UK singer-songwriter Frank Turner (and The Sleeping Souls!) recently announced his 8th record, Be More Kind, and a huge world tour to accompany it, including a date at Montreal’s Corona Theatre. Despite being one of the busiest in the business, he took time out to chat with Montreal Rocks about the tour, his Mongol Horde side-project (with ex-Million Dead drummer Ben Dawson and current Sleeping Soul Matt Nasir), and a few other things…
MR: Alright Frank, hows it going?
FT: Yeah, good thanks, how are you?
MR: Yeah all good, we’re freezing to death over here at the moment, but that is Montreal for you…
FT: If you will live in Montreal, yeah! I remember the last time we were in Montreal it was about a year ago and I remember walking through pathways carved in 5-foot deep snowdrifts!
MR: Yeah that’s pretty much what it’s like, at my house alongside the driveway we have 7-foot snowbanks so it’s a bit of a workout to get the snow up and over these days!
FT: Yeah right, it’ll keep you in shape!
MR: Yeah exactly, every little helps! So how about you, where are you right now, and what are you up to?
FT: Right now I’m in a car and I’m heading to a pet store to buy some stuff for my cat. I’m not driving, you’ll be pleased to hear.
FT: This is my punk rock life.
MR: That is possibly the most punk-rock answer I could have expected! Now you must do loads of these interviews, so what questions are you getting tired of hearing at the moment just so I know to avoid them?
FT: Well you know, the funny thing is, this is actually technically the second interview that I have done for this album cycle – you are number 2 in what will become a very long list. At the moment it’s all still quite fresh, so the field is yours!
MR: Fantastic, so I will be contributing to the questions you get sick of in about 10 interviews time.
FT: Yeah, but it means you’ll get a fresh answer – it might not be as well honed as it’s likely to become, but it’ll sparkle like morning dew!
MR: Nice! So the first thing I was gonna ask about is your songwriting – what’s the inspiration behind that? I know you’ve been likened to people like Billy Bragg in the past.
FT: Yeah, the older I get the more I realize that the thing I am a fan of generally speaking is songwriting as an activity that is divorced from genre consideration. That’s my favourite thing in the world, I don’t care if it’s somebody who is working in Grime or traditional Country or whatever, if you just hear somebody who can put together a good song, that’s what I love and that’s what I’m interested in. So that’s kind of a vacuous answer, but my leading lights are Bill Withers, Adam Duritz from Counting Crows, Springsteen obviously, Nina Simone, whatever, those are the things I’m always on the lookout for, just somebody who can really craft a song.
MR: That’s brilliant, those are very good sources of inspiration! You just announced your 8th album overall and a huge world tour. We sometimes hear ‘world tour’ in kind of a loose context, but this one really is, Europe, North America, Australia, a few in Mexico. Me personally, I’m planning to see that Montreal show and hopefully Amsterdam if a business trip works out.
FT: Fantastic, that’ll be nice!
MR: That’d be great, yeah. So what can we expect from a Frank Turner show in 2018?
FT: It’s lovely to be at this point in an album cycle, there’s fresh material, and also this is a record in which sonically, and instrumentally, the Sleeping Souls and I have entered some new territory. There are arpeggiated synths and there are looped drums and there are things that we’ve never really attempted to do before, so I’ve actually got a rehearsal period coming up quite soon during which we are going to try and figure out how on earth we play any of this live! So it’s going to have new angles on it from what the show has been in the past, but at the same time, I’m not rejectist about things in the past. I feel like the Sleeping Souls and I are a good live band and I love what we do, and I’ve always been a populist with set list choices, so while I will be keen to play new material, I’m always gonna try and drop some older stuff that makes people happy in the set as well.
MR: Yeah, so I guess that will take a few shows to figure out the right balance.
FT: Yeah, this is the first time that I can think of off the top of my head where we’ve actually had a concentrated rehearsal period for the tour simply because we usually just roll from one tour into another without stopping to take breath. But this time around, not only are there new technical and new sonic challenges, but we’ve all had a good break from being on tour in the last few months – it’s kind of a new thing for us. We’re all kind of in our late 30’s/early 40’s now, people have children, I have a cat, as we’ve discussed, and so it’s a new place for us as a touring unit. And it’s really nice actually! That’s one of the things that people haven’t noticed about the world tour; yes, it’s a world tour that we’ve announced, but it’s in bite-size chunks, we are actually coming home pretty regularly on the tour, which we never used to do, so we are working on maintaining our health and sanity as we get old!
MR: That sounds like a good idea! Where are your favourite places to play in the world if you had to pick?
FT: Well of course I have to say Montreal now that I’m talking to you.
MR: Good answer!
FT: It’s funny, there are places I love visiting, and there are places I love playing, and they’re not always the same. Quite often I don’t get masses of time to hang around and be a tourist, but if you’re gonna be tourist, there’s more to see and do in old parts of the world, shall we say, like in Europe. But then America is a country that’s built for movement and music and touring, and so yes, I love being in America, I love being in Canada, it’s wonderful.
MR: Are there any Montreal shows that stick in the memory?
FT: There certainly are, yeah! I remember playing Divan Orange at the top of the hill, playing piano in the snow, and those early days shows, and a lot of fun they were too.
MR: I remember going to one in January 2010 at Chez Baptiste, which was a tiny cafe.
FT: Yeah yeah yeah, I remember that show! I came through Montreal a fair bit actually, in the early days.
MR: Yeah there were a lot. It’s very handy that you have that gig archive on your website to check these dates!
FT: It’s handy for me too, I can’t remember anything anymore! It’s nice for me to be able to look back as well.
MR: I remember the acoustic cover of Smiling At Strangers On Trains, that made me very happy!
FT: Yeah we’ve just been playing that song on the Mongol Horde Tour, me and Ben, a few Million Dead songs on the tour which was fun.
MR: That project really does remind me of Million Dead.
FT: Well it’s half the band!
MR: That’s true! How did it go, I saw you did a few dates in the UK quite recently?
FT: Yeah we just did 4 more shows. It was an absolute ton of fun, and in the process we actually wrote a bunch of new material, so at some point we will definitely do that again.
MR: Are there any plans to take the Mongol Horde show on the road in the States or on a World Tour sometime?
FT: We’ve talked about it, it’s very difficult to figure out simply because Ben has a real job, and I’m quite busy habitually with the music I make under my own name, so finding the time and the money to do it, because you know, going to the States we would almost certainly lose money doing that… so I’m not gonna make any promises right now. In terms of something we would like to do, yeah, absolutely.
MR: Do you ever see any shocked faces in the crowd that expected a show a bit like your solo stuff when you do a Mongol Horde show?
FT: Not anymore, because I think the people have established what Mongol Horde is now. When we first did shows with Mongol Horde, there were some people who were not pleased about what was happening!
MR: There was one song about Natalie Portman having a tapeworm that uses her as a glove puppet to lead a revolution in Hollywood – where did that idea come from???
FT: Good question! I have a bit of a principle when it comes to writing for Mongol Horde that it’s all first-draft. With the songs I write for my “day job,” for want of a less naff term, I spend ages re-drafting and thinking through every little angle of everything. With Mongol Horde, it’s very much the first thing that comes into my head!
MR: It’s very creative, I love it!
FT: Well you can read whatever you like into my psychology after that statement, but yeah, there it is!
MR: Swinging back to your day job, how do you feel that the Frank Turner solo sound has evolved over the 11 years since the first record, “Sleep Is For The Weak” was released?
FT: Well, that’s something that I don’t necessarily think about all that consciously because there is a level on which I feel like art as some point has to just arrive, do you know what I mean? I don’t sit down and go “hmm, today I’m going to be influenced by this.” I listen to music, and stuff comes out, and it is what it is. Contrary to what a lot of people seem to think, I was never planning to just do this completely on my own, I always wanted to have a band and musicians, but now that I have a specific band, that changes the way that I write, in good ways. I’m no longer writing for an abstract drummer, I’m writing for Nige. This new record in particular, brought a lot more sonically into the realms of possibility for me, messing around with new instruments and new technology and all that kinda thing, so it’s evolved in that. I hope it has evolved; in the final analysis, it’s rather difficult to say really.
MR: Yeah, and I guess it kinda depends on what you’ve been listening to at the time I guess, for the influences.
FT: Yeah, in particular actually, I’m sure, being in Canada, you’re familiar with Arkells, they were a big influence for me on the new record.
MR: Oh excellent! Yeah, they’re really popular around here.
FT: I think they’re one of the greatest bands I’ve ever heard. They’re an unashamed intelligent pop band, and that’s weirdly quite rare these days, but they remind me of The Cure, bands like that.
MR: The Frequently Asked Questions on the Contact page of your website is really pretty genius. How many emails do you actually get from people who ignore everything and spam you with silly questions anyway?
FT: Not that many anymore, because I think people have twigged on that, which is nice. It’s a routine I’m used to now.
MR: You know the ones to delete right off the bat!
FT: Yes, which isn’t that many actually, I try to reply to everybody, unless they’re being obtuse or insulting, in which case: delete!
MR: Makes sense! Amongst your huge list of shows coming up, there’s a big 4-day song-writing camp, Campfire Punkrock, planned for next summer. Can you tell us a bit more about that, what we can expect from that if we make it down there?
FT: It’s a long running program, they’ve been doing it for years, and every year they get a different singer come in and oversee it, as it were, so they asked me to do it, and I said ”Hell yes!” It’s up in the Catskills, in a very beautiful place, and currently quite near the top of my To-Do List is sitting down and writing out a program for it. It’s gonna be talking about song-writing, arrangement, musicianship, lyrics, melody, every aspect of what I do from a very technical point of view. I will obviously be playing songs in the middle of it, but it’s going to be quite academic.
MR: Sounds really interesting! Do you have any recommendations on artists that are touring or releasing records over the next few months that we should probably pay attention to, who might otherwise fly under our radars?
FT: Yeah, off the top of my head, my buddy Sean McGowan has a new album coming out on Xtra Mile pretty soon, which I can tell you, from listening to it, is really really good. The Homeless Gospel Choir put out a record last year, which absolutely rearranged my mind. Those are two that spring to mind.
MR: What was the name of that record?
FT: It’s called `Normal,’ by The Homeless Gospel Choir.
MR: Oh cool, we’ll dig into that one, sounds good! There’s definitely a sense of community, Frank, between you and your fans, always seems like there’s a very close bond. Whenever a support gig gets cancelled… I remember that one in Bournemouth last year where you were trying to scramble to arrange a gig last minute. Certainly, your relationship with your fan base seems to be a very strong one. Do you think that’s contributed to your success, and got you to where you are today?
FT: Probably, but that’s not why I do it. I just want to be part of a music community; I don’t wanna be this being from a higher caste who descends occasionally to play some songs for normal people. I play songs. When I’m not on tour, I go to gigs. We just hang out, and that’s how it is, that’s just the way I approach what I do, and my career. The rest of it, it probably has helped, I suppose, but it’s not a calculated move; it’s just a reflection of my personality.
MR: I guess it gets harder and harder as you get bigger and bigger, and the fan base gets bigger, to try and reply to everybody.
FT: Yes and no. There are angles you have to trim a bit, and I have to be more careful in reserving my personal space, but the principle remains the same.
MR: Yeah, I know we’ve been in touch for about 16 years now, so I’ve always appreciated talking to you!
FT: Of course man, definitely!
Interview – Simon Williams
Live photo – Steve Gerrard