The Weekly interview: Frank Turner

Dark matter: Turner plays Hard Rock Live on Saturday.
Tara Novak
Chris Bitonti

The last time I saw you play Vegas was on the Revival Tour. Oh yeah, out the back of the Beauty Bar. I remember getting drunk in an alleyway with Jim Ward and getting left behind by the bus afterward. For once in my life, it wasn’t my fault. … The bus driver just assumed everyone was on and thought he’d leave five minutes early.

I think I’ve been to Vegas once since then with Social D, which was great, but I feel like we’ve neglected Vegas a little bit, so I’m happy that we’re coming back for a headlining show.

Listening to your new album, Tape Deck Heart, it sounds like you were in a pretty dark place when you wrote it. True? Yeah, I think that is right. I certainly had a bunch of not particularly fun stuff going on in my personal life. I don’t sit down and decide what to write about and then start writing about it. It’s more like I just start writing and then I can figure out what’s been bugging me after the event. Toward the end of the process of making the record, I was looking back over the songs and kind of going, Wow, okay, yeah, I needed to talk about this.

And are you past that now? Yeah, I would say I am past it. Part of that is the passage of time, but making and releasing the album has been very helpful and cathartic for me on a personal level. It’s also been slightly fraught at some points as well. If you write very honest, personal, confessional songs about relationships, I mean, any relationship involves another person as well. (laughs) So I got some rather aggrieved phone calls when the album came out. But for me, that’s an occupational hazard of doing what I do for a living. For other people, if they aren’t musicians, I wouldn’t advise it.

Is it hard to perform those songs? They’re so personal. Um, very occasionally. I think for the most part, the thing about it is that sense of connection with empathy. If you sing about something dark, and you have a bunch of people singing back at you, that’s actually a really powerful and quite redeeming moment, and that helps you get through it. It’s sort of a cheesy, adolescent thing to say, but the idea that you’re not alone, that’s a kind of cool feeling. There are one or two exceptions to that: The song “Anymore” is not easy for me to sing, because it’s not a kind song and that makes me slightly uncomfortable.

You seem able to combine weighty lyrics with light melodies, so that it’s almost misleading how deep the songs are. (laughs) I think that’s probably a fair call. There’s elements of that in a lot of music that I like, upbeat, poppy indie-rock bands that write about pretty dark moments in human existence. There’s something about that mixture that’s kind of addicting. It’s a bait and switch, really. I’m luring you in with the lighter sh*t, and then I hit you in the gut. (laughs)

The song “Four Simple Words” was the first track I heard off the new album. It’s a pretty biting criticism of current indie-rock. Do you feel vindicated by your success? I do, yes, to a degree. I mean, I don’t want to get too carried away or come across as self-satisfied, but one of the things that I like about the way things have gone is that what I do is not cool; it’s not for cool people, and it never really was and I can’t imagine now that it ever will be.

Actually, I sort of briefly got directed to comments someone made from an up-and-coming band almost mocking me for the fact that fashionable people don’t go to my shows, and I couldn’t be happier about it. I don’t want those diagonal-haircutted, skinny jean f*ckheads who are into one band for three months and f*cking move on. There’s no loyalty to it, and on a personal, artistic and career level I’m not interested in people who are that fly-by-night coming to my shows, because they’re not gonna stick around.

Coming from a punk/hardcore background with Million Dead, is rebellion something you search for in music? Yes, to a degree. When I was a kid I wanted to smash it all up and tear the system down and turn it on its head. [But] I think the older I get, that’s not quite what I’m interested in. I’m very interested in being able to create a social space in which I can organize my life in a way that I see fit, but I realize with age that, of course, not everyone agrees with you, and actually imposing your view of the world on other people is tyrannical. I see the world in certain ways, but that doesn’t mean by any stretch of the imagination that I’m right about it. So I have no desire to try and proselytize or force other people to live in a certain way. But at the same time, that sort of voluntary collective, the idea that you can build a little private space, that you can organize your life in a way that makes sense to you, as I get older that’s what punk rock means to me.

The relevance of Black Flag records to people who live in Somalia is questionable at best. It’s a very suburban, middle-class, white, Western thing. But at the same time, it’s a space in which, yeah, you can throw up some walls around you and you can get a few of your friends and try and find a way that’s better than the outside world. Its kind of like, I don’t give a sh*t if you agree with me or not; just leave me the f*ck alone and let me run my life my way.

You sort of touched on my next question there, with getting older. I find that the idea of nostalgia is often present in your music, even in the title Tape Deck Heart What is it about that concept appeals to you? Well, that is an interesting question and one that I don’t have a full response to. This might just be me trying to shut the barn door after the horse has bolted, but I do try to be careful with nostalgia as an idea, as a concept or as an artistic prop. I think it’s easy to get too bogged down in it.

I don’t have some sort of specific, technical meaning for what Tape Deck Heart is supposed to mean. It’s just sort of a cool phrase from a song that fits the mood of the record, but I like the way, as well as it being nostalgic, tape decks were kind of sh*tty. I mean, they didn’t really work very well, they used to chew up your favorite tape, you’d spend your life with a pencil, trying to wind back in. And I think that kind of overtone for the title was good to me as well. I mean, it’s nostalgia, but its also not nostalgia. I think you can get too wrapped up in looking backwards, and for me personally, I started quite young—I started touring when I was 16 years old—and I kind of got really angry and active within certain political ideas and burned myself out and got disillusioned with it by the time I was 22. So, it was an early age to reach that first post-adolescent burnout.

When you moved from hardcore to the folk-bluegrass that you play now, was it because you felt like hardcore was a young man’s game? (laughs) Let me separate that into two questions. My own personal reasons for doing it was, partly, I got older and my taste in music changed. I had been playing and touring in hardcore bands for a long time, and I felt like I ran out of interesting things to say in that format. Almost like I needed to sort of refresh my palate. And at the time, playing an acoustic guitar, seemed like the opposite of hardcore to me.

[So] it was partly that and partly that it was an easy way to tour, because it was just me. I didn’t want to be in a band at the time. The next part of it is that it has become a lot more common since then. I don’t want to sound overly defensive, but at the same time, when I announced I was going to start doing acoustic music in 2005, everybody thought I’d lost my f*cking mind. There wasn’t really this sort of caucus of ex-punk singers playing acoustic guitar. I’m not for a second saying I led the charge or anything like that. I’m saying that, for me, it was a much more challenging decision at the time. A close friend said, “All right, call me in six months and you’ll be back in a punk band.” It was kind of cool to prove people wrong.

Frank Turner & The Sleeping Souls With The Smith Street Band, Koo Koo Kanga Roo. October 12, 8 p.m., $17-$20. Hard Rock Live, 733-7625.

Tags: Music
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