Frank Turner is about to have a busy few months. The Nashville based recording of his new album Positive Songs For Negative People may have taken a comparative blink of an eye but the campaign to promote and tour it already has him booked up till December, with more to follow in 2016. Mind you, keeping busy is something he knows a lot about – as this year’s tour memoir The Road Beneath My Feet admirably demonstrates. Finding time to talk to State, we wonder if it was a strange mix – looking forward to a new record while simultaneously taking stock of his past…
“A little bit. In a way it makes me sound faintly unobservant but I hadn’t really thought about what writing a retrospective would entail in terms of thinking about my life and my career. It was quite a weird process. You have to think about which things were meaningful and which weren’t, which in some ways is quite cool but in others is strange. I don’t feel like I’m wrapping up just yet”.
In the book, you often stop the narrative to explain your opinion and how it’s altered between then and now..
“One changes in life moving forward as a human being. I’m certainly a different person now to what I was doing those early solo shows and I don’t see anything wrong with that”.
Did writing The Road Beneath My Feet have any influence on Positive Songs For Negative People?
“This is my sixth album, not many acts get to make it that far and those that do either start to repeat themselves or enter a weird experimental phase that’s tolerated by the die-hard fans while everybody else calls out for the old hits. I don’t want to fall into either of those traps and there was definitely a degree to which I wanted to justify my existence and justify putting out a sixth record with these songs. It’s a legitimate question from people, whether they need to buy another album, and I wanted to make them go, fuck yeah I actually do”.
To achieve that, did you do anything different?
“I spent a lot of time thinking about debut albums and why they’re so often interesting and cool. When bands make their first record the songs are rehearsed in the live context, trialed and tested in front of a crowd. They’re recorded quite quickly, you smash out an album and then get on with your lives. I wanted to borrow that methodology. The Sleeping Souls and I have been playing these songs, in some cases, up to two years and in the end we set up our gear and recorded the album in nine days”.
Is it harder to have the same kind of adventures now that you did in your early solo days?
“Very much so. Part of the reason why I could go wild in those early days was that I was completely out on a limb. If you have ten people coming to a squat show in Eastern Europe the parameters are much looser. These days I have a crew, buses and a schedule. People have asked me if I’ll write another book about what’s happened since and maybe, if I could find a way of doing it, but I’m not sure if I’d have as much to say. The interesting stuff happened in those early days. I still like to think I have an adventurous mind and I try and get outside the bubble as much as I can”.
Are positive songs hard to write?
“It depends where you are in your life. A lot of this is reacting to Tape Deck Heart. That was quite a difficult time in my life and it was hard to write and sing about it. There were a lot of low points. I’d injured my back quite badly. I’d had my first good old-fashioned kicking in the British press, which wasn’t much fun it has to be said. Once that album was done and dusted there was a real sense of liberation in songwriting terms. Rather than wallowing in my own sense of defeat it felt like it was time to stand up and fight back. You can be much more real and profound if you accept the down sides to life, but that doesn’t mean you have to give up”.
The down side of life certainly does make an appearance in the startling album closer, ‘Song for Josh’. Written in memory of Turner’s late friend Josh Burdette (head of security at the legendary 9:30 club in Washington DC, a giant of man who took his own life), it couples his work in support of CALM (the Campaign Against Living Miserably). Does he think that mental health is still an area that most people either don’t take seriously or just don’t feel comfortable discussing?
“We’re definitely making progress and it’s a lot less taboo than it was twenty years ago but the statistics are what they – are suicide amongst young males is still a major problem. In terms of the specific case of my friend Josh, as the song states if he felt he’d been able to talk about it more with other people then maybe we could have done something about it”.
Is that the primary difference between male and female mental health – the ability to open up?
“I don’t want to get too far into making psychological statements as I’m not expert but it does seem to be quite a male focused problem in terms of socialised ideas of how men don’t talk about things. You can get lost in wondering how well you know people. I’ve had moments in my life when I’ve been lucky enough to have one particular friend who forced me to talk about what was bothering me. I was convinced that he would find it boring or laughable but when I did life got better”.
Is that harder to express when you’re apparently living the dream?
“I’m constantly surprised by what people think my life is like on a daily basis. My friends have a reasonably good handle on it but sometimes you run into people in bars who know who I am and they have quite odd ideas how I spend my time”.
Did that contribute to the press backlash?
“The kicking I had was definitely politics related. Part of it is me learning how to engage with things as a public figure. It’s very easy to be in an underground band because the only people who know you are the ones who know your music, which means you wander through life in a slightly unchallenged way. The last album transitioned into something bigger, which meant who I am and what I do was exposed to people who aren’t predisposed to like me. Which is fine but the nature of the world (and the internet) is that people have time on their hands to tell others that they don’t like them at great length and in badly spelled expletives. It’s not much fun to be on the end of”.
You don’t want that to dissuade you from commenting though, do you?
“That’s an interesting point. I’ve sworn off discussing politics in public because the tone of the debate, particularly once you throw Twitter into the mix, becomes so unavoidably low that I’m not really interested in it. At the same time I try and make sure that I don’t censor myself for the sake of a music life but I don’t want to fall into the trap of thinking my pronouncements matter more than anybody else’s just because I play guitar…”
Positive Songs For Negative People is out now.