In Conversation: Frank Turner

Catching up with the Brit icon making America rage again

Frank Turner pauses.

He’s nestled in a small cove of a stage out back of a taco bar in South Congress, Austin. Just in front, a crescent huddle of fans sit cross-legged on wood-chip-flecked decking, like they’re waiting for a story.

He has a new song to sing. But he has something to say first.

Over the next minute or so, he haltingly points out that while he loves this state, and this country (and has a Texas tattoo), he’s got something to say that not everyone will like.

And then he’s whirling into ‘Make America Great Again’, a jagged track that directly tackles some of the oozing hatred seeping up across the country.

“Let’s make America great again,” he growls, “by making racists ashamed again.”

An enormous roar soars up from the audience, like the first breath of a surfacing swimmer. And in that moment, it doesn’t feel that controversial.

“Yeah, a lot of my friends in England said that I don’t need to worry about that song,” says Frank. “Because I’m a punk guy – or at least I’ve got a foot in that world – and I’m just going to play to liberal, progressive people everywhere I go.”

“And that might be true of some people, but I’m actually proud of the fact that we’ve toured with country artists, and with more blue-collar punk bands like The Dropkick Murphys. And we can draw a crowd in somewhere like Nebraska, and that crowd is absolutely not going to be die-hard Democrats. Some people are going to fucking hate some of the songs on this record, but at least I’ve got a kind of avenue to talk to them, you know?”

Frank Turner's doing a quick April sweep of the UK before heading off to the US again at the end of May. That tour coincides with the release of his seventh studio album, which lands on May 4th.

With ‘Be More Kind’, the former Million Dead singer is dipping his toe back into political songwriting in the era of Brexit and MAGA. But at the same time, he’s pushing a less strident political message; calling for a bit more listening and a little less punching.

“I suppose that if there is a theme to this record, it’s this idea of considering the humanity of your opponents. I think that’s something that could be relevant to all points on the spectrum. It becomes a less valuable statement if you just say, ‘Everyone needs to be nice to each other’ when you really just mean that ‘People I disagree with should be nice to me.’ It cuts both ways.”

That’s the takeaway of the title track, a light folky plea that features the line: “In a world that’s decided that it’s going to lose its mind, be more kind.” But this isn’t just Frank Turner sitting on the sidelines calling for calm and offering rounds of sandwiches.

‘1933’ – for one – is a thumping anthem that screams that “If I was from the greatest generation I’d be pissed / Surveying the world I built slipping back into this.”

It’s a song dripping with the painful memories of last year’s horrors in Charlottesville, and the renewed confidence in which white supremacists have slithered out of the dark. But at the same time, it cautions against “simple answers”, and warns that: “you can’t fix the world if all you have is a hammer.”

“One of my concerns about the record – and the way people are interpreting it – is that it’s not that I don’t have any opinions,” he says.

“It’s not that I don’t think we should fight for things we believe in. Of course we fucking should. We should fight passionately. But we should do it in a way that considers what would happen if our opponents had the whip hand above us.”

“I think it’s really important that we throw everything into fighting those fucking cunts,” he adds. “But through words, because if you punch them they’re allowed to punch back.”

Despite being a self-confessed history and politics “geek”, it’s been a while since Frank Turner has been this overtly political in his music. And in fact, he was on the verge of releasing a different type of album before all this went down.

“I’d written this other record, which was a concept album about women from the historical record who have been ignored and would be famous if they were men. And then 2016 happened. I really love those songs, and they will come out. But it just felt like it was time for some slightly different songs at that moment.”

It’s hard not to wonder if part of Frank’s reluctance to tackle politics is partly due to his personal firestorm of 2012, in which he was savaged in the Guardian for his comments on socialism, the BNP and the European Union. Sensing the question in the air, he attacks it head on.

“I will take my fucking oil for having badly phrased some of the shit I was trying to say. I do think that most of that was generated by people misinterpreting what I had to say, but the nature of communication is to say what you have to say clearly and I failed to do that.”

“But, yeah, the whole experience was extremely wounding and I’m not going to try and be a fucking tough guy and cool about it. It sucked. It was horrible having loads of people tell me I was an arsehole, that I deserved to die, and that they were going to come to shows and beat me up. And that put me off politics a bit. But things have changed. Partly because the world has changed and you can’t choose to write a song about whatever in the abstract. It has to animate you. But I also think I’ve gotten older and a little more confident in what I think about the world, and a little less bothered about what anonymous eggs on Twitter have to say about it.”

“The nature of my politics is essentially voluntarist. I’m not sure how much I really want to change what other people think. It’s a great thing if people can live out their lives in the way they want as much as possible. Although that’s a pretty complex statement to make on a number of levels.”

Which brings us here, to a record that tackles racism and Nazism while positing the idea that debate and empathy are healthy. It’s not a peaceful record, and at times it’s pretty angry. But – Frank observes – it’s not an album that has no room for doubt.

“I don’t think doubt can be part of a Rage Against The Machine record, or a Billy Bragg or Anti-Flag record. And these are all people I love and respect,” he says.

“But to do that, you have to be extremely cocksure, and the older I get the less cocksure I am. When I’m having any kind of argument now, I try quite hard to consider that maybe I’m the arsehole, and I reckon that’s quite a good intellectual discipline. I don’t always succeed, but I don’t think it’s a bad approach to consider that maybe you might be the one who’s talking out of their arse sometimes.”

This self-reflection has even extended to his perspective on his career. Traditionally known as a relentless touring artist, he took a break after his last record…and actually says he “loved it”.

“I realised a few years ago that I was engaged in a kind of macho arms race about touring, and that no one else was really competing. I was trying to be the guy that tours the hardest, and it hurt my physical health, my mental health, and more than anything it made me quite one-dimensional. I still care about music more than anything else, but it’s nice to have extracurricular interests these days.”

“I have a partner. I have a house. I have a cat. I’ve got reasons to go home. And 10 years ago, I would have been wary of admitting that to anybody because it would have felt like a source of weakness somehow. And obviously in retrospect, I realise that that’s quite an adolescent view of the world.”

“Now I’m very happy to go home and just be a private civilian in between tours, and just get on with whatever the fuck I want to do.”

Frank Turner's new album ‘Be More Kind’ will be released on May 4 by Xtra Mile Recordings. He is currently touring the UK in April and May, before heading on a US tour.

Words: John Hill
Photography: Thomas Jackson

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