Frank Turner isn’t trying to change the world, but he’s trying to at least start a conversation.
In 2016, the English folk-punk singer-songwriter had an almost-finished album set to record, but once utter mayhem ensued around the world, he shelved the material and started from scratch. Feeling that it was part of his responsibility as an artist, like Bob Dylan and others before him, he responded to the craziness the only way he knew how — and that is how his latest album, Be More Kind, came to be.
Ahead of the first of six shows at Royale with his band The Sleeping Souls, Vanyaland caught up with Turner on-site Tuesday afternoon (June 26) at the Boston nightclub. We discussed his ongoing Be More Kind world tour, his genuine love for Boston, how the current political climate has affected him and his fans, and how he simply can not shut off his creative streak.
Jason Greenough: You’re in Boston for essentially a whole week, doing six shows at Royale [through July 2]. How do you plan to fill the time when you’re not on stage?
Frank Turner: Well, some of it by talking to you. [chuckles] It’s kind of nice to be in one place for a little while, when usually we’re like a precision bomb — we come in, we play, and then we leave — but they put us up in Airbnb apartments, which is nice. Plus, over the course of the week, pretty much everyone’s significant others are flying in, and my girl is here for the whole duration. It’s really nice, actually. We’re definitely going to be doing some tourist shit on the day off, and drive up to New Hampshire, because I have family up that way.
I have a quite a lot of New England family. There’s a whole branch of my family that emigrated over here in the ‘70s, so it’s gonna be nice to do that, but a lot of our time here is going to be spent practicing songs we haven’t done in awhile, too.
You’ve sold out four out of the six shows you’ve got here, with the first two selling out very quickly. How does that speak to the following you have here in Boston?
It’s great, but we did sort of expect that to happen. Boston is our home city in the U.S., for sure. It’s partly because, historically, we play to our biggest crowds here, and we get the warmest welcome here. Obviously, I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that we toured with Dropkick Murphys. Doing those shows with them was like being given the keys to the city. Since then, Boston has really been our number one stop in the US.
That tour [in 2012] was the first time I ever saw you, actually, when you opened for them at Tsongas Arena.
Indeed! That was a long fucking day, and the hardest day of my life, because we did two shows, and I was selling my own merch, on my own, to 24,000 people. Doing my merch was fun and cool, and I used to sell my own merch partly because it saves us a crew member, and I’m a gregarious person, and I loved hanging with fans after the shows and establishing, right from the get-go, with new people who were seeing me play for the first time, an ideological marker that said “I’m not the type of asshole that hangs out in a limousine.” And without going to over the top about it, that’s part of the essence of what punk rock means to me, is the idea that musicians aren’t above the proles that come to the shows. To me, punk should be a conversation between equals.
What number are these Boston shows for you?
Well, [Tuesday night] is show #2202. A lot of people think I’m wicked OCD because I can remember the shows, but that’s just isn’t true at all. I only remember it because I wrote it on the setlist today, so it’s just in my head from reading it, and I remember that we passed 2200 the other day.
You have a slew of bands opening for you while you’re here in the city. How are you feeling about seeing these bands play?
I’m a huge Homeless Gospel Choir fan, but I haven’t seen Speedy Ortiz play yet, so I’m excited about that. I’m excited to see my good friend Tim Barry, and we’ve got Jeff Rosenstock, who is great, and War On Women is great too, so I’m really excited to see these bands play.
Switching gears a little bit, to Be More Kind, did you expect it to become this worldwide sort of call to action when you were writing it?
Kind of, but it’s strange, because this touches on a thorny subject for me. My politics are anti-authoritarian, and a big part of that is not really believing in telling other people what to do. The image I like least in the world is someone standing at a podium, ordering people around, because that’s when I feel human beings tend to bring out the worst in themselves. And the thing is, there is something sort of hierarchical about a rock and roll show, where I stand on a raised piece of floor and people shut up and listen to me when I talk.
And because of that, and growing up in anarchist politics, I’ve always tried to not preach from the stage, or at least if there’s a message being disseminated, it’s a message like “take control of your own life and stop fucking listening to people like me,” which is obviously a sort of contrarian thing to do.
That’s something I thought of with the new record too, because, grammatically speaking, it’s an imperative — “Be. More. Kind.” I just hope that it’s sort of clear that I’m not trying to edge my way into politics, and I also hope that it’s clear that if there’s any sort of finger-pointing going on, it’s me pointing a finger at myself in the mirror before anything else, because, fuck, I could really take my own advice.
In terms of the idea behind Be More Kind, occasionally, someone will ask me if I have any regrets, and the quintessential punk rock answer would be, like, “No regrets, man!” but I think that’s just such a stupid thing to say, because of course you have regrets. If you don’t have regrets, you probably haven’t considered your life properly, or you haven’t done anything interesting. The things that really keep me up at night are when I think of the times I was really inconsiderate to other people, so that message is aimed at myself as much as it’s aimed at everyone else.
In the opening track of the new record, “Don’t Worry,” the main message seems “Don’t worry if you don’t know what to do, and I’m trying to figure it out as well.” Since starting this tour to support the album, and having seen what has transpired politically, just in the U.S. alone, do you feel like you’ve been able to start figuring it out?
A little bit, I think. But another angle of that song, and the record as a whole, is that it’s important to be sane and realistic in your expectations and ambitions in terms of music. People think music has changed the world over the course of history, and those people are delusional. Ya know, Bob Dylan didn’t cause the ’60s, do you know what I mean? He was part of the soundtrack of the ’60s, and that is very important, because he was a social a commentator, and his art was a form of that commentary. And I love the songs because they’re bloody genius and all that, but it’s not like there was no civil rights movement, then Dylan wrote some songs, and then there was a civil rights movement. That’s fucking ridiculous.
Similarly, my main objective for this record is really see what rock and roll can achieve. Let’s try to really do a bit of thinking about how we interact with each other, how we can establish some common grounds for basic discussion. I think I’m too old to write songs that attempt to suggest policy proposals, and I don’t really think that that is what music is for. It might sound like a cop out for me to say that I don’t think it’s my job to come up with solutions, because I’m not American.
But nevertheless, the main concern of mine is that the center ground is evaporating, and what I really want to see most of all, is people talking to people who disagree with them in a civil fashion. That’s so vital, because it drives me to fucking distraction when I see my friends go “no quarter for anyone who holds a viewpoint that I disagree with,” and that’s just a terrible idea. It’s cutting off all chance for communication, and it’s completely legitimizing those people doing the same thing to you.
I’m not a fan of Donald Trump, but I don’t think we should talk about Trump, and the people who support him, in the same breath. I think that’s ridiculous, and I feel that the best thing we can do is find ways of communicating with his supporters, and be able to voice our concerns about him with them, and vice-versa. That is really important, and that’s something that I think I can try to incorporate with what I do with the tiny population that come to my shows. But nevertheless, if you can get people in the room together talking to each other, that’s huge.
For example, there are most nights where there’s at least one person who starts chanting “Fuck Trump!” and I can’t help but think that that isn’t quite the vibe I’m going for here. Humans beings are always going to disagree with each other, so we have to figure out how to sort out, or at least conduct our those disagreements, because throughout most of human history, until about 200 years ago, we’ve settled disagreements by beating the shit out of people we disagreed with. So, right now, for a vanishingly small amount of time, in a vanishingly small part of the world, we’ve done something, and it’s been really good. So let’s fucking hang onto it, man!
With this new material, and the people in your crowd that will scream about Trump, have you noticed any sort of change in the vibe of your audience?
That’s a tough question, in a way. Every night, I do ask if anyone is a newcomer. I do that mostly, dare I say, for market research because I’m just genuinely curious, and there have been quite a few new people coming to the shows. But It’s hard for me to tell who isn’t coming because they don’t like the direction of the album or the new material, or the politics. Short of the few people that have e-mailed me, I wouldn’t be able to tell, logically. I think there are some people who have come along for the ride because of the “Make America Great Again” video, and I think that’s pretty cool.
Maybe it’s too early to ask, but have you figured out where you’re going to go next, creatively speaking? Has this album formed a creative momentum for you?
Oh God, yes. But I am trying to get myself to calm down a little bit, creatively. Basically, I had a whole other album written before I wrote Be More Kind, or at least four-fifths of a concept record about historic women who have been ignored by popular culture. People that, if they were men, we would’ve heard of, let’s put it that way. I had a bunch of songs written for it, but then 2016 happened, with Brexit, and Trump, and the whole world started going fucking insane, and I sort of felt like I needed to respond to that in a more direct way than “here are some songs about women from the 19th-century that you may not have heard of,” but I think it’s still a cool project.
So that’s in the bag, sort of. I still need to record it, and I’ve already started to think about what happens after that. This is why I’m thinking to myself “chill the fuck out, man. You don’t have to think about what you’re going to put out in 2022,” but I think I like the idea of doing a really fucking hard punk record after that, almost in the style of the Descendents. I’ve always had one toe in that camp, so I think it would be worth trying out.
Maybe it’s a loaded question, but where do you rank Be More Kind in comparison to your other albums?
Logically speaking, all the way through recording and writing, this album has to rank number one, or else I’m getting it wrong. It sort of has to be motivation for me that if I don’t think it’s my best work, I have to write more songs. Critically, this album is the best album I’ve ever done. I pushed the envelope doing it, and I don’t think I fell flat on my face doing it, so I would call that a success.
FRANK TURNER & THE SLEEPING SOULS + SPECIAL GUESTS :: June 27, 29, 30 and July 1 and 2 at Royale, 279 Tremont St., in Boston MA :: Door times vary by show, 18-plus each night, $35 in advance and at the door :: See Bowery Boston’s calendar for ticket links and details :: Featured image by Jason Greenough