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Reluctant Punk

by Jon Monsoon / 26.03.2014

He’s just come from watching a movie at the V&A (The Grand Hotel Budapest). He’s on his second margarita by the time my coffee arrives and he seems tired. “Last night was, technically, the end of a tour that started in January, so there was, um, much celebrating last night,” he informs, almost apologetically. That he managed to fill a Cape Town venue on a rainy Sunday night one would think is cause for celebration enough. If you’re reading this and don’t know who Frank Turner is, you’ll be forgiven for not being up to date on your underground UK folk-punk bands.

Initially the front man for post-hardcore UK outfit Million Dead, Frank Turner, the Eton-schooled singer-songwriter, now travels the world singing rousing drunk punk songs in a folky manner, well-suited for pub sing-a-longs and as it turns out, rainy Sunday nights in Cape Town.

“We flew in to do Parklife Johannesburg and then had a day off so in that type of circumstance, my preferred thing to do is just ask around and try set up a house show or a squat show or something. And then the Parklife guys said ‘Well, you can go to Cape Town if you want,’” and that is how it came to be that 200 or so ageing punk rockers and assorted other people who know their music were crammed into Mercury Live on a drizzly Sunday night, watching the UK folk-punk phenomenon that is Frank Turner whip the room into the type of frenzy usually reserved for full-on punk bands – the likes of Hog Hoggidy Hog or Half-Price.

Chatting over coffee and margaritas in a hotel lobby the next day, it turns out that he is quite surprised that he has so many fans down here in what is essentially the arse-end of Africa.

“I work from the principle that if you haven’t been to a country before, no one there is going to know who you are. And then you get here, and there’s suddenly a whole tonne of people who know the words to every song! There’re people with tattoos of my lyrics, people telling me they have been waiting for eight years to see me play, and people that actually know stuff from my old band Million Dead, which just blows my mind. So congratulations to the internet! But yes, it is humbling.”

Back to the night before and watching this tall, thin man with sporadic arm tattoos and upper class English accent hold an entire room in the palm of his hand from opening chord to last, it becomes apparent that he has done this before, loads. “I did my first tour in 1998 and I don’t think I was particularly good at it then,” he later explains. “I am a songwriter and a singer and a performer, and each of those is a separate discipline. And I think that the performer part of it, especially within the punk scene, which is so iconoclastic (which is a good thing), comes with this sort of suspicion of ‘stage craft’, as an idea, which I think is misplaced. It doesn’t have to mean synchronised jumps, costume changes and pyrotechnics, but just to be able to engage people and hold people’s attention… I don’t really know what defines stage presence, or whatever you want to call it. I have yet to find anyone who has written a guidebook on the subject.”

Despite having done this show loads of times, you cannot misplace the sense of sheer enjoyment he seems to be having on stage, playing songs he’s played thousands of times, as recently as the day before. “One of my pet hates is bands that look studiously miserable on stage. I just wanna say to them ‘y’know what, there are an awful lot of people behind you in the queue so if it’s so trying for you to be on stage then fuck off, let someone else have a go.’”

“I read an interview with the guy from the band My Morning Jacket once and he made what I thought was a really excellent point when he said that ‘The difference between Dylan and Springsteen, is that Springsteen is glad that you came to his show.’ And I think there is something really profound in that. I enormously respect Dylan as a songwriter and as an artist, but I think he’s shit live. I paid a lot of money to see him live once and he fucking sat playing piano behind the drum kit! I was like ‘Fuck you, man. If you don’t wanna be here, don’t be here!”

He’s toured with the likes of Greenday and The Offspring and The Dropkick Murphys. “I operate on the principle that I’ll tour with anyone,” he tells. “I don’t want to analyse it too much, but in the UK I came up on the underground scene known through my punk band Million Dead. When that band broke up, I didn’t want to distance myself from the punk scene, but I didn’t want to be confined by it either. I didn’t want to be the token acoustic guy on the punk scene in the UK, so I stood outside of all that. I’m gonna try and say this carefully so that it doesn’t make me sound like I’m totally up my own arse, but I like to think that I don’t fit that neatly into any sort of categorisation.” And don’t dare assume that he’s part of a “scene”. “I’ve always been suspicious of ‘scenes’. There’s just something that smells funny about ‘the scene’. There was one summer in the UK where I played the Cambridge Folk Festival (which is the main folk festival in the UK), and then played the punk stage at Reading & Leeds festivals right after and I was quite proud of that, I thought that was kinda cool, to be able to straddle both.”

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Where does that leave an artist, without a category or a genre to call their own? What ambitions for them to fulfill? “My ambitions and goals are not anything like ‘I wanna play Madison Square Gardens’; I just want to be able to write better songs. There are some songs that become public property, in the sense that everyone knows them even though most people probably don’t know who they’re by. And sometimes it’s cheesy shit, like Brown Eyed Girl, but man, to write one of those songs where in fact it doesn’t really matter who it’s by, what it means is that it becomes a folk song, in the truest sense of the word.”

He will be playing on the same stage as long-time heroes Iron Maiden at Sonisphere Festival later this year. “I’m fucking excited about that, although I’ve been told that I’m not gonna get anywhere near meeting any of them, apparently their backstage is really tight,” he droops. “If I met Steve Harris, I might well cry.”

His songs straddle the gamut of emotions, from happy songs about drinking to (predictably, for a punk singer songwriter) songs about politics. Which does he find himself more at home with? “There are two conflicting imperatives for me, in the sense that on the one hand, I came to the conscious realisation a couple of albums ago, that I was bored of being upfront about politics in the music. Because it’s just a pissing contest and it’s a shouting match, there’s no nuance, and it’s just not very intelligent, and yeah, I’m bored of it. But then on the other hand, I try quite hard not to have any boundaries between me as a person and me as a songwriter.”

“Part of me keeps thinking that I am gonna keep doing this for the rest of my life, or at least try to, although it’s not really dependent on what I want to do, it’s more dependent on whether or not anyone actually gives a fuck,” he surmises on his long-term future. “Perhaps there’s always the DJ circuit to fall back on when one gets tired of strumming a guitar?” I put to him. “Well, probably not, although if that’s what I’m possessed to do, then fuck it, why not? Although I hasten to add that fashion wouldn’t play a part in it. I’ve never been fashionable, in my life, and I hope that I never am. It strikes me as a terrible thing to have to spend one’s times trying to be. We’ll see…the road is long.”

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