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I made it happen.
Last week I sat down with the talented and charming Frank Turner before his show at Bottom of the Hill. It was supposed to be just a review, with a possible Q&A, if the interview turned out to be compelling enough to read. It ended up being, without a doubt, the best thing I’ve written in about two years.
The version that was put up today was edited, in some cases rather heavily. I’m posting my original draft here so you can get a clearer, fuller picture of what went down, and a better understanding of his personality. I am also working on a way to link to a transcript of the interview, because he had a lot of really interesting stuff to say. He just used a lot of words — about 4,500 of them, to be precise — to say it, and I know that long of a draft will only interest a certain amount of people and totally alienate the rest.
However, I am very, very proud of this story, and pleased I got to meet Frank and hear what he had to say. I hope he was pleased to meet me, too. I’d love to do it again sometime.
If Frank Turner weren’t a professional musician, he’d likely be a paleontologist – or possibly a sea captain; he hasn’t decided yet. He’s already been a research assistant, and also a computer programmer, a career that, as I suggest one evening in San Francisco, he can always fall back on if his current gig doesn’t work out. However, in light of the sold-out show he’s hours away from headlining, that doesn’t seem very likely.
Frank on stage at Bottom of the Hill, May 2011
Turner has, in only a handful of years, become the kind of artist that inspires tattoos in his fans. Of his lyrics, mostly, but also of his logo: a large black X, with his initials filling the horizontal gaps and “HC” on the vertical — Frank Turner Hard Core. It certainly helps that most of his choruses, even out of context, represent a credo, a code, a battle cry. His songs are cast in a sense of urgency, bordering on panic, about the looming threat of death.
But they’re also coated in a rare glee, a giddiness to even be alive in the first place. None of it is very punk rock at all, but that’s what most people would call him.
On the spectrum of punk rock, which has only grown more complex and accommodating since the genre’s big bang in the late ’70s, Turner is still an outlier. In sound, he’s one of the last people you’d expect Epitaph Records to snap up. But in all other respects — his desperate, breathless delivery, his defiance and his unwillingness to settle down — he’s right at home on the flagship punk label, which became his American home in 2009.
Turner has arrived in San Francisco just in time for the city’s annual heat wave — 85 degrees in the first week of May. He doesn’t mind: as soon as I find him, waiting at the bar in the dimly-lit Bottom of the Hill, he requests that we “go sit in the sunshine”. I oblige, as the sun has retreated behind the rooftops and a breeze is coming in, the latter of which can’t be good news for the fire that’s raging somewhere across town. We escape into a central atrium, a place that, even amidst the sound of helicopters droning somewhere in the distance, is still the quietest place in the already-quiet Potrero Hill neighborhood. Aside from the amorphous swatch of smoke that hangs over the downtown skyline, it’s one of those pleasant, postcard-pretty evenings in the city.
“That is a well-worn notebook,” he observes as I take out the notebook I’ve had since college. The notebook is almost full, and makes sort of a sad, defeated sound when I drop it on the table in front of me. He folds up a pair of limited-edition Ray-Bans and places them on his side of the table. We get down to business.
All of your songs have such a sense of urgency; they’re all about life and death. Did anything happen to inspire this?
“No, I’m not like a plane crash survivor or anything…A lot of what I do is motivated by the fact that I’m terrified by the concept of death, but in a good way,” Turner doesn’t make eye contact when he speaks. When he talks, his head is often down or to the side, his eyes searching for something to focus on. “Time is short, and well, uh…I can’t remember who said it; I think it was Pliny who said, ‘Art is long and life is short’. I think. It might be Cicero.” (I look it up later. It was Hippocrates.)
“So yeah,” he continues in his charmingly anxious way. “I don’t know, it just kind of seems to me like we should get on with things. Like, I would love to be a paleontologist…”
He pauses and pulls a vibrating phone – and then another phone – out of his pocket.
“Oh, I know, it makes me look like a drug dealer. American phone, British phone, that’s my excuse,” he says.
“Yeah, and, you know I’d love to be a paleontologist but that’s kind of a lifetime. I’d love to be a botanist, I’d love to be a sea captain, I’d love to be a stunt pilot…”
Are there even any jobs for sea captains these days?
“Yeah, you know, apparently! I was reading somewhere – this is actually my long-term plan, if everything goes to shit…apparently they’re having a real difficulty finding people who want to captain oil tankers because it’s a really, really lonely job…but you get paid a shit-ton of money to do it as a result. And it’s like man, that’s what I’m gonna do, fucking hell. If I’ve got a tragic story to hide, I’m gonna be an oil tank captain.
“…Um, yes. So, anyway, unfortunately there’s no kind of dramatic story about me getting wiped out in a plane crash or anything.”
Your sound is such a funny little blend of kind of quiet and introspective, but also very defiant. How did you develop that?
“Something I try really hard not to do is to think in an analytical way about songwriting. Because, to me, that’s when bands kind of break the spell. It’s funny; lots of people use folk-punk and all those kinds of things (to describe me).”
I saw country on the website for this place.
“Funnily enough, I think if I had to choose a genre I’d call myself a country singer…I play my own songs, therefore I’m not a folk singer. Punk, OK fine, but country seems to make sense to me, in the sense that TownesVan Zandt, Gram Parsons, and Ryan Adams are like 3 of my fucking heroes. Especially Townes Van Zandt. He’s like the songwriter’s password. You meet somebody who writes songs, you say, ‘Townes Van Zandt?’ and if they know what you’re talking about, then they’re in the club. If you meet someone who’s a songwriter and they don’t know who Townes Van Zandt is, then you have to play them some, and if they still don’t get it, then they can…get fucked as far as I’m concerned.”
How has coming from a punk rock background influenced your life?
“You know what, I think this is – OK – right – I’m wary of saying what I’m about to say cause I’m aware that I’m partisan on the issue, but, to a degree punk is a youth tribe…(but) I feel like the kids that grew up with punk come away with a philosophy about life. And that to me is why punk is better,” he chuckles. “And that’s why I’m wary of saying that, ‘cause I don’t want to be denigrating to anybody, but it is more or less a youth culture…”
In the end we all grow up to be the same people, more or less.
“Yeah, but I do really strongly feel like punk taught me a lot of things…punk is like a playground for kids to experiment with life; how to treat other people, how to deal with politics, all those kinds of things. Punk taught me things about self-reliance, and about just being honest, and not taking any shit from anybody, or giving anybody else any shit. For me, Black Flag still define how I think about it…” he extends his arm to point out the Black Flag logo tattooed in the inside of his left wrist.
It’s around this time that his tour manager, Jimmy, slips out onto the patio with us and slides a dinner menu in front of Turner. He briefly scans it while I continue.
A lot of songs are so autobiographical…I mean, you don’t necessarily call people out, but…how do your friends, exes, enemies, feel about being used in your songs?
Turner gives a low, devious chuckle. “That’s a good question. For my part, it’s fine because it’s kind of hard to tell unless you know the back story. I write true stories because I’m not very good at making up fiction, but I think it’s always with a degree of circumspection. Certainly, in a number of cases, names have been changed to protect the innocent…in some cases they haven’t. There have been occasions when I’ve had altercations based around songs. Which is a shame, because you know I don’t actually feel like it’s my place to interfere with other peoples’ lives…”
Jimmy comes back out. He needs Frank’s dinner order.
“Um, can I get the pasta special? The penne marinara?” He pronounces pasta in the British custom, with short vowel sounds.
“…And that’s it? You don’t want anything else?” spurts Jimmy, almost incredulous. “I mean, look over the whole menu just to make sure.”
“ OK, with the green salad,” Turner acquiesces. “Thank you.
“So yeah, I’ve had some…I’ve had a shoe thrown at me once.”
“Yeah, kind of…it was in a dressing room, but there were other people there. She threw her shoe at my head. She missed, I’m pleased to say. But that was…that was pretty bad,” he laughs a little, at the ground.
What it’s like to have a room full of people singing your life back at you?
“For the most part it’s cool, that’s what I’m trying to achieve. If I didn’t want that, I wouldn’t be doing this. But there are days when…particularly ‘Long Live the Queen’ can be…”
He looks down and away again, and this time his voice drops off. “Long Live the Queen” is a true story, a song about a dying friend that won him that adoration of fans and some media in England a few years back.
“And it’s funny because that’s, like, everyone’s favorite song. Which is great and fine, and…”
He takes a long pause.
“And the thing is, I know that Lex would be stoked about that.”
So there’s a real name.
“Yes. And in fact she’d find it hilarious. With that song I made damn fuckin’ sure that Lex’s family were cool with that song before going anywhere near anyone with it. So yeah, there are days when it just feels weird but…such is life, I guess.”
That’s what you signed up for.
“Right. And that’s a general rule about pretty much everything I do; it’s very difficult for me to complain about, because I could simply not do this, and I’d be fine.”
How do you keep yourself from going crazy on the road?
“By staying on tour. I would go fucking crazy if I stayed at home…It’s a funny contrast, cause I live a life that’s predicated around freedom, but at the same time, actually I live a very organized life when I’m on tour: you get up, you travel, you do press, do sound check, do the gig. I know what I’m doing for the next like year and a half. It’s in my phone,” he picks up one of his phones and waves it around. “And if I don’t have that structure around, that’s when I start getting too fucked up and start getting back into doing too many drugs and stuff, and just kind of being a fucking mess of a human being, basically.
Frank Turner: Songwriter, tattoo enthusiast, and aspiring sea captain.
“And, you know, if you look at the number of shows I do in a year it’s roughly the number of Mondays to Fridays in a year.”
That’s very true. And I’m sure it’s preferable to sitting in a chair all day.
“It absolutely is, but that’s why to me it’s not a particularly remarkable amount of touring to do. B.B. King did 300 shows a year for like 30 years, without ever once saying to anyone, ‘Check me out, I’m amazing.’ And he’s still doing 150 shows a year, and he’s like 80 years old. And that to me is the inspiration. I don’t really care about bands saying like,” he adopts a mocking rock-star voice that’s sort of Spinal Tap and sort of Tommy Chong, “’Man, we just toured for like 2 months, man,’…well, so did the guy at the office. The guy at the factory just spent 2 months clocking in every morning. I think there is a tendency within rock ‘n’ roll for people to kind of play the martyr card to a degree, and it’s kind of like, do your fuckin’ job, shut up, get on with it. You have the fucking best job in the world.”
I take one last look through my well-worn notebook.
OK, that should about do it.
“Okay! Sweet. We have been yakking for a massive 25 minutes. Now, let’s see who has been texting me…”
He turns his attention toward one of his phones, and I turn my attention toward finding a taqueria, as it is now 7:30 p.m. and I am starving.
There’s a long line outside when I return. Inside, there’s a Johnny Cash pre-show playlist happening as fans filter in. The very first time he came to San Francisco, he played to a room that amounted to “about eight people”. Tonight’s a little different – a sold-out show.
There’s a crush of beards, body jewelry and firmly-raised fists towards the foot of the stage when Turner takes it sometime in the 10 o’clock hour. He starts in on a set list of songs that celebrate folk heroes of all variety, from Bob Dylan to William II to Steve Slater (you know, this guy). People who embody the things Turner took away from his punk rock past, or who seem to demonstrate that they’re pretty happy to be alive.
Even when it’s just him and an acoustic guitar, his shows are passionate. They take on the energy of some kind of religious congregation, especially in smaller venues like this. His stage presence is ebullient, joyous; his fans speak the word of FTHC. Turner shuts his eyes tight when he sings, but opens his mouth so wide that sometimes it’s possible to see a gap in the back of his teeth. You can’t really dance to it, and you can’t really form a pit, but there’s so much emotion bouncing off the walls that your body is telling you to do something in response. All you can really do at a Frank Turner show is shout until your face turns red, and that’s what everyone does for an hour and a half.
Judging by the sold-out crowd, this might be one of the last times he’ll be able to get away with playing small clubs like these. He’ll be back again in the fall to celebrate the release of a new full-length album, England Keep My Bones, by embarking on another tour, this time with a full band to back him up. Maybe it will be easier to dance next time around.
Two days later, Turner posts a photo on Twitter of a new tattoo, just under (or above, depending on your viewing angle) the Black Flag logo: TVZ, for Townes Van Zandt, and a small skeleton key next to it: the songwriter’s password. No matter how big a rock star gets, he’s still someone’s fan.