All hopped up on nerves and coffee, I arrived at the Bronson Centre precisely 30 minutes early for my interview with folk-punk icon Frank Turner. I figured the extra time would give me a chance to get the obscene fan-girling out of my system and mentally prepare myself before meeting one of my greatest musical inspirations – but nothing prepares you for that. If you, like me, know all the words to “Recovery” and felt a deep personal connection to “The Fisher King Blues”, or have never heard the name Frank Turner in your life, get excited. I sat down with a road-weary Frank to discuss his tattoos (looking at you, New Brunswick), Positive Songs for Negative People and companion Mittens EP, and his recent Canadian tour.
I’m also pleased to inform everyone on the Twittersphere that despite some beef over mittens and gloves (the metaphor makes total sense people), Frank Turner is not only a great musician, but also a super nice guy.
Drew Taylor: So this is stop one thousand eight hundred and …
Frank Turner: 55.
DT: Wow. So you’ve been in Canada for a month now?
FT: Yeah, we started in Halifax in mid-February, and this tour has had two legs to it. I started off solo; from Halifax all the way to Kelowna. Then I picked up the band in Vancouver, and now we’re headed back with the band.
DT: About your solo tours – do you prefer playing in the smaller, intimate venues solo compared to the bigger stops with the full band?
FT: No, I woudn’t say so. The thing about it is we’ve played Canada many times before and I wanted to expand beyond the same cities we do every time. It’s expensive to take a full band on the road, and if I do it solo, I could afford to do it without losing money to go to the other places. When we were in Kelowna, we had 300 people – it was awesome – but we can’t afford to take a full band to only 300 people.
I just like playing for the number of people that want to see me play, I don’t really care what that number is.
DT: So your stop on the East Coast, we saw you get a little bit more artwork done. Is there a story there?
FT: Yeah, I had never been to New Brunswick before, and we did a show in Moncton, and then Fredericton, and we had two shows in one day. During the first show, it was a small bar show with about 150 people. I was chatting with a guy in the crowd who’s a tattoo artist there, and he was telling me that no one has ever gotten a New Brunswick tattoo – people just don’t do it. He said ‘I’ve been tattooing in this town for 20 years and I’ve never done a NB tattoo. And I said, ‘Okay, cool’. So in between the two shows we went to his studio and I got a New Brunswick tattoo.
FT: Yeah, it only took five minutes. It was a fun little thing. That’s my kind of tour tattoo area down there, you know? (Points to ankle) Most of the stuff down there are mementos from various tours.
DT: That’s sweet. Some people collect stamps, postcards, beer bottle caps, that sort of thing.
FT: Yeah, I get tattoos. My mom hates tattoos, and one of her standard lines – a lot of people’s lines – is ‘well, you’ve got them forever’. That’s such a misconception to me, I just think of it as stickers on a suitcase. You know, like I will have always been to New Brunswick.
DT: Very True. So you recently released your Mittens EP. I actually had it on repeat this morning, I love it. It sounds sort of like your softer side compared to Positive Songs for Negative People.
FT: Yeah, maybe? I think all of the songs on it, aside from the cover “Armadillo”, are all sort of written around the time of Positive Songs. The whole business of selecting songs for an album is quite a difficult process for me. I spend much of my life wondering if I’ve chosen correctly. There’s a song called “Balthazar of Impasario” which absolutely should have been on England Keep My Bones and isn’t and I still wake up in the night annoyed with myself because I didn’t do that. It’s a difficult call. It’s not just about picking the best songs, it’s also trying to put together a coherent body of work that flows and all the rest of it.
I mean Little Aphrodite – the piano song – that is the love song referenced in the song Mittens, so that was the reason why I didn’t want to to put it on the record because I was pissed off (chuckles). And the others just didn’t sort of fit in for whatever reason. I just don’t like sitting on songs, and so the [Mittens] EP for me is a sort of companion piece for the album.
DT: Speaking of Mittens, there has been some recent social media debate on the whole metaphor “fitting like mittens” as appose to gloves. Does the fan interpretation of your music ever irritate or amuse you?
FT: Well, the first thing is, in any art form, interpretation is king. Often people ask me what the song means, and that’s a question I would never want to answer. It means whatever you think it means. That’s the nature of art. Obviously there are meanings specific to me, but I don’t want to dictate what people think of songs that I write. That seems sort of petty and tyrannical at the same time. I don’t want to take away whatever someone else might take from the song. Having said all that, there are moments when I stare in disbelief at the conversation people are having – this being not a bad example of that. It seems pretty obvious to me what I means. Surely? It’s just, gloves fit snuggly and mittens don’t. Apparently this is just challenging information to some people (laughs).
The other thing is well that I’ve realized as well, languages will change in certain countries. Like I have fans in Germany who are amazing at English, but sometimes there are some things that are clear to an English person that wouldn’t be to a German, so you have to get off your own high horse occasionally.
DT: Is there any place in Canada that you love to play?
FT: Yeah, I’m a big Edmonton and Calgary fan; Alberta has always been really good to me, those shows are always wild. I have a soft spot for Winnipeg too because The Weakerthans are my favourite band and every time I go there, I think of John K. a lot. There are a couple of spots we were trying to add onto this tour but we didn’t succeed at getting scheduled because we didn’t have time unfortunately. I wanted to get up to places like Yellowknife and I have a friend up in Iqaluit who was trying to put together a show for me up there. Another problem though is if you go up for a show, you have to stay there for four days…I just didn’t have four days to spare on my schedule. It’s a shame because I’d love to go play in the Artic Circle; it’d be cool as hell, but maybe next time.
DT: It’s beautiful up there…a little cold.
FT: Yeah, my friend sent me videos of the weather and the blizzard and she was saying how the city was shut down for like a week.
DT: You probably would’ve been stuck up there.
FT: Yeah, that would also be a problem…(laughs)
DT: So Positive Songs – it’s not a concept album, if I heard correctly?
FT: Yeah, I’m suspicious of the words “concept album”. It just reminds me of Rush or something. Don’t get me wrong, Rush are a cool band and everything, but it’s just not the music that I make. Also, thus far I write individual songs and you can sort of present them in certain ways and present continuity between the subject matter, but I’m not writing 45 minute songs effectively. It’s not a concept album, but I was in a certain mood when I was writing them.
DT: Makes sense. So for your song writing process, do you write acoustically and then add the full band?
FT: Yes, but it’s not quite as simple as that. The acoustic versions of my songs aren’t exactly what they sounded like when I first wrote them. I write with just a guitar, but I bring stuff to the band and it becomes a collective process at that point. I don’t consider the song finished until we finish a full band arrangement. To be honest, what we do quite often is working out alternative arrangements. For example, the album Poetry of the Deed, I like a lot of the songs on there but I don’t like many of the arrangements; we have a lot of alternative arrangements of the songs that I think are way better. I wish we’d spent longer on the arrangement of that record. It was totally my fault; I rushed them, I was like ‘we have to do it right now! We only have two weeks!’ So with this record, I’d finish a song, we’d work out an arrangement and then go, ‘Cool. Now imagine we’ve been playing this song for two years and we’re bored of it’…Sometimes it was complete bullshit, and other times it was awesome.