‘You’ve gotta play the hits!’ – Talking festivals with Frank Turner

Fresh from passing the 2,000-show milestone, an increasingly political Frank Turner discusses Trump, the struggles facing small venues and speed dating at festivals.

“Sorry I’m ranting now,” chuckles a mildly irate Frank Turner, breathless after a barrage of his political views, on everything from Donald Trump and Bernie Saunders to business rates and council regulations.

Turner and politics haven’t always gotten along. Back in 2012, the former Etonian folk singer-songwriter was swamped with abuse after a series of quotes in which he labeled socialism as “retarded”, and called the BNP a “hard left party”, on a Guardian blog. After receiving close to 100 death threats a day, Turner decided to stop writing about politics altogether.

“I very specifically took a step away from writing political songs for at least two, arguably three records. Engaging in the idiot mudslinging that passes for political debate on Twitter… The whole thing just didn’t seem creatively engaging to me.” But all of that changed for Frank at the end of last year when, “all of a sudden it really did feel like there was artistic merit in writing about politics again.”

And write about politics is exactly what Turner has done. Last month, the punk-come-folk artist released a new song, ‘Sand In The Gears’ in which he asks if he can “just spend the next four years getting wasted?” — What could have prompted such an ‘outburst’?

“I find it utterly incomprehensible they (America) have elected a carnival huckster as President,” he says bluntly. “I spent a lot of last year in US, particularly last summer when all the campaigns were going on. I remember being in Omaha playing a punk rock show and there were Trump people there. Perhaps not even Trump people, but virulently anti-Hilary people. And that was an eye opener for me.

“Trump is a very uniquely American phenomenon,” he continues, “and I think that Europeans like us find it hard to understand. There were a lot of people in America who were like ‘what’s the worst that could happen?’ about Trump getting elected. What’s happening now is a good answer to that question, which is a lot of really fucking terrible things.

“There were also people who said, ‘There’s no difference between Democrats and Republicans.’ Yeah there fucking is. There really fucking is, and its an important difference that makes a real impact on vulnerable people’s lives, so fuck off.”

Turner’s passion for politics clearly remains undiminished, despite having not written about the subject for some time. He remains a firm believer in the centre ground and liberal equality, describes the idea that Trump will lead to better punk music as “white privilege”, and says he was “really fucking irritated” by Bernie Sanders supporters likening America to a police state. Does this mean that Turner’s next album (scheduled to be released in the early part of next year) is likely to be ‘the political one?’

“I am in the middle of writing what is a heavily political record,” he admits, “but I hesitate to say that out loud quite so stridently. It’s not going to be a Rage Against the Machine album, as much as I love them.

“It’s political in the sense that it’s about a sense of dread and a sense of fear and uncomfortableness in society and doom, without being like ‘here’s a five point plan to sort out the welfare state!’” He cites The Specials and Echo and The Bunnymen as two artists that have inspired the record, and hopes to finish recording in Dallas in May.

After spending January and February on his biggest ever US and Canadian tour, Turner is back on home soil and playing at Goose Island’s 312 Day Beer Festival in Shoreditch, East London. Despite admitting he usually likes his beer “fizzy and light”, the heavily tattooed singer enjoys the brewery’s new 312 Urban Wheat Ale, professing to have had “arguably too much to drink before I play a show.” (This is confirmed to be the case when he later cuts in the toilet queue moments before going onstage.)

Nonetheless, he is pleased to be back in his hometown. “It’s always nice to finish a gig and get in a cab and go home,” he says. “As much as I love living on tour buses its quite nice to be in your own bed.”

Being in his own bed is something Turner rarely gets the chance to do, such is the frenetic pace with which he and his band The Sleeping Souls tour. In December of last year, the Winchester-born singer celebrated 2,000 solo shows with a sold out gig at Nottingham’s Rock City, a feat that averages out at roughly a show every two days for more than ten years. Now settled with a partner and heading towards 40, does he ever imagine a time when he will stop playing shows so regularly?

“It (touring) definitely takes its physical toll,” he says. “I couldn’t at my age now, tour the way that I did when I was 23, I simply physically couldn’t do it. I would play about 18 million shows in a row, sleep on the floor and get fucked up all the time. The human body doesn’t exist like that for very long.”

“My central motivating factor is that I’m terrified of wasting my time, and not achieving all the things I could have achieved. I don’t want to lie on my death-bed and think well if I’d played less fucking Xbox I could have made another two records.”

“People keep asking me how many shows I’m going to play in total, and that’s like asking me when I’m going to die! I don’t know!”

Never one to rest on his laurels, this month Turner heads to Sierra Leone with the Joe Stummer foundation. Working with the charity WAYout Arts in Freetown, he hopes to encourage and inspire disadvantaged young people to play musical instruments. Then, in May, he returns to the capital to headline the first ever Lost Evening’s festival. The four-day event at Camden Roundhouse was organised to celebrate ten years since the release of Turner’s debut album, Sleep Is For The Week. How does he feel the album has aged?

“I have complex feelings about it,” he replies. “The overriding feeling is that its hilariously weird to me that we’re still discussing it ten years later, because if you told me that when it came out in 2007 I would have been pleasantly befuddled.

“There’s a lot about it that I would do differently if I were making that album now. I didn’t really know what I was doing but it turned out alright, and we’re still talking about it now so that’s great.”

Turner has always been an ardent supporter of small venues, launching a petition in 2014 to urge the government to change regulations to better protect gig venues from closure. Despite the looming threat of business rates rises for many venues, he is determined that the industry ought to be allowed to stand on its own two feet, and not propped up by state funding. “One of the things I’m quite proud about working in the music industry is that its largely a non-subsidized sector of the arts,” he says. “I wish people would leave small venues alone.

“The thing that fucks small venues is council’s constantly changing regulations, putting new taxes or restrictions in, or building new flats. The live music sector employs shit loads of people and turns over billions of pounds a year, and that should mean something. We’re not going cap in hand asking for money, we’re just saying ‘fucking leave us alone so we can do our thing!’”

Heading into the summer, Turner has already been announced for a whole host of festivals including Kendall Calling, Boomtown and Boardmasters. He describes the experience of playing festivals as “speed dating with an audience.”

“When playing a festival you’ve got to think about people’s attention spans,” he says, “if people are seeing like 30 bands over the course of three days it’s not the time to crack out the experimental cover that lasts for 18 minutes. You’ve gotta play the hits.

“Every year I’m excited about festival season in about April and I’m always fucking bored of it by September, and that’s the circle of life man.”

One thing is for certain, if he carries on touring at this pace, it won’t be long before we’re discussing Frank Turner show number 3,000.