Frank Turner: The unexpected rise of the punk poet...
Frank Turner's evolution from frontman of Million Dead to arena star has been a slow burn but, as he tells Andrew Johnston, he has remained true to reasons he began singing
Frank Turner is a man of contradictions. The son of an Eton-educated City investment banker and a primary school head teacher, Turner has somehow become the poster boy for politically-minded counter-culturists. Even the two genres of music he melds in his emotionally-charged ditties – acoustic folk and hardcore punk – seem diametrically opposed.
But that's what makes the 31-year-old from the village of Meonstoke in Hampshire interesting. Turner isn't like most huge-selling, arena-straddling punk superstars. He has forged his own path, and has seen an entire movement spring up in his wake, as well as being hugely successful in his own right.
Each of Turner's five studio albums to date has won an increasingly larger audience, culminating in this year's number-two-placed Tape Deck Heart – which is also his first to enjoy chart success in the USA. And although he is busier than ever, with a European arena tour and North American theatre dates looming before the end of 2013, he is taking time out to play a special show in Londonderry for his friends in the band Fighting with Wire.
The Derry trio – whose frontman, Cahir O'Doherty, moonlights as Turner's guitar technician – are playing their final show at the city's Millennium Forum on September 28, and have invited many of the artists they have shared stages with during their 10-year career to appear. As well as headliner Turner and his band, the Sleeping Souls, acts confirmed include Future of the Left, More than Conquerors, and Jim Lockey and the Solemn Sun.
The Cut the Transmission festival is set to be Turner's only UK or Irish show of the rest of the year, and he puts it down to badgering by Cahir – who since this interview was conducted has been helping the Sleeping Souls out on live guitar, while the frontman deals with severe back issues that have left him only able to sing at shows.
"Cahir and I go way back," Frank laughs. "Jetplane [Landing, O'Doherty's other band] and Million Dead [Turner's former band] toured together, and Fighting with Wire toured with Million Dead extensively. It's of great sadness that it's Fighting with Wire's last ever show, but it's great to be coming back to Derry. It's a while since I've been there."
With it now being some 12 years since Turner first came to music fans' attention in the London-based post-hardcore outfit Million Dead, how much of the idealistic young punk who toured the DIY circuit and released two independent albums – remains?
"Part of it is still there, of course," Frank considers. "I'm still very attached to punk as an idea and I still make it central to what I do, but it's very easy to romanticise it. I'm sure there are aspects of my time in Million Dead that I think about wistfully, and then I remember it wasn't all that – playing weird, average shows in strange places or whatever.
"Something I feel increasingly strongly about as I get older is this weirdly conservative idea –particularly with people within the punk scene – that you shouldn't change as you get older. Since 2005, I've done nearly 1,500 shows. I've played in 36 countries. I want to change. I don't want to go and do all that stuff and come back exactly the same person who left. That would suggest I'm not intelligent, or outgoing, or inquisitive. I want to grow and develop as a human being."
With his increased profile, Turner has become exposed to the music industry at its most mainstream. But he maintains a pragmatic view of the people he now associates with, whilst attempting to maintain his integrity.
"My self-image in my head is still very much the underground outsider, the underdog, whatever you want to say," he comments. "In the last couple of years, that's become increasingly difficult to maintain without at least some kind of self-doubt. I have certainly found myself in some places that are not very underground situations and contexts.
"But at the end of the day, I've worked very hard to remain honest and true to the reasons why I started doing this. I spent 15 years touring with underground bands, and those 15 years conditioned me and my character a lot more than one year of ending up at weird industry parties."
The perceived notion might be that the higher you go on the music industry ladder, the more unpleasant the people you may have to deal with can become – particularly for someone hailing from an underground circuit that prides itself on its supposed Left-leaning moral values. But Frank doesn't see it that way.
"There are saints and there are idiots at every level of the music industry," he opines. "I remember there was a time when I printed out the dictionary definition of the word 'guarantee' and had it laminated and I kept it in my guitar case, in case somebody tried to rip me off after a show."
Any success has been of his own making, Turner insists, and there hasn't been much pressure to alter his winning formula from Interscope, the major label who have released Tape Deck Heart in conjunction with his long-standing indie, Xtra Mile Recordings.
"It may well be that the next album goes to s**t, then they'll all start coming down my throat," Frank smiles.
"But when we were sorting out the deal with the bigger label, I was able to sit there and say, 'I don't particularly need to do this.' I'd already sold out Wembley Arena on my own terms, so no one has really tried to tell me what to do. Certainly, I think the most recent record is the most personal record I've done."
Yet when he was touring in a van and sleeping on fans' floors, did the prospect that he might one day be headlining the likes of Wembley as a solo artist, with people like Billy Bragg opening for him, ever occur to him?
"My manager, Charlie [Caplowe], and I had a running joke for years," Frank reveals. "'Oh, we'll do that when we play Wembley' – which at the time was funny because it was ridiculous and it was never going to happen.
"And we had a bit of a moment at the show where we were like, 'Hell, we're actually here'.
"It's been a surreal journey in many ways. In some ways, it feels like it was a lifetime to make that transition, and in other ways, it feels like it happened in a whirlwind. It depends what day of the week it is."
Still, the punk scene is watching him like a hawk, with rumours of right-wing tendencies having been fuelled by a controversial Guardian interview, in which Turner was portrayed in a way that has led to underground commentators branding him everything from a 'Tory' to a 'fascist'.
"I'm very fed up with it," Frank sighs. "It irritates me. It demonstrates that some people aren't particularly knowledgeable about the spectrum of political opinion in the world. The essence of my politics is I'm anti-authoritarian. I don't trust big conglomerations of power.
"I feel there are a lot of people on the Left in this country who are wisely and valiantly distrustful of corporations, and who then run gladly into the bosom of the state, and that seems to be a contradiction to me.
"Apparently, that makes me a 'Nazi' or whatever people want to say about me. I guess I just have to suck it up and get on with my life."
FOLK THAT HELPED BUILD THE MUSIC GENRE ...
* After the Pogues and the Violent Femmes had set the scene for 'folk punk' in the early 1980s by fusing an anarchic attitude to traditional sounds, the likes of Billy Bragg, the Levellers and Chumbawamba took the new subgenre in ever more interesting directions.
* But it was in the 1990s that folk punk would develop into a more clearly defined commercial force. 'Irish-American' outfits like the Dropkick Murphys and Flogging Molly amplified their Celtic influences to huge success, while a proliferation of new acts had critics writing about everything from 'country punk' to 'gypsy punk'.
* By the 2000s, perhaps inspired by Green Day's (pictured), top-10 'unplugged' effort, Good Riddance (Time of Your Life) – a new wave of tattooed, spiky –haired singer-songwriters had switched off their distortion pedals, ditched the bassists and drummers, and begun peddling acoustic songs with a punk spirit.
Led by Frank Turner, folk punk artists can now fill arenas and top charts.'The self-image in my head is very much the underground outsider, the eternal underdog'
Frank Turner headlines the Cut the Transmission festival at the Millennium Forum in Londonderry on 28 September