Frank Turner is nothing if not a busy man.
By year’s end, the British folk-punk singer-songwriter will have surpassed the 1600 career show mark, a run that’s taken him to thirty-eight countries on five continents in the ten years since his first solo gig. Those in the pop culture world might think that Turner exploded onto the scene in more recent years (2012’s appearance at the London Olympics’ opening ceremonies, a recent headline tour of UK arenas and increasingly large US clubs, etc), his rise has been, by no means, meteoric.
The current leg of Turner’s US tour in support of last year’s Tape Deck Heart kicked off in Cooperstown, New York, last Friday (5/22/14). What followed was a whirlwind three shows in two days in greater Boston: a prime Saturday evening slot at the new-but-incredibly-popular (and sold out) Boston Calling Music Festival. Now in its second year, Boston Calling crammed close to 60,000 people into Boston’s City Hall Plaza and featured performances from such varied acts as Death Cab For Cutie, Tegan and Sara, Brand New and Jack Johnson. This was followed by back-to-back late night shows at the Sinclair club in Cambridge alongside upstart Boston punk band Rebuilder and featuring a special appearance from the Dropkick Murphys‘ Tim Brennan.
Amidst the chaos and the jetlag, Turner found time for sit down with Dying Scene on the steps of Boston’s City Hall for a chat about his incessant tour schedule, the differences between the UK and US music scenes, and the boredom that comes with being a road hog. Read on, and check out our photo gallery from both Saturday shows below.
Dying Scene (Jay Stone): Is this (Boston Calling) going to be the biggest show that you’ve played in the States for a while?
Frank Turner: Actually, you know what? It probably is. I hadn’t thought about that until just now. I guess it might well be our biggest American show. (laughs)
I seem to recall when you played the House of Blues here at the end of last year that it was the biggest stand-alone show you’d done.
Yeah, that was our biggest headline show that we’ve done in the US, definitely. I’m trying to think about this now. We’ve done Bonnaroo and stuff like that.
Oh right. That’s a whole other level, no?
Yeah, it’s sort of difficult to picture where festivals fall on the scale of things. There might be 25,000 people here today, but it’s not like they all came to see us. So it’s difficult to judge. I know, it sounds like I say this to everybody, but Boston really is like our first city in the US. Obviously that has a lot to do with the Dropkick Murphys and the radio stations here. This is where we keep our gear; we have a lockup here, and we hang out here, you know?
What do you think it is about Boston? Is it really the Dropkicks’ connection?
I think that’s a big part of it. But, I mean, Boston’s historically had quite a close relationship with the European, well, with the UK music scene. A lot of British bands happen in Boston before they happen elsewhere in the USA. So I think that’s part of it too.
Sure. I guess that goes back to bands like The Police – some of their first shows were here at The Paradise in ’78 or ’79 or whatever it was.
Are there other markets that are like this for you (in the US)?
Yeah, I mean, we do good in San Francisco. Chicago. Denver is actually really good for us too. It’s kind of a funny thing from the UK getting used to the USA. It’s just a question of scale more than anything else, do you know what I mean? I think it’s just kind of redundant to talk about America as a country the way that you might talk about Germany or the UK. It’s more comparable to all of Europe. So like, we do well in Germany, we don’t do so well in Spain, for example. Well, I mean, it’s not like we do badly in Spain, we just haven’t been there much. Similarly, the northeast coast here, Boston down to Philly or DC is great for us. Albuquerque, maybe not so much.
Right…that’s like our Spain I guess. (*both laugh*) … Do you feel like it’s been a slow build getting up to where you are now in America, or in hindsight does it seem like it happened fast? It seems like you’re here an awful lot for somebody who’s not from here.
I feel like it’s been a slow build. And it’s a funny thing, it’s not really for me to comment in a third-person way on my career. But every now and again someone’s like “you’ve had a meteoric rise to success!” And I kinda go “no I fucking haven’t!” It’s taken me 1500 shows to get here, thanks very much! (*both laugh*) But that’s one of the things I like about America. In the UK, you can cheat. In the sense that, particularly before the internet, there was a definitely a thing when I was growing up whereby an American band would come over and they get Radio 1 and the NME on their side, and their first ever UK tour they’re doing 2000 people a show. And kids would go wild for them. It used to piss me off because a lot of homegrown bands were getting ignored because there’s a lot of America…America-philes?
Yeah, see that’s exactly the word I was going for at first too. (*both laugh*) So it used to piss me off, particularly in the punk and hardcore scenes. And I say this with no disrespect for them at all, because we opened for them on tour. But Finch came over and on their first tour were doing 1500-2000 people. And then there were British bands like Mclusky who were incredible and nobody used to give a fuck about. So it used to piss me off. One of the things I like about America is that you can’t really do that. You just kind of have to do the ground work. You’ve got to come over and you’ve got to fucking play. And I think that’s really cool, actually.
But I feel like you do better here, at least from a Boston perspective since that’s my point of reference, than some people from here do. Like I saw Street Dogs at House of Blues for their annual Wreck The Halls holiday show. It was not too long after you played there and they sold well, but they didn’t quite sell the place out in advance like when you were here. So I suppose that part goes both ways…
That’s true. There is definitely a lot of anglophilia in this country which is playing to my benefit. I mean there are other things like…don’t get me wrong, I love The Clash. But the regard that Joe Strummer is held in over here is really quite weird.
In the UK, it’s like “oh, yeah, Joe Strummer, he was that guy in The Clash.” Over here it’s like he’s …
FT & JS: Saint Joe Strummer
Right. I remember the first time I was over here and I kinda tweaked that and it was like, “really?” And that’s not to tear him down in any way. He was a great inspiration to me personally and as a songwriter.
Sure! But “why him,” I guess, right?
Because I hold him in that regard but I assumed that everybody in England held him in that same regard.
No, not really. And actually I’d say the same thing about The Beatles to a degree as well. It’s kind of illegal to criticize The Beatles in America, and in the UK it really isn’t. And again, obviously they’re the foundation stone of popular music and I really like The Beatles. But you find a lot of people are kind of like “meh” about The Beatles in the UK whereas here…you HAVE to like The Beatles.
Oh trust me, I know. A buddy kind of killed The Beatles for me, because if you didn’t grow up on them and listened to them retroactively and started with “Yellow Submarine” and worked backwards…
Yeah (*laughs*) you can’t do that.
I know you guys have a tight schedule today, so I’ll keep moving forward. From a scale perspective, what is a Frank Turner show in the UK or in Europe compared to here? Like, when you sold out the House of Blues here in Boston, does that compare to what it’s like back home?
Well, in Germany, I’d say it’s the same. In the UK, the last few gigs we did was our first arena tour, so we did 20,000 in London.
And the thing is, it’s funny because obviously all of the punk kids start giving me shit. But it’s like, the last time we played a venue the size of the House of Blues in London it sold out in two minutes. And the thing that’s the most important to me, infinitely more important than venue size or location or that shit, it I want shows to be accessible. When I was a kid, I was never the type of person who would be up at the right time of day to be online to get tickets at the right time, or in the right queue or on the right mailing list or knowing the right people or any of that shit. And I don’t like the idea of somebody who’s like me when I was a kid…or just any normal person who hears a song on the radio and thinks “oh, that sounds cool, let me go see that show, oh, it sold out six months ago. Bummer.” I’d like people to be able to come and see the show if they want to come see it. And right now, that dictates playing large places. Or, I guess, doing multiple nights in smaller places, but you still get ticket touting issues there, which really fucks me off.
And I mean, fuck it, five years time nobody’s going to give a shit and I’ll be back playing a pub again! (*both laugh*)
Is that sort of the reason to balance bigger shows like this with shows like you’re doing tonight and tomorrow at the Sinclair? To have both sides?
Yeah, definitely. I mean, I have to say, I’m really looking forward to the show tonight. We’re doing two nights there. And I have to say that it does ever-so-slightly prick my conscience because a lot of people didn’t get tickets for tonight. It’s a difficult thing, because that small show, punk rock, everyone is super-psyched vibe is fucking great and everybody loves that shit. And I don’t want to do it down like that, but it’s kind of…I’m babbling at this point…(*both laugh*)
Well, is that part of the reason that you’ve played 1500 shows or whatever it is? Because of that sense of obligation to making it accessible? Does that force you to sort of do more nights or a show and a record store appearance in a day?
Yeah. But at the same time…something that I’ve come to realize in the last year or so: 2013 was easily the hardest year of touring that I’ve had. That year was fucking bananas! And I got to the end of it and I suddenly realized that it had become apparent to me that the whole touring the whole time and doing all these shows all over the world…there’s a degree of bravado and machismo about it. And it’s kind of like, I’m not sure that that many people other than me care. Do you know what I mean?
It’s like, am I really going to kill myself over bravado about touring schedules so I can flex my muscles in the mirror and be like “I’m so fucking great”? So, that aside, I love playing shows. I love touring, it’s my favorite way to be. So I don’t want to make a martyr of myself, like “I’m doing all these shows just for the people.” I’m doing it because I fucking love it! And tonight, I’m going to get drunk in a small, sweaty room and play songs people want to hear and hang out with my friends and it’s going to be fucking great!
Right! (Editor’s note: Frank’s name came up in discussion with Tim Barry the night before this interview was conducted. The quotes are meant to paraphrase, not to be direct.) And that’s another thing Tim said about your work ethic last night was that: “He is music. He loves music. And when you hang out with him, it’s talking music and talking about records.”
“and that’s wonderful,” he said. “I can’t do that all the time; sometimes I want to fish and play music, so I’ll play four shows in a week instead of twelve shows in a week.”
(*laughs*) Yeah yeah yeah! I think it is true, and I think that part of the realization as I get older is that I’m kind of boring, in the sense that the only thing I really give a fuck about is rock and roll, and everything else can kinda go fuck itself.
I read books about music! (*laughs*)
Haha…Tim mentioned that too!
I could probably be a more diverse person, but fuck it, you know? Find something you like and stick with it!