“I think there have been some identity issues to figure out, like if I’m not out on tour then who the hell am I?" - hmv.com talks to Frank Turner about new album FTHC
Frank Turner is one of those musicians who practically lives on the road. Ever since his time as frontman in post-hardcore band Million Dead, and onwards through a solo career that has so far produced eight studio albums since his 2007 solo debut Sleep Is for the Weak, Turner has been one of the most prolific touring artists in recent memory.
Since his last album No Man's Land arrived in 2019, however, Turner has - like many other artists - been forced to slow down as a result of the pandemic, leaving him time to not only amass a huge amount of material, but also to stay in one place for the first time in years and take a little time for reflection.
The resulting album, FTHC, arrives in stores this week and finds Turner in an introspective mood as he tackles a range of subjects close to home, from his father's gender ressaignment in 'Miranda' to the loss of his dear friend, Frightened Rabbit's Scott Hutchinson, whose tragic death he laments on 'A Wave Across the Bay'.
With his new album FTHC arriving on Friday (February 11) we spoke to Frank about returning to his musical comfort zone, working with Rich Costey for the first time since his 2012 album Tape Deck Heart, and why this album has seen him return to a more confessional style of songwriting...
The last few years have been weird for everyone, but must’ve been especially so for someone who tours so relentlessly – how have you adapted to that?
“Well, it’s been a very strange and often unpleasant couple of years, and yeah I’ve spent most of my adult life on tour. I figured out that this has been the longest time I’ve spent in one place since I was about seven years old. That’s crazy, and it takes some adjustments. It also coincided with my late 30s and now I’m 40 years old, and I think that’s a period of life that is often very reflective for a lot of people. Sometimes it can be a bit difficult to disentangle what’s stressing me out because of the pandemic, and what’s stressing me out just because I’m getting old.
“I think there have been some identity issues to figure out, like if I’m not out on tour then who the hell am I? I’m diving right into the deep end here, but I was fortunate enough a few years ago to really embark on looking after myself from a mental health point of view, I dealt with substance issues, I got married, and part of all of that was kind of establishing a hinterland as an individual. If you’re the guy that tours forever, you become something of a cardboard cut-out. So I’ve been working on trying to have a few more dimensions to my personality, if you like, and it’s lucky that process had already begun before it was forced upon me."
You’ve been busy in the meantime – live online shows, venue fundraisers, and the NOFX split album West Coast vs Wessex – how did that one come about?
“That has actually ended up being quite an influential moment for me. I’ve been friends with Mike [Burkett, NOFX vocallist/bassist] for quite a long time and it’s an understatement to say that I was pleasantly surprised when he asked me to do the split, because I’m an enormous NOFX fan and the last band they did a split with was Rancid, who I’m also an enormous fan of. I bought that record the day it came out and if you’d told me then that the next one they did would be with me, I’d have spontaneously combusted.
“But I think the the thing is, if two musicians are friends then I think you often just tell each other that you like each other’s stuff, because it’s the polite thing to do. And obviously I’m genuinely a big NOFX fan, but I’d always think ‘He’s probably just being nice’ when Mike says he likes my stuff. So when he asked me to do the split I was like: ‘Oh, he’s serious.’ I mean, doing a record with NOFX is pretty much the punk rock blue tick, but in terms of my decision with this record to make a more ‘punk rock’ record, that was a big contributory factor. Doing that and having all of those interactions, and then in summer 2019 doing the Punk Rock Holiday festival, and in the middle of all the experiences I remember thinking: ‘I’m home.’ This is where I feel most comfortable as a musician and as a person, and therefore wouldn’t it be cool to spend a bit more time in this world musically. So here we are.”
Your last couple of albums have mixed things up a bit in terms of style - electronic textures on Be More Kind, a folky kind of vibe on No Man’s Land – are we firmly back in punk territory with this new one?
“Yeah, well, punk is broad term. The expression ‘going back to your roots’ is kind of a cliché, and in some ways it isn’t true of this record in the sense that my early solo records don’t really sound like this, but it is going back to my comfort zone in terms my music taste. And that is broadly punk rock, although there are obviously subdivisions within that. I guess one way of putting it is that for a long time I’ve made music that is punk-adjacent. As a writer I’d come up to an idea and I’d slightly swerve to the left a little bit, quite consciously, in order to not give in to my more base musical instincts, whereas with this record there was a lot of ‘Nah, f*** it, I’m giving in.’ And I really enjoyed it, it was fun.”
So when did you start putting the songs together for this album, in the midst of everything else you were doing?
“I had about 10 songs finished before the pandemic was even a twinkle in anybody’s eye, and the original plan was to go and make it in Los Angeles with Rich Costey in the summer of 2020. We made Tape Deck Heart together in 2012, we just sort of reconnected and I felt good about making an album with him again. And then that didn’t happen. It’s funny, this is not a ‘lockdown’ record or a ‘pandemic’ record, but the logistics of making it have been impacted by it, for obvious reasons.
“One of the ways in which that happened was that instead of writing four more songs for it, I wrote 28. Which is a lot more than I usually write for a record. Not only did I rework songs more than I usually do, I made it my lockdown project to learn more about being a producer and how to record things properly, so in the process the standard of my demoing has become an awful lot higher than it used to be. So it meant that by the time we got to the studio, even though were were working remotely, I felt very prepared to make the record in a way that I perhaps haven’t in recent years."
But you did ultimately end up doing it remotely with Rich Costey, still?
“Yeah, it was a strange experience and I was pretty nervous about it before the event, I was wondering whether this was going to be a coherent way to make a record. And it is a bit odd there there are four different people who play drums on this album and I still haven’t met any of them! That’s quite weird, and for the majority of the recording we were in a studio in Oxford and Rich was in Vermont. We had him on a laptop, balanced on top of one of the speakers, and we started referring to him as Holly, in reference to Red Dwarf, which was made funnier by the fact that he had no idea what we were talking about.
"I was wondering if there was really going to be any kind of vibe there of it would be productive, but weirdly it was, because we couldn’t do anything other than work. We couldn’t spend a morning mucking around with different guitars and different amps trying to get some weird, fun sound, or we couldn’t spend the first 20 minutes of every day showing each other funny cat videos we’d found online or whatever. So it ended up being a really focussed way to make a record.”
It must’ve helped that you’d worked with Rich before too?
“Definitely, and I think I can say this without slighting the man in any way, but when we worked together in 2012 it was my first time making an album for a major label, and I think that Rich thought that I’d just been signed or something, I’m not sure how much he really took me seriously as an artist. We still made a great and, indeed, a very successful record together, but it was quite a bruising experience for me, so one of the things that was great about this time around is that I think we both had a little bit more respect and more of an understanding for each other’s art, as it were. I now understand a lot better why Rich is considered a genius in the world of production, and I think he understands that I’m someone who has had a long career and who has things to say, so therefore he trusted my instincts a bit more."
You mentioned having a few drummers on this album, can you talk us through some of them? We know that Muse drummer Dominic Howard is one of them…
“Yeah, he plays on ‘The Gathering’. A lot of that came from the fact that I parted ways with my long-term drummer in 2020, so I needed people to play the drums, basically, and for that first song that we were working on Rich said ‘I could probably get Dom to play on this’. I said ‘F***ing hell, yeah, that’ll do!’ Beautifully enough, Rich sent him the demo and he didn’t reply for about two days, then when he did he just replied with the audio files for a drum take of the song, and we were like ‘Ah, so it’s a yes, then.’
“Then for the rest of it we were talking about a few names, and the thing about working with Rich is that he knows everybody. So he suggested that we could talk to Ilan Rubin from Nine Inch Nails. We had a day where Ilan was in Los Angeles, Rich was in Vermont and I was in London, we were all on a Zoom call together and it was very strange, but yeah, that guy really knows how to play the drums.
“The more touching one for me was for the song ‘A Wave Across the Bay’. I did initially ask Grant from Frightened Rabbit, Scott’s brother, if he wanted to play on the song but he wasn’t really ready to do that just yet. But Jason McGurr from Death Cab for Cutie, who was a good friend of Scott’s, we mentioned it to him and he was immediately like ‘Yes, please, let me do this’. And he did an amazing job.”
It does seem as though you’re tackling a few more personal subjects on this record, would you agree with that?
“I mean, yes, is the short answer, but it’s also a kind of return to a more autobiographical style, which is something that I did a lot more when I was younger. In the intervening time I’ve gone off and written in slightly different ways, which you should as an artist, I think. I did a political electro-pop album, I did a history album, in particular No Man’s Land was, by design, made up of songs that weren’t about me. So having done that, it was almost like a palette cleanser. Ultimately, every record I’ve made is a snapshot of a certain point in my life, and it is different being in your late 30s than being in your early 20s, so while I have written in a confessional style in the past, I guess I have different things to confessional about at this point. The one compensation about getting older is that you are slightly more secure in who you are as a person, but the thing about that is that it made me feel more ready to discuss some of the complicated topics in my life, whether that be my father’s gender identity, or where I went to school and how that experience was for me, one of my dearest friends checking out, or whatever it whatever it might be. I felt more ready to delve into those topics."
Have you had much of a chance to play the new songs live yet?
“Yeah, some, and we now have a new full-time drummer in my band, Callum Green who is absolutely sensational. He’s earned himself the nickname Teacher’s Pet among my bandmates because he has a habit of learning everything before everybody else does. But over the summer we did a handful of live shows and were able to play about four or five of the songs as part of the set. My favourite bit was playing ‘Non Serviam’ live for the first time in Manchester, and I had fun introducing it as ‘the ballad’ before charging straight into that riff and lots of shouting. Road-testing songs is an interesting thing, because it is informative and in some ways useful to see people’s reaction to things, but I don’t think it’s integral, I don’t write every song to be a crowd-pleaser, if you know what I mean."
We saw that you had to cancel some live dates you’d planned – have you been able to reschedule those or plan any others?
‘We are working on a reschedule, I don’t want to sound like I’m cussing anyone out here but I’m not really a big fan of postponing until some theoretical date in the future, we’ll rebook the tour when we 100% know that’s it’s going to happen, in the meantime people can have their money back and we’ll redo it when we can.”
FTHC is available in hmv stores now - you can also find it here in our online store.