DS Interview: Frank Turner on “Positive Songs For Negative People,” touring the US with his old mates, and writing a song for a fallen friend

Frank Turner at the Boston Calling Music Festival – photo by Jay Stone for Dying Scene

Frank Turner‘s reputations as both a seemingly tireless live performer and an open and honest songwriter (and interview subject) have been thoroughly vetted on these and other pages for years. As the thirteen pages of “Frank Turner” search results on Dying Scene alone will attest to, the English folk-punk troubadour (assuming that such descriptors are still necessary at this point) has been one of the most talked to, and talked about, members of the scene. (As an editorial side note, we should probably change that bio page on this set, lest people thing Poetry Of The Deed is still his forthcoming album…)

That the songs have become a tad glossier and a little (or at times a lot) more generally accessible to a broader audience is part of the natural order of things, but it hasn’t stopped Turner from staying true to his roots as an emotional storyteller. While much of the material on his latest release, Positive Songs For Negative People (Interscope Records/Xtra Mile Recordings) stays true to the theme spelled out in the album’s title, the closing track, “Song For Josh,” is as gut-wrenching as anything you’ll find in most artists catalogs. The ode to Josh Burdette, longtime employee and public face of Washington, D.C.’s legendary 9:30 Club, was written just after Burdette’s untimely passing two years ago and recorded live at the 9:30.

The Dying Scene Radio fellas caught up with Frank on the eve of his current US tour that’ll find him on the road for the next six-weeks, traversing the States with Skinny Lister and Beans On Toast. You can check out that podcast entry here. Here at the print side of things at Dying Scene HQ, we chatted with Turner about the more emotional moments on Positive Songs For Negative People, about keeping up with a relentless tour schedule and all it entails, and about what happens if he achieves the long-term happiness he seems to pine for in his songs and inevitably turns into Jack Johnson.

It’s a pretty entertaining read, and you can check it out below. While you’re at it, head here to see where you can catch Turner and his comrades on the road.

Dying Scene (Jay Stone): When you and I last spoke (on the steps of Boston’s City Hall, before the first of what would be two full-band shows that day), your show tally was at 1567. We talked for a bit about how hard the previous year had been for you, and how you could foresee yourself slowing down and playing “four shows a week instead of twelve” or something like that. Fifteen months later, you’re at well over 1700 shows and counting, which is, for the record, well more than double the amount of shows Pearl Jam have ever played in well less than half the amount of time. It seems you weren’t really talking about slowing down anytime soon…

Frank Turner: Well, I have slowed a little actually, as it goes. We have more days off on tour now – we rarely do more than 4 shows in a row – and we’re getting better at coming home for a week between different runs. I also had a fair chunk of time off the road at the end of last year and the beginning of this one, when working on the album. And my crew is ever more efficient, leaving me to do the music part only. So it’s easier in some ways than it has been. That said, this is what I love doing, and it’s the only thing I’m good at, so I might as well do it properly for as long as I can.

I had a couple of different lines of questioning started prior to listening to Positive Music for Negative People for the first time, and even through most of the first listen, but scrapped them entirely when I got to the last few songs; I think the album was progressing logically and built off Tape Deck Heart rather nicely, and then we because they floored me for different reasons. I’m talking, of course, about “Silent Key” and “Song for Josh.”

Well, the record is structured the way it is for a reason.

Without getting too long-winded, I was in first grade in 1986, and grew up not far from where Christa McAuliffe was a teacher, so that shuttle launch was a HUGE deal that I remember vividly. “Silent Key” brought a lot of that rushing back. While haunting, you use that song as a way to convey a positive message. What was the impetus for writing that song now? And do you find that a lot of people aren’t familiar with the reference?

Familiarity with the reference is, I suppose, a function of age, but the song explains the situation reasonably well, I think, and the world has wikipedia at its fingertips. I’ve had a note in my notebook for a long time about that incident, and how I thought it was interesting to write a song about it, but it took me a while to find the right angle on it. It’s a haunting, and poetically tragic event – a primary school teacher dies on international television.

“Song for Josh,” meanwhile, is a total punch in the stomach of a different variety. It’s a very personal and very emotional song that you recorded it live in Josh’s old stomping grounds, making it that much more raw. Because of the explicitly personal nature of the song, was there any hesitation about putting it on the album?

Not really. I knew it needed to go on the record. It was a song written very quickly, after the events in question, and I immediately wanted to share it. It took a while to think of the right pitch for recording it and presenting it, but once we had the idea of recording at 930, the rest of the way was made clear.

Those two songs notwithstanding, the prevailing themes on most of the remainder of Positive Songs for Negative People seem to logically flow from where Tape Deck Heart left off; like there’s still a light to be found at the end of the tunnel but like you are mindful of the amount of work you’ve still got to do to get there. How much time do you spend critiquing your own work during the writing process to make sure you’re progressing from one album to the next and not retelling the same stories?

Well those are two separate things. I do try and make sure I’m not repeating myself, either musically or lyrically, and that I’m moving forward – though there is of course some internal referencing going on. But I try pretty hard not to critique myself when writing. I think the reason a lot of bands lose their way, creatively, is that they start trying to be music critics before they’re musicians. It’s understandable, once you get used to the round of reviews and public judgment of your work, but I think it’s unhealthy. So I try quite hard not to think like that when writing.

On a related note, do you have a song that you’ve written that you consider your high water mark; that you find yourself comparing new songs to?

No. Songwriting is too complex a thing to have simply one peak to be aiming for. It’s not mountain-climbing.

Also, for someone that seems to have established a well-earned reputation of writing “positive songs for negative people,” do you ever worry about what’ll happen when you do get to the light at the end of that tunnel? Like when you’re doing well enough personally, professionally, mentally, etc. that some of that raw pain isn’t there anymore (I guess I mean do you ever worry that you’ll turn in to Jack Johnson)?

Haha, god forbid. Uh, I suppose the thought has wandered across my mind, but I think it’s slightly facile, the old cliche, that artists need to be troubled or in pain to write good work. There’s plenty of examples from history of that not being the case. But who knows. I think I have enough of a tendency to be a fuck-up to last a lifetime, as it goes.

Positive Songs for Negative People is the second album in a row that’s essentially free of some of the more sociopolitical elements that crept in to your earlier works; I think it’s safe to say you were categorized as part of the ‘protest punk’ movement) early on. As your appeal has broadened on this side of the pond, you’re more known here for the “heart-on-your-sleeve” storytelling aspects and not on the political side, which seems to be a switch from the way it is back home for you. Do you view that as a blessing; to not have to really rehash political views from when you were a decade-or-so younger anymore? 

Yes. I’m thoroughly fucking bored of discussing politics. The standard of public debate on the topic is risible, and I have better things to do with my life.

PS/NP songs notwithstanding, are there songs from your catalogue that people would be surprised to learn that you have either never played, or haven’t played in a decade or so? What goes in to the decision to essentially “retire” a song?

There are only a very small number of songs that I have totally retired – and mainly for political reasons. Beyond that, well, some songs have more lasting appeal than others, but I like trying to dig up old treasures for different setlists, it’s fun for me and for the more dedicated members of the audience.

When you toured the States a couple years ago, you had been suffering the effects of a pretty gnarly back issue, and you had Cahir filling in on guitar for you. You haven’t really been off the road for an extended period of time since then; how’s the back holding up these days? What’s the worst part of touring on a nagging injury; is it the actually performing, or the long bus rides/crappy mattresses/etc.? 

My back is a lot better, thank you for asking. I suspect it’s something I’ll have to keep an eye on for the rest of my days – such is growing old, alas. Touring with the back injury was tedious, mostly because of the amount of time I had to spend in physiotherapy every day. It was pretty ragingly dull, and I don’t have excess free time on the road as it is.

On a related note, was it nerve-wracking to turn guitar-playing duties over to somebody else, even somebody as capable as Cahir?

A little, yes, though Cahir knows what he’s doing, and has seen me do it enough times. I learned quite a lot about how idiosyncratic my guitar style is, which was interesting. There’s a bunch of stuff I do that seems obvious and easy for me, but Cahir had to work at it, even though he’s a better player than me.

Along with Skinny Lister, who put on one of the better live acts I’ve ever seen, Beans On Toast is joining you on the US run again. Jay McAllister really is a criminally underrated songwriter. Is that part of why you’re bringing him Stateside for another six-week run of shows? 

That, and the fact that he’s my mate and we haven’t hung out properly in a while, haha. He’s a great songwriter and performer, I think he’s going to clean up on this tour. He’s also the guy who convinced me to play an acoustic guitar, so there’s some history there as well.

In this neck of the woods, we’ve had bands like the Bosstones and Dropkick Murphys who’ve made a habit out of supporting up-and-coming bands, particularly local ones, on higher profile shows. Do you share that sort of sentiment, like a sense of responsibility to ‘pay it forward’?

Very much so. Most of my forward steps in my career have involved being given amazing support opportunities by bigger bands. It’s the very least I can do to pay that forward; and also, I feel like I want to present a good bill for people who bought tickets, a cohesive evening of entertainment.

You’ve played with the Gaslight Anthem (a personal favorite of mine) fellas a lot over the years, and you were recently on stage with as they played their last headline show before going on hiatus. When a band that you know and are friendly with parts ways, do you view that as a double-edged sword since you’re in the industry yourself? I’m sure as a fan you may be disappointed, but as an artist yourself and having talked to those guys (or any band that goes separate ways) I’d assume you “get it” on their level. 

The internal politics of any band are opaque to outsiders, and it’s not for me to comment on Gaslight, even if I could. They have their reasons and they seemed in good spirits when I saw them. They’re great people and have been very kind to me over the years.

Also, is not having to deal with hiatus/break-up issues with a band one of the perks of being a solo artist (though maybe that question isn’t fair to the Sleeping Souls)?

I suppose so, though I’m not ruling out the possibility of me taking a sabbatical to clear my head sometime. I think change is important for an artist, I don’t want to get stuck in a rut, either logistically or mentally.

Last but not least (for now)…Mongol Horde have been quiet for a year now, in part because of Ben having a real job. “Quiet,” in this case, doesn’t mean “dead,” right? Boston will see you at some point, yeah?

We started kicking riffs around for a new album lately, so it’ll happen again, though god knows when. I’d love to bring it stateside. We shall see.

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