Folk's Punk Rock Conscience
Frank Turner steps out of Bull Moose Records into Portland, Maine’s midday sun. He’s taller than expected, some 6’2, 6’3”, and clad entirely in black—black Nikes, black cut-off shorts, black t-shirt, a black paneled hat. He lights a cigarette, as he takes a left onto Middle Street, anonymously descending through the city’s August foot traffic, navigating back to tonight’s venue, the Maine State Pier, where his unapologetic blend of folk and punk will gut the late summer rain, and exist in stark contrast to the schooners bouncing in the harbor.
Now, though, Turner is paused at a crosswalk, giving a quick-hitting analysis of Grizzly Man, which he watched last night over a bottle of wine on a rare day off.
“At first, you think, ‘This guy’s a bit of a tit,’ but, of course, it’s more complicated than that,” he says of Timothy Treadwell, the documentary’s now-eaten protagonist.
“By the end, though, it comes full circle, and you’re like, ‘Yeah, that guy’s a tit.’”
Turner passes through the gates of the venue, which are mid-construction, and proceeds to a closet-sized dressing room, where his band, the Sleeping Souls, linger. An unfamiliar phrase—How was the day off?—pinballs between them, and extends out to staff and crew, all of whom have scarcely spent twenty-four hours apart over the last year. Between August 6th, 2015 and August 6th, 2016, Frank Turner and the Sleeping Souls have played 235 shows behind their latest album, Positive Songs for Negative People. Portland is among the last string of U.S. dates; then, the band will go to Europe for a few late summer festivals, before returning home to England for 18 days, their longest such stretch since the album’s release.
Touring is a transient mode of life, one Turner is as well acquainted with as any artist at the moment. A modern day yeoman, he was named the Association of Independent Music’s’ “Hardest Working Artist” in 2011, noted for a live schedule bursting at the seams and nightly performances that left him sweaty and exhausted, sometimes injured, which is still the case, though the band has downshifted lately, relative to their former output.
“I have this long-term theory that hardcore, particularly American hardcore, is a genetic descendant of the Puritans,” he says. “You’ve gotta work hard, and you’ve gotta do it every fucking day. There’s a sort of Puritan work ethic to my shows, which comes from growing up with hardcore punk, and if I don't come off stage completely fucked, exhausted, then I’m annoyed at myself.”
In 2013, at the height of his touring schedule, Turner threw his back out, forcing him to cancel a string of dates across Europe.
“There was a time in my life when I cared about [things like ‘Hardest Touring Musician’] quite a lot, and it’s not like we’ve noticeably slowed down, but I needed to care about that less,” he says. “I realized I was sort of engaged in an endurance contest with myself, and there was a degree of bravado coming into my tour schedule that wasn’t necessarily helping my career or, indeed, my health. I realized it would be possible, in the final analysis, to actually achieve less by going too hard, at a certain point.” (Prophetically, eight days after this interview, Turner sustains a severe high-ankle sprain during the last song of his set at Redding & Leeds, a festival he’s played every year for the last decade.)
With the constancy of his touring over the last twelve years, Turner has taken to numbering his shows, a habit he picked up from Cameron Dean, the guitar player in Turner’s former post-hardcore band, Million Dead, who gave the rest of the group a definitive list of their performances following their split in 2005.
“I was really grateful he’d done that,” says Turner. “That was 11 years ago, and there’s no way I’d remember anything in any detail now, but I can go back to that list to see what we did.”
Per his own list, Frank Turner played his first show as a solo artist on September 18th, 2004 at 93 Feet East in London, and if his math is correct, Portland is his 1,951st show. Barring anything unforeseen, he‘ll play his 2,000th show on the final date of a UK Tour this December at the Guildhall in Portsmouth, England, which is “not quite in [his] hometown, but near enough.”
“Initially, with the 2,000th show, it was like ‘Who gives a shit? It doesn’t fucking matter.’ But then it just became an opportunity for a party, and you know what? That’ll do. I’ll probably ramble on stage about some bullshit, but it doesn’t have to be this apocalyptic event.”
Turner is 34 years old now, and “wants to do this until [he’s] 60 or 70,” so in that larger context, 2,000 shows is neither an apocalyptic event, nor a particularly big milestone. It is, however, a neatly-packaged distance marker, and thus, has become an oft-asked question of late—one he frequently sidesteps, reluctant to contextualize his career midstream.
“Not only do I not habitually think about what I do, I feel very strongly that I shouldn’t think about it. If you get overly analytical about what you do in an intellectual way, then you lose your innocence,” he says. “I try to remind myself that before I did this, I just sat in a room with a guitar and fucked around until I heard something cool. That was the extent of my analysis at the time, and I don’t want to analyze it too hard now.”
Turner is not necessarily guarded so much as he is careful: he calls his own songwriting “sacrosanct,” admitting that he avoids looking at it too closely, out of fear of fucking it up. It’s a philosophy—or maybe a superstition—that’s proven successful for him thus far, and extends to the rest of his career.
Which includes what 2,000 shows means—if it means anything at all.
“Every now and then, people make these flippant comments that totally drill into the core of my being. The other day, somebody was like, ‘How many shows do you think you’ll do in total?’ and I was like ‘Oh my God. What a morbid thought,’” he says, through a self-deprecating laugh. “Essentially the question is ‘How long do you think you’re going to live?’ It was just like, ‘Fuck. What if this is the halfway point? Or what if this is the three-quarters point? Or what if it’s the one-quarter point?’ I don’t like thinking like that.”
To understand Frank Turner—or, at least, to understand Frank Turner, the musician—is to understand that he operates, first, at the micro level—the level of the individual song and the individual show—then, at the macro level, which does not include his own career or his current longevity, but rather, the nature of music and the totality of the genres he holds dear.
“What if punk rock was for life, and not just for Christmas?” he asks rhetorically, over coffee in Coney Island.
As an artist, that dynamic roots Frank Turner; he exists in its balance, grounding his version of folk on the sidewalks of street punk—though he says, musically, it’s more accurate to call what he does “country-punk,” instead than “folk-punk,” because of to the chords he plays, the structures of his songs, and the way he sings. Regardless, he takes the headiness of a singer-songwriter and blends it with punk rock’s physicality, with the genre’s tradition of defiance simply through existence. He is handcrafted and well-considered, using folk’s thoughtful avenues of investigation, but wrapping it in something that is inherently and obviously rock’n’roll. His songs translate because of that, reverberating at different pitches depending on whether they’re strummed on a solo acoustic or given to the high-energy hands of the Sleeping Souls; Turner says he “doesn’t know if [he] believes in definitive versions of songs,” and on Positive Songs For Negative People as much as anywhere else in his catalog, there are sterling examples of this, as the pure electricity of “Demons” and “Glorious You” are found reshaped and redefined in their acoustic counterparts.
In this way—the way he straddles scenes and bends genres—Frank Turner doesn’t fit anywhere, and thus, fits everywhere: certainly, he meets the requirements of today’s singer-songwriters, finding himself somewhere on that scene’s Venn Diagram, as evidenced by his tour with Jason Isbell and Chris Stapleton this summer, but his live shows are entirely different than their’s, the most obvious point of his digression between he and his peers.
Turner came of age in London’s underground punk scene, and can’t help but reflect that in his performances.
“We did a whole bunch of shows with Gogol Bordello this summer, which were these raucous punk shows. Then we had literally one day off before the Jason Isbell shows. With the Gogol crowd, you had to kick the door in to get them going, or even paying attention, so the first Jason show, we came out of the traps like, Rawrrrr!. Then we were like, ‘Oh shit, sorry!’ because everyone was sitting down, reading the program, drinking a glass of wine, and I was doing dropkicks at the front row,” he laughs.
“Once we settled into the tour, we were doing, by our standards, a restrained show, and every fucking night, people were coming up to us like, ‘That’s the craziest live show I’ve ever seen!”
If Jason Isbell is a Greenwich Village coffee shop, Frank Turner is a dusty basement rock club—and he appears to like it that way.
“Punk rock is like my high school, and I’m always going be an alumnus,” he says. “I can’t get away from it, and I’m not trying to get away from it, but at the same time, if I wanna make a country record, or I wanna make a drum and bass record, then I fucking will. But I’m still gonna sing the way I sing.”
To end the current U.S. dates, Turner is touring with Flogging Molly, whose blistering Celtic-punk and the crowd they draw are a far cry from Isbell and Stapleton, but that variety excites Turner, gives spice to his life, and speaks to those qualities of his work that can’t be entirely pinned down.
“I’m really proud of the fact that we’ve toured with Flogging Molly, Gogol Bordello, Jason Isbell, and Chris Stapleton this summer,” he says. “I don’t think there’s anyone else who can do that, and I feel really fucking good about it.”
Rain threatens most of the day in Portland, amid oppressive humidity, with clouds only clearing during a lunch time sound check on the pier, which coincides with a harbor cruise docking some fifty yards from the stage. Unknowing passengers dance along the deck, taking pictures from a distance, disappointed by a song ending midstream, once the sound guys and the band are satisfied with it.
The rest of the afternoon is spent in limbo, with stage managers and the venue’s officials futilely checking radar, making whatever preparations are necessary.
Upon gates opening, the crowd is sparse, but grows throughout Chuck Ragan’s opening set, while the weather plays possum. But just before Frank Turner and the Sleeping Souls take the stage, the sky finally breaks, having bent for as long it could. Heavy rain pours down, the sky sweating in the summer heat, and it grows more unrelenting over the course of their 15 or 20 songs. The ill-prepared in the audience either soak and prune, or make a dash to secure ponchos from a kiosk at the back of the venue, with one fan at the corner of the stage bragging he got the last two available slickers in the whole place.
Some people emerge wearing trash bags (which they either brought or found in a yet full bin), while others just remove shirts altogether, preferring to be uninhibited when the band pours kinetic sound off of the stage that requires their movement.
Turner runs out, shouting into his microphone at the first opportunity—Let’s fucking go, Portland!—as he’s want to do. Behind him, lights flash, and the Sleeping Souls launch into “I Still Believe,” which is Turner’s most overt and poignant declaration of rock’n’roll idealism, the note every concert should start on; during “Try This At Home,” fans shout back the self-aware lyrics—We do love songs in C, we do politics in G, we sing songs about our friends in E-minor—with some wearing t-shirts that translates the hook into chord shapes; around the set’s three-quarters mark, Turner sends the Souls off stage, and goes solo acoustic, as the deeply personal “Father’s Day” permeates the crowd with its specificity, and to end, Turner puts forth “Four Simple Words,” with its pace changes ranging from folk to vaudeville to hardcore punk.
Following the first verse, Turner jumps into the audience, crowd surfs some 30 yards in, then points back, and is returned to the stage, while continuing to sing.
Though he’s sheltered from the worst of the rain throughout the night, Turner is soaked through in a combination of sweat and water before his set is half over, making the tattoos under his short-sleeved, white dress shirt visible. He commits, as he does every night—as his audience does tonight, agreeing to make the best of this evening, to embrace the imperfect conditions, which are oddly liberating in a way that suits the sound, the crowd, and the act on stage.
On a nightly basis, Turner rededicates himself, which stems from the scene he grew up in, and the music that made him fall in love with music in the first place, and in that way, any singular show is more telling than whatever his 2,000th show will be.
Back in his dressing room following the set, while Flogging Molly is on stage, Turner is dried off and changed. He’s nose-deep in a book in the corner of the room, a cup of tea at his side, while keyboardist Matt Nasir plays on his phone and guitarist Ben Lloyd on his laptop.
Collectively, they’re decompressing, and Turner doesn’t seem much like talking after the set: he is completely fucked, exhausted, as is always his hope, and tonight, he has nothing to be annoyed at himself about.
* * *
Tuesday morning in Portland began with a meet and greet at Bull Moose Records, where a father and son arrived, both wearing Frank Turner t-shirts.
The son, who looked to be in his early teens, said his dad, who looked to be in his early forties, was responsible for getting him into Turner’s music.
“I’m raising him right,” the father said.
The two brought with them “The Tour Flag,” which has been a tradition in perpetual motion among Turner’s fans since 2013: that year, on the first night of the Tape Deck Heart Tour, Turner and the Souls gave out a flag featuring the album’s artwork, to see if it could make it to every show on the tour, without their help. It did, and every subsequent tour has had its own flag, passed from fan to fan at shows, and signed by those who’ve carried it. While the original was created by Turner and his band, ever since, each Tour Flag has been made by the fans that have taken it upon themselves to keep the “game” going. Now, the Tour Flag is backed by online sign-up sheets, and has its own Tumblr, Facebook, and Twitter accounts, which track its movements.
Across all platforms, the Tour Flag is billed as “An exercise in fandom, an excuse to make new friends, seeing how far music can unite the people.”
Turner seemed unsurprised to see the Tour Flag first thing in the morning, as unsurprised as he was to see a father and son both in Frank Turner t-shirts—which, itself, seemed surprising.
Then, a second father-son duo arrived, also wearing Frank Turner t-shirts, filling in at the back of the line.
“I’ve had three generations show up to shows before, which is cool as fuck,” Turner laughs. “One of the things that’s funny about it is that people sort of apologize, like, ‘I know it’s a bit lame that my dad’s here.’ What? It’s not fucking lame. What the fuck is lame about that?”
Three days later, at Coney Island’s Ford Amphitheater, the Tour Flag is again present, in the pit, sporting freshly-dried signatures; it’s now being carried by a group of girls in their early-20’s, who picked up the flag in Connecticut, and will pass it off for tomorrow’s show in Asbury Park, New Jersey, the final date of the U.S. tour.
At any given show, the Tour Flag is present, presumably travelling farther than anyone or anything else to be there, but in Coney Island, mid-set, Turner invites Mark up on stage, who flew in from Costa Rica.
Mark has never been to New York before, is only here for the night, and only meets Turner because of a chance encounter out by the band’s tour bus, which is parked on West 21st Street, a dead end behind the venue. The two spend time talking, taking pictures, then some five hours later, Mark is on stage and given a signed drum skin, which he’s instructed to throw to whatever section of the crowd most deserves it.
It’s Mark’s decision to make, but he can only throw the drum skin after the audience has successfully crowd surfed him from the speaker on stage left, to the audio tent, back to the speaker on stage right.
“Please don’t fucking drop him,” Turner tells the audience, before counting down to Mark’s stage dive.
Earlier that day, Turner said, that, globally, he and his band “have a really broad demographic, which is fucking great.” But, initially, the thought is that it’s a broad demographic “for punk,” or “for folk,” or relative to Turner’s peers.
“A really broad demographic” might apply, but with some qualifier that’s more suited for the expectation one might have of Frank Turner’s audience.
But in the melting pot of New York City, the statement holds up to scrutiny: spread across the floor, there’s the same span of age that was so striking in Bull Moose Records; there’s Mark, on stage, waving the Costa Rican flag; there’s an Irish transplant, who took the night off from the bar he owns in Brooklyn, and finds himself singing along to Frank Turner, as an added bonus to Flogging Molly; there’s Richie, who is tall and black and dancing up against the guard rail, who trades neck ties with Turner after the set; there’s the Tour Flag, waving in the crowd, signed by all kinds of kinds, as some testament to this “exercise in fandom.”
And there is Turner at the front of it all, standing tall, skinny, English, and tattooed, who tells the crowd, “You guys are pretty cool. We should do this more often.”
In his mid-30’s, Turner is a grown up, “writing about grown up shit,” but the evergreen 13-year-old whose parents were unsuccessful in banning him from punk rock shows lives somewhere inside, which still manifests it, even as he ages: on his albums and on stage, he has a certain undying optimism about music, which he tells the crowd “can’t change the world—it never did,” but that it can be a demonstration of values, during “an interesting time to be a human being,” both in England the United States.
At some level, in some way, a community has been fostered here, amid the “Jungleland” heat of a Coney Island Friday night; we see in practice the idea (a friend’s, not Turner’s) that Frank is rebuilding his best version of punk rock, creating some practical application of what was sold him during his “halcyon days”—back when a music scene was a refuge, a nonjudgmental situation, a place to seek out if “the rest of world confused, disgusted, or rejected you.”
Cognitively or not, he’s pulling out an ideal: a music scene as a place where everyone's welcome, everyone has everyone else’s back, and if anyone falls down, they are picked up.
“Of course, no punk scene anywhere is actually like that. Reality always disappoints. That’s the nature of the platonic ideal,” Turner says.
But even as reality disappoints (and his music exercises plenty of moments where that’s inarguably true), Turner’s often pursued the platonic ideal, in the hopes of extending the conversation.
Following the split of Million Dead, who were an “angular, intentionally obscure post-hardcore band,” Turner turned idyllically towards folk, as an avenue of self-expression, where his music would have more doors through which to be entered.
Twelve years later, it seems to have worked.
“The people that came to [Million Dead] shows were skinny, white mostly dudes between 16 and 24, which is what I was too,” he says. “But to the extent that art is about communication, I didn’t feel like I was talking to anyone except demographic reflections of myself. The reason I used the word ‘folk’ so much when I started out was because there was an ideological aspect to it. It was like, ‘I wanna make music that I can honestly engage my mom with, who’s a classical musician and doesn’t like music with drums.’ I don’t want to talk to just one group of people.’”
Turner’s appeal has spilled outside of genre, and he is no longer talking to just one group of people.
How and why that’s happened is difficult to quantify, but to venture a guess, his success in speaking across audiences is fairly simple: it’s because he means it the most.
Frank Turner’s approach is so earnest that his work is undeniable to anybody who respects quality or commitment to craft; he’s sincere, which gives integrity to his songs, his albums, and his shows.
When you listen to Frank Turner, or talk to Frank Turner, or just see Frank Turner, with FREEBORN written across his fingers and matching F-hole tattoos on his forearms, it seems impossible that anyone cares about music more than him—whether that’s his own music, or what music has meant to him.
Which is where “I Still Believe” speaks.
Or “Love, Ire, and Song,” or “Photosynthesis.”
Or “Balthazar, Impresario,” or “Substitute,” or “Nashville, Tennessee,” or “Try This at Home” or “I Knew Prufrock Before He Got Famous.”
Or “Four Simple Words,” where he states his sensibility simply: Somebody told me that music with guitars was going out of fashion, and I had to laugh/This shit wasn’t fashionable when I fell in love, so if the hipsters move on why should I give a fuck?
There’s an undeniable sense that, if no one was listening, Frank Turner would still be doing this—it just so happens that people are listening, and because of that, he’s a rockstar, but a rockstar that doesn’t believe in the word itself.
There’s no such thing as rockstars, there’s just people who play music/and some of them are like us and some them are dicks, he sings in the bridge of “Try This At Home.”
Strangely enough, that makes him even more appealing, more deserving of his success, because he was born a fan, and still is; because he would be in the crowd, if it he wasn’t needed on stage.
In Coney Island, he spends the morning listening to Chaz and Dave, despite having listened to them thousands of times before; in Portland, he tells the Bull Moose staff that he’ll be back later to poke around the store; the next day, he stops by a local punk show in New Haven, because he rarely gets to go to local punk shows when he’s on tour.
He’s micro and macro—he devotes himself to his own music and his own songwriting, but seems to admire everyone else’s: he admits to fanboying over Jason Isbell, Dave King, Andrew Jackson Jihad, and John K. Sampson, who he counts as friends, but speaks about with reverence as songwriters and artists.
He says (“not trying to sound controversial or hip”) that “‘Hit Me Baby One More Time’ is one of the best constructed songs that [he’s] ever heard in [his] fucking life.”
“The way the middle eight reoccurs as a theme in the final chorus is fucking spectacular,” he says, and almost without a breath, he launches into Coldplay: “Chris Martin is one of the best songwriters to ever fucking walk this earth, and it’s fashionable to not like Coldplay? Fuck off. If I’d written ‘Fix You,’ I would’ve bought myself dinner.”
Nearly two-thousand shows into his own career, Frank Turner is still entrenched in his own exercise in fandom, but, by now, the scales have to have tipped: presumably, the admiration he feels for others is returned to him; other great songwriters must fanboy about his work, and mirror his reverence.
Turner’s abilities jump out of the speakers, engaging through sonic diversity, the range from subtle to verbose, with an ability to choose details that speak in volume, and a mastery of vocabulary, finding the romance in everyday speech.
“The Way I Tend to Be” is a true songwriter’s song, with phrasing entirely his own; “Long Live the Queen” cloaks mortality and heartbreak in an infectious singalong, making listeners do a double-take upon a second listen; “To Take You Home” is rangy and atmospheric, making it hard to believe it’s a solo guitar, as he smashes cultures together; his latest albums have definitive, straightforward rock’n’roll songs running next to “Silent Key,” a piece about the Challenger explosion, which is an exercise is Turner’s empathy, and while he praises Flogging Molly’s Dave King for his ability to write opening lines (citing “The Worst Day Since Yesterday”—Well I know I miss more than I hit, with a face that was launched to sink), Turner opens Tape Deck Heart with a line that leaves other songwriters envious and wanting.
Blacking in and out in a strange flat in East London, somebody I don’t really know just gave me something, to help settle me down and stop me from always thinking about you.
Frank Turner is a three-dimensional artist, and to the extent that art is about communication, he’s able to talk to a wide range of people because he is wholly himself; he’s so personal and unprotected in his work that it becomes universal, its charm lying in its relatability, even though it’s not intended for you.
“I don’t write my songs to appeal to anyone, other than myself,” he says. “The only thing [‘sellout’] means to me is making music for any audience other than yourself. The only person you should give a fuck about when you write a song is you, and I include in that girlfriends, the fans, any of it.”
Perhaps, that is the real value of 2,000 shows, or twelve years, or six albums, or a gig at the Olympics Opening Ceremony: longevity is simply a mile marker, an indicator that you’re on the right street, heading in in the right direction.
In Turner’s case, it proves that writing solely for one’s self, working solely for one's self, having a reflexive need to make music is an avenue to a career, and tomorrow, like every other day, he will rededicate himself to that.
Punk rock was never supposed to last, and thus, Frank Turner was never supposed to last, but here they are, the numbers suggesting that this can continue for as long as Turner—who is far from finished—pleases.
Back at a local show in London recently, Turner says he found himself “being glad-handed” by the younger artists, “treated as the elder statesmen.”
“On the one hand, it felt kinda cool, but on the other, it was like, ‘Well I’m not fucking done yet, I’m fucking 34. You can do this to me when I’m 50, but chill the fuck out for a minute.’”
But for some reason, I hear Frank Turner, some 2,000 shows from now, saying, “Well I’m not fucking done yet, I’m fucking 46. You can do this to me when I’m 60, but chill the fuck out for a minute.”