The folk-punk singer-songwriter looks back at his vast touring career, from East End all-dayers to rap battles in Sierra Leone.
When it comes to grilling musicians on the highs and lows of their touring career, few are as well-equipped as Frank Turner. For a start, he is a gigging machine — earlier in June for example he became the first non-American (and third person ever) to play 50 US states in 50 days. “Before the tour I had played in 47 American states, so I had a good count going anyway,” he tells us from Sheffield as he kicks off his FTHC tour. “I initially said to my agent I want to get my full 50, so he said alright I’ll book you three shows then. Well that’s boring isn’t it? Let’s see if we can get them all in one go. So that became the 50 days, and then my crew wanted to murder me.”
But it’s one thing committing to relentless and record-breaking schedules, and another keeping track of them. Yet from the start, inspired by an old band mate in the hardcore band Million Dead, Turner has kept a record of every show he’s played, which he keeps on his website as a kind of diary. “At the beginning of my career I toured on my own a lot, so there was nobody to bounce the memories off anyway, it was me and a guitar and a train for two and a half years pretty much. So it’s cool to have the list and it’s important to me. I’m not under the impression that it’s important to anybody else, but it’s nice for me to look back and see what I’ve done with my adult life.”
That’s exactly what we do as the folk-punk troubadour takes us through some of the talking points of his touring career, from East End all-dayers to rap battles in Sierra Leone.
Show number one on my list was at 93 Feet East in 2004, when Million Dead were still very much a going concern. I had no thoughts of the solo thing being anything other than a fun thing I was doing for a charity show. I had an acoustic guitar and had started listening to a lot of Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Springsteen’s Seeger Session and all that kind of business. But it was just a dalliance, not a serious thing, and I think I’d written one, maybe two, solo songs at the time and the rest of my set was either acoustic Propagandhi covers or whatever. It was fun, but wasn’t something at the time I dreamed would go anywhere else, you know?
The other thing about that show which is entertaining these days is that Dive Dive were on the bill — several members of which are now in the Sleeping Souls — and indeed Fighting With Wire, and Cahir from that band is now my guitar tech and stage manager these days. So there were quite a lot of people who were at that show who are in the building tonight, which is kinda nice.
Before all of this I was in a bedroom band with some friends when I was a kid. We never quite settled on a name, but we played my older sister’s 14th birthday party when I would have been 12. I don’t think my sister wanted us to play, I think that my mum was trying to make us play nicely with each other. We were covering In Utero era Nirvana, and my sister and her friends weren’t into a bunch of 12-year-olds screaming at them, so it was all quite awkward.
One of the biggest shows I ever played was at Wembley Stadium with Green Day in 2010, there were an awful lot of people at that show. But it’s funny because we played a festival in Poland a few years ago that allegedly had 200,000 people at it; I don’t think all of them were watching me, shall we say! [laughs]. But yeah, in terms of non festivals that Green Day show in 2010 is still the biggest.
It’s funny, on one level there’s a sense that a gig is a gig, you know? There are things like speaking slower when you’re in a larger room because of the echo and all the rest of it, little things like that. But ideologically I feel quite strongly that a gig is a gig. Of course, there is an obvious difference between playing The Joiners Arms and playing Wembley Stadium, and it would be kind of ludicrous for me to pretend that they’re fundamentally the same thing. But there are some common threads. Ultimately I’m getting up there and playing songs that I wrote and trying to do it well while engaging an audience.
Also I’d be a liar if I said that walking out on stage at a sold-out Ally Pally doesn’t feel f*cking great, do you know what I mean? The physicality of the roar of a crowd at that level is really quite something. It’s a privilege to have ever experienced that in my life. But at the same time there’s a part of my heart that lies in the packed-out 300/400 cap club, and I guess it’s easier to connect with an audience in that situation. Not just because most bands get more opportunity to practice playing that kind of show, but also because they’re right there, and the challenging thing is to make a larger room feel intimate. It’s doable, and I remember when I was getting up to the point of headlining arenas for the first time myself thinking, how the f*ck do you do this? Then remembering that I’ve seen Springsteen play Hyde Park and how he made it feel very personal and intimate to everybody. And we were lucky enough to do some arena support slots before we got to the point of headlining, and if you’ve got any sense as the support band, you watch the headliners and you take notes on how they do what they do.
I have played a lot of shows that were less than ideal, sometimes that’s been my fault and sometimes that’s been somebody else’s! [laughs] If a show’s not good because I didn’t play well, that’s a thing. I had my issues with substance abuse, he said politely, in my time, and there was one particular show I did many years ago in Yeovil and I was completely off my tits when we started. I hadn’t been to bed and I played a really bad show. I knew I played a bad show, and it was hundred percent my fault. I felt pretty sh*t about that, and I still do.
But once I was playing in New Jersey, opening for The Offspring, and the bill had been miss-announced. The audience was expecting an act they didn’t know, followed by Sum-41 followed by The Offspring, and in fact they got a local radio competition winner and then me before The Offspring. I was an unknown English guy with an acoustic guy, on my own, and they were drunk South Jersey Offspring fans who were not stoked on me. I got quite confrontational with them about it, singing a capella folk songs and Simon and Garfunkel and sh*t. They were throwing batteries and coins and lit cigarettes at me and stuff; it was about the worst reaction from a crowd I’ve ever had, but I didn’t come off feeling bad. I actually felt quite punk. I kept saying, ‘you call yourselves punks? You f*cking cowards!’ or whatever, which you’ll be surprised to learn didn’t endear me to them.
I find this to be a really difficult question to answer, partly because I do so many shows. Plus also the setlist, the arc that I’m presenting, evolves over time. There’s a lot of different factors. I can’t pick the best show I’ve ever played. In July we did a show in Denver as part of the 50 states thing, and it was one of my favourite shows we’ve ever played… That’s an immediate memory. It’s not every show though, I try and be hyper self-critical about what I do, I think that’s a healthy thing. We played Reading the other day as the first date of this tour, and it was a cool show. We played well and the crowd had a good time, but I came off and was immediately like, right, that bit of the setlist didn’t flow, I need to remember what songs land better in the UK than in Germany, where we’ve just been. I’m calibrating. But I’d say it’s about one show in every twenty where I come off stage and go, that was a good f*cking show and I know what I’m doing. It’s comparatively rare, but it’s a very nice feeling when it happens. Denver was a good example of that.
I also did the last ever show at Nambucca not very long ago, which was a very emotionally-charged evening. It was a loaded and strange evening in many ways, but the actual show itself was magic, it was everything that I hoped it would be. It’s part of my history, and I spent a fair amount of my time bouncing between there and the Hawley Arms over the years, shall we say. My career as a solo artist was very much shaped by times at Nambucca. I’ve played a lot of shows there and spent a lot of nights staying there, probably not sleeping very much if I’m honest with you. I met a lot of people there who remain friends, and my tour manager, who’s sat next to me right now, used to live there.
I should start by saying that in my early days of touring as a solo artist I played an awful lot of weird shows, because my whole deal was that I’d play anywhere. As opposed to now, when the path from being in a punk band to making a solo acoustic record is quite well worn, it really wasn’t in 2005.
A lot of people thought I was having a psychotic episode when I told them I was going to be a folk singer, having been in a hardcore band. Everything went back to zero and I was like, I will play anywhere. I played people’s houses, I played squats, I played rooftops, street corners, pretty much anywhere I could gather at least five people. That went on for a long time, I remember playing completely banana shows in the Baltic states, a lot of mad shows in the States, as well. There was a house show I played in Philly in 2009 that has become the stuff of legend; I had a day off on The Offspring tour and just thought I’d play at my mate John’s house. He lived in a teeny town house and 250 people turned up and tried to get into his living room and we got them all in, but I couldn’t physically move where I was standing.
So there’s been a lot of weird shows over the years, but this is probably the weirdest show I’ve ever played… I go out to Sierra Leone to do some charity work with WAYout Arts pretty regularly, and my job is to be the person with social media followers who just hangs around and tries to direct attention to the people doing the actual work. But I play when I’m out there too. Most of the kids in Sierra Leone aren’t really into folk-punk, do you know what I mean? They’re into hip-hop and African music.
There was a gig last time I was there that was held in the drive way of a car park by the side of the motorway on the outskirts of Freetown, and the stage was a pile of plywood. It was a rap battle between rival gangs of east Freetown, which was, among other things, an attempt to bring peace between various feuding gangs. I was told before it happened that the central aim of the day was for it to go off without anyone getting shot. There were rappers from the different gangs who were all gonna get up and compete with each other, hopefully in a friendly way. My friend Fal G, who’s the leader of The Black Street Family, who are the biggest act in east Freetown, was hosting it and they asked me to go on first. I was like, “Are you f*cking serious?” So I’m standing on a pile of plywood in a car wash with a massive soundsystem, and there’s probably 200 people there. I know about 50 of them from the charity, but the rest of the crowd were some pretty serious individuals. I got up there like, “Hello, how are you? Here’s a song about getting drunk in Camden.”
God bless the audience, they were lovely. I could see a few people asking each other, “Who the f*ck is this guy and why is he here?” But I was playing my singalongs, ‘Wessex Boy’ and ‘Little Changes’, stomp-and-clamp songs so that someone who had no idea who I was could join in, and I like to think I got them going. Funnily enough I was there with my buddy Jamie Stix, who used to be the barman at Nambucca, and I came off stage and we were drinking palm wine, which tastes like petrol and is completely demented. Me and Stix said to each other, “We’ve been to some pretty f*cked up warehouse parties in our time, but this might be the most insane gig ever”.
Main photo credit: Ben Morse