A Frank Turner and the Sleeping Souls show is one of those rock and roll nights of magic, an exchange of joy and energy and abandon.
Turner acts as much as ringleader as performer, an undeniable combination of showman and punk folkie (or is it folk punker?).
So the first thing to explore in an interview is the genesis of that passion.
“It comes from growing up with punk rock, particularly the underground hardcore scene,” he says on a call from the road, where he basically lives these days. “I remember very distinctly going to my first punk show. The first band finished and jumped from the front of the stage into the front row and the next band jumped up onto the stage out of the crowd, grabbed their instruments, and played.”
“That was a very simple demonstration of an idea, the idea that this is not separate,” he adds. “That this is a community of people who like music and who are going to communicate.”
This is a man, after all, who played 24 shows in 24 hours for a video of his song, “The Road.” This is a guy who lives on the road although he spent a couple of weeks before our interview, unplugged relaxing on holiday. “That was a rare thing and a welcome thing,” he admits. “To spend two weeks almost not being me. Not being the public me.”
That comment indicates just how much Turner identifies with being the master up on stage, whipping up the crowd with singalongs like “Photosynthesis.”
And I won’t sit down
And I won’t shut up
And most of all I will not grow up
Turner became a solo act a decade ago after his punk band, Million Dead, shattered into so many pieces. “We were touring for four and a half years,” he says. “In that time, we learned to hate each other with a particularly succinct precision. We were never really friends. We were sort of co-conspirators. In the short term, that made us a better band. We had different ideas about what we were trying to do. It made us more than the sum of our parts. But it also meant we were doomed to failure.”
During that time, laying on his back in the rear of a van, he listened to artists like Johnny Cash during his American Recordings period, Bruce Springsteen’s “Nebraska” as well as Bob Dylan, Townes van Zandt and Loudon Wainwright III.
“All of which was new to me because my parents did not believe in modern music,” he explains. His original entry into modern music as Iron Maiden followed by Nirvana. Merge all of those artists from metal to trad country to spare Springsteen and you get a sense of a Frank Turner show and album.
He was looking to challenge himself, get outside his comfort zone. He thought getting on stage with an acoustic guitar was worth a try. And that’s how Turner came to create his driving, frenzied live act that makes a nod to The Pogues, The Clash, Springsteen and Black Flag.
His latest disc, “Positive Songs for Negative People,” was recorded live in the studio over nine days. Ten songs, nine days. Esme Patterson, who so beautifully duets with Shakey Graves, lends some vocal support on one of his favorites, “Silent Key,” a tune about Christa McAuliffe, the teacher who died in the Challenger explosion.
His previous record, “Tape Deck Heart,” was one of those where he spent a long time in the studio crafting a collection of breakup songs with himself as the bad guy.
“I wanted it (“Positive Songs”) to have that kind of (live) immediacy,” he says. “It was also a reaction to the previous record, going down rabbit holes arrangement-wise. There was a vibe that this time I wanted to do the opposite, more on the fly. A common criticism – that I think is legitimate — is we haven’t made a record that captures the vibe we have as a live band.”
Two tunes on “Positive Songs” hit home particularly hard and personally. “Silent Key” formed out of the hazy memory he had of the disaster as a four-year-old. “I cannot quite remember the Challenger disaster,” he says. “It’s something that happened on the edge of my subconscious memory. There was a sort of tragic poetry to the situation. She was engaged in the space program to get people more interested and dies on international TV. That just seemed like something interesting to explore lyrically.”
“I really love that song,” he adds. “I try hard to be sensitive to the idea she was a real human being with a family. I did not want to sensationalize it, but it seemed like a story worth telling.”
Another story he told was of a longtime friend, Josh Burdette, who worked security at Washington D.C.’s 9:30 Club in “Song for Josh.” Burdette took his life and Turner achingly asks in the song why he didn’t call. To complete the circle, Turner recorded the song live at the 9:30 Club.
He says he does not shy away from tough topics. He’s drawn to them.
“I think there are boundaries about how the material relates to other people,” he says. “In terms of relating to myself, I try quite hard not to have boundaries. I have a thing I mentally call the wince factor. If I write something that makes me wince, I often feel like that’s a good thing. It’s making an emotional dent of some kind and that’s something worth pursuing.”
His sixth disc, “Positive Songs” is more introspective in places than his others. Part of that may be that Turner has sworn off political songs after dealing with a backlash. “Three-minute pop songs are the worst format for having any kind of adult discussion about politics,” he says.
He’s become more interested in music as a unifying force than a dividing force. “Thirdly,” he adds, rolling now, “I shy away from that kind of conversation, from the arrogance that says because I have a platform with music, my positions are more important than anybody else’s.”
That’s Frank the punker, talking, of course.
He says he’s something of a contrarian. Punk is where he headed after school with the British elite, first at Eton (where Prince William and other nobility learned) and then the London School of Economics. He’s careful to point out that he attended each on scholarship and that is grateful for the fine education. Oh, and Joe Strummer also went to boarding school.
“Once the wider social implications (of boarding school) became clear as soon as I was old enough to understand them, they were uncomfortable to me,” he says.
His solution was to turn to The Clash and Black Flag. And to turn to the road.
“It’s just kind of like I ran away and joined that circus,” he says. “That’s driven most of the rest of what I do with my life.”