‘The whole idea for this tour was for it to be more about listening than about dancing’ – An Interview with Frank Turner

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Over the years, Frank Turner has released many notable albums, all with their own huge strengths and achievements. At the end of last week, Frank Turner & The Sleeping Souls released their newest album, Live in Newcastle. Recorded on his No Man’s Land tour last year, this album is a must-have as it is the perfect cure right now if you’re missing live gigs. I had the opportunity to speak to the Hampshire local earlier this week about this new album, and also about his activities during this lockdown period.

You and The Sleeping Souls released your newest album last week. I saw you on the No Man’s Land tour last year in Southampton, and just wanted to clarify, was Live in Newcastle recorded on that same tour?

Yes it was, it was two nights before. We actually recorded all the shows on the tour, because a gig is a gig and you never know how it’s going to go. I don’t really believe in editing and re-recording and fine-tuning, I wanted to just release one show. So, at the end of the tour I went through all of them and, with all due love and respect to Southampton, which was sort of the home-town show on the tour, the one in Newcastle was the night where we played best and it was the best audience response.

What is the production like for a live album compared to a studio album?

It’s a different beast in the sense that you are playing everything live. We had been on tour for about 3 months doing that set before we got to that show, so hopefully we were pretty played in as a band. The technical side of things is just the live set up as it was, and the main thing is just finding a good mixer, and we got my friend Tristan Ivemy, who is in fact from Hampshire, he’s from Portsmouth, and he mixed Love, Ire and Song and England Keep My Bones so we got him back in the driving seat for this one, and he did a great job.

So, obviously the album was released conveniently during the lockdown period, when people are obviously missing live gigs the most. Was there a plan to release the album during this time anyway, or did you release it because of the absence of live music currently?

We moved it forward because of what’s happening right now. I think the plan was to put this out at some point later this year originally. My original plan, and I have no idea if this is going to still happen, but I was supposed to be in the studio working on a new studio album in the back half of this year, so my thinking was to put out a live album during that to tide people over. Of course, I’m not now on tour, I’m at home, and we just had the files there and Tristan was ready to work, and it was just like, well let’s get on with it, there’s no point in waiting.

So Live in Newcastle is actually the first live album I’ve ever listened to from start to finish. Do you have a personal preference when it comes to listening to albums, do you prefer live or studio?

I’m quite suspicious of live albums generally, and I know I’ve just released one, so let me expand on that. I tend to feel like the point of a show is an ephemeral thing, it happens once if you were there, that’s great, and if you weren’t, then you just have to go and find a show. There’s a company now that kind of do this thing where you can get a USB stick of the gig you’ve just seen as you walk out the venue, and that to me is dumb, because that is not what it’s supposed to be, it’s an event where you live in the moment. Having said that, I think that there can be a place for a live record, and this one specifically for us, the point was that it was a very different set to what we usually do, and I don’t know if we’re going to do it again ever, so I wanted to capture that. Weirdly, some people are like, “are you ever gonna do studio versions of these songs?”, and I’m like, well, we sort of just did… you’ve got a recording of them, that’s the point. So, there’s value to them in that level. There are some live albums that I absolutely adore, the obvious choice would be The Last Waltz which is the final gig that The Band ever did. I think it’s one of the greatest rock ‘n roll documents ever made, so that would be my vote. Yeah, I suppose if you’re gonna have a live album you probably want to sit down and listen to it from start to finish, that seems to make sense to me.

One thing I noticed on the album was your performance of ‘I Am Disappeared’ differs a lot from the studio version, as it’s a lot more stripped back. Was there a reason you decided to sing the song differently live, or did it happen naturally when you performed it?

That’s a song that we’ve done a few different versions of over the years. I’m a firm believer that songs are organic structures, that they live and breathe. The moment you record it in the studio is just a snap-shot of a moment in time. And sometimes those developmental things I choose to do on purpose, and in fact an awful lot of arrangements for this live album were because I wanted to do all kinds of arrangements and different versions. I grew up listening to Counting Crows, and they always did kind of alternative versions on their B-sides and stuff, which I loved. So, that was part of it. But, I mean, also it’s funny, I have a song called ‘Photosynthesis’, which is one of my more famed songs, and at no point have I ever consciously tried to change the arrangement of that song, but if I listen back now to the recorded version of it I’m like, “wow, what the fuck is that?!”. We’ve just played it so many times that every night it’s just grown a little bit in one direction or come back in another direction, whatever it might be, and I think that’s cool, I think that’s what a song should be. I don’t wanna just get up and mechanically repeat what we did in the studio fifteen years ago every time I go on stage.

Yeah, definitely, and it means it’s a different experience live each time. I’ve seen you twice now, and both those shows were very different.

Yeah, I mean, that’s good, that is also part of it. I don’t want people to come down and just see us do the same set they saw two years ago on previous tours.

How come you chose to perform seated and to a seated audience on the No Man’s Land tour? 

The music I make very simplistically hovers somewhere between folk music and punk rock (and that’s a huge oversimplification, but we’ll go with it for now). In terms of live shows that I do, for a long time I’ve been leaning on the punk end of that equation, and that’s fine, but it means that the aim of the show is movement in the crowd and energy and frenzy, I suppose might be the word for it. And that’s cool, and I love it, and that is what I will go back to doing in the future, but that’s not the only thing we know how to do and it’s not the only thing that I want to do and it’s not the only thing I do on my records, so the whole idea for this tour was for it to be about listening more than about dancing. So people could sit down and really absorb the songs, the music, the arrangements, the lyrics, and indeed the stories between them. It seemed to me that it would be better in terms of getting the audience to focus to play seated venues. It also meant that we got to play some places, some really cool rooms that I’ve never played before, stuff like Birmingham Symphony Hall which is one of the most beautiful rooms I’ve ever been in in my life. So the idea was to change the focus of the show, so that it’s not about stage diving and circle pits, it’s about paying attention.

I imagine it tests your stage confidence quite a bit, to perform seated and speak to an entirely silent, seated audience. Did you ever struggle with this seated aspect?

Yeah, definitely. The beginning of the tour was really, really weird. We did the first show of the whole tour, it was in Montreal in Canada, and we’d been rehearsing like crazy for a long time. I was pretty nervous about it, I had a bit of a moment the day before the show, just kind of saying to myself, “What the fuck are we doing?! Why are we doing this? Oh my god”, and then my manager called me and got me to calm down. The show went really well, and the audience really connected with it. I mean, the show got better over time as we kind of settled in to it, but it was funny because one of the main things for me was I came off stage and I wasn’t exhausted, physically. I wasn’t covered in sweat, and shaking. I was a bit like, am I allowed to go now? Am I done for the day? I felt like I had to do more, because usually I know it’s the end of a show because I physically can’t do any more. It was a strange thing. It’s funny, this tour was a lot harder on my voice in many ways because I was playing two sets. It was kind of emotionally quite tough in places because I was trying to be really raw, in terms of the chat and all that kind of thing. But in terms of my body below the waist, it was a lot easier.

Yeah, I mean I thought it was a really unique experiencing at Southampton Guildhall, seeing it with seats because I had never seen it with seats before!

I have a feeling I went to a carol concert there once when I was a kid or something like that. But yeah, I’m used to seeing that place full of heaving bodies, so it was different, for sure.

Obviously you’ve been performing live from home every Thursday, raising money for independent venues. So I guess my first question would be, how do you choose the venues you raise money for each week?

Just before the lockdown kicked in properly, I was planning on going down to Nambucca because I live nearby, and it’s a very dear place to me, so my plan was to go down there and do a live-stream from there, using their equipment to raise money for them. And then the lockdown came in, and I was like well, I guess we can’t do that, so I did it at home. In the first one I put out a shout-out and said, “look, if you run a venue and you need some help from someone like me then you can get in touch”. From then, it just went a bit crazy for a while, and I have shows booked for a couple of months into the future at this point. I’ve been letting venues approach me, because it seems slightly crass to me, the idea of me calling up a venue and saying, “Hi, are you guys fucked?”. At the beginning, the guys who run The Joiners, the guys who run The Railway, and the guys who run Tunbridge Wells Forum are very old friends of mine, so they were texting me while I was still doing that first one [live-stream]. Since then, people got in touch. The one that I’m doing on Thursday this week is for the Huddersfield Parish, which is the first venue I’ve never been to that I’m doing one for. The people there seem really cool, and it’s an independent venue so it needs help.

I know it meant a lot to everyone at the magazine, and everyone at Southampton Uni generally, with the amount of money you raised for The Joiners. 

The Joiners is so close to my heart, I grew up going there, I went to my first ever gig at The Joiners. Million Dead played there a bunch, the final ever Million Dead show was at The Joiners, I have played there solo a million times. It’s very dear to me, that place.

I know this is quite a hard question, but do you have a particular favourite independent venue that you’ve chosen?

This is going to sound like I’m saying this just because I’m talking to you, but The Joiners is up there. The Joiners is where I met Seán McGowan, who is a very dear friend of mine, he’s amazing. Seán played at my wedding, so he’s a very special person to me, and I met him there. And Pat, who runs The Joiners, is an old friend, and it’s just kind of family really.

You mentioned that you are working on something currently. Have you found that lockdown has inspired your writing, or weakened it? 

It’s a strange thing. At the beginning I, like a lot of people, said to myself, “well, there’s gonna be loads of time and no distractions, so I’ll get on with creative stuff”. For the first week or so, that was true. And then, like a lot of people, the enormity of what we’re living through sort of impinges on everything you do. I don’t want to spend my whole life writing songs about lockdown, because I think that in a year’s time there’s going to be a real glut of those. But it’s sometimes pretty hard to think about anything else. You sit down, and try and write a song about anything else and it just feels kinda mundane and not that important. I went through a pretty fallow period for a bit, because I feel like we’ve been in lockdown for my entire life. I definitely have productive days and unproductive days. One of my main things I’ve been doing lately is trying to be forgiving with myself for having unproductive days. I’m somebody who tends to be very busy all the time, it’s just how my brain works. At the beginning when I had days where I got up and couldn’t put two and two together, and just end up watching Netflix all day, I’d then get pissed off at myself for doing that. I think that’s not actually healthy or the correct process, and I think that we need to allow ourselves to have some days where nothing comes together.

Is there a particular album or artist that you’ve been listening to a lot during this lockdown period? 

To be honest, the main stuff I’ve been listening to lately, and this is a sad thing, is John Prine who passed away who was an incredible song-writer. And in fact Bill Withers too, my all time favourite writers. So I’ve been listening to a fair amount of John Prine and Bill Withers. I did also start listening to the new Fiona Apple record the other day, and I think it’s really good.

Live in Newcastle is available to listen to now via Polydor Records.

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Live Editor 2019/20 & second year English student. Can usually be found procrastinating my degree at a gig, or trying (and failing) to complete my Goodreads challenge

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