Frank Turner Discusses Touring, London Riots, and Drinking With Grandma

Frank Turner has been enjoying unexpected success as a solo folk/punk musician after the demise his hardcore band, Million Dead. Turner has garnered an international fanbase over the past few years, touring relentlessly with bands like Social Distortion, Flogging Molly, and The Gaslight Anthem. His hard work is paying off--most of his US tour dates have sold out well in advance. Turner is scheduled to perform at Rhythm Room on Monday, October 10, with a full band in support of his latest album, England Keep My Bones.

We recently caught up with Frank Turner to discuss the London Riots, the inspiration for "Peggy Sang The Blues," and touring worldwide.

Up on the Sun: How's tour going so far? Frank Turner: The tour's been great, pretty much all the shows so far have been sold out and it feels like we are taking bold steps in America so to say.

I'm sure it's quite the departure from when you first started out, now you're selling out shows. That's awesome.

Yeah. The first couple runs around the US that I did like four years ago, maybe, it was me and some friends in a car playing coffee shops. I remember in particular there was one show where we drove from Portland, Oregon, to Bellingham in Washington, which is a long drive, and played to two people and went home. It's kind of nice to not be doing that kind of thing anymore.

How have you reached a larger audience?

I think a lot of it has been to do with support tours. I'm kind of old fashioned in terms of my view of promotion and stuff like that. I think the best way to win new fans is to get in front of people and just play. I've been out with Gaslight Anthem, Flogging Molly, Social Distortion. I've had a few great bands take me out on tour around the US and I think that's been the main way I've made new friends, but at the same time, obviously, the folks at Epitaph are doing an amazing job of promoting the record.

Last year you played a couple shows here in Phoenix, one at the Marquee Theatre, a good-sized venue, then a free show at the Yucca Tap Room. What were those experiences like, and do you tend to favor big or small shows?

I prefer shows where people want me to play. I'm not too fussy about the size of the venue and the number of people, as long as it's a crowd that wants to hear songs. In Phoenix, that was the last night of a really long tour with Social D. They actually didn't play the Marquee because Jonny 2 Bags' father was in the hospital. So, they left the show and me and Lucero did the Marquee. That was a great time, we ended tour with euphoria. That was great, then the Yucca Tap Room was just a good time. Some friends of mine from Phoenix asked me if I wanted to come down and play a few tunes. I said, 'Hell yeah' and went down. It was the last part of tour. I remember, to a point, was getting completely blasted at the Yucca Tap Room. It was fun, I'm looking forward to coming back. We've got Andrew Jackson Jihad, who are Arizonans, technically speaking, even though they've now moved to Chicago, but they are Arizona boys, so it's gonna be a fun time [Singer/guitarist Sean Bonnette moved to Chicago].

Have you ever played with them before? Are they on the full tour?

They're doing the whole tour. I did one show with them last year and fell in love with them, both personally and musically. They're really nice dudes and I love what they do musically, I think it's fantastic. When we were planning the tour and talking about who to take out, they were my first choice, and I'm very happy they said yes.

How have audiences been reacting to your new songs?

Usually if you have any success with one record and you bring out new stuff, there's always going to be a certain selection of die-hard people who, when it comes to new songs, they're like, 'Yeah, cool, but can you hurry up and play something off your second record now please?' Because that's the one that they fell in love with. But the thing that's been great, both in Europe and here in the US [is] since the album came out, people have actually been going kind of crazy for the new material [more] than for the old material. That's just really encouraging for me because...you see what I mean, for other bands, you have that record that people fall in love with and your career just kinda goes on from there. But it still really feels like people are more excited about the new stuff I'm doing almost more so than the old stuff, and that makes me feel like this whole thing has legs.

The album title is taken from Shakespeare's Life and Death of King John and you referenced T.S. Eliot in a song. How has literature influenced your music?

Well, uhh...I'm trying to find a way to phrase this...I put everything in my life and in my head into music and I read some literature and I know a little bit about it, but I'm certainly no expert. I have to confess I've never actually read The Life and Death of King John in its entirety, but in my defense, I have yet to meet anyone who has. A friend of mine was a drama teacher and he pulled up that quote for me and sent it my way. I'm not a total literature geek or buff or anything like that, but I know what I like and it bleeds through into the music I make.

It's funny, with pretty much every other record that I've made, I've had the album title from early on in the process of making the album, but this time around, I really didn't have a title and I was actually starting to get fairly panicked at one point because the deadline by which I needed to have a title was kind of looming and I didn't have anything set. My friend just showed me that quote and it seemed to wrap up all the themes on the record in a really great way. The minute I laid eyes on it I was like, 'that's the record title right there.'

I saw your blog post promoting the Fuck the Fire cause. Have the London riots affected you personally? Did you know anybody that lost anything, aside from the record labels?

I was in London when they were going down. It was horrible; it was a horrendous situation. I have friends and family who were attacked in their homes, beaten up, had their businesses destroyed. It was a really appalling time. I have very, very little patience with people who try and politicize it and claim it's some sort of uprising or some crap like that. They're a bunch of fucking evil, violent people. It's something I get quite worked up about. And then obviously, the warehouses burnt down, which contained pretty much every single independent record in the United Kingdom, and it's a massive blow for an industry that's not even had the best time in the last ten years, anyway. So, I guess out of the clouds we have a silver lining, and the Fuck the Fire thing has been really cool. Everyone's been pulled together really well and it's good to see people working together like that. Overall, it was an experience, the London Riots were horrible.

It was unbelievable while it was going down. I think, like everyone else, I sat in a house in London just kinda watching the news, then suddenly it was just kinda 'They're actually getting close now.' They didn't actually end up in the specific area where I was, but I had a cousin who had to defend his home with a baseball bat, which is appalling. He has small children. It's ridiculous.

What is the inspiration and meaning behind the song "Peggy Sang The Blues"?

It's a song about Peggy, who was my grandma. She died maybe 15 years ago. She just was cool, she was a totally iconoclastic, kind of impish character who didn't give a fuck about social conventions or anything like that. There's a million stories I could tell, but for example, she threw me her own atheist birthday party when I was about 10 years old. She showed me how to mix a little bit of orange cordial in with my champagne so it didn't look like I was drinking champagne, so I could drink as much champagne as I wanted without my parents finding out, so I got shit drunk at age 10 off champagne, and she thought it was fucking hilarious. She was a crazy character. I still think about her, and I think she would have been really into what I'm doing with my life, whereas some other members of my family who are more conventional struggle with the fact that I'm a musician for a living and I travel around and I have tattoos and all that. I think she would have found it to be excellent. It's sadness to me that she's not around to see what I'm doing now. I'd think she'd appreciate it.

Your solo work is quite the departure from your work with Million Dead. Is the solo project something you always wanted to do?

No, I'm not sure I'd put it like that. It's funny, a lot of people who go on to do acoustic projects return to the roots, but this really isn't me returning to my roots. My roots are Minor Threat, Black Flag...you know. If you told me ten years ago that I was going to be making my name as a folk singer, or however you want to put it, I would have laughed in your face. It was kind of a leap from when Million Dead broke up to try something completely different and just see how it felt, and I feel like I stumbled into something that made a lot of sense to me. It felt right and it still does, so here we are.

You played your thousandth show at Strummerville. Are you a pretty big Clash fan? Is that something you set out to do, or was that more of a happy coincidence?

I'm a big Clash fan. I know Joe's daughter, she's a friend. She helps run Strummerville with a bunch of other Clash-related people and it's a cool little thing and they're close friends of mine. The thousandth show thing, yeah, it was kind of a happy coincidence, actually. I realized the milestone was coming up and I wanted to make sure that it was going to be in London. I scheduled that show between Australia and Canada, so I was quite jet-lagged. It just so happened that Strummerville was planning on putting on a show around that time anyway, so it worked out, and it was great.

You said you know his daughter...did you know Joe at all?

I didn't, actually. He passed away before I got to know Lola, and it's kind of funny, because for the longest time I was hanging out with Lola and I had no idea that she had any connections with The Clash of any kind. It's not something she talks about 24 hours a day. I gradually figured it out and it was quite weird. She's really cool.

Aside from tour, what are your future plans and goals?

There's two answers to that. One, I'll be on tour until probably the end of next year. I've got plans to do a short term side project with a hardcore band next year if I get some free time. I'm working on a book of tour diaries as well, so a lot of those kind of things.

Broadly speaking, in terms of plans for the future, if you look at the number of people who want to make a living as being a touring musician versus the number of people who in the long term actually succeed in doing that, the odds are kind of against you, so I feel very privileged to be a touring musician right now. I hope that I get to continue to do this for a long time. I guess we'll see, but it would be amazing for me if I could have a career like someone like Loudon Wainright III or Ramblin' Jack Elliot or someone like that who gets to keep playing guitar and touring 'til their old. That would make me very happy.

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Melissa Fossum
Contact: Melissa Fossum