Frank Turner: “Get the fuck off Tik Tok and go to a gig!”

Frank Turner © Shannon Shumaker

After travelling from California to London and then Hamburg, at the end of a long day filled with back-to-back interviews promoting his tenth solo album „Undefeated“, you’d expect Frank Turner to be cranky, slightly dishevelled and giving short answers. But that was far from the person I was met with. Instead, on the other side of my screen was a charming, smiley Frank, who after a long day, still had the grace to chat away and ask questions, with excitement. After 20 minutes or so of conversation, I can confirm, the rumours are true: Frank Turner is the nicest guy. 

Not to mention, a guy that after almost 3000 gigs into his solo career, still remembers the tiny music venues in my hometown from ‘back in the day’, which felt like an appropriate place to start, given that I was talking to him just days away from his World Record attempt. Which, spoiler alert, he achieved, playing 15 gigs across the UK, making it the most gigs ever performed in 24 hours. I was desperate to know what this idea was born from and why it felt important to do so now.

„All I wanted as a kid was to be out there.“

“I wish I knew. And the problem I have is, it was definitely my idea. At about 4am I’m gonna start cursing around for someone to blame, and the answer is me. The thing that I like about it is that it’s all independent venues, with The Music Venue Trust, and every show is in cahoots with an independent record store and obviously, it’s also promoting my album, happy fucking days! At the heart of it, there’s a sense of building community. But yeah, I mean, I can’t quite remember when I had this idea, and I’m in the middle of wishing I hadn’t. A friend of mine did say to me: ‘Well done, you’re getting the whole album promo done in 24 hours, that’s smart!’”

It was only last year that Frank completed 50 gigs in 50 U.S states and I couldn’t help but question why he’s so keen to take on such huge challenges this far into his career. Is it for the pure thrill of it, making the most of it all whilst he can, or does he still, after all this time, feel like he has something to prove?

“Hmm…perceptive question. Well, I’ll start by saying, obviously, a lot of this stuff also serves as quite good ways of promoting what I do. So happy days! But it’s clearly a reflection of something in my character, you know, whether you want to call that a Puritan work ethic, or masochism…. I grew up idolising bands like Black Flag and the thing about Black Flag is that they toured harder than fucking anyone. And as a kid, there’s a book called ‘Get in the Van’ by Henry Rollins, which is his tour diary of the Black Flag years in the 1980s in America, and I remember reading that like it was a bible/ instruction manual. All I wanted as a kid was to be out there. There is a degree of, kind of weird, protestant suffering, but a lot of this stuff is a fun journey.”

When talking to me about the hard work that goes into touring, he was quick to summarise, that his version of ‘working hard’ cannot compare to that of an ER Nurse – forever the humble musician. It was important for me to try and validate his feelings at this moment, as not everyone could put themselves out there in the way that he does, and there’s an immense mental and physical strain that touring can have on musicians. Not to mention Frank is gigging like it’s going out of fashion.

“I want to keep doing this for the rest of my life if I can, and therefore, I don’t want to kill myself in my 40’s trying to pretend I’m 20.”

“It is. Yeah, I mean, I think it’s a funny thing, because like, I’ve been touring since I was 16 years old, not quite permanently since I was 16, but not far off and there isn’t like another kind of quote-unquote ‘normal life’ that I’m sort of on holiday from anymore. Like, I know how to survive on tour, and we don’t tour as hard as we used to. One time in my 20s, I did 13 months without going home. I didn’t really live anywhere at the time, in fairness and indeed, I wasn’t married either. But we have kind of eased off the gas a little bit, which is partly because I’m getting older and everything hurts more. I want to keep doing this for the rest of my life if I can, and therefore, I don’t want to kill myself in my 40’s trying to pretend I’m 20.”

It soon became apparent when speaking with him, that everything comes back to the love for touring and the underground scene with Frank Turner. Alongside his fundraising for independent music venues in 2020, this world record will also go on to support and raise money for these spaces. I assumed that these grand gestures were as a ‘thank you’ to these small venues for helping him come up in his career, but it seems to run much deeper than that for him.  

“It’s not just a career thing, I think that is an important thing to start with; it’s culture. What I mean by that is, like, when I was a little kid, I got into – however you want to put it- underground music, alternative music, outside art, whatever term you want to use. And it was all quite hypothetical for a while, because I didn’t know anybody else who was into it. And I went to my first gig at The Joiners in Southampton in 1995 and I walked in, and there were 180 other people wearing band T-shirts of bands that I’d heard of and I just sort of went ‘Fuck, it was my people, holy shit’ you know.”

Before anything, Frank was a fan of music and still to this day, that’s his hobby and his passion, but there’s no denying how much those independent venues and stores helped him develop as an artist in his own right.

“When I’m not on tour, I tend to go to gigs. I fucking love it. So, it is its culture, its community. It’s all those kinds of things as well. I watched loads of my favourite bands play in small rooms, and I figured out how to play shows in those rooms. I figured out my life as a performer and as a songwriter, how to put on a show and found an audience and all this kind of business. So, you know, they mean a lot to me… I think it’s almost more important now that everybody’s so totally online all the time. I want to grab younger kids and be like: ‘Get the fuck off Tik Tok and go to a gig!’ It’s gonna blow your fucking mind and it lasts longer than 30 seconds.”

“Get the fuck off Tik Tok and go to a gig!”

That feeling of nostalgia and pure love for the culture that surrounds music is perfectly encapsulated in “I Fell in Love with a Girl from the Record Shop”  from his brand new album “Undefeated”. It was released as a single on vinyl for World Record Store Day and I wondered, if the track was written specifically with this in mind or if it happened organically. 

“Not specifically, but I mean, once existed, it was like: Well, duh. I mean, it’s sort of a true story… There was an indie record store in Winchester when I was a kid, and, you know, I was 14 and incredibly awkward and terrified of the opposite sex and all the rest of it. And I went into a record shop and a girl is wearing a fucking L-Seven T-shirt, and, I never fucking talked to her because teenage me, Jesus Christ, but that’s why those spaces are important to me as well. But yeah, that song, it’s a fun song and my wife incidentally  doesn’t like The Descendents or the Four Tops, or indeed L-Seven.”

“Undefeated” is Frank Turner’s 10th studio album as a solo artist, which feels like an important number, and I wanted to know if there’s a sense of freedom that comes with that number. Does he feel like he can do whatever he wants or does the pressure still loom, with nerves on the lead up to release date?

”I think there’s always gonna be the nerves and the pressure, in large part because there’s a weird inbuilt imbalance to the way my life works, which is that I will spend two years minimum writing and recording 45 minutes of music, and then some people will listen to the first 20 minutes. I also tend to write in quite a kind of exposed way, I would say that is one way of putting it. And there’s a song on the new album called ‘Somewhere in Between’,  it’s one of my favourite songs I’ve ever written, but I’m also fucking terrified of it, because it says some raw shit.”

“I mean, there is a kind of a nice sense of heft to being 10 albums in, because at a certain point, having survived for this long in what is a tough industry to survive in, you become slightly unarguable. And there’s no cliches about the difficult 10th album. You know, it’s a privilege to make a 10th. Every time I make a record, I try and check myself that I’m not repeating myself, and I’m not making a record for the sake of it, you know, I didn’t just book studio time because that’s what I do. I try and make sure that there’s a good reason for me to be writing, rehearsing, arranging, recording, mastering and then promoting a bunch of songs. To a degree, my life feels like Wile E. Coyote, I feel like I’ve been Wile E. Coyote for about eight Records. I was happy and grateful to make a first album, but most people do that. And I made a second one which was cool and it’s like, I’m on fucking number 10 now, and I’m sort of still waiting for the reality police to knock on my door and tell me there’s been a terrible mistake, and all of that was meant for somebody else. And if that happens, I’m going to be like, yeah, fair point. I mean, I live my life with gratitude, because it is a rare privilege to do this.”

“I think the best piece of advice I ever really got given was ‘this too shall pass.’“

The feeling that Frank was describing to me was almost the dictionary definition of imposter syndrome. It seems crazy to me that after all this time, someone who has achieved so much can not quite believe it. On the other hand, having almost 3000 shows across the world under your belt and 10 studio albums is pretty unfathomable. It seems “Undefeated” is the perfect way to describe where he’s at in his life and career, so much so that he got it tattooed on his back before the label even agreed to the name.

“It was quite early on, I sort of knew what the record was roughly going to be about. I mean, I don’t write concept albums, but I tend to write songs in batches. I was watching a film called ‘Raging Bull’, which is an early Robert De Niro film that’s about a boxer called Jake LaMotta, who basically kept boxing for fucking ages. It’s a great film, you should watch it if you haven’t seen it. I’m not even sure if they use the word in the film, but I was watching it and it was like, oh, this is it. And what I like about the word undefeated is it’s not world champion, doesn’t mean you beat everyone. It means that no one beats you. And that is an important distinction.”

Listening to the record, it feels like Frank Turner is sharing his wisdom and a sense of coming out of the other side, a real turning point in his life. With so much advice to pass on to his fans, I wondered if there was any advice he’d been given, that stuck with him or came to light during the creation of this album.

“I think the best piece of advice I ever really got given was ‘this too shall pass.’ I like it, because it cuts both ways. You know, I mean, it applies to the good times and to the bad times. But essentially, life is about entropy. Everything’s going to end, including life itself. I mean, we’re all here for a short period of time and from that phrase, you can take solace, you can take strength, and you can take the encouragement to enjoy the good times, and hopefully, the kind of solace to maintain yourself through the bad times.”

“While it is happening, I’m gonna fucking pursue it, as much as I can.”

With not only the World Record attempt on the horizon but his up-and-coming tour, it amazed me, how he can remain so level-headed. When you’re someone who’s constantly on the go, how does he find the time to stay grounded and not get some sort of God complex?

“The contrast between onstage and offstage – a lot of people have written about this – It’s quite weird, standing on a stage with 5000 people shouting at you and then going and sitting in a tour bus bunk. I mean, I’ve been doing this for a long time. So I was lucky that it didn’t happen to me all that quickly. Do you know what I mean? I have friends who got enormously famous in six months, and it fucked them up, you know? It took fucking ages. I’m kind of grateful about that, because I was able to sort of take it with enough of a pinch of salt by the time I was headlining arenas. I’m still just slightly blown away that this plan is still working. I mean, like fucking hell, I get to go around the world because I play guitar. That’s ridiculous! And it’s still happening, and it might not last forever. So, while it is happening, I’m gonna fucking pursue it, as much as I can.”