Frank Turner: “For the longest time I was the guy that toured, and that was it. I needed to become something more…”

Wondering where to turn next during a “weird, middle-period” of his career, Frank Turner had to dig deep to find out who he really was going into brilliant ninth album FTHC. Now, he’s never been so certain.

Frank Turner: “For the longest time I was the guy that toured, and that was it. I needed to become something more…”
Ian Winwood
Live photos:
Nat Wood

It was a bad gig, that’s all. Onstage at Hatfield House, as part of last year’s Slam Dunk gathering, Frank Turner & The Sleeping Souls performed a 55-minute set that was below their usual standards. It might not have been something that the sizeable crowd gathered in the early evening sunshine at the Punk In Drublic stage would necessarily have noticed – “My standards are pretty high so I like to think that when we have a bad show [the audience] don’t notice,” Frank says – but the musicians onstage certainly knew that their punches weren’t quite landing. The connection just wasn’t there, either with each other or with their paying public.

“I came offstage and things started to snowball,” the singer recalls. “I was trying to drink through it, which is a terrible idea because sipping away at my tequila didn’t help. And because I had something to do the next day, I’d booked myself a car home, ’cause it’s only about an hour from Hatfield to Essex, where I live. So I got in the back of the car on my own, with my bag – the rest of the band had already left on the bus – and I was really bummed out, and that snowballed into panic, basically.”

Part of the reason for this unwanted acceleration was, Frank explains, because “there’d been such a purity to the first few shows I’d played that summer”. After the interminable torpor of numerous lockdowns, “the euphoria of being able to play once again to non-socially distanced crowds was amazing. Download was amazing, the shows in Manchester and London were amazing. Slam Dunk in Leeds [the day before] had been amazing, too. Looking back, of course not all of them are going to be like that. But me being bummed about it quickly gave way to panic. By the time I got home I was not in a good way.”

Frank had been here before. At the suggestion of his wife, Jessica, he’d submitted to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy; in sessions with his shrink, he’d learned to apply a name to the thing that had been ailing him for, well, for quite a long time now. Anxiety attacks. In the past, it seemed that the ghosts in his machine might be explained by mere lifestyle choices. Cocaine, perhaps, or being the “hard-touring motherfucker” who was always on the road. Being raised as a member of a “stiff upper lip” English family had fostered the mindset that problems should be taken on the chin. “Getting into the music of Henry Rollins” as a teenager had reinforced this idea. Truth be told, he hadn’t given much thought to digging down into the bedrock to see what secrets awaited him.

At first Frank wasn’t at all sure about this diagnosis. “Really?” he asked his therapist. “Obviously I’d heard that expression and I know people who suffer from [anxiety attacks] and who have explained that to me, but I’d never thought to turn the word around and point it at myself.”

Although this issue became grist for the mill of Frank’s latest album FTHC – released this week – the line, ‘I got a brand new name for an old, old friend / The doctor said it’s anxiety,’ from Haven’t Been Doing So Well, is merely one of the many revelations on this most unvarnished of records. After writing the songs Miranda (about his father’s by now much-publicised transition to womanhood) and A Wave Across A Bay (a gorgeous paean to Scott Hutchinson, from Frightened Rabbit, who died by suicide in 2018), the singer sought permission from both his own family and the relatives of Scott respectively before placing them on the LP’s tracklist. Elsewhere, the story is his own. Illegal drugs and prescription pills find their way onto the lyric sheet. Questions of identity and self-worth are given the once over. Self-doubt scratches at the windows. Yet despite this most intensive of MOTs, the engine is found not to be wanting. ‘You think that you hate me? / You fucking Johnny come lately / I’m a champion athlete,’ is the message for his noisy detractors on opening track Non Serviam.

“This is my ninth record and there are no clichés about ninth records,” Frank says. “There’s no such thing as the ‘difficult ninth album’ – that’s just not a thing. And indeed not that many people get to a ninth record. There is a part of me that wakes up blinking and surprised – most days, actually – at the fact that I’m still doing this and that we’re in contention for the Number One slot [on the UK album chart]. And that’s crazy. It’s nuts. I’ve been doing this for 25 years. What have [my detractors] got? Some 25-year-old who writes for a certain music magazine that will remain unnamed who wants to slag me off? It’s like, ‘I’ve been touring almost since before you were born. Whatever.’ And there is a freedom that comes with that that’s hard won, of which I’m very proud.”

He should be. On a cloudy morning in the dog days of January, Frank Turner addresses Kerrang! from his home on the Essex coast. Speaking at a speed normally associated with tobacco auctioneers, at least for today the 40-year-old’s life doesn’t appear all that different from the irregular iterations of his hectic past. He has an hour, an hour and a quarter, in which to speak, after which he’s off to Norwich to have a portrait of the cover of Rancid’s imperative …And Out Come The Wolves album tattooed on his leg. He recalls playing at a festival at which the Berkeley quartet appeared on the bill. Weezer performed that day, too. The Sleeping Souls preferred the latter group, but Frank couldn’t see past Rancid. In other words, at heart he was, and remains, a punk. FTHC, indeed.

But what kind of punk? And what kind of artist, even? Part of his problem at last autumn’s Slam Dunk was the permeating sense of dislocation that he had been cast adrift from both one thing and the other. “There was a thing that was nagging away at me during the day, which was like, ‘I’m in the weird middle-period of my career. I’m not young and hip and exciting, but I’m not a heritage act, either,’” he explains. “So what kind of clichéd role am I supposed to fulfil? I was walking around [the site] feeling a bit like a spare part for some of the day. I was watching both the young and exciting new acts and the heritage acts play. I was like, ‘Well, I don’t really feel like I’m either of these things, so what am I?’… I was having an issue finding a place within all that.”

Here, at least, Frank Turner has things that are on his side. The unilateral vision of the solo artist means he isn’t prey to the near-universal truism that a band produces its best material in the first seven or eight years of its career. He isn’t reduced to becoming a heritage act for which nostalgia is the only valid currency. This is the reason why FTHC contains some of his best compositions. It’s the reason its 14 songs represent his best lyrics – overall, at least – since the Tape Deck Heart album, from 2013. It’s also the reason why some of his albums in the future might yet be better still.

But the record’s real triumph is the grace and élan with which it articulates its author’s march towards encroaching middle age. ‘I sure do miss them drugs / And not giving the slightest fuck ’ Shivering and thunderstruck / But it nearly killed me,’ are the opening lines to Untainted Love. (On this topic, Frank says that he “still thinks about [cocaine] every day. Every day. Every time I hold a credit card I think about it. Do you know what I mean? I’ll find myself in a shop just clacking my credit card on a counter and going, ‘Mmmm.’ I think that will haunt me for the rest of my days.”) On Farewell To My City, the singer somehow even manages to make the unpardonable sin of leaving London for a quieter life in a rural setting sound rather appealing. Best of all, though, is The Work, a perfectly-judged tribute to the graft and giving of married life in which ostensible mundanity is framed in a manner to which both the song and its singer sound well suited. ‘I don’t want to burn out anymore,’ he sings on its closing lines. ‘I want to visit the coast in Kent with you on a weekday afternoon when we’re both retired.’ Bet your boots, it’s a long road down to a relapse from here.

“So much of rock’n’roll is predicated on sugar-rush experiences,” says Frank. “They’re adolescent sugar-rush experiences. And I do understand why that is, and I’m not saying that it shouldn’t be so. But what I am saying is – particularly at this point in my career – that I feel that I’ve earned the right to talk about more substantive issues.” And why? “Because I can’t live like [I used to do] anymore. It’s not healthy anymore. It’s destructive, and all the rest of it. And rather than being upset about that – I mean, I did it well at the time… but that time has now passed – I thought the time had come to figure out what it is I should be doing now. And to do it well.”

He feels he is accomplishing his mission. In the long wait for the return of something that looks somewhat like normality, Frank Turner has mastered the techniques required to deal with the anxiety that was tugging at his sleeve. Unable to tour for many a long month, instead he broadcast ersatz concerts from his living room on social media through which he was able to help raise almost £300,000 for the kinds of spit’n’sawdust venues at which he started his career. He built a recording studio and learned to produce young bands gazing up at the first rung of a ladder that he himself has climbed. In his private life he might even have become someone that resembles the kind of fully-rounded human being that shines so convincingly from the centre of the songs on FTHC.

“I’d nailed my colours to the mast of being the hard-touring [artist] for such a long time,” Frank says. “Interestingly, there is a huge part of me – and this might sound like a bizarre thing to say – that is grateful that [the pandemic] happened at this point in my life. Had it happened 10 years ago I would have killed myself doing drugs alone in my flat, quite early on. I wasn’t in a settled relationship… For the longest time I was the guy that toured, and that was it. You become a bit of a cardboard cut-out doing that forever. You become a bit one-dimensional. And it became apparent to me that for my mental health, my own longevity, and also for the good of my songwriting, I needed to become something more than that.”

FTHC is due out on February 11 via Xtra Mile.

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