Interview: Frank Turner talks about kindness and the perils of politics in the age of social media

  • Jennifer Quinlin
  • May 3, 2018
  • Comments Off on Interview: Frank Turner talks about kindness and the perils of politics in the age of social media

With his new album Be More Kind out tomorrow, we check in with one of our favourites, Frank Turner, to find out some more about the new record and his thoughts as a creative in an ever changing social climate.

You’ve mentioned numerous times that Be More Kind is taken from Leçons de ténèbres by Clive James – what is it about that particular line that had so much impact on you?

That’s a good question.  It sort of stopped me dead in my tracks.  It’s nice, by the way, this is my first Australian interview for the album, so it’s nice to talk to Australian people about Clive James. I’ve been a fan of his work for years and obviously the news of his terminal illness was very sad to read, but it has inspired some of his greatest work. For a man who I consider personally to be so emotionally intelligent and wise, to write that in the face of the end of his life I thought was just arresting.

Obviously it’s not an original statement, I mean Kurt Vonnegut’s last line – “God damn it, you’ve got to be kind” – all the stuff he said at the end of his life, he said, “I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that after 40 years as a social scientist the only advice I can really give is that we should be a little more kind to each other”.  So it’s not arrestingly original but his phraseology, which is the nature of poetry, just kind of stopped me dead in my tracks and really set my thinking in a different direction.

In regards to the theme of being a bit nicer to each other, to put it very simplistically, I feel like we’re in a world climate where usually non-political people have become vocally political, whether through fear or anger or whatever, and I just wonder if you feel that we’ve lost sight of each other as humans because we’re fighting a bit of a battle we don’t know how to fight?

Yes, I think that’s true. There’s a couple of interesting points about that – the first of which is perhaps an unpopular opinion but I think that a society in which a vast majority of people can ignore politics whilst they get on with their lives is actually a really wonderful thing. Do you know what I mean? I think that’s quite a forward achievement by any society and I think one of the sad things right now is that politics has become un-ignorable, and certainly that’s why I ended up writing this record – I don’t feel that it’s possible to be a thinking, rational human being and not be affected by what’s happening politically in the West at the moment.

I think, at the risk of making a grand theoretical statement now, I think things like Brexit and Donald Trump are symptoms and one of the root causes is social media, because in social media what we’ve done, collectively, is we’ve accidentally built a machine for dehumanising our opponents. When you argue with somebody on the internet you don’t see the person you’re arguing against, which makes it much easier to say the shit that some people say to each other online – the kind of things that people would never say to each other if they were sat facing each other and you don’t have to be an expert historian to know that any situation where people start dehumanising their opponents is extremely dangerous.  I’m genuinely really worried about this.

There’s a line I’ve been using in the shows lately and it is that it may surprise people to remember that the point of political debate used to be to persuade people that your opinion was right, rather than just trying to fit as many insults into 140 characters as humanly possible. I think there are huge social problems, political problems, in all of this. I don’t think that a rock and roll record is going to solve those and I’m not sure that Be More Kind is a panacea, but it might be a start for us to try to consider each other as human beings again.

Absolutely. I was going to ask you how much you thought this was driven or fanned by social media because it does seem to me that we’ve all got this global voice where we can sprout whatever we want to say out into the universe without any sense of consequence.

Yeah, totally, it seems to me that the connection is lost. At least if you’re sitting in a room with someone you disagree with you can see that maybe they had a late night last night, or they’re wearing a wedding ring, or whatever it might be, there’s a million different signals you can pick up from somebody that you just don’t get when you’re arguing online.

You’ve referenced it in “1933” and I’ve seen on Twitter and the discussions, for want of a better word, that happen around you in real-time, and it always strikes me as a fairly absurd notion, especially when the Arts has long been an outlet for personal statement, that an artist or musician shouldn’t have an opinion – how can you respond to that way of thinking, if at all?

It’s interesting because the more intelligent phrasing of that approach which I’ve received on email and on Twitter is saying that, “I come to a rock and roll show/put on a record to leave the troubles of the world behind and you’ve brought them right back into my face,” and I can see that and it’s a valid opinion, if it’s stated with that kind of consideration.

There are two responses from my point of view – first of all I’ve got this kind of clash with the idea that punk rock should be devoid of commentary on the world.  It seems odd to me, historically, but more important than that – and this is a response that cuts across the spectrum – one of the responses I’ve had to the song “Make America Great Again” is people saying ,“Oh, you’re so brave criticising Trump, why don’t you criticise Islamic terrorism or something like that” and the response to that is very easy – I have this platform because I fucking earned it.

I have played 2000 plus shows, I’ve written these songs, and I’ve worked my arse off and I’ve received this platform and therefore I have the right to say whatever the fuck I want with this platform and to use it to engage whatever political issues I want.  If people wish to have non-political art or indeed art which expresses different political issues the response is very easy, which is – you fucking go out there and write a damn fucking record and play 2000 shows and then you can do whatever the fuck you want with that platform, but I’ve earned this one and I’ll do whatever I want with it.

Were you nervous with “Make America Great Again”? On a sweeping level it looks a bit controversial.

Yeah, it’s definitely a piece of provocation on some levels, the title, obviously.  I was quite nervous, and actually now that it’s kind of out there I feel like I was a little overly nervous.  Partly because I think most people gather that it is, in essence, I like to think, a kind song, a friendly song. It’s an open song. I like to think it’s a song that’s like tapping your good friend on the shoulder who’s making an arsehole out of himself and having a quiet word. That said, I haven’t yet landed with a certain audience in the States who will appreciate it less.

I’ve had a few people sending narky responses shall we say.  I’ve had one or two people going, “I can’t abide this”, and again, I have to respect people’s opinions. That is a valid response to a song.  Okay, I mean, it seems weird to me given that the only theme of the song especially is that it’s anti-racist so you announce that this is the moment you don’t like my music, well, okay, but I’m not sure that’s a camp you’d particularly want to be in. In general I was a little nervous about straying back into political territory with this record. It is a song subject that I happily left behind a few years ago and I’m not sure that talking about politics in public has really added to the sum total of my happiness in my life, but as we’d been discussing earlier I feel like I couldn’t really avoid talking about it at this point.

I think, too, with that particular song, the video – if you watch it in that context – you can see that it’s meant to be a positive, kind piece of music, really.

I’m glad you think so. Being an adult who’s used to the internet I’m aware that most people don’t read things before getting angry about them. There’s definitely an element of that, but my optimism is incorrigible, I suppose.

Your tour is underway – this mammoth world tour that you’re doing – is any of the new material firming up as favourites to play live?

The position that I stand now, as a person releasing my seventh record, I feel, and have long felt, like Wile. E. Coyote when he runs off the edge of a cliff and keeps going, and as long as he doesn’t look down he’s okay. Not many bands get to release seven records.

When we started, on the very first day of this tour, “1933” had been out for a while and we’d play that song and people sang along and I’m always kind of like ,“It’s still working! Don’t look down!” It’s a pleasant surprise, and I suppose that I retain a healthy dose of pessimism about my career as a sort of self-defence mechanism, in a way, at least pessimists are occasionally pleasantly surprised.  ’m hesitant to say this out loud but I’m almost to the point where I’m starting to accept that maybe I do have a long term career in music and I don’t have to expect imminent career collapse every time I do something new. It is nice, people have been singing along with the new songs and it’s a great feeling.

In a couple of weeks you’ve got Lost Evenings II in London. Curating a multi-day festival is hard enough thing to do by normal people’s standards, let alone as a heavily touring musician. How have you managed to pull this together?

The first thing to say is to remove any kudos for effort and place it on my crew because they’re the people who do the hard work. I tend to have ideas and other people sigh and make them happen, so I’m not going to take too much credit.  It’s really fun.  Last year we did it and it was kind of an experiment and everybody was flabbergasted that it went well. There were one or two logistical things that we could have improved on but, generally speaking, it came together really well, so we thought we’d do it again. In terms of putting together the line-up that’s my favourite part because the list of bands with which I wish to play a show is endless.

I have this terrible habit, which I really need to do something about, of getting drunk and promising people support slots. I’ll be in a bar after a show and I’ll be chatting to a mate who’s in a band and I’m “Yeah, we’ll work together, don’t worry”…so Lost Evenings is quite socially useful for me in ticking quite a lot of those boxes.

There is so much good music in the world and I’m so thoroughly sick and tired of people who make sweeping self-involved statements about rock and roll being dead, or there not being any good music anymore.  Just shut the fuck up and listen to some new bands. There’s so much good music out there and it’s really lovely because the second stage is the Nick Alexander Stage, which is named after my friend Nick who was killed at the Bataclan in Paris, and I booked that show in conjunction with John Kennedy from RadioX. I do my best to be tuned into good music but John is insanely tuned into what’s happening in underground music so it’s always really fun to work on that with him and I discover tonnes of new music as well.

It’s obviously a very London-centric festival.

It is for the time being, he says with a nod and a wink.

Ah! My next question was if there was any possibility of it being something that you would, in part, at least, take on the road – with workshops and panels, for example.

I’m not sure it’s something that we’re going to take on the road, as in making it a travelling thing. I think that would be a logistical nightmare too far, especially for the sake of my long-suffering crew, but there are discussions about potentially doing it as a weekend in other parts of the world.

I heard the new album the other day and I really love it, in particular “The Lifeboat”. It feels like a very different experience as a song and I’ve not stopped listening to it. Is that likely to make a setlist?

Yes. I’ve got into a habit and I’ve not yet decided whether it’s a bad one or not of, essentially, I like to kind of let an audience get to know a song before we play it. We don’t do that much playing a new song before there’s a recorded version out there. Maybe that’s artistic cowardice on my part, I’m not sure. I’m looking forward to that song settling in before we play it, and by the time we get to Australia there will have been time for that.

Well, if you can kick that off in Melbourne that would be really good…I’ll put my hand up for that one.

(Laughs) There we go.  A live debut in Melbourne.

Which leads to the fact you are coming back to Australia and New Zealand, finally, at the end of the year. We’re very excited to have you back, it will have been 3 years and 8 months, or something horrendous, by the time the December dates roll around.

Ugh. My apologies. My grovelling apologies for that.

You’ve said as part of this tour that you want to get everywhere in the world.  Are you prepared for all the Tweets demanding to know why you aren’t playing such-and-such’s house?

Yes, yes, they’ve already been coming in. I’ve been doing my best to try to stop looking at social media quite so much. Twitter can be a useful tool but particularly on days when we announce tours I’ve got a new routine where I put my phone in a cupboard and close it and walk away…go for a long walk…up hills…through the countryside…breath fresh air…look at nature…things like that.

This time round, in the past Australia’s always been tacked on to the end of a tour schedule, but Australia and New Zealand are in the heart of our tour schedule for this album. We’ve already announced the first chunk of 2019 but we’re going to be busy for the rest of next year as well and it’s really fun to be coming back. I’ve always been very welcome Down Under and I’ve always appreciated that so I’m excited to be heading back.

Tickets via Select Touring

December 1st | The Triffid, BRISBANE
December 2nd | The Forum, MELBOURNE
December 4th | The Basement, CANBERRA
December 6th | The Cambridge, NEWCASTLE
December 7th | Metro Theatre, SYDNEY
December 8th | Capitol, PERTH
December 9th | The Gov, ADELAIDE



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