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A Talk With Frank Turner

“To be a bit Goldilocks about it, I feel like it’s kind of come just about right.” Backstage at Bonnaroo, British singer/songwriter Frank Turner has tracked me down next to one of the few patches of grass not drenched in the scorching sun. We’d been playing phone tag all morning, and, after much misunderstanding and miscommunication, we’ve finally found each other in a small shelter beyond the freshly purged Porta Potties. He’s jetlagged, I’m sleep-deprived, and we’re both far, far away from home. He dives into the conversation by drawing a comparison between a children’s tale and his own life, but without second guessing him, I figure he’s onto something and I let him take it from there.

“Crazy shit is happening to me right now, but I feel like I can enjoy it.” Too hot? Too cold? Just right and not a minute too soon is how Turner sees things shaping up. The 28-year old musician was making Bonnaroo just one of his many festival circuit stops this summer—sandwiched between Coachella, Lollapalooza, and, in his words, a “shit ton” of fests in the U.K. Still shy of 30, it might seem like success has found Turner at an early age, but it’s been close to a decade since he joined hardcore group Million Dead and began touring Europe. Ten years later, his success has transcended from the underground elite and Turner is headlining clubs, landing spots at festivals, and even appearing on the cover of Kerrang (“It’s just like, front cover, dude. It’s fucking cool. It’s almost like the first time I really felt like in any sort of way I’ve made it”). Turner will make his way to Mohawk Place on August 6. Don’t be scared though—Turner has since traded in his hardcore cred in exchange for an acoustic axe, and tours internationally now as yet another punk-gone-acoustic.

“Some people are like ‘aw, you’re making softer music now,’ but I think the bottom line is, if I went straight along and formed another hardcore band, I could have signed a big fucking major deal in a month,” said Turner. A lot of people called his switch from punk to folk career suicide—even himself—but as the fan-base expands and Turner lands spots opening in stadiums for Green Day, maybe he was on to something by going with his gut, after all.
“There is kind of a beaten path now for people to leave heavy bands…there really wasn’t fucking five years ago—or at least not nearly as much. People weren’t doing it.” Since 2007, Turner has release three full-length studio albums in the singer-songwriter vein, his most recent being dubbed the ‘Hottest Record in the World Today’ by BBC Radio 1.
While a major label signing was practically set in stone, according to Turner, disbanding Million Dead and continuing a career without that same edge that he developed a following for came with a lot of discouraging feedback. “The most overwhelming comment I got when I announced what I was doing was ‘are you fucking insane?’ Everyone was like ‘I’ll see you in six months when you’re back in a hardcore band.’ But it made sense at the time,” says Turner.

Some called him a sell-out, but Turner refuses to accept the sneers that were directed his way. “I think that if you care about the fans, than you are a sell-out. To me, the definition of selling out is writing music for anybody else but yourself—and if you’re writing music for the fans, you’re selling out.” It’s not to say that Turner hasn’t turned his back to those that have stuck with him since Million Dead formed nearly a decade ago, but in his words, “I never wanted to try to make music to try to make anybody happy other than myself.” And as Turner finds happiness with his recent releases, success is also right on his heels. “Awesome things are happening to me that I would have killed for years ago, and now I haven’t had to kill anybody, I promise. It doesn’t feel ugly fast. It feels pretty awesome, in fact.”

But can you take the boy out of the punk scene without taking the punk scene out of the boy? Record sales may rival jeers of “sell out,” but Turner still stands by his roots, even if he’s unplugged. “I think the least punk thing anybody can do is define punk. It’s kind of a Lewis Carrol thing. It’s kind of deliberately contrarian and whenever I’m surrounded by punk people I want to just tear into the concept and whenever I’m around non punk people I want to defend it like it’s my religion.”

Turner isn’t the only punk veteran that has switched routes. Pop-punk icon Kepi Ghoulie of the Groovie Ghoulies has been doing acoustic shows in basements for years now, as has 7 Seconds frontman Kevin Seconds. And, of course, one mustn’t forget that Henry Rollins and Jello Biafra embark on speaking tours, sans music, annually. “A lot of people are doing it and a lot of people are making really fantastic music by doing it. It’s almost like the punk community is giving itself shock therapy – reminding itself what was cool about punk by kind of restating it in a different sort of way.”

Turner rolls into Mohawk on August 6. See this week’s See You There for more info.

—by Andrew Blake