought about that a lot, for various reasons. I love the USA, it’s a great country, and there are parts of it that are very free and that appeals to me, politically and otherwise. I also enjoy the way the US don’t give a fuck about social class bullshit, that’s always refreshing. For now though my friends and family are in the UK, actually mostly in London. I travel so much that if I was based anywhere else I just wouldn’t ever see anyone, and my friends and family are much more important to me than politics or whatever.
Having said all that, there is a possibility I’ll try it some time, it intrigues me.
Rob: Do you think you are a good role model, incidentally? A lot of people assume you are, and want to be, and then get pissed when you’re not what they expect. But would young you look up to you now?
Frank: Do people get pissed off at me for that? Huh, weird. I don’t consider myself a role model (how self-referential would that be, haha). I mean, I try to live a good and honest life, but so does everyone. People give me accolades occasionally for being hard working, or independent, or honest, or whatever (and almost as many people give me shit for not being that on twitter, HA), but I try not to spend too much time thinking about that. I’ll be the judge of my own character, along with my nearest and dearest, thanks.
Young me would most likely be baffled by me now, haha, but that’s all good: it’s called growing up.
Rob: Do you think your music will last? As in, will it be relevant? I mean you can’t know but… Objectively then.
Frank: I have no idea, and it’s not something I want to spend too much time thinking about. I guess the fact that I’m not cool or part of a scene or whatever makes it a tiny, tiny bit more likely, but fuck, who knows? I’m not sure I care much.