Stay Positive: 24 hours in New York City with Frank Turner

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Frank Turner

Frank Turner is sitting at the studio control room desk of the Gibson Showroom in Manhattan, a tiny crowd of music industry types behind him and a few beer bottles beside him. The Englishman’s head is bowed but his arms are aloft, air-drumming to the songs from his sixth full-length, Positive Songs For Negative People, that emanate from the speakers. His back remains to the crowd for the entire duration of its 12 tracks, the 33-year-old not wanting to see their faces as the songs are unveiled for the first time. He’ll face them—and maybe 100 more people—later that night, though, during a very intimate secret show at the Grand Victory, a bar/venue in Williamsburg. But for now he’s being coy.

“The reason I turned my back to the audience,” he explains in the taxi from the studio to the venue, “is that if I hadn’t done that, I’d have been eyeballing everybody. It’s a weird feeling, because part of you just wants to confront them and ask, ‘Are you enjoying it? What do you think?’ Because it’s my baby and I’ve spent a lot of my life working on it and it’s the first time anyone outside the inner circle has heard it. But I didn’t want to be that guy asking everyone, ‘Do you like it? Do you like it?’ so I thought it was better if I turned my back. But I fucking love it. That was me trying to hold it together and not fucking just air-drum to the entire record. It’s the first time I’ve heard it that loud in a little while, and I think it sounds good loud.”

It certainly does. He plays a number of songs from the album later that night—show No. 1,677, according to the tally he keeps on his website, since his first gig as a solo artist on September 18, 2004—and they’re full of the vital energy and desperate poetry that’s defined his music since that first gig and before, when he fronted the now-defunct hardcore outfit Million Dead. More than anything, though, there’s a real joy to Turner’s delivery of the new material. There are numerous reasons for that, but the most immediate one is this: The record is now in the public domain. People have heard it. Yet even before the playback, there’s a palpable sense of relief and happiness to Turner’s demeanor. Earlier in the day, sitting in the mid-afternoon, early-summer sun on a large private balcony of a Times Square hotel, he is unable to contain his sheer delight that the album is finished. When he talks, it’s both at length and very openly, and for over an hour, the conversation offers an unfiltered glimpse into his heart, his mind, his music.

“The main thing at the moment is that the record’s done,” beams Turner, his weathered T-shirt doing little to cover his tattoo-laden arms. “And I won. It’s exactly what I wanted it to be and it’s exactly how I wanted it to sound. And I won all the arguments that I had. I don’t quite want to call them fights, because I’m not interested in slagging off the label or anything, but communicating what I thought the record should be took some time. I had battles to win and I won them.”

Back home in England, Turner is signed, as he was in his days fronting post-hardcore act Million Dead, to independent label Xtra Mile, which is owned and run by his manager. However, since 2013’s fifth full-length, Tape Deck Heart, his albums here in America have been released by Polydor/Interscope—which, he freely admits, is where and why those battles arose.

“The first record you release when you’re licensed to a major is gravy,” he says, “because you just signed with them and they have to do what you want. Obviously, I’m a grown-up and I knew when I started working with a major label that this kind of thing was a potential issue. I have final say on everything creatively, but if you piss off everyone you planning on working on your record with…”

He doesn’t finish the sentence, instead trailing off and starting again, an indication of the more considered, business-wise side of his character.

“The producer we were lined up with,” he continues, with a wry smile on his face, “who I’m not going to name because I don’t wish to do him down, we fell out about our methodology during the tour. Two to three months [of studio time] were booked, and I pulled the plug. The label was not stoked. Everyone was just, ‘Really?!? That’s…fine. Whatever you want to do—you motherfucker…’”

That Turner was and still is so headstrong is no surprise—he has a reputation for straight talk, emotionally, politically and everything in between. He wears his heart on his sleeve and isn’t afraid to fight for what he believes in. But he wasn’t just being difficult for the sake of being difficult. He did it because in order to make this the album he believed it had to be.

“There’s a false notion that gets pitched by people who work at major labels,” he says matter-of-factly, “which is if you don’t agree with them you’re a difficult artist who doesn’t want to sell records. And it’s like, ‘No—I want to sell lots of records and I want to be successful at what I do, but I think I know in this instance what a better decision would be.’ Album six is not an interesting number intrinsically, and most bands, by the time they’ve got to their sixth album, have started repeating themselves. Or they take radical stylistic turns that sometimes work and sometimes don’t. So I felt like there was a real onus on me to justify releasing another record. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the likes of Neil Young and David Bowie and people like that—reinvention is the essence of longevity, but it’s a dangerous card to play because you try to tread that line between not repeating yourself and not abandoning what it was that made you interesting.”

In the end, it was Butch Walker who helped Turner and his band, the Sleeping Souls, reconcile those two things and the line between them. Known for his work—both as a producer and co-writer—with a diverse range of artists, from Fall Out Boy to Avril Lavigne, Taylor Swift to Weezer, Walker’s role on Positive Songs For Negative People wasn’t quite as involved as it has been with other artists.

“I was having real difficulty finding somebody who I felt was on the same page as me about the record,” remembers Turner. “We demoed this album extensively and rehearsed and rehearsed. A lot of production sometimes involves deconstructing songs and putting them back together. Me and the Sleeping Souls know how to do that anyway, and we’ve done it a million times. Sometimes it’s difficult to explain what a producer does. Sometimes it means they help you with arrangements, and sometimes it means they move microphones around, but sometimes it just means they bring a kind of élan to the project that is required. What I needed was a producer who trusted me and the band, and who didn’t need to make his own mark on the record. The key to unlocking this record was when I found out that Butch Walker was a producer. I knew he was a musician—I’ve got his records, I think they’re great—and [friend and photographer] Ben Morse went, ‘Why don’t you talk to Butch Walker about production?’ and I said, ‘Does he produce?’ and Ben said, ‘Yeah, he’s one of the biggest producers in the fucking world!’”

Of course, someone of Walker’s high profile doesn’t come cheap.

“I mentioned him to the label, the label said, ‘Brilliant idea—way too expensive,’ and I went ‘Oh, fuck off.’ I went on my Facebook and said, ‘Do I know anybody who knows Butch Walker?’ It turns out I know loads of people who know Butch. I got put in touch with him and he said, ‘Love your stuff, totally into it.’ So I booked a flight to Chicago in October and flew out, we spent two days hanging out and within 10 minutes of the first conversation we had, he said this exact sentence: ‘Everything I think about production and songwriting is based on the first two Weezer records.’ And I went: ‘Cool—we don’t really have anything else to talk about now!’ From that point, we went to Nashville in December—Butch has a studio there—and we cut the record live in nine days. Butch made some changes here and there and tightened some things up and simplified some things. We worked about four hours a day and did a song a day. And with the exception of one song, every single vocal take on the record is one take, no edits—and I’m fucking proud of that, because I’ve never considered myself to be a particularly technically adept singer.”

While Walker’s involvement in the record might seem like a deliberate move to conquer the American market, Turner insists that’s not the case. After all, Turner is a man whose career, from day one, has been a slow and steady climb, an accumulation of more than 10 years of perspiration, perseverance and tireless touring. That dedication to the cause has seen him, in Britain, graduate from bars and clubs of a similar size to the Grand Victory to headlining a sold-out show at Wembley Arena to 12,000 people in 2012, as well as supporting Green Day at Wembley Stadium in front of 90,000 people two years earlier. (Both of those occasions have been commemorated permanently on his left arm, the place and dates inked in freehand, the former at the show itself, between the main set and the encore.) Unsurprisingly, then, Turner’s approach to America is exactly the same.

“There’s this obsession in England about breaking America,” he says, “as if your only possible options for touring over here are stadiums or don’t bother going. And it’s like, ‘I do all right as it is!’ It’s a particularly English form of music snobbery, that. But obviously, I am ambitious and I hope we do well in America because it’s a large country and I like American people and I love American culture, but those considerations are such a smaller order of magnitude than how I want to record to be, so they wouldn’t influence my choice of producer or studio.”

Rather, the intention for Turner and the Sleeping Souls was to capture the essence of their live shows on record, which is exactly what they managed. Positive Songs For Negative People is surely the most cohesive and consistent Frank Turner album to date. Not only does it mark the completion of his transition from folk-punk solo artist into a full-blown rock band—while all the songs were written by and credited to Turner, this record’s arrangements are collective—but, as its title suggests, it also marks a more positive attitude for the Hampshire-born musician. Born on December 28, 1981, Turner is no stranger to heavy nights out, something chronicled in the vast majority of his songs, as well as his tour memoirs, The Road Beneath My Feet, published earlier this year. But after a decade of partying, excessive drinking and the occasional dalliance with illicit substances, not to mention an insane touring schedule (“2013 very nearly killed all of us because the schedule was so fucking hard,” he says), Turner’s lifestyle was beginning to take its toll. Indeed, Tape Deck Heart was a record obsessed with mortality and the fragility of not just the human condition, but the body as well.

Tape Deck Heart feels like an odd record to me now,” says Turner. “It feels like it was something that I had to get out of my system. It’s a record that’s about a break-up, about failure, about screwing something up that matters—and not when you’re young, but when you’re in your 30s. It’s not a particularly sunny record. The theme of Tape Deck Heart was just the idea that when you’re 17, you could still be an astronaut. When you’re 33, you’re probably not going to be one, unless you’re already in the training program. And of course that’s still true, but I think there’s a more positive spin on [this record]—like, fuck it, man, you can still achieve things with your life. It’s not songs that say, ‘Don’t worry, be happy’; it’s songs that say, ‘Do worry, because the world is awful, but then go, ’Fuck it!’

“I remember when I wrote ‘The Ballad Of Me And My Friends,’” Turner continues, “I was 23 and I had this idea of the doomed nature of what we’re doing, like we’re all hanging around in bars and playing, but probably we’ll all have office jobs and this will be a fond memory in a few years’ time. And Jay [McAllister, Turner’s longtime friend who plays politically charged folk under the moniker Beans On Toast] called me up and went, ‘Fuck you, man! This is what I do. I’m not going to jack this in and get an office job; I’m going to run bars and play shows for the rest of my fucking life.’ And I went, ‘Ah, yeah—me too.’”

So he did. A decade later and six albums in, Turner—who declares himself happily single at the moment—continues to chronicle his life, his passions, his philosophies, his sadnesses through his songs. This time, though, in keeping with the album’s title and overriding theme, these were less a form of catharsis than a self-prophesying arm around the shoulder.

“There’s an in-built time delay to the record-making process,” he says. “Most of these songs were finished in the first half of last year. The second half of last year was quite a downbeat time for me. I’m not in any way asking for sympathy, but my love life is a source of entertainment to my friends at this point because it’s just a mess. And in a weird way, by the time we go around to making the record and mixing it earlier this year, it was almost like a record that I needed to hear myself to pull me out of a not particularly great patch of my own life. It was almost as if I’d written it in advance to help myself out a little bit later. But right now, sitting on this wonderful balcony, my main feeling in life is ‘Fucking finally!’ We’re getting there.”

While Turner’s priorities, and his attitude to what he does, have shifted over the years—he doesn’t get drunk before gigs anymore, and he took a whole month off alcohol when making Positive Songs—he still likes to indulge. It’s just that these days, he’s more aware of, and more susceptible to, the consequences.

“Being constantly hungover and then drunk is not a particularly adult way to exist,” he admits. “But I can’t lie to you. We played Hangout Festival [in Alabama] on Sunday. It’s Tuesday today. I’m still covered in glitter and I’m still not entirely sure why. I just kind of woke up on Monday and everyone else was like, ‘Dude, you are covered in glitter,’ and it was like, ‘Oh. Yeah. Whoop! Let’s hear it for hot tubs!’ Anyway… I don’t want to kill myself, but I’m living my life. I like the fact that Dennis Hopper got kicked out of a bar for doing lines off the bar when he was in his 60s. It’s not because I want to glorify alcoholism or drug abuse, though. And of course you have your mornings when you wake up and you go, ‘I’m 33. I don’t want to be this person anymore.’ I think there is a happy medium out there somewhere, but I’m not the best person at moderation in this world. It’s not one of my skills and it never has been.

“I’m not interested in wanton self-destruction,” Turner continues, perhaps rationalizing his actions. “I’m not a problem drinker. I don’t end up fucking up my life because of drinking. I enjoy it. It’s fun. I can’t drink alcohol before I’ve had dinner. I don’t day drink ever, because it just ruins my days. Once I start drinking, I’ve got about four or five hours in me before it’s bedtime. If I have a beer with lunch, I’m fucked.”

Still, the reckless punk rock kid with a penchant for self-destructive debauchery still very much exists. By the end of the evening—after the interview, after the photo shoot, after the gig—Turner, much like everyone else still at the Grand Victory, is stinking drunk. And not just mildly. Excessively so. Because why not?

“Who wants to deliver a body to your grave that has no nicks and scratches?” he asks rhetorically on that balcony, before the carnage that later ensues. “When you’re done with this vessel, it should like it was used. You should have gray hairs and cirrhosis of the liver and tattoos and scars. All those fitness and diet fanatics, I want to grab them and go, ‘You are going to die as well! You do know this?!’ There’s no getting away from it, and I’d rather inhabit a more adventurous life for a shorter period of time. I want the tread to be run down on the tires when it gets handed back to the shop.”

True to his words, and with his work for the evening done, Turner eventually clambers into a taxi in the early hours of the Williamsburg morning and heads back to his Manhattan hotel with friends—and a girl—in tow. The next afternoon, he sends Substream a short, simple and to-the-point text message: “Life is pain,” it reads. “I’m about to get in the shower crying.” S

A version of this piece was published in Substream #47.