We caught up with Frank Turner ahead of his second sold out gig with The Sleeping Souls at Victoria Warehouse. The venue sets the scene with an image of him crowd surfing in his signature We Are Gntlemen shirt on the giant digital billboard where the Trafford Park mural used to be.
Frank: It’s great, isn’t it! My second favourite billboard of all time. The first one was when we had been out raving and misbehaving, and the sun had come up – it was 9am and my mate went to open the curtains and immediately went ‘fuuuuuu*k’. When I looked out of the window it was my face on a massive billboard facing his house. It was quite a healthy and wholesome picture of me and I was not in a healthy and wholesome place, so it was just not what I needed to see.
We’ll start with the easy ones – what’s your favourite track to play for a crowd like Victoria Warehouse?
I’m kind of an unashamed populist when it comes to my shows, and I like it when the crowd gets involved. I can make that sound more philosophical by talking about how it’s about breaking down the barrier between the audience and the show…it’s also because it feels good. You know? To play a song that I wrote in my bedroom and have 3000 people singing it back.
Bit of an ego boost then?
Yeah, definitely! To me art is interesting when it’s communication, when it’s participation. And it does make my mum think I have a real job…so anything that gets the crowd going, really.
You’ve said that Clive James, the poet who originally penned the title of the new album ‘Be More Kind’, is an inspiration to you. You’ve said that you follow his poetry wherever you can. How much of that comes through in your songwriting?
I don’t wanna be overly ambitious with that one. Because I think that he’s a genius poet and I don’t regard writing lyrics as being quite the same thing as writing poetry. They are separate but related disciplines. I’d love to say that I was influenced by the poets that I love; Clive James, John Betjeman, Philip Larkin, T.S. Eliot…
Yeah, yeah, I’ve got T. S Eliot tattoos all over me, I’m obsessed. I’ve certainly nicked lines now and again…anyone who manipulates words is interesting to me.
So, from Thatcher F*cked Up The Kids in 2008 to 21st Century Survival Blues in your most recent album, there’s an underlying theme of social disillusionment in your music. How political do you consider this album to be?
That’s the million dollar question, isn’t it? I’ve been using the word social rather than political. In a way, it was an effort to write a sort of non-partisan political record – which I know sounds like a contradiction in terms, but that’s kind of the point. To me, being a liberal means to be somebody who cheers for the ref at the football game, being all about the rules of engagement. The record is about how we disagree with each other, rather than what we disagree about, so it’s kind of like meta-ideological.
My central concern at the moment isn’t that we have disagreements – we always have done, and we always will do. Anyone who’s political ideology is aimed at a point where humans won’t disagree with one another is a totalitarian. It’s about finding a way to disagree with one another in a civil fashion, which involves trying to find the humanity in the person that you’re disagreeing with and trying to establish some common ground, and a workable way forward.
In the last ten years (mainly because of social media in my opinion) we have reached a point where everyone across the political spectrum has reached this really rejectionist place where they’re just like… ‘anyone who disagrees with me is a f*cking idiot and they should just die!’. But that doesn’t help…at all. The places in history where we see people stop regarding their opponents as human are extremely dark, and we need stop ourselves from going there.
So when you talk about issues like racism, and you actively call racists out in your lyrics, what’s the end goal? Are you just writing about issues that you care about, or do you want to be part of a progression away from negative behaviours?
The end goal is get get racists to consider the humanity of the people that they’re being a*seholes about. I mean, obviously racism is awful, but part of the reason why it’s awful is because it’s a method of treating a certain group of people as being less than human, that’s what’s sh*tty about it. So, to say all of this does hopefully call out racism, homophobia, transgender issues, and all of that kind of thing. I’m saying that this kind of intolerance doesn’t belong in the picture.
To pick a more obvious example, there are actually solid reasons why some people voted for Donald Trump. I think they made a bad choice myself, but to react to that by saying ‘You’re a f*cking a*sehole nazi idiot!’ doesn’t actually stop them from voting for him again…it’s not a way of persuading somebody to come over to your side of the isle! I feel that there’s a lot of that in the brexit vote. On both sides of the debate, people think that anyone who voted the other way is an awful person. It’s a sh*tty way to think! Everybody thinks that they’re trying to make the word a better place, they just have different ideas about how to do that.
So do you class your songs as activist movements, or are they just a contribution to the wider discussion?
Yeah, I’d say they were contributing to the discussion. I’m very weary of the word activism because I think it’s a word without moral content. People treat activism like it’s inherently moral and I don’t think it is. I mean, the f*cking SS were activists in their way…it depends on what you’re being active for! It sounds a little dessicated to me as well. I’m a human who has opinions about how humans interact.
And wants to share them.
Right. I mean, I’d like to get people to be nicer to each other, because I am, at heart, a massive hippie.
Don’t tell anyone. It’s my dirty secret.