Fusing two passions into punk poetry: Frank Turner interviewed

J.N. April 8, 2020

At the end of the 1980s, in my early teens, I was at my first DIY punk show in a run-down apartment building that housed a makeshift stage and had graffiti on the walls. To make it more spacious someone had torn down the walls between two apartments to make it possible to squeeze in a hundred people – tops.

This night there were hundreds packed into that 400 square foot space. It was nauseatingly hot and extremely difficult to catch a breath in the haze of cigarette smoke (yes, it was allowed back then). The bands made their noise and racket while a sea of leather jackets and neon-colored hair sang along at the top of their lungs, and I was convinced the scene was a collection of individuals screaming obscenities and incomprehensible lyrics.

However appalling it may sound curiosity intrigued me as it does the cat. I wondered what was so appealing about the music, the scene, the chaos that drew these people in. That’s also one of the reasons a young Eton lad got his soul grabbed by punk music in the beginning of the 1990s and turned it into one of his life’s biggest passions.

Being sent on a scholarship to the renowned boarding school Eton where he studied alongside royalties triggered a sense of alienation for Frank Turner, but being just a 40-minute train ride away from punk life in London, Turner soon made a crash course in the hardcore punk scene and became captivated by “the noise, the lyrics, and the music”. Right after graduation, he moved to London.

However, it wasn’t just punk that grabbed his soul. At the London School of Economics, he was captivated by the past and developed a passion for history, and that has evidently been an important inspiration for his songwriting, especially on his latest album “No Man’s Land”.

When Frank Turner visited Gothenburg as a special guest to Dropkick Murphys we sat down with Frank and chat about his passion for punk and history and the success of his own mobile festival, Lost Evenings.

Two passions in life: Punk and History

You have quite a different background from most punks I’ve ever met. You were a student at the renowned boarding school Eton and later you also studied history at the London School of Economics. How did those years made you interested in punk music?
It was directly causal actually. I don’t come from a workers class family or anything like that, but I didn’t come from the same social background as most of the kids I went to school with because I got a scholarship when I was twelve years old to go to that school, so I changed my social environment pretty radically at that point. I wouldn’t say I was politically aware or anything like that at the time, but I really, really hated it right from the beginning.

I stumbled into metal first of all actually. I was an Iron Maiden fan from when I was about ten, then Nirvana happened around that time and Kurt Cobain used to talk about being a punk all the time in interviews.

It was me and my friend Chris, we grew up together, and he had an uncle who knew about music, and Chris said to him “What is punk? What does that mean?”, and he kind of rolled his eyes and told us to go and buy “Never Mind the Bollocks” and the first The Clash album, so we did. Punk and metal is not the same but it’s aggressive guitar music, which I already had a taste in. This is when I’m like thirteen or fourteen and I’d been feeling very isolated, lost and not happy.

It’s a boring cliché to say that punk rock saved my life; it didn’t save my life, I wasn’t going to die, but it certainly gave me meaning and a prism through which to understand the world at the time when I felt I really needed it.

First, it was just about the noise, the lyrics, and the music, but as I got a little bit older, around fifteen, I started venturing to London and discovered there was an existing and active and exciting hardcore punk scene based around a label called Household Name Records. There were shows and everybody was welcome, and it was really a diverse group of people, really energetic and exciting. I really didn’t have many friends at school anyway because I kind of hated everybody (laugh).

My school is not very far from London, it’s forty minutes on a train, so I just started going to London as much as I could. It’s a boarding school but I was fortunate to have a teacher who kind of knew what I was doing and decided to turn a blind eye towards it (laugh). But there was an intellectual level to it as well because anarchism was a big part of it, and suddenly I was reading Bakunin and Chomsky, and I think he could see that it was helping me. I think that most of the other kids at my school at that age were getting into cocaine and alcohol and stuff like that, and I was straight edge which was news to fucking everybody (laugh). But he sort of recognized that it wasn’t a bad thing for me going to London so he wouldn’t report me if I didn’t go back to the school in the evening some nights, particularly on the weekends. Then that just became my obsession in life.

You know, counterfactuals are kind of a waste of time but I wonder how much it would have grabbed me if I hadn’t gone to that school. I don’t know. I still liked aggressive guitar music, but there was something about punk more than metal that grabbed my soul because of where I was at school.

But maybe you became aware of the social differences between people in a way you wouldn’t have if you hadn’t studied at that school?
Totally! As I said in the beginning, I don’t think I was socially or politically aware when I was twelve but after a while you start to become just that. But there’s also a lot of hatred and resentment against people who go to Eton College in England. I don’t mean for a second to claim sympathy on that, but there’s a lot of people who go “Fucking Eton boys”, and if you’re there, if you are attending that school but you’re actually not there and you hear people saying that the whole fucking time, it makes you think about “Why are people saying that and what does it mean?”, so it was educational for me.

Speaking of your university studies; it’s kind of obvious that you have studied history because many of your songs have historical references, just like recent songs as “1933” or the whole last album. Is this your way to educate your audience about things from the past that we shouldn’t forget about?
(laughs) I guess but I’m reticent to say that I’m trying to educate my audience because that seems a bit stiff (laugh). But history is my other passion outside the music.

Putting “No Man’s Land” to one’s side for a second; I read history books excessively and I’m trying to keep up with my university subjects which were Central and Eastern European and Russian history, and I got a real passion for it. Indeed I try to read about other things as well. Quite often I just think about something I don’t know anything about and go “Right, I got to read about that”. It informs my understanding of the world.

At the risk of sounding something like an obessionist. I find it difficult to understand how people know about the world without a sense of history, like “How come anybody understands how the world is if you don’t know how it got to this point?”. That’s how I feel about it.

In the past, that has kind of popped up here and there, but with “No Man’s Land” it was different. I’ve always written autobiographically and I wanted to try leaving that aside for one record and be writing about other lives and other experiences and other perspectives, and also to bring in this thing about loving history. There are history songs in the folk music canon, loads of them, and I thought it would be cool to explore that avenue and to see if I could bring my two passions into the same room without them fighting (laugh).

Would it be too much to say that your albums are reflections of historical themes that you are interested in at the moment?
Especially with “No Man’s Land”, that’s what set that record apart from my previous records. In the past, what I’ve always done is just write and then afterwards, if there’s a possibility to theme it in some way, maybe I will. The “England Keep My Bones” record is loosely about national identity, but it’s not really a themed concept record, I just wrote those songs and it was obvious that that was something on my mind at the time. But this one [“No Man’s Land”], for the first time in my career as a writer, was pre-directed like “I want to write this kind of songs”, and that’s more about lyrics than the music for the most part.

And it’s about women in history.
The gender angle on it emerged, it was an emerging property, and I just wanted to tell stories that I felt were underrepresented in popular culture and stories I didn’t know until I stumbled across them, like the story of Dora Hand. I was reading a history of the American West and it covered her life story in two paragraphs and I stopped and was like “What the fuck is this?”. There are no books just about her, but I found some other books that had more information and I looked her up at the Dodge City museum [Boot Hill Museum] website.

I wanted the record mostly to be about people you wouldn’t have heard of, I didn’t want it to be a hipster-historian record (laugh).

But isn’t that educational? When people hear about these unknown lives they become curious and want to learn more.
Well yes, I think that is true for “No Man’s Land”, and again, it’s the odd one out in my career and it’s an interesting moment for you and me to have this conversation, but it’s not the thing I do now, that was a project that I’m very proud of. I think to the next I’ll do, I will revert the tide a little, should we say (laugh).

History is of course connected to politics and there’s not an interview with you that doesn’t involve politics, and as a public person, and the bigger you become as an artist, being political has its drawbacks; you will always be attacked by someone. You’ve had your share of experiences on that. Have these types of personal attacks, especially online, affected how you approach politics in public discussions today?
Not as an individual but maybe as a public figure. I think that Twitter is the most titanic waste of time and energy, there’s nothing good about it at all. It’s disastrous for your mental health and it destroys the quality of conversations. I realized a very long time ago that it’s a real waste of time trying to have those discussions on Twitter because people don’t go to Twitter to learn, they go to Twitter to get attention for themselves. Once you understand that Twitter is about attention and not information, then you realize it’s a fucking waste of time.

It’s funny, I often get described as having controversial political opinions. But I don’t think they’re controversial at all. I still think my politics is defined by punk rock, I’m essentially an extremist liberal and that’s all there really is to say. I have political opinions; I spent this morning having a long discussion about the Democratic primaries as it goes and what a complete shit show that is (laugh), it’s utterly depressing.

The other thing is; in terms of my hierarchy of interests, music outweighs everything and it’s a funny thing because as much as punk rock is my defining thing, I much rather be like Neil Young than Joe Strummer. I’d like to be considered as a songwriter first.

Art is broader than just politics. Politics can be part of it and that’s fine. It’s the age-old gripe about the phrase protest singer; I’ve never been a protest singer and I have no intention of being one. Billy Bragg, who is a good friend of mine, is a great writer and I think the word protest singer is belittling to his art, he’s writing about many, many broader things than that, and with much more humanity and sensitivity. Touring with Billy and playing shows with him, I think it’s kind of sad that there’s a big chunk of his audience that is just there for the politics, and they just stand there ignoring his songs about the heart and the human condition which I think are better songs. That’s not a trap that I would ever want to fall into.

The success of Lost Evenings

Can you imagine a festival based on your own favorite bands? Can you even imagine to run it yourself and book your favorite bands to play alongside yourself?

When Frank started his Lost Evenings festival in Camden, London in 2017 it was just “an experiment” but with a dream to make it mobile and bring it to people across the world. After two years in London and exporting the whole shenanigan to Boston the third year, the four-day festival, winner of the AIM Best Independent Festival Award in 2017, is coming to Berlin for its fourth edition in 2020. And it has grown, from that 1700-venue it started at to a 7 500-capacity venue in Berlin. Is it time to take it to the open-air level next year?

We’re also delighted to see that your festival Lost Evenings will come to Berlin this year. I know you wanted it to be a mobile festival already from the beginning that moves from city to city across the world, and you started out in Camden four years ago with a 1 700-venue, then brought it to House of Blues in Boston that takes 2 500, but Treptow Arena in Berlin where you have the fourth edition has a 7 500-capacity. Where is it going to end?
(laugh) I think we’re actually going to do 5 000 in Berlin but still, it’s great, it’s growth. It’s exciting to me that we’re doing that.

As you said, I always wanted it to be a mobile concept. The first year was just an experiment that surprised everybody by going quite well so we did it again in the same place to consolidate some lessons because none of us had ever put on anything like that before. But when we moved it to Boston everybody in London was like “What the fuck!?” and was furious it wasn’t in London anymore, but now it’s moving around the world and people get that now.

It’s really funny with Lost Evenings; the first year everybody showed up being like “What the fuck is this?”, and then kind of got it by the end. When we took it to Boston lots of American people showed up being like “I don’t really get this” because they didn’t understand the format and how it works. But I think it’s a really good format; we have discussion groups during the day, we have open mic’s, we have bars and activist groups, and charities and stuff, and everybody kind of gets it after half a day.

Last year for example, for the first time we tried a thing where we had an open mic stage, and at the beginning it was really funny because I thought I’ll open the festival and play a song at the open mic stage, and then nobody signed up immediately because they were all like “I’m not fucking following that” (laugh).

I left my friend Derek in charge of it and three quarters through day one he was like “People have started getting it, they are signing up”, and then about an hour later he said, “Every slot for the rest of the weekend is full now”. I had planned to get people from the bands on the main stage coming doing a secret show, but Derek was like “Dude, it’s full” (laugh).

And it’s fun for us as well to play different shows. I’ve just written setlists today actually and we got four different shows and four different setlists.

But we already have plans for Lost Evenings V for next year but I can’t tell you what they are.

But it must be a lot of work for you running a festival.
Oh yeah, it is a lot of work and it’s not yet at a point where we earn lots of money because we’re trying to pay something like forty bands, but it’s cool, it’s building up. If I do ever get to a point in my life where I decide to take a year off, I suspect we’ll still do Lost Evenings.

Can you see yourself taking it to the open-air festival level?
You know, probably not, but I will never say never. At the beginning I was trying to think about having some kind of annual event that would be mine, but there were a lot of promoters in the UK that were interested in what I did and were talking to me about setting up some kind of outdoor traditional festival type of thing, and I just feel like there’s a lot of people doing that already, that market is kind of saturated. The Levellers have Beautiful Days Festival which is awesome, and it’s essentially exactly what I would want to do if I was doing an outdoors festival, and I don’t want to set up a rival to that because it’s fucking great and I don’t want to hurt their business.

There’s a band called Wolf Alice, I’ve known those guys since their first gig, and their first album was doing so well that they could have done Alexandra Palace which is 10 000. But they decided not to because it was ridiculous to do it with just one album, so they just did four nights at the Forum which is 2 000, and had different support acts each day, and I was hanging out there and was thinking “This is pretty cool” (laugh). That was kind of the genesis of the idea for Lost Evenings.

But it’s really fun to do it. I’m pretty proud of the line-up this year, having Henry Rollins involved is huge for me. I’m obviously pretty fucking stoked about that (laugh). But it’s really important to me that we have some European representation on the bill as well with Turbostaat, Fortuna Ehrenfeld and Tim Vantol. I didn’t want just to bring this English-American music over there but also represent some local bands as well.

But we got a whole other stage to announce and there are shitloads of bands coming, there are another twelve bands to announce.

Photographer: © Julia Schwendner
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About The Author

Music researcher with an unhealthy passion for music and music festivals. Former studio owner, semi-functional drummer and with a fairly good collection of old analogue synthesizers from the 70's. Indie rock, post rock, electronic/industrial and drum & bass (kind of a mix, yeah?) are usual stuff in my playlists but everything that sounds good will fit in.