Playing Cowboy Chords

The folk singer speaks to about preserving live music venues, coping with media negativity and how life is sometimes like the Wizard of Oz

Photo: Brantley Gutierrez

Photo: Brantley Gutierrez

Every time I see Frank Turner live (which happens fairly regularly), it hits me afresh just how successful he has become in what feels like a short space of time. Relentless touring (he’s played a show a little less than every other night on average over the past ten years) has probably been a contributor, along with his music being a great social connector. Turner’s music isn’t just something that people like and appreciate but something that people tell their friends to listen to, and parents play to their young children. With such a passionate fanbase, for Turner to achieve the success he has was inevitable. With these increasing musical successes, however, other things must also follow.

Things like being recognised by members of the public, which must be par for the course for someone who’s had a number one album and performed at the Olympic opening ceremony. “This is a difficult thing for me to talk about,” Turner responds when I ask him about this. “In a way I want to because I want to figure out what I think about it a bit more.” He pauses in careful consideration. “When I say it’s difficult to talk about, I don’t mean emotionally difficult, I mean that I don’t quite have the vocabulary to figure out exactly what I’m trying to say. For a long time, I’ve always protested normality, and I don’t want to be removed from my audience in any way and that still remains the case, but there comes a point after which you can’t attest to your surprise forever. I know that my songs get played on the radio and I know that people come to my gigs and buy the records, so in the last year or so I’ve kind of gotten used to people coming up to me in bars and saying hi. Part of me feels like I should still be a bit weirded out by it, but I’m not that weirded out by it anymore, because it’s happened for quite a while. But I haven’t yet decided whether or not that’s healthy. It might be unhealthy. But like I say, I don’t want to waste my life being wrapped up in this debate. It’s like, that’s how it is, fuck it, whatever. It’s a great compliment if somebody comes over and says hi and they like my music, thank you very much. But I guess things have changed a bit, and the last couple of records have been bigger.”

Of course, there are also benefits to becoming better-known, and there’s been a lot of positive coverage in the press lately about the Music Venue Trust’s campaign which Turner is spearheading to seek a change in planning legislation. The Agent of Change principle is one which asserts that if a domestic residence is built or developed near a music venue, then the developer is responsible for soundproofing the property, if it existed after the venue. ‘I didn’t come up with the agent of change thing myself, but they wanted a figurehead, as it were. There are two things I really like about it: one is that it’s really focussed, like it’s not like ‘please make everything better’, it just saying ‘Listen, here’s this really small thing we want to do’. It’s not asking for extra funding as well, because so much petitioning just comes down to ‘please give us more money’ and we don’t want more money, we don’t want state support, we just want, what seems to me, a completely just piece of planning legislation put in that’s going to make everything better for everybody. And it seems to me that unless you’re some kind of caricatured, evil developer then I can’t really see why you’d be against it. It seems achievable to me.’

You made a choice, you made a free decision, you fucked up.

The issues caused by noise complaints against small venues have caused a load of grief for hard-working owners recently. I asked Turner whether he thought there should be more of an onus on estate and letting agents to be more honest with potential buyers about noise levels in the area. ‘I think if you buy a house…if you go all the way to buying a house, and you haven’t noticed that it’s next door to a music venue, then you’re not really paying very much attention to the world. I think one of the modern sicknesses in our society is this refusal to allow for personal responsibility at any point in anybody’s personal discussion. At the end of the day, if you buy a house that’s next door to a music venue that’s been there for twenty years, and you didn’t know this then, your fucking problem, as far as I’m concerned. You made a choice, you made a free decision, you fucked up. Why it is you should then be able to destroy local culture just because you’re an unobservant idiot is a mystery to me.’

As we’re speaking, Turner is on a tour of small venues. Tonight is show 1,612 in the Alban Arena, perhaps the least picturesque building in the whole of Saint Albans, and we’re sitting in a dressing room which resembles a very clean nightclub toilet, but with no actual toilet present. The singer claims tiredness from a busy touring schedule (surely he must be) but comes across as engaged and animated. Turner’s tour announcements tend to be particularly divisive, with some fans upset that he chose to play much larger venues, such as the O2 Arena in London (which was fantastic by the way), than usual in the previous tour.

Photo: Ben Morse

Photo: Ben Morse

‘Some were’, Turner acknowledged when I raised this with him. ‘I like to mix things up. The tour before that which was in November/December 2012, we did loads and loads of small, spread-out venues in small towns and stuff. I grew up in a town that wasn’t on the live music circuit, so I know what it’s like to live somewhere where bands don’t usually come. I think it’s… I don’t want to be too like ‘I’m a hero’ about it for deigning to come to smaller towns, that’s bullshit, but I had a lovely thing in Leicester where people were saying it’s given the local music scene a real kick up the arse because there’s a touring band coming through, and that’s a really exciting thing for me as well, I think it’s cool you know. If maybe tonight there’ll be some people from St. Alban’s who might decide to put up some more gigs, or get their band going and play some more local shows, whatever it might be, I’m all in favour of that kind of thing.’

They come out of the storm shelter and the whole town has been destroyed, but they’re still alive. That’s what the next record is about.

Speaking of the future, conversation turns to Turner’s next album, which is on the table for release next year and has been discussed a lot already. ‘It’s a bit too early to say for the next record, a lot of the songs are about picking yourself up and dusting yourself down after a fall, I guess. I had a kind of crappy year, with the breakup thing that the last record was about. Just around the time we were making Tape Deck Heart, but once I’d finished writing it was when I got my first taste of being on the wrong end of Twitter and the press, and I had a pretty depressing time with a lot of negativity focused in my direction. And I came out the other side of it, and I feel stronger for the experience and I guess that’s a big part of it. The image I have in my head is the end of the Wizard of Oz, when the storm has passed from Kansas, and they come out of the storm shelter and the whole town has been destroyed, but they’re still alive. That’s what the next record is about.’

Great stuff – and the excitement to release another record is palpable. One can’t help but feel that Turner is almost obsessed with the busy life of recording and touring, as his recent tour with side-project Mongol Horde has only just ended. ‘It was kind of nice for things to be a bit less frantic, but the whole character of Mongol Horde was that we didn’t really do any promo, we announced the tour about two weeks before it happened, and the whole thing was just like ‘fuck it, let’s just put an album out and go on tour’. I didn’t want to get involved in another media song and dance, and sort of play the game, if you know what I mean, so it was just like ‘here are some shows, if you like it, you like it. If you don’t, go and fuck yourself’. It was really fun, and that was my holiday, basically, was the Mongol Horde tour. I kind of needed another one after it was done because it was just so physically draining. I hate to rub it in but the Reading set was probably the best set that we’ve played to date – it was absolute carnage, absolute fucking carnage. It was really fun. I don’t know when we’re going to do anything again with that band – someday.’

Here are some shows, if you like it, you like it. If you don’t, go and fuck yourself.

Turner has also branched into other areas in the music industry, specifically DJing and writing. His tour diaries are promised next year, but he’s also recently stepped into the music journo shoes and written for Vice. Personally, I was interested to see who would be on the Mercury Prize shortlist if Frank Turner had written it. ‘A big contender for me would be Andrew Jackson Jihad, they’re an American, I don’t really know what to call them, I think folk-punk might be a term but I feel like that’s a pretty hackneyed term at this point, and secondly I think it doesn’t really do justice to the fullness of their sound. They’ve been around for years but their most recent record is called ‘Christmas Island’, and it’s a truly magnificent piece of work, like a really fascinatingly brilliant, to my mind. So I’d probably pick that, and I’m obsessed with a singer from Kent called Will Varley, who I think is a total genius.’

In a time where making money is the centric force of music-making more than ever, it’s fantastic to see a wave of artists like Turner who still care passionately about their fans and the community spirit of music that is often prevalent in smaller, less corporate venues. The petition to the Culture Secretary, Sajid Javid, has already almost reached its required level of signatures, and hopefully thanks to this campaign, we can rest assured that the live music scene which is cherished across this country won’t be going anywhere.

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