With Positive Songs for Negative People, Frank Turner has closed the sixth chapter of his recording career as a solo artist. In the wake of the dissolution of his post-hardcore quartet Million Dead, he has risen as a solo artist from an interesting Billy Bragg type folk punker to an internationally recognized artist with a loyal global following. His records sell well, even in this uncertain musical climate, his shows sell out and his music has an appeal that attracts an age berth you usually only see at punk shows with the Dropkick Murphys.
He tours incessantly and has recently come through Canada, playing many smaller towns for the first time. We spoke with Frank from England just before departing for his Canadian run about the new record, his recently published touring memoir and the importance of what it means to be an entertainer.
Your new album’s been out for a few months now but I wanted to ask if, when Million Dead ended, you envisioned that the next step of your career would see six albums?
Frank: If you would’ve told me back then that I would have seen six albums I would’ve thought you were mental, but I guess I would’ve been pleasantly surprised. I mean I’m well aware of the fickle nature of the music industry and Million Dead ended pretty unceremoniously. But I wanted to keep making music, I wanted to keep touring and that was what informed the solo project. But there were plenty of moments along the way where I thought perhaps I’d run my course, either artistically, or in terms of the interest of the public, shall we say. But those have been brief moments of doubt and for the most part the project continues to work. Which is fantastic and I’m very grateful for it.
This batch of songs sound incredibly fresh and energetic. This doesn’t sound like a sixth album, it sounds more like a first album. Was this your focus while writing it, or was it a happy accident that it turned out that way?
Frank: No that’s very much what I was going for. Few and far between are the sixth albums that are ones I want to listen to. A lot of bands get to that point in their career and start sounding sort of comfortable, you know? A bit kind of flabby. So I thought about it a lot and part of it is to do with hunger I suppose, but a lot of it is to do with methodology. When you’re making a debut album, it’s essentially a borderline live record because the songs have been rehearsed in clubs while you’ve been coming up as a live band and fine tuned in that arena. And then you go to the studio and you record what is essentially your live set and then you go on tour again. But a lot of bands recording a sixth record sort of load into the studio without having written many songs and just mess around until something comes down on tape. So with that in mind, I sort of felt quite driven to prove to the world that it was worth continuing to pay attention to what I do, so a lot of the songs were written and I took them out on the road with my band The Sleeping Souls. And we rehearsed and played them live for the better part of two years while touring the previous record. So when we got to the studio we cut the record in nine days and basically played the songs live off the floor. So yes it was very much the intention to make it sound fresh and immediate and not belated.
You can definitely hear that live off the floor sound on the album. How much of it was recorded live as a band?
Frank: Other than the acoustic guitar and the lead vocals, pretty much all of it was tracked live. Actually the first song that we worked on, which was ‘Get Better’, Butch, the producer, wanted to check the levels of the mics and asked us to run through something and we knocked out ‘Get Better’ and he burst into the room and said ‘that’s the one. That’s going on the record’. And we were all flabbergasted. But he said he couldn’t hear anything wrong with it. And we re-cut the acoustics and the lead vocals and then we had an album.
And how much did working with (producer) Butch Walker influence the sound of the album, because he’s got such a great career behind him.
Frank: Yeah he’s a fantastic guy, I got along with him incredibly well and I hope to work with him again. The thing is, the record was written and rehearsed live before we got to the floor and before Butch was in the picture. But it was more just that in this particular instance, besides providing a clean sound, Butch sort of cleared the path as it were. I kept having conversations with producers that were being suggested to me by record labels who professed to know what we were just talking about with it sounding like a debut album. And then they would inform me that we were recording drums in one state and guitars in another and all in different weeks, or something like that. And it was a very frustrating time. Then I finally met with Butch and we had a little chat and within about five minutes it was clear that he understood exactly what I was talking about. And he brought a lot of enthusiasm to it and a sort of lightness of touch to the atmosphere in the studio that really helped the songs be as good as they could be.
One thing I love about the album is how relatable it is. Anyone listening could feel as if the songs were written just for them. Are you still influenced by the same things you were when you were writing your earliest albums?
Frank: That’s an interesting question in that the question of influence has changed. In the early days, when I started doing solo stuff, which was new territory for me, I mean I grew up listening to punk rock and hardcore. And on the early records I was specifically thinking about certain sounds and certain artists, like Harvest by Neil Young, or Springsteen, or Alan Wainwright or Bryan Adams or whatever it might be. And both in terms of songwriting and in terms of sounds, the level of influence was quite direct, quite conscious. But as I’ve gotten older my points of reference have stopped being other artists and other records and more just feelings and emotions, a more internalized thing. With all that said, the one thing I will say is that I’ve long been obsessed with the album Pinkerton by Weezer and that was very much in my mind while we were making this album.
I want to talk about your live show. I’ve seen you twice, once in a more intimate setting and once in a festival setting and one thing that’s always impressed me about your show is how good you sound. Nothing’s worse than going to see a band you love who end up sounding nothing like their record. Do you put a lot of time into the rehearsal process for your live shows?
Frank: Well, funnily enough, we haven’t spent a lot of time rehearsing just because we’re always f*cking on tour (laughs). And on the occasion we do have a little bit of time off and somebody will suggest rehearsal, everyone will say ‘my God, please just let me have one week off’. But one thing I have heard from a number of people in regards to my previous albums is that the songs sound better live and I think that’s a fair criticism. And that was one of the things that was on my mind while making this album, to bring the recorded side of it up to the live side. And one thing that’s always unnerved me about live is that you’re making decisions you can’t take back. And I often forget that the only way people hear a certain song that I’ve done is the way that it was recorded. So if you think about the song ‘Photosynthesis’, which is off my second record, which is a song that we always play live, if I listen to the recorded version of that now it’s surprising because it’s very different to how we play it live and how the song is in my mind.
And the great thing about playing live is that you get the chance to reinvent the song on a nightly basis and make decisions that do so.
As your shows have gotten bigger, particularly in the UK, where you play in front of a lot of people every night, has the transition to these bigger shows been easy, or do you find yourself dreaming of the days when it was as simple as a basement or a bar?
Frank: Well the first thing to say, which is quite healthy I think, is that my career isn’t uniform internationally. So where we do arenas in the UK, we’re about to announce a bunch of Spanish shows where we’ll play to about two hundred people a night, you know? And that mixture is healthy because it keeps me on my toes as a performer. Also, while we now bring in a similarly sized audience in Germany, we’ve already been doing that in the UK, so the transition is easier. But one thing I do think about is how you keep that intimacy with the audience in bigger and bigger rooms. It’s doable, and I’ve gone to a lot of Springsteen shows in my time and saw how he does it because he’s very good at it. But it takes a fair amount of thought and I’m sure we haven’t been flawless on the issue. But I think we’ve done a reasonably good job with it. There have been a couple of missteps of course, but I go to a lot of shows myself when I’m not on the road, partly because I just like to go to shows and partly because it’s good for my own show to see things from the audience’s point of view.
I want to talk about your book as well. Do you keep an ongoing journal when you’re on the road?
Frank: I have a series of notepads. I don’t keep a journal per se, but I have jottings everywhere. And kind of un-systemized in a way that’s increasingly starting to annoy me looking back. But it’s not like an official journal.
And was it your idea to do this book or did somebody approach you?
Frank: Somebody approached me and the initial sort of idea was to do an autobiography, which I immediately did not want to do, because to write an autobiography to me means that you need to be in your sixty’s and have won an international concert. So I initially said no to that but after some discussion about memoirs and music memoirs in particular, when I was a kid, the book Get In The Van by Henry Rollins was very life changing for me. And I have always read a lot of books about music history or biography or whatever. And Get In The Van sort of stood apart in that you only get the bit that’s interesting to me, which is the bit about what it’s like to be on tour. And that was the first book I read that made me feel like I knew what touring was like. So I wanted to write a book that was like that and perhaps a kid who is thinking about touring could read it and maybe learn something practical from it.
One part of the book I found very interesting was when you said that you essentially woke up one morning and knew that Million Dead was done. That you decided that you were done playing post hardcore, not done listening to it, but done playing it. I’m curious as to what you would do if you woke up tomorrow and decided you were done with this phase of your career, now that the Frank Turner name is so well known.
Frank: Well I hope that I would leap into it with open arms. I mean one of the nice things about being a solo artist is that you are the master of your own fate. And no one can stop you if you want to change your name to something else. It’s an interesting question though because, not that I want to go too far down this road quite yet, but Positive Songs feels like a conclusive restatement and I feel like I successively tackled the sixth album and if I was to make a seventh, which is starting to wander into my brain, I feel like I would want it to be a stylistic departure. What that means in practice, I don’t know. I tend to kind of get a bit manic at this point in time and start thinking about recording drum and bass records, or soul, but don’t bank on any of that. But I am interested in trying something different. I’ve been taking bluegrass guitar lessons actually, so we’ll see what happens.
Frank Turner finished up a spectacular Canadian tour and is now touring Europe, and will tour the USA in May. As well his latest album “Positive Songs for Negative People” is now available! To find out more and full details on tour dates and his music visit: