Interview: Frank Turner (UK) on album Undefeated, the pandemic, and world record attempts

Frank Turner

On the eve of releasing his tenth solo album, Undefeated, we had a chat with Frank Turner about life in the music industry in a post-pandemic world, just days before a world record attempt for the Music Venue Trust.

You’ve got quite a busy weekend coming up…

I do, yeah.  I’ll be honest with you, I’m sort of doing things day by day.  I haven’t quite got as far as the weekend in my mind, but it’s looming in the background for sure.

You’re attempting the most number of gigs in different cities in 24 hours, is that right?

Yes, it’s one of those things that we’re doing from midday to midday and about 4:00am I’m going to start casting around for someone to blame for coming up with this idea.  Unfortunately, it was my idea.

It’s supporting the Music Venue Trust, of course, which is something that you’ve been a strong advocate for over a number of years.

It is, yeah.  Every show is an independent venue, and every show is being ticketed by an independent record store, and not quite every show, but most of them, we’ve got unsigned local acts playing before me as well.  Obviously I’m promoting my album doing this, but there’s a bit of community building going on.

Congratulations on album number 10! I had a good listen to it the other day and it’s amazing.  How is it to be releasing your tenth – does it feel weird?

It does.  I mean, it’s a mixed feeling in lots of ways.  The headline is that I’m stoked, I’m happy, and I’m proud to have made double figures.  Not many people get to do that.  I feel very lucky and privileged.  Pleasantly surprised might be the word.  I feel a bit like Wile E. Coyote, you know, I ran off the edge of the cliff about six albums ago, and I still haven’t stopped and looked down and fallen yet, and I’m amused that that’s the case, but also grateful.

Do you have a favourite track on the album?

Ohhhh, well, you see, you’re not supposed to have favourites because that’s like choosing between your children, right?  But of course the answer is yes.  I’d like to think that it’s a diverse enough record that there are different songs for different moods and all this other throat-clearing nonsense.  One of my favourite tracks on the record is “Somewhere Inbetween”, the penultimate track on the record, which is a very, very personal song.  It’s a song that I’m still slightly kind of scared, or bemused that I’ve chosen to put out into the public domain, shall we say, because it says some raw things that I’ve been trying to enunciate for quite a long time, but I feel good about it.

Frank Turner
Frank Turner – Byron Bay Bluesfest 2023 – credit Bruce Baker

It’s actually my favourite song on the album, too.  It’s obviously a personal thing to you, but it’s deeply relatable to me.

Oh, thank you.  Thank you.  I mean, slightly tritely put, that is the knack of songwriting, to try to write something that is intensely personal but also that other people can relate to as well, so thank you very much.

Definitely relatable.  “Ceasefire” was my immediate favourite just because I love that conversation with your younger self, trying to justify how things have gone, but it also feels connected to “Somewhere Inbetween” to me.

Very well spotted.  They are sister songs in my opinion.  You know there was a moment in time when this might have been a concept album and we’re all very glad that it isn’t, but the concept was going to be…essentially when I’m falling asleep I have these anxiety-laden arguments in my mind and my wife, who is a psychotherapist, asked the perceptive question a while back which is “who is it you think that you’re arguing with?” and I thought “oh, that’s a good question”.  The answer eventually manifested as a hypothetical teenage version of myself because, you know, like most people, I was very kind of cocksure and everything was black and white and simple, and I knew the answer when I was 15.  That’s no longer the case because life is complicated.  Quite a good example of what I’m talking about, and if you’ll forgive me blowing my own trumpet for half a second, my last record we got number one in the UK.  Present-day me was stoked.  I mean, it was great.  We worked quite hard to make that happen, but when I was 15, almost the centre of my self-definition was I was the kind of person who didn’t know or care or like any of the bands that were in the charts.  So there was a little part of me sort of “oh, yeah”, suddenly telling myself off for being successful and that’s ludicrous and certainly unhealthy, and it struck me as something I want to try to address.

This has quickly become my equal-favourite FT album alongside England Keep My Bones.  Albums number 4 and number 10 sitting side by side I think is a pretty strong thing, Frank.

That’s very kind of you to say and I’m stoked to hear that.  I’ll take that, that’s a wonderful thing.  I often feel grateful for the fact that I’m not one of those acts that has just one song, do you know what I mean?  I’m aware I have more popular songs than other ones, but I’ve got maybe 5 songs on there.  Jimmy Buffett used to call them the play-or-get-killed-songs, which I like, I think that’s kind of cool.  I think I’ve got 5 of them that come from a variety of different records and that’s quite reassuring.  Hopefully there will be some on this new record, too.

I daresay that’s a given.  One of the new songs is “Pandemic PTSD”, which I think beautifully articulates the clusterfuckery of it all.  I was working in the live events industry throughout and there were many times I thought I wouldn’t have a job at the end of it.  I can’t imagine how it was for a touring musician.

We were in the same boat, I think.  I have a very vivid memory, and I don’t know about Australia, but there was a thing right in the beginning where our former Prime Minister said “oh, it’s going to be three weeks”, and I said to my wife “this is going to fuck the music industry for five years minimum”, and she said “oh, don’t be a pessimist”.   Our job is gathering large numbers of strangers together in a confined space.  This is a fucking problem.  There’s a big feeling for me, and I think for a lot of people in our industry, where it’s like “that news item is done…next”, and it’s just kind of like “hold on a second”.  Do you know what I mean?  Obviously I try to speak to the things that I know about, and I know about the live music industry, but I think it has broader application.  In the UK, finally, there is starting to be a discussion around the fact that two entire school years of kids stopped going to school and quite a lot of them never came back.  That’s an issue for a generation, and just because everyone got bored of talking about it doesn’t mean it’s not still an issue.

Absolutely.  I was in Melbourne at the time, one of the longest lockdowns in the world – had to be done and all that sort of thing – and I came out of the pandemic hoping that we would have a kinder, gentler society.  I feel like it’s flipped and we have this really entitled, almost obsessive thing going on.  I don’t know whether you feel that?

I couldn’t agree more.  There was the thing of maybe we can all kind of chill out a bit and stop being so vicious to each other on social media and all the rest of it.  It kind of did happen, for all of about eight days, and then…yeah…arguably people are worse.  I think the major thing for me, and it isn’t really in the song but I think it’s worth discussing, is there’s a chunk of young people who just didn’t get into the habit of going to shows at the age where you would, and I think that’s a real problem for the live music industry.  It’s all very well convincing old codgers like me to go back to shows in independent venues, which is a thing that I spend a fair amount of my time doing, but there’s a lot of kids – I know this makes me sound like Grandad – but you just want to grab them and be like “you know there’s something better than, on the one hand, TikTok, but on the other hand paying $300 to go and see a TikTok star from half a mile away.  You know you could go to a room down the street and pay ten bucks and see the best band in the whole world and melt your face off, and sweat on you”, do you know what I mean?  I think there’s a whole lot of kids who haven’t learned that and god knows what we do about it.  Something, hopefully.

For sure.  I feel there’s going to be repercussions from those couple of years for decades yet.  It’s a bit scary.  As a performer do you find there’s any difference post-pandemic in the live music industry, or performing?

Yeah, and I could talk about this at length.  Definitely at the beginning there was a euphoric thing.  I played a show on, they called it Freedom Day, which I resent enormously, but essentially the day when you could do full-capacity shows, and that show is a show I will never, ever forget.  We were at Clapham Grand with 1500 people in the room and the atmosphere was unbelievable.  I still feel like there is a kind of self-abandoned kind of joy at shows now, which is tangible.  You and I both know that attendances for live music are still down from where they were in 2019, in some cases 30% across the board, which is horrible.

I also feel…I’m going to try not to be bitchy and blow up my own career here…but there is a sort of phenomenon of more quote-unquote heritage acts – everyone can tour, that’s fine, I don’t have any issue with people touring, but there are people charging unbelievable amounts of money for shows these days.  Whatever you think of that in and of itself, what it does is it sucks money out of the whole of the rest of the live industry. If you have to pay $500 bucks to see an artist you’re not going to any other shows for six months, do you know what I mean?  So there’s a lot of different issues going on.

Ultimately I think being a touring musician or working in the entertainment business in any way, shape, or form is always a pretty shaky kind of way to make a living.  I think it always has been.  I’m, weirdly enough, currently reading a biography of Harry Houdini which has an awful lot of stuff about touring in the 1890s, which I find fascinating because there are some similar gripes, so you can take the long view and say we didn’t pick an easy path, but there are definitely issues.

Stepping for a moment into the songwriting side of things, when you are writing for your solo album but you know you’ll be recording and playing live with The Sleeping Souls, do you write their parts as well?

Generally speaking, I write the songs for vocals and guitar, and I generally have an idea of where we’re going arrangement-wise, but one of my favourite things, particularly with this record, I have a new, comparatively new drummer in the band.  This is the first album he’s recorded with us, and as a group of friends and as a group of musicians we’re in the best place we’ve ever been.  They’re just great at what they do, and it would be self-defeating for me to try to micro-manage everything they do.

One of the things I love…there’s a solo song on the album, “On My Way”, and at one point it was an enormously bombastic, grandiose, borderline orchestral arrangement because I wasn’t quite sure where I wanted to go with it, and we spent a few days in the rehearsal room and it was so cool.  It was like, let’s try it as a punk song and three minutes later it was a punk song, then let’s try it as a ballad, a stadium ballad, and we did that.  The facility with which we can sort of work stuff up, the connection we have between each other as musicians now is awesome.  There’s so many little parts that those guys bring to the table which make the songs come alive, in a way, that was not there in a lot of the demos and I love it, and I love them.

I get it.  When I was listening to the album, “Letters”, in particular, I had to have a few listens before I actually got to listening to you…I was so caught up in the rhythm section, as a bass nerd…

Tarrant can play some bass, huh!

So good.  So good…but Callum, that drum line through that song…I had a visceral reaction.

I’ll give you the single nerdiest piece of information about this record.  The opening drum fill for “Letters” is a kind of musical quote, if you will.  It’s a self-conscious nod to a song called “Caboose” by a hardcore band called Snap Case.

What an excellent factoid to end on!

(laughs) About four people will know that, unprompted, and those four people will be my friends.

Undefeated is out today, Friday 3 May. You can read Jennifers review of the album HERE.