Frank Turner Doesn't Want to Punch Nazis, But He Does Want to Make BeerOctober 15, 2018
After playing show number 2,217 at Greenpoint, Brooklyn’s St. Vitus bar a mere 18 hours ago, Frank Turner is on his way back to the venue from the South Street seaport in Manhattan for what will be show number 2,219.
Show number 2,218 was a matinee aboard The Liberty Belle cruise ship in NYC for one of the busiest men in music. (For the uninitiated, Turner announces what number show he’s playing at the beginning of every gig.)
Tonight, before his third show in 24 hours, I’m guessing Frank Turner could use a cold beer.
Turner started his career in the post-hardcore outfit Million Dead, and he doesn’t seem out of place at a metal bar like St. Vitus where black inverted crosses, Sabbath Bloody Sabbath & Iron Maiden LPs line dimly lit black walls. He's kept most of his punk persona intact despite seven albums worth of songs that largely fly in the face of that style. His reliably angsty and urgent vocal delivery, combined with razor sharp lyrical wit, and a touring/studio band (The Sleeping Souls) that can bring the noise, help lend a punk vibe to many of his songs and shows.
When I arrive at St. Vitus I notice there’s a decent craft beer selection featuring Lord Hobo’s Hobo Life session IPA, Victory’s Prime Pils Pilsner, and Sixpoint’s Sweet Action. There’s also a St. Vitus Lager on tap, which naturally piques my interest until the bartender dutifully informs me that “it’s Bud Light.”
Frank and I opt for the New Belgium Fat Tires I brought with me as we discuss his studio experimentation on Be More Kind, taking the album’s title literally (and personally), and his experience brewing his very own beer with England’s Signature Brewing Company.
How’s the tour been going?
I was saying to my crew last night that some nights it’s work, and some nights you’re reminded why you love it. And we just had a stretch of some pretty tough shows. To come out last night, and there was a full room, and everybody just sang along with every song, and everyone was in a good mood, and I played old and new and weird and popular, and it was great. And then we did the boat, which was fun, and now we’ll do it again. Cheers.
Are you more comfortable here than other places because of your background with Million Dead?
Yeah, I’ve played a lot more shows in kinda grimy dive bars than anywhere else. And this place in particular is run by a friend of mine, Arty from the band Gay for Johnny Depp, who toured with Million Dead 15 years ago and we’ve been friends ever since. So I come here a lot when I’m in New York anyway, so I feel very comfortable here, definitely. It’s a good vibe.
Let’s dive into Be More Kind. Did the album come out as different sonically as you thought it might originally?
It’s an interesting question and I’m arguably the wrong person to ask because it feels radically different to me, but then so does every record I make because it’s a different place and I’m producing songs at a different time of my life. I mean, one of my concerns was—without naming names—that there were bands that I’m familiar with who spend ages yacking on about how their new record has a new sound, and it comes out and it’s got a slightly different drum sound and that’s it. And you’re kind of like, “What the fuck?” So I didn’t want to engage in all the rhetoric, and produce something that was the same as what I’ve done before. Certainly I think Blackout is radically different sonically than anything I’ve done before, and so is Be More Kind, and so is a lot of it. I’m satisfied with it, but it’s not quite for me to judge.
If our politics simply becomes a contest of physical strength, then that’s a disaster.”
I know you’ve also gotten some feedback from your audience that has indicated that it is pretty different.
Yeah! Yes, definitely. One of the things that was hilarious is that when we dropped the song “Make America Great Again,” I was a little nervous about how the song would be received. But the backlash on that song was much more about the fact that it had synthesizers than about the fact that it was about politics at all, which I think was fucking hilarious. I mean, political backlash has arrived now as well, which is fine. Obviously I went into that with open eyes.
How did the concept for the “Make America Great Again” video come about? I saw an interview in which you said you were a little nervous going in and might have gotten a little drunk for it?
I did! Well, we shot it right outside a bar in Austin, Texas called Buffalo Billiards, which is run by my friend Kurt. So he sort of let me change in his back room because I had to put on that fucking ridiculous-looking suit. And then, well, stopping people in the street and asking them dumb questions while dressed as an asshole is really not my comfort zone. There are some people who can do that, like Sacha Baron Cohen or whatever, but that’s not me. But also, it wasn’t completely sarcastic. I wanted the video to have a constructive angle. Me and my buddy Ben Morse, who shoots all of my videos, talked about the idea and I think it came together really well. I’m really pleased with it.
One thing I’ve noticed about this record is this nice mixture of in-your-face protest songs, and others that are these really pretty pleas for humanity, if you will. How important was it for you to have that mix?
I’ve been steering away from politics for a few years for a number of reasons, chief among which is that I didn’t feel particularly inspired by the subject. And then 2016 happened, and the world, collectively both here and back home and in Europe as well, just went fucking insane. And I felt driven to write about it again. But I thought long and hard about what my take on the world was and what sort of message I would want to put into a song. And I think I couldn’t have written this album 10 years ago. Let alone 20 when I was a furious, anarchist teenager or whatever.
What I feel that the record is chiefly about is that we’ve collectively forgot how to conduct our disagreements in a civil fashion. The whole point of the game of politics is to try to find a way that we can conduct our disagreements in a civil fashion. Because there are only two ways we can disagree with each other, and we can do it through words or through force of arms. And historically we’ve been very lucky, unusually so for the last couple hundred years arguably, to conduct our disagreements mainly through rhetoric and through words in Western democratic societies. And I think there’s a lot of people who have grown up with the comfort of that who don’t recognize the value of it, who are therefore in a hurry to jettison it, and they will fucking regret that.
To be specific: I have friends who are on the whole “punch a Nazi” train. And every one of my friends who’s in favor of that looks to me like the kind of person who would lose a fight. And it’s just like, if you normalize physical violence, you are in trouble. And if our politics simply becomes a contest of physical strength, then that’s a disaster.
And the thing is everybody’s in favor of the idea of being more kind, as long as it involves your opponents being nice to you.
Have you taken the “be more kind” mantra to heart personally?
Yeah. I try, and my god, do I fail. You know, I’m as guilty as anybody as indulging in rage and one-upmanship. The elephant in the room here is social media. We’ve gone through a communication revolution and if that isn’t at the center of our conversation about politics then we’re having the wrong conversation. What worries me about social media is we’ve actually built a machine to dehumanize our opponents. Because when you argue with someone on Twitter you don’t see a human, you see a handle. Exhibit A in my evidence to back up this theory is that people are nicer to each other on Instagram, and the reason for that is that you see a person and you don’t on Twitter. I think we need to think about this. And like I said, I’m as guilty of this as anybody else. My instinctive reaction a lot of the time when somebody calls me an asshole on Twitter is to respond with a “fuck you too, man.” And it doesn’t help. If I was good at it—which I’m not—I could probably say that in a way that was really funny and cutting, but that still doesn’t help.
On this tour, when you play certain songs are you surprised by the crowd reaction to any in particular?
Broadly speaking, the act of taking your art that you work on in private into a public sphere is always an interesting moment in time, because there is nothing quite like the glare of public regard to throw your strengths and weaknesses into something. The obvious song “Make America Great Again”’ I was expecting some backlash from that song. We’ve had a little, but not masses to be honest. And in fact, the most gratifying response I’ve had is people responding in kind and saying either “I’m a Republican”—or even “I’m a Trump voter”—which incidentally are two groups that don’t necessarily overlap. Or people saying, “I’m a Trump voter and I wasn’t offended by the song, I took your point and I thought it was a valid point,” or whatever. That made me very happy because that’s dialogue. But nevertheless, we’ve had some “fuck you!” walkouts.
But more or less you’re satisfied to not just be speaking to your audience, or speaking into an echo chamber.
Yeah, and listen, one of the other responses that always comes back is “just shut up and sing,” or to be slightly more intelligent with the comment, people go, “I come to art to escape what’s happening in the world, I don’t want to come to a show and then be submerged in politics again.” I can see the point, and it’s a valid one, but at the same time, this is my art, this is my audience and I’ll do whatever the fuck I want with the platform I’ve earned. No one has to come to my shows.
Switching to beer, how did it come about when you ended up brewing with Signature Brew?
[Laughs] I got an email that said, ”Do you want to have your own beer?” And I said, “Fuckin’ yeah.” I’m a red-blooded English male, bring it on.
My brain fucking whirs 24-7, and I need to give it things to do.”
So how did you guys settle on the Belgian wheat?
I spent an evening in a closed pub with a brewer and he had all these different shot glasses of beer. And it was really interesting because I don’t know anything about brewing beer, so he paired things off and would be like “try this one and this one” and in so doing he was juxtaposing two different facets of a beer. And the idea was that in my choices I would demonstrate to him what I was into. Which worked for about the first five maybe, and after that I was just drunk so I was like “ah, whatever man.”
I mean, I’m not a fan of stout, and really heavy IPAs. I like my beer lighter than that.
Is there anything in particular you’re drinking these days?
The first thing I would say—and this is going to sound ridiculous sat here as we are drinking a Fat Tire—I’ve been cutting down on my drinking quite a lot lately in a way that is past time. What I do for a living... I spend my life working in a place where alcohol is more readily available than food or shelter. And that’s kind of hilarious when you’re in your 20s and touring is kind of an endless bachelor party on wheels. But it can be dangerous to people’s physical and mental health. Certainly I went through a long period of issues with substance and alcohol abuse and I like to think I’m in a place now where I can moderate, and that’s cool. This year already I’ve done three dry tours, which has been fucking awesome, and sort of eye-opening.
If you could have a beer with anyone, living or dead, who would it be?
Off the top of my head I’d pick Clive James. The expression “be more kind” is sort of borrowed from his work. It’s not going to happen because he’s terminally ill, and it’s incredibly sad, but his writing has absolutely revolutionized my understanding of everything, so I’d love to shoot the shit with him.
So what comes next for you and the band?
Well we’re touring through the end of the year. I’m going on holiday for a bit, which I think is earned… I’d like to think. [Laughs.] Then a USA and Canada tour, a European tour and a UK tour to start next year, so I’ll be on tour probably until the end of next year for Be More Kind. In the interim we have plans for another EP, and I’m working on album eight in my head. I’ve got two side projects on the go, and working on a book, so trying to keep myself out of trouble.
So, keeping busy?
Yeah, I mean, the thing is my brain fucking whirs 24-7, and I need to give it things to do.