Interview: Frank Turner
“I really had to hold my hands up - not in defeat - but certainly like I could do with a hand.”
Frank Turner is always making little changes, and by doing so, strives to live by the motto that is also the title of his latest record: Be More Kind. I had the privilege of sitting down with Frank prior to his show in Calgary to discuss the writing process of Be More Kind, which has undertones of politics, frustration, compassion, as well as personal emotions - and the impact that music and songwriting has had on his life as both a professional musician, as well as as a fan.
How’s the tour been so far?
Great, I mean we’ve just been getting into the swing of it. Starting a tour on the west coast is kind of a pain in the dick to be honest, because it’s an 8 hour time zone change from the U.K. So, it doesn’t matter how many acclimatization days you put in, for the first few shows you’re just like, “why am I still awake?” while you’re playing. But we’ve beaten that now, and it’s nice to be back in Alberta.
Congrats on the new album, Be More Kind. It’s a little different, you’ve got a lot of 80’s pop influences on it.
Yeah, I mean Arkells are actually pretty responsible for that, because we did that tour with them - we did a couple of tours with them over the last few years. My ears are kinda like sponges anyway, so if I’m around another band for a long period of time, a band that I like, it tends to rub off on me. You know, the records that I made after the Revival tour with Chuck Ragan have that kind of vibe to them. But it’s also just like, the world I come from musically still kind of holds the word “pop” to be a dirty word, and it was really nice to tour with the Arkells and see a bunch of people who aren’t ashamed to write pop songs, and to write intelligent pop songs, you know? And it really kind of made me feel braver about going down that road.
Totally. And there’s always that kind of genre, not battle but, like when I try and explain your music to other people I just say “well, it’s Frank Turner.”
Good, well that’s a huge compliment, I’ll tell you that! I mean, it’s funny, genre tags are a funny thing because on some level I feel like they’re just a weird bit of didacticism that exists to keep music journalists happy, and music nerds like myself. But like there’s an argument to be made that once everyone in the conversation has heard the song you’re talking about like who gives a fuck what you call it? Of course, I mean, there is more use to it than that. In the early days of doing what I do, I think I thought a bit harder about genre tags, and these days it’s kinda nice: it’s my name, I can play whatever the fuck I want, and if I wanna write a death metal record then I can put out a death metal record. It’s unlikely to happen, but you never know.
How would you say that your song writing has changed through your career so far?
Well, the first thing is that I started thinking, when I went solo I started thinking about songwriting as a thing, you know? Like before when I was in punk bands and stuff we just kind of bolted riffs together and that was cool, but I didn’t really think about the song as a kind of concept, you know what I mean? And then, I mean, my listening, my influences have expanded and that tends to bleed into it. I like to think I’ve gotten better at the craft side of it, as time has gone by and with practice. I mean, it would be kind of depressing if I hadn’t. And then the other thing is just that I try to not repeat myself, and that just means that I’m always kind of, I’m aware that as a writer I don’t reinvent the wheel, but I’m always trying to make sure that I’m not completely repeating something I did before, so hopefully it’s moved along. That’s kind of for other people to judge though.
Yeah, and kind of just putting your own touch on it as well.
Yeah, so for example on the new record it was really fun to do a song like “Common Ground” - I’ve not really done a song like that that’s got an electro kind of vibe to it. That was new territory for me and in a way that’s almost just how simple it is and like have I done a song like that kind of song before and if not then cool, let’s do one.
And there’s a lot of, I don’t want to say it’s a political record, but there are some undertones of politics.
“Human beings are always going to disagree with each other, it’s a central fact of human society.”
You know, I’ve been wrestling with that term as well. My hesitation about it is that it’s not like a Rage Against The Machine album. Part of the thing is, to write a Rage Against The Machine album, you have to be extremely sure that you’re right. The doubt doesn’t really come into the equation if you’re in a band like Rise Against or Anti-Flag - these are all bands that I respect. Part of what I wanted to write about was doubt and uncertainty and having no idea what the fuck is going on. I guess I’ve been calling it a social record. The other thing is, and it’s going to sound contradictory, in a way it’s an attempt to write a non-partisan record. Because it’s not about the specifics of the arguments we have, but about how we conduct those arguments that we have. We live in this world in which social media places this huge premium on hot takes and ad-hominem attacks. One of the things that really bothers me is I feel like people have confused the ideas of anger and wisdom. In my experience, usually, the angriest guy in the room is usually that one that isn’t the one making the most sense. Social media seems to kind of advert that, which I think is kind of a disaster. It’s a record about how we talk to each other: how we argue, how we deal with people we disagree with. Because human beings are always going to disagree with each other, it’s a central fact of human society. Any ideology that tells you that if you follow it’s ideas then you’ll end up in a place where there’s no disagreement is totalitarian, by definition. We have to figure out how we conduct our arguments. We’ve done a reasonable job from a historical point of view over the last hundred years or so, but I’m scared we’re going to end up in a place where violence is much more a part of what we do.
I know as a young kid going to shows, speaking for myself, I was super impressionable. When artists I idolized went up on stage and were like “fuck God” or something - I feel like people have to start thinking for themselves, and I feel like in this day and age that’s becoming less common.
“As you get older, and certainly for me - wisdom is synonymous with realizing that you know nothing. It’s like realizing that the world is full of more things than one person will ever know and that a bit of humility in our intellectualism isn’t a bad thing.”
I definitely think there’s a place for those more assertive political statements. One of the things that people said about the record - that I’m keen to set right - is that some people said it’s some sort of cop-out and that it’s not taking a position. First of all, the record does take a position on quite a lot of stuff. I mean, “Make America Great Again” is quite clear about what I think about that. But also, I think that you can separate the two activities. I think I have varied positions on a lot of stuff, but I don’t want to present them to the world in such a way that’s like “fuck you, you’re an idiot if you disagree with me” because I don’t think there’s any margin there. I don’t think I could have written this record 10 years ago, and in fact, I know I couldn’t. The ideas of being ecumenical and be considerate to other points of view are something that was really hard [then] on an individual level. Because for a long time, I did want to tell anyone that had a differing opinion that they were a fucking idiot! Hopefully, as you get older, and certainly for me - wisdom is synonymous with realizing that you know nothing. It’s like realizing that the world is full of more things than one person will ever know and that a bit of humility in our intellectualism isn’t a bad thing.
I love the name of the record too, Be More Kind. Frank Turner fan or not, I think it’s just a great mantra.
I’m a big fan of the bold album title. I really like Positive Songs For Negative People - it does what it says. I was really pleased when I came up with Be More Kind as well. It was just like, yeah, that’s what I want to say!
Aside from that overarching message, what else do you hope people will take away from this?
I guess the main thing is that idea of being more considerate and being more intellectually humble. I think that those are two really important things that would be nice for people to spend a bit more time with. Also, it’s worth throwing into this that any finger pointing that is on this album, I hope it’s clear that it’s me pointing a finger at myself as much as anybody else. I could absolutely stand to take all the advice I’m dealing out here in spades. I absolutely fail to live up to some of the standards I’m setting here. Also, importantly, it’s a musical record - it’s a rock and roll record - I hope people take away from it that they enjoyed this record, they enjoyed the songs and it got their foot tapping and they could sing along. These are important things as well.
You’ve been quite open about mental health and your struggles in the past. As a music fan, but as well as being a musician, how would you say that music has helped you both personally and professionally?
Music has been both my private and my public therapy for a long time, and I’m completely average in that statement. Growing up, Propagandi records spoke to me like nothing else ever had done before. There’s this Propagandi song, “I Was a Pre-Teen McCarthyist” that has a line at the end: “Maybe you’re a lot like me, identified for fourteen years without a choice, terrified the morning you woke up and realized / that if and when you jump ship / you either swim for shore or your drown,” and I just remember it felt like a fucking finger had come out of the sky and gone: “THIS ONE’S ABOUT YOU!” And then sort of more profoundly listening to stuff like Arab Strap and The Weakerthans has very much been a huge balm to me as an individual. And then my writing has always been sort of confessional in style, so I’ve worked out a lot of my issues in public. Funny enough, one of the things I realized in the process of making this album was that for me personally writing wasn’t enough as a form of therapy. Again, there’s a moment of humility in deciding to ask for help on a professional level, which took me a long time to get around to. Mainly because I grew up in a socially conservative, middle-class family, and then I got into Henry Rollins which kind of pre-disposes you to never, ever, ever, talk about your feelings. I really had to hold my hands up - not in defeat - but certainly like I could do with a hand. And then in a roundabout way, it leads back into the songs. “Little Changes” is about CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy). There’s been a kind of symbolic relationship on this record with therapy, which I think has been kind of interesting for me.
Would you say that writing about that comes a bit more naturally than political writing?
Yes and no. It’s harder to kind of take the leap into talking about it in public in a way. Again, I retain a kind of residual reluctance to talk about it. I mean, one of the reasons I was open to therapy and me talking about it afterward was that I’ve done a lot of work with groups like CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably). I had this moment of realization that I’d spent quite a few years talking the talk but not walking the walk. A lot of what groups like CALM talk about - which is excellent - is that we need to remove [the] stigma around talking about mental health. I did all these sort of public events where I would say that, and then someone would say “well what about you?” And I’d be like “I’M NOT GONNA TALK ABOUT IT!” Because I somehow regarded it as a sign of weakness to talk about it. My partner pointed it out and was like, “that’s kind of a giant contradiction right there,” and that was a big moment. I guess it’s harder to start talking about it, but I mean at the same time, I’ve always enjoyed writing in a direct and raw and conventional style - once you overcome that first hurdle, there’s plenty of material there!
I know you’re a super busy guy, whether it’s writing music, recording, or touring - what else have you got going on at the moment?
Hopefully, by the end of today, I’m going to finish the first draft of book number two - I wrote a book about touring about three years ago, and now I’m writing a book about songwriting. When I say finish the first draft, I don’t mean that it’s remotely finished… it’s funny because when I wrote the first book, I went into it with this huge degree of hubris. I was like “I’ve written magazine articles before, I’ll just write 20 of them in a row and that’s a book!” And then I realized I was talking out of my ass. So at least this time around I’ve gone into it realizing that I was taking on a big task. But it’s been really fun actually. I spend the vast majority of my waking hours thinking about songwriting, and it was kinda fun to actually write some of them down. Hopefully, it will be interesting to someone, somewhere.
Frank Turner’s second book, Try This At Home: Adventures in Songwriting is available now. Click here to purchase your copy of the book. Be More Kind is available on all major streaming services, as well as available for purchase here. Be sure to check out our photos from Frank’s last show in Calgary below!
Frank Turner & The Sleeping Souls, Calgary, September 12, 2018.