Since his emergence as one of the premier acts in the country with 2013's Tape Deck Heart, Frank Turner has been essentially two very different versions of himself.
On the one hand you have the band, Frank Turner and the Sleeping Souls, that headline festivals like Kendal Calling and play huge shows at Wembley Arena. Then you have the solo artist who plays acoustic shows in venues like the Night & Day Cafe in Manchester to well under a thousand people. After years of playing gigs like that as he struggled to reach the level he is at now, those venues still feel like home.
All of this has lead to the release of Positive Songs for Negative People, the new album that has seen him earn a consecutive number two slot in the charts and massive album sales. Tracks like 'Get Better' and 'The Next Storm' have only helped raise his stock to arguably the highest it has ever been.
Still, the album has not had the best reaction from critics, even if fans have eaten it up. Turner states indifference towards this but it’s hard not to detect a little bitterness as he takes aim at the music journalists that may or may not have turned against him.
That’s a minor bump though and if he keeps on this upward trajectory then surely he can be the new headliner at major festivals that music journalists like myself crave? A set of classic tracks, a passionate set of fans and increasing popularity would certainly point towards that.
We speak to Frank on his one day off before embarking on a US tour. Typically, he's spending the day completing interviews - hardly the most relaxing way to spend it. We'd expect nothing less from the man who played his 1000th solo show in 2011.
Yes, good thank you. I'm on my one day off in-between my European tour and the UK tour and I am enjoying sitting on my own sofa and, er, doing interviews. But no, it’s nice to be home.
That doesn't sound like much of a day off.
Well, I'm staying in one place. I woke up in my bed this morning and that’s enough of a day off for me.
How’s the reception been to Positive Songs for Negative People?
It’s been great, generally speaking. It’s a funny one, in the past I've been someone who has tended to have great shining reviews and middling sales and that’s actually swapped around this time. I can’t say that I'm really complaining about that. People have been singing along to the new songs and we've sold a shit tonne of records so I can’t complain.
So you say there’s been middling reviews...
It’s an interesting process. In the past I think, at least to some degree in the UK, I was underground which means that music journalists can make themselves feel better by championing me. This time around I'm definitely not so there’s a case of me being somebody to shoot down from a couple of publications. I don’t really lose any sleep over it.
The album sounds bigger and grander than the work before. Is that something you'd agree with and was it consciously done?
I dunno. I think the intention this time around was to go for something that felt raw and that’s certainly how we approached it stylistically. We rehearsed the songs in a live context and the band and I had a real bugbear about catching the vibe and energy of the live shows with the Sleeping Souls on record which I don’t think we've successfully done before. We rehearsed the songs to within an inch of their lives and then we made the record in nine days playing everything live and did the vocals afterwards. Otherwise it’s pretty much a live record.
You've been promoting the album with a lot of solo shows. Why’s that?
I wanted to ease myself and the audience into the new material in that context and it was a way of drumming up some excitement in the week of release and getting people stoked about doing something other than wafting into town and us playing the Academy and them wandering off again. It seemed a more exciting way of introducing the record.
Why do you enjoy small venues so much and why do you make a point of playing them?
If I can say this without being hugely self-involved, the Night & Day is my home venue in the city of Manchester. I played there a lot on the way up and they've had a lot of issues lately with their licence. I've been working with Music Venues Trust to try and look after them in our country and in our scene. It’s good to acknowledge those guys and give them a hand and they've been good to me over the years so I'm just trying to repay that.
Who do you think should be responsible for helping smaller venues?
I think it's a collective effort really. The people who generally run small venues I think are unsung heroes, or at least not sung enough heroes, of the underground music scene. Even at the best of times, running a small venue is close to the margin. They’re people doing their bit, as it were. Bands can do their best and I do what I can. With punters, one of the things that Independent Venue Week was about was trying to impress on younger people that you don’t just have to go to gigs that are at the Apollo or at the arena. For less money, you can go and see up and coming bands who are playing much closer to you and you become part of the fabric on a live music scene rather than just heads in a massive crowd.
Do you think it’s an issue that some artists get to bypass that route and their first tour tends to be at bigger venues?
There are bands where that takes place. I feel quite removed from that because that’s not my understanding of music or how I got into it or what I'm into personally. The thing about the smaller venues is that’s how you get decent and credible bands to another level. I'm not sure I'm quite saying that you have to have paid your dues and it is possible to be a good band who just happen to do well very early on. If you don’t have the small venues and that circuit then you end up with only Simon Cowell and his minions playing at the big venues rather than bands like Biffy and Muse sat at the top.
And then you do get the special occasion when a bigger artist comes back to those small venues and that’s great...
It’s a mutually beneficial thing because I love playing shows like that.
Do you enjoy the solo shows more or the Sleeping Souls gigs?
I like being able to mix it up. If I had to do just one or the other for-evermore then I’d get bored. Or at least I would get bored more easily. It’s really fun to be able to mix and match so after six months of playing in big places with barriers and security teams and all that sort of crap to then turn around a play small places is nice.
You're playing a US tour soon. Is that exciting?
America is a place that requires a lot of effort to achieve things in. There’s a saying in the industry that it’s like an oil tanker and takes an awful long time to turn it around. Things are going really well for me in the States with this tour being by biggest to date. We’re playing some really big venues and they’re selling out so it’s an exciting time and Americans are lovely people, so I'm looking forward to it.
What would you say the main differences are between those shows and the ones over here?
Americans have better manners than English people, that’s a stone cold fact. I'm more associated with the punk scene over there and I'm still someone who is less established over there.
Does your popularity vary all over the US?
Yeah definitely. I do very well on the east coast and the west coast, Chicago and Texas. I'm not sure how busy my show in Boise, Idaho is going to be. Sales are a little slow on that one. But then we've got three nights in New York so yeah, it all comes out in the wash.
You've played a lot of arenas. Any plans to get back there on your next tours?
Yeah, possibly. This time I wanted to do what is called the theatre-level venues but a lot of these shows sell out very quickly and I guess we’ll see what happens once this tour is done. There are almost certainly people who work in the team for me who have plans about this already but I haven’t yet got that far ahead in my brain.
How much involvement in the creative process do Sleeping Souls get?
Basically, I write the songs just for vocals and guitar on my own and then take them to the band and at that point it becomes a collective process. I always have ideas for how I want an arrangement to be but quite often they have better ideas or they are all better at their instruments than I am. I can wander over to Matt on piano and play him something I was interested in being a part and then he’ll embellish it and make it a million times better and I go 'yeah, exactly, that’s what I want". It morphs into a collective process.
Are the any plans to release any Mongol Horde music?
Yeah we started kicking some riffs around and some stuff but it's very much something that I do when I have some time off from what I call, in inverted commas, my day job. There is not masses right now.
A lot of older tracks are in the set. What are the favourites and why do you keep them around?
I can’t really pick the one. There are certain standards that end up being in the set pretty regularly, which is fine. I like playing songs that people want to hear, there’s nothing nicer or cooler than having a room full of people singing along. I must admit, when we get into the practice room, my joy at running through 'Photosynthesis' again is somewhat muted. When you've got a room full of people singing along with it, it’s great and a good time. I always try and have a section in the set for random oldies where I try and pick out something that I haven’t playing in ages or might surprise people. I've written a lot of songs and you suddenly remember something that was a b-side on the first record and you go 'oh yeah, there is some merit to this song’ and you play it again.
Why should fans return to see you again on this tour?
Well, we've got a new record so the setlist will be different on that level. It’s not really for me to make the comment I'm about to make but, fuck it, I'm gonna make it anyway. We’re getting better as a live band. That certainly is the opinion of my friend Ben who has been taking photographs of me for years. He is not shy in his criticisms. You should come down and judge.
I presume you get lots of stories from fans telling you about moments they had listening to you or how important your music is and so on. Is that something that's good to hear or is it still weird?
It’s nice. I'm always slightly unsure of how to respond to the things. I'm never one to turn down a compliment but I don’t have masses to add. I get people coming and telling me these amazing stories and very flattered and touched but I'm also like 'thanks...’, I'm not one to be dismissive of people being complimentary. I try not to wander through life with an extremely high opinion of myself. I get it though because I have things like that I would say, or have said, to people in other bands so I understand the impulse. I just don’t hold myself mentally in that same category.
Might headline festival performances happen in the future?
You know what? We’ll see. I know there are conversations that happen around this sort of thing. I'm quite happy for them to be done by other people. I'm gonna do my best and wherever that will be is where it will be. So is it a goal of yours? I like to try to do things I haven’t done before. That keeps things interesting and it would be fucking amazing to headline some bigger festivals. Time will tell whether or not that’s a realistic possibility.
What do you make of the newer music that gets people excited these days?
Well I'm good friends with the Wolf Alice lot but I'm the wrong person to ask about the current state of any music scene.
Positive Songs for Negative People is out now.
Main image by Nicole C. Kibert.