Sunday, 30 August 2009

Let's be Frank

I originally carried out this interview at the end of last month for a freshers' magazine for Cardiff University Students' Union. I feel, though, that Turner was intelligently articulate enough, with enough interesting ideas, to warrant a re-print in transcript form, rather than as part of an article:

You’ve been touring an incredible amount recently - how’s that been going?

Touring is my favourite thing in the whole world, so I always get to the end of every year and look back at the number I’ve shows I’ve done and feel like I could have done more. I’ve just been out with The Offspring doing an arena tour in the States, which was pretty intense and weird.

You’ve done that tour with The Offspring; you’ve done a split EP with Jonah Matranga - do you find all this sort of thing a case of “pinch me!” or do you just get used to it?

I hope I never get too used to it. When I was out with The Offspring I ended up meeting the guys from Converge, who are one of my favourite bands of all-time, ever, so that was a big deal. And meeting Pennywise and The Offspring and that sort of thing - it’s always fun. It’s always cool. The Jonah thing is funny; I’ve known Jonah for a long time now, and I count him as a close friend, but I do occasionally have to pinch myself when we’re hanging out

Do you find that there is a different atmosphere when you’re playing your own headlining shows?

They’re different things but they’re challenging and rewarding in different ways. The satisfaction you can get from playing as a support act when you start with three-quarters of the crowd not really knowing who you are or giving a shit, and ending up with a sizeable chunk of them cheering - that’s a really, really good feeling. It’s kind of like: “I’m achieving something with my life!’ But headline shows, for me, it’s important to try and make sure people are going away thinking “it was the best gig I’ve ever been to.” It’s like the stakes are upped somewhat.

Do you find there’s a difference in general with playing different types of shows, for example different areas of the UK, or university towns?

A little, but I try to be quite egalitarian in my approach to the show. I want to play and do the best gig I can, regardless of who’s there and who’s watching.

You seem to be quite egalitarian, as well, in the way you approach your music in general. You seem to be making folk music in an almost ‘punk’ way, keeping yourself very open and accessible: is this a conscious decision, or just something which comes out of having spent a few years playing in Million Dead?

It’s a conscious decision. My favourite thing about punk rock was the kind of iconoclasm, you know? The idea of a rock star is illegitimate; there shouldn’t be a massive divide between people who listen to music and the people who play music, and if there i,s the music in question becomes boring and irrelevant. Also, the minute I finish playing a show, I’m just the same as everyone else at a gig, so if people want to get in touch, my email address is on the website and I hang out. The whole Led Zeppelin approach to musicians always grated with me slightly; it’s not how I was brought up by my mum, to put it that way.

Your lyrics also have quite an open-book quality about them. Is that something, again, that you try to keep?

I don’t get too analytic about songwriting and lyrics - I just try to write the best stuff that I can, however that comes out. A quality that I like in music that I listen to is honesty, and I guess that will come across in the stuff that I do, as well. It’s important for me to point out that I’m not quite one of those people who puts their entire life on the internet or whatever. There is very much a line between my personal life and what gets said in public. I have a secret enclave that’s left, which is actually my personal life. But I do think that you should write about what you know, and that’s how it comes out for me.

There seem to be quite a lot of literary influence at play in your lyrics, as well.

Well spotted, thankyou! I’m not particularly well-versed in poetry or anything like that, but I like reading Philip Larkin and T.S. Eliot, stuff like that.

Do you have specific influences shining through into your lyrics, and are they as important to you as musical influences?

Yeah, I’d say so. Aside from particularly Larkin, who I’m very interested in, there’s a lot of other lyricists who mean a lot to me personally, whether it’s Craig Finn from The Hold Steady or Bruce Springsteen or whatever. I’m a lyrics guy when I’m listening to music, so yeah, I pay a lot of attention to that kind of thing.

Do you think your influences have changed over time, or do you find they’re still the same as when you first started out solo or were playing with Million Dead?

Yeah, my influences change, partly just through hearing other music. I had this thing about two years ago where I suddenly ‘got’ Bob Dylan; it was really weird. I’d kinda not really got Bob Dylan before, and I woke up one morning and raced down to the breakfast table shouting “I’ve got Bob Dylan! I understand it now!” so I’m on a big Dylan trip right now, Things kind of move on - when I started playing solo stuff, I think Neil Young was the single biggest single influence for me on what I was trying to do, but that’s certainly changed over time. Springsteen’s loomed large in my music taste of times gone by.

I’m guessing you’re more settled with a backing band now, and your new single [The Road] seems quite band-driven - is that reflective of the new album as a whole?

Yeah, I think so. Yes, it does. In a way, what happened was on previous albums I played most of the instruments myself, apart from the drums, and then I’d go and teach them to the guys in my backing band, who are all much better musicians than me, and we would end up playing live version that sounded better than the recorded versions. It seemed pointless to do that again, not least because the lineup of people in my backing band stabilised about six months ago. It’s still my songs that are written in the same way, but this time round we’ve rehearsed them before going into the studio and then played them on the record. I think the record does sound a bit more band-orientated. The other thing I think is that whether you’re conscious of it or not, for me anyway, when you write a song there’s an imaginary room in your head which you’re gonna be playing it. On the first album the imaginary room in my head was a pub or a bar or something; for the second album it was maybe a club with like 200 people in it; now the last few shows I’ve been doing have been a bit bigger than that, so I think that naturally my inclination has been to try and have a bigger sound and to write bigger songs. Having said all that, every song on the new record can be played solo with just me and a guitar if the need arises, so that kind of dedication to the solo thing remains.

So when you’re writing a song, do you try and envision it played solo as well, or do you write it for a band?

I believe that songs are like bodies in the sense that they have a skeleton which is basically a chord sequence, a melody and a set of lyrics, and you can present that in a number of different ways. Certainly a good song should be versatile, you know, it should have that skeleton, that sort of soul, and you can dress it up in a number of different ways. So yeah, it’s important to me that songs can survive in different versions and I think it’s interesting and fun and artistically valid to mess around with songs and play them in different ways.

Is that skeleton something you look out for when you’re playing covers? You seem to have done a really diverse range of them - do you just go with what you like?

Yeah, it’s the same thing. My main concern in life is songwriting. I’ve long ago accepted that I’m not some kind of super-progressive musicologist or anything like that: I just like good songs. My taste in music is basically defined around whether I think people write good songs, and I don’t really care what scenes or trappings or assumptions might come with any band; if they write good songs, I’m interested. I think Abba wrote good songs, I think Springsteen writes good songs - they way they’re presented is less important to me, and I think that playing covers is a good way of drawing out the skeletons of songs.

Are you going to be playing many covers on your UK tour this autumn?

Maybe one or two, but we’re at the stage now where I’ve got three - well, three-and-a-half, if you count The First Three Years - albums of my own material, so I think I’ll probably concentrate more on my own stuff.

Do you try to keep a mix in your setlist of older and newer stuff, or is it going to be more focussed on the new album?

I got to shows as much as the next person, and I know how annoying it is if you go and see a band that you love and they don’t play any old songs - it can be really disheartening, so I try and write a crowd-pleasing setlist. At the end of the day, I consider myself to be an entertainer above and beyond being an artist, and my job is to make sure that if people pay their money to come and see me that they have a really great night out. I don’t want to be one of these artists who’ll show up and play an entire set composed of b-sides or entirely new material. Obviously I want to play quite a lot off of the new album on this tour, because it’s more fresh and interesting to me, but I’m still obviously going to play ‘the hits’.

Finally, with regard to the new album, are there any particular lyrical themes which are coming through on it, or is it a mixed bag?

It has its offshoots, but the essential heart of the album came from Beans on Toast - my friend Jay, who’s an English folk singer. We were having a conversation about an older songs of mine called ‘The Ballad of Me and My Friends’, which is quite a pessimistic song; he was asking why I felt like like. as the song says, we’re all going to have to give up doing what we love in time and move on, and I didn’t really have an answer for him. That paranoia about what he’s said kind of spiralled out of control and became a whole album’s worth of lyrics. I guess the theme of the album is trying to grow old disgracefully and romantically and adventurously.

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