Frank Turner interview: 'I had death threats, people sending my records back, I was spat on: I wish I could say I didn’t give a f***'

The Eton anarchist turned arena-filler and ‘extreme liberal’ talks about wanting to be Bruce Springsteen rather than Billy Bragg and the price of being political

Nick Duerden
Saturday 25 July 2015 01:40 BST
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(Charlie Forgham Bailey)

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It’s a sunny July day when I meet Frank Turner in the bar of a central London hotel, but, sweating steadily, the folk-punk troubadour isn’t quite at his most radiant. “White wine hangover,” he explains, telling me that he was out last night with a friend – one he eventually identifies as the ex-girlfriend that inspired his last album, 2013’s Tape Deck Heart, an extended mea culpa on which he blamed himself for destroying their relationship.

“It was a very cathartic project, but difficult to record, to sing, to even talk about,” he winces. “Breakup records tend to be mostly written from the point of view of the one whose heart is broken, the one who’s been hard done by. That wasn’t the case here. I was the one that did hard.”

As their night on the town suggests, the pair have made up now, and are friends. And their surprise relationship broker? Clive James – or more specifically James’s poem “Leçons de Ténèbres”. “He writes: ‘I should have been more kind/It is my fate to find this out, but find it out too late’.” I’ve been unkind myself in life, and I regret that a lot. I’m trying to be nice now,” says Turner.

Frank Turner, English folk/singer-songwriter from Meonstoke, Hampshire.
Frank Turner, English folk/singer-songwriter from Meonstoke, Hampshire. (Charlie Forgham Bailey)

This impetus to spread good vibrations also seems to drive his new album, Positive Songs for Negative People. Possessing the guileless exuberance of a debut, it takes everything Turner is rightly famed for – impassioned guitar riffing married to arena friendly choruses – and turns the sound up. This is a record, he says, about defiance, about picking yourself up when you’re down. On the single “Get Better”, he hollers: “I’m trying to get better because I haven’t been my best.”

“This is my sixth album ... six is not an inherently exciting number. Many bands don’t even make it this far, and those that do are often at the stage where they’re merely tolerated by fans. I didn’t want to fall into that trap. I wanted to make something that goes: ‘This is worth listening to, worth paying attention to’.”

Born in Hampshire 33 years ago, Frank Turner is one of our most intriguing singer-songwriters, at a time when that tag has become associated with blandness. He’s a heavily-tattooed punk enthusiast who is the product of an Eton education, and yet despite this, is still frequently referred to as a 21st-century equivalent of Billy Bragg, albeit with markedly different politics. A few years back, he admitted to certain right-wing sympathies – no shocking confession if you work in, say, banking, but catastrophic if you’re an idol to rebellious teenagers. A firing squad swiftly gathered.

(Charlie Forgham Bailey)

“Look,” he says of his contentious reputation, “I have no interest in being a controversial figure. That would be tedious in the extreme. I get associated with Billy [Bragg] a lot, and he is fantastic, a lovely human being and a friend, but the saddest thing about Billy, for me, is that he is not popularly considered a songwriter so much as an activist. That’s his choice, but it would never be mine. I’d rather be Bruce Springsteen than Billy Bragg. Music is my principal endeavour.”

Nevertheless his backstory can’t help but distract. “It’s a class thing, isn’t it?” he says. “I’m not working-class by any stretch,” he pauses, “but there are worse things in life, you know?”

Said “class thing” springs from the fact that his grandfather is Sir Mark Turner, a former chairman of BHS, and from his time at Britain’s most famous public school, which he attended on a scholarship. Even more excitingly for the naysayers, he was in the same year as Prince William.

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Today, Turner is ambivalent though mostly scornful of the institution. “The education you receive there is world class, obviously,” he concedes, “but I found I was surrounded by people I didn’t much like. Not everyone, of course, but the general social attitude was pretty repulsive.”

(Charlie Forgham Bailey)

And so he was driven to become, in his words, “an angry teenage anarchist”, and tried to get up people’s noses in much the way he seems to do today; on Twitter, he calls himself “the annoying guy, playing guitar in the corner of the party, made good.” He gorged on George Orwell, and sought salvation in The Clash, whose Joe Strummer was also privately educated. And he wasn’t merely a theoretical anarchist, he put up “March Against The Monarchy” posters around Eton, carting about a fake guillotine with him. A tutor had to pull him aside to say he was essentially advocating the murder of another pupil’s grandmother. “And that, I was told, wasn’t in particularly good taste.” He laughs. “Fair point.”

After school, he joined hardcore punk act Million Dead, then embraced folk, toning down the ire but not the passion. Since 2007, he has toured incessantly and, without much press attention, accrued a devoted fanbase. Subsequently, many of them felt scandalised when he had the temerity to sell out Wembley Arena, and perform at the Olympics, using social media to take him to task. Turner understands, however. “It’s that punk rock ethic. It’s hard to let go.” A tougher by-product of his spiriting into the public eye was the dissection of his political opinions: in the wake of his Olympic performance, The Guardian raked through old interviews featuring strident quotes, among them “socialism’s retarded” and “leftist politics leads to the misery of many”. Turner responded on his website explaining his position in more nuanced terms (“I just think the world works better when people are left alone to do what they want as much as possible”) but the fallout was considerable.

With valid reason, because he’s hardly Bullingdon Club material. “Having gone to a school full of social prejudice,” he says, “I feel ... you should only judge people on the content of their character... it’s a shame to see people indulge in such feral hating, simply because I dared voice a political opinion.”

The irony is that all anyone wants to hear from him now, within the press at least, is his opinions on politics. He good-naturedly indulges me, and says that he is glad Ed Miliband lost the election, but is quick to criticise the Tories, too. “David Cameron’s a fucking monster.” So he no longer identifies himself as right wing? “If you have to have a label,” he says, “I’m an extreme liberal. Make of that what you will.”

There’s something incredibly engaging about his unairbrushed candour, in spite of the knocks he has received – and it’s a quality which may in part explain his slow-burning rise to pop’s uppermost echelons. As a child, dreaming occasionally of regicide and more often of pop stardom, Turner set his sights on being able to fill the Astoria, a modest 2,000-capacity venue in London. “But somehow I surpassed that long ago.”

Consequently, his sights have shifted. “I’m an ambitious person,” he says. “I want to do well, to communicate with people. As many as I can, ideally.”

‘Positive Songs for Negative People’ is out 7 August

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