After rising from the ashes of the hardcore group the Million Dead in 2005, Frank Turner embarked on a radical career change as he went solo and embraced folk music. The rousing folk-punk sound that Turner eventually settled upon took the UK and Europe by storm, as his inspiring social commentaries won fans in both cosy folk pubs and at wild rock festivals.
Turner went on to release four albums in five years (each more successful than the last) and the momentum built as his diverse touring schedule won the star a wealth of new fans with each passing year. Frank finally broke through in 2011 as fourth album, England Keep My Bones, entered the charts at number 12 (a full 198 places higher than his debut Sleep Is For The Week), and now as Frank sits down for an exclusive interview with Guitar Planet we start by asking him about his incredible success.
From the outside looking in 2011 appeared to be a landmark year for you; playing your 1,000th gig, stepping up to play the main stage at Reading and Leeds, and with the runaway success of England Keep My Bones, you appeared to transition from a hard working almost cult phenomenon to being a British rock superstar.
How do you feel looking back at 2011, do you have a personal highlight?
2011 was certainly a great year for me, though I could say the same about the preceding years as well. I'm a lucky guy right now; and it's also nice to see hard work paying off. There are many great things to remember from the year, although my personal highlight was probably meeting, hanging out with and playing a song live with The Weakerthans, one of my favourite bands. It's not the most industry-successful thing that happened, but it affected me personally on a deeper level.
You don’t appear to be slowing down in 2012 as we’re just a couple of months away from your headline date at Wembley Arena. Fans always rave about the kind of rabble rousing communal feel of your gigs, are you confident you’ll be able to create that kind of intimate atmosphere on the big stage?
Well I've actually played bigger places, though not as the headliner - Wembley stadium (with Green Day), the main stage at Reading and Leeds... I've seen people put on great, intimate, personal shows in big venues (Springsteen springs to mind) so it's obviously doable.
It is a different art to putting on a show in a 300 capacity bar or whatever, but I feel like my band and crew have it in them to help me put on a killer show. That's not to say I'm not slightly daunted by the prospect, but I'd rather view it as a challenge than an insurmountable obstacle.
Music critics and commentators have been falling over each other to declare the death of rock and guitar music, but your rise would appear to confound that narrative.
As someone who has worked his way to the top in a very organic fashion, what is your reaction when you hear people labelling guitar music dead?
I think it's eye-gougingly tedious when people start sounding off about that kind of thing. Transparent journalese nonsense. Apart from anything else, the Internet means that music is much less monolithic these days than it used to be - if lots of teenagers are getting excited about Skrillex, followed by the pack of cool-hungry journos, that's fine, other music can quite happily exist in other corners without the two affecting each other. It's not a competition.
That aside, people have been calling guitar music "dead" at regular intervals almost since it began. I couldn't really give a damn, to be honest.
As a songwriter you’ve never shied away from politics and social issues, right now in the UK and across the world we are living through tumultuous times of youth unemployment, swingeing cuts, riots, financial crises, protests, oppression, and seemingly everything in between.
It begs the question what kind of role do you think musicians have to play in shaping and responding to the socio-political events of their time?
I think musicians have a right to an opinion - just like bus drivers, astrophysicists, students, pensioners and estate agents. I can't see why any musician’s opinion is more important than anyone else's, and the idea that music can or ever has changed the world is conceited in the extreme. Musicians can comment on current affairs, sure.
I have done in the past, and I may do again, although I'm currently pretty down on the idea for two reasons: first of all, I'm wary of alienating people - I think music should be a force to unite people, not divide them. And secondly (and this reflects on the first point) the majority of the music scene in the UK at least is extraordinarily narrow-minded about politics - there's a massive, craven centre-left groupthink that I have very little time for, and that certainly does not reflect my politics at all.
Most people tend to think of you as a lyricist or singer-songwriter first, and a guitarist second, but what came first for Frank Turner? What turned you on to music and what made you pick up the guitar?
My first love, musically, was Iron Maiden, and I still adore them. I was first playing thrash on my little fender strat copy aged 12 or so (not very well, mind you!). I guess I came to lyrics and songwriting later, but then I suspect I've always been better at the latter than the former. I still don't rate myself as much of a guitarist, truth be told. I can't play a solo to save my life.
Over the course of your career you found yourself in the unique position of being able to play everywhere from metal and rock festivals to cosy folk evenings and punk gigs. What is it like going from one extreme to the other and do you have a favourite type of gig or venue?
It can be a little surreal - last summer we went from the Cambridge Folk Festival to Download Festival, which was a little jarring. But the other way of looking at it is to say that my music, for some reason, has a broad appeal across subgenres and generations, and that's something I'm actually quite proud of. My favourite gigs are ones with a great atmosphere, and that can crop up in pretty much any situation.
You recently released The Second Three Years compilation and what caught the eye of many was the wide array of covers you’ve tackled in recent years from Springsteen to Take That, and it got us thinking.
We have a rough idea about who has inspired you from music past, but which modern artists are capturing your imagination?
I like playing a wide range of covers - I consider myself to be a fan of songwriting, no matter what musical garb it comes dressed up in. I think that NOFX and ABBA have a lot more in common than people usually think. Right now? Hmm, well, there's stuff like Jim Lockey or John K Samson albums on my stereo, but they're musically in my ballpark I guess. I'm a fan of stuff like Jamie T, Regina Spektor... Just good songs really.
Finally we like to ask everyone this: what’s your favourite bit of musical gear in your collection and what’s the latest edition you’ve made?
I have a banjitar (6 string banjo) in my collection that I'm very fond of, though I've yet to find a usable pickup to fit on it, and my band members fear it…haha. The most recent thing I bought was a kazoo - I've got this plan to reclaim the kazoo as a serious instrument. It remains to be seen if I can actually pull that off...
My gear is pretty minimal. I play Patrick James Eggle acoustic guitars (Saluda cutaway body) with Ernie Ball strings. I use a Fishman Rare Earth pickup running straight into a Radial DI, via a TC Electronic tuner. I also use Dunlop nylon picks (.73's please!). That's about it for me.
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