Kindness is in short supply these days. In an era where snark, cynicism, and grandstanding are the cornerstones of our lexicon, we so often forget that a little bit of empathy and a touch of understanding can go a long, long way. It seems weird to say it, but sometimes it feels as though being kind can be, almost, the most punk thing you can accomplish.
That isn’t an irony lost on British folk-punk superstar Frank Turner. His latest album, Be More Kind, reads almost like a manifesto for compassion in an age of rising hatreds. It’s an album full of raw frustration at the state of the world, and the actions of the people who inhabit it.
It would be almost too easy to turn your back on the growing din of hate and confusion that has taken over the world over the past few years, but Turner has never been one to hide away from the rising tides. No, across seven albums, Turner has done little but lean in, seeking to accomplish whatever small gains he can against the winds of the crowd.
I recently got the chance to talk with Turner right as he was beginning the start of his latest American tour in support of his new album. We got the chance to discuss everything from the confusing state of the world today, to his incomparable worth ethic—which includes almost constant touring and his very own music festival, Lost Evenings, which recently celebrated its second year—to the philosophical similarities between punk rock and country.
As I was prepping for this interview, the one theme I kept returning to was that it’s weird that we live in an era where titling a record Be More Kind feels almost like a radically revolutionary statement.
Frank Turner: (laughs) I think that’s a fair point. I sort of hesitate to describe my as “radical” and “revolutionary” perhaps, but I think yeah, that’s a fair point. One of the things that I worry about and that has inspired the record and the message is the fact that, particularly on social media, our discourse seems to be kind of placing this huge premium on this escalation of ad hominem attacks and insults. I think that there’s something really, really fundamentally wrong in the middle of that.
Do you think or have you noticed that this is a worldwide phenomenon or is it particularly bad in America?
No, it’s certainly not just America. It’s definitely happening back in the U.K. I hesitate to make such a grand, sweeping statement about something being worldwide or not from my own experience. My grand theory on it, or whatever you call it, is that it has to do with social media. The problem with certain things on social media is that social media is a machine for dehumanizing our opponents. When you argue with someone on social media you don’t see another person, you just see an avatar. Any student of history will tell you that the moment you start dehumanizing your opponents is a dangerous one. I think that [what’s] behind a lot of this is that people are no longer sitting across the room from people that they disagree with, they’re sitting in their own basement, or whatever it might be, firing off angry tweets at people. It’s not a normal way to discuss or interact with other human beings.
Do you think that there is a legitimate undercurrent of anger driving all of this or have we just dehumanized each other so much that we literally just can’t see each other?
I think that there are legitimate undercurrents of anger. I think there are injustices in the world and that we should debate heatedly. There are problems that we should work on and try and fix. There are currents in our politics that we should oppose and that we should stand against. But it’s worth also pointing out that we live in one of the most peaceful and prosperous times in human history. Both back home and in America it seems to have been a strange moment in time, in 2015 and 2016, for everyone to suddenly get fucking furious. It makes you wonder what it is compared to most other moments in human history or just what it is that everyone is so fucking furious about.
Jumping from that a little bit—and given the amount of time you spend in America as well as the clear adoration and love you have for the people here, I almost hesitate to use the term “outsider”—but, as an outsider, what was it like watching this descent into the political quagmire we find ourselves in now?
I think it’s important for me to highlight that I’m an outsider. Partly because it’s true, and partly because the first response that a lot of people have to me commenting on American politics is, “Well you’re not an American, what would you know?” I spend a vast amount of my time touring around America; I have, in point of fact, been to more American states than most of the Americans I know. And I know politics; I spend a lot of time just reading up on what I can and trying to educate myself.
But yes, of course, I wasn’t born here; I wasn’t raised here. I don’t have that insight into it. But the thing about it is that there is this very widespread strain in the U.K. and Europe of what I call “Armchair Anti-Americanism.” It’s very lazy, and kind of based stereotypes about America and Americans from people who have never been to America or, at the very most, have been to New York on holiday once, you know what I mean? Some of those are probably stereotypes that I subscribed to myself, when I was younger. One of the more eye-opening, and joyous, experiences of my adult life has been coming to America and traveling around, seeing the variety of culture and trying to understand more how things work over here. In the context of all that, having spent a vast amount of time [here], one of the things I kept doing is fight that stereotype. Just telling people, “Americans aren’t really all fat, lazy, stupid idiots who don’t know about the world!” or whatever it is that Europeans want to call Americans.
And then it just felt like you guys elected a guy who couldn’t have been any more in the stereotype of what Europeans think Americans are like. I’ve been telling people, “That’s not what Americans are really like” and then there it is. That’s been pretty daunting for me. On some levels I have to be sort of humble about it. I didn’t see it coming. It kind of stands outside of most European understanding to anything. So there is a degree to which we have to kind of take a step back and try to understand what’s happening with that, people’s reasons for voting for him and all the rest of it. You have to seriously and intellectually engage with that.
I feel like I’ve seen a country that I love give into its lesser instincts, and that’s a shame.
Switching gears, let’s get into the album a little bit now. In the months leading up to the album, there was a lot rumbles in the media about how different this album was going to be. I don’t know that it’s that different. It’s definitely a Frank Turner album. But it’s produced with a much bigger sound. Was that always the approach you were going to take, to make a bigger sounding record?
The first thing to say is that I am, emphatically, the worst person to try and judge how different or not the thing I do is from the things I’ve done before. On one level, of course it’s a Frank Turner record, it’s me writing and singing. On another level, it feels radically different from anything I’ve done before because it’s a different set of songs put down in different places with different people. So I have no objectivity, artistically, on how similar or different it is.
I think the main thing for me is that the manageability was extremely different for me. I sort of put a moratorium on the Sleeping Souls, my bad, and I working on any arrangements until we actually got into the studio. We spent a lot of time building the songs from the ground floor up. I worked with each musician kind of one by one. We did a lot of work with loops and beats, we used a lot of analogue programs and synthesizers. So there was a lot of technological things that were very different in approach. Which was obviously intentional. I wanted to try something different from the previous record I made. Positive Songs [for Negative People] was sort of an attempt to make a record that felt like our live show. To do that, we basically rehearsed it as a live show and played it as a live show. And that worked. It went fine. I’m very pleased about that.
This [record] is an attempt to do something different. It certainly felt, in the structuring and approach, like a completely different record.
How do feel like these songs are translating to the live setting?
One of the rules that we divined when we were working on the record, was not to worry about “How the fuck are we going to play this live?” whilst making the record. I thought it would be much cooler to just focus on making a good album and deal with how it is we’re going to play it live when the time comes. That time has now, obviously, come. We’ve got, I think, 9 out of 13 songs on the record worked out in live versions now. There are one or two that we’re still slightly tinkering with, to try and get a good version live. It’s a challenge. The ones that we have gotten sound and feel really great. They feel different. They feel bigger.
I wanted to talk a little bit about Lost Evenings, your festival in London. Is it weird to be in a position to pull off a festival?
I mean that’s the vast majority of what I do for a living. I promise you I’m not trying to be a mega-hipster, but when I was a kid the pinnacle of my ambition was [to play] a 1500 cap room in London. That was the biggest shows I would go to because my favorite bands were generally the weirdo, underground punk bands. My achievements in the music industry have so long ago surpassed what my feeling of ambition was when I was a teenager that everything just seems kind of fucking hilarious to me at this point. Hopefully in a good way. But it’s like when we started doing arena shows in the U.K.; I’ve never even been to an arena show, but fuck it, why not? This is hilarious.
On a similar level, we said “Shall we do our own festival?” and yeah, I mean everything’s insane at this point, so why not?
You kind of touched on something there, a little bit, that’s always been kind of a weird, philosophical question for me. I’m including myself in this, but a lot of my Punk Rock, friends growing up, the ones into the weirdo bands and small independent shows, now that they’ve gotten older they’ve sort of gravitated towards a lot of folk and a lot of country, and that’s something I see a lot and that in many ways you kind of emblemize. Why do you think that is?
That’s an interesting question. I think that there is some common ground, philosophically, between the idea of folk music and punk rock, just in the sense that it’s kind of community based music. It’s iconoclastic. It is, at least in theory, not supposed to be about grand egos ruling around. It’s supposed to be about people sharing songs with each other that matter. There is some sort of philosophical common ground there. I also think that there’s a degree to which there’s been a kind of fad for it in the last 10 or 15 years. (laughs) I mean you can see that a lot of people, when you get older, you discover that country music is a lot more rock and roll than a lot of rock and roll is. I feel like a lot of people who are into punk rock are into punk rock because authenticity is a value that they place a lot of weight on within their musical taste. I feel like as you get older—I love punk rock to pieces, I absolutely do, and there’s a value there that I’ll take with me for the rest of my life. But there is a limit to the number of the chords buzz guitar bands you can listen to in your life. I think that, after a certain age, people start searching for a different sonic approach.
Wrapping up, your new tour—I guess it’s weird to say “new tour” since you’re so constantly on tour—but your new American tour kicks off tonight. What can fans expect this time around?
We are playing a bunch of stuff from the new record, of course, because that’s the focus of my activities right now. It is important to state that I am an unashamed populist when it comes to my set list. I don’t want to be one of those bands who don’t play the old stuff. I try to put a set list together that keeps everyone happy as possible. I’m really, really proud of the lineup that we have on this tour. We have Lucero, who kind of godfathered all of this kind of music in my opinion. We have the Menzingers, who I’ve been playing shows with for nearly a decade now. They’re great guys and they make great music. Then we have the Homeless Gospel Choir from Pittsburgh who is my current new favorite songwriter in the universe. It’s a really fun, really exciting lineup of music. I feel responsible for the evening’s entertainment and it’s really cool having a bunch of bands with such a high standard.
Frank Turner Tour Dates:
Tue/Jun-05, Philadelphia, PA, The Fillmore
Wed/Jun-06, New York, NY, Playstation Theater
Fri/Jun-08, Charlotte, NC, The Fillmore
Sat/Jun-09, Atlanta, GA, The Tabernacle
Sun/Jun-10, Orlando, FL, House of Blues
Tue/Jun-12, Dallas, TX, House of Blues
Wed/Jun-13, Austin, TX, Stubb’s
Fri/Jun-15, Phoenix, AZ, Van Buren
Sat/Jun-16, Los Angeles, CA, Hollywood Palladium
Sun/Jun-17, San Francisco, CA, Warfield Theatre
Tue/Jun-19, Salt Lake City, UT, The Complex
Thu/Jun-21, Kansas City, MO, The Truman
Fri/Jun-22, Minneapolis, MN, Myth
Sat/Jun-23, Chicago, IL, Aragon Ballroom
Sun/Jun-24, Cleveland, OH, House of Blues
Tue/Jun-26, Boston, MA, Royale
Wed/Jun-27, Boston, MA, Royale
Fri/Jun-29, Boston, MA, Royale
Sat/Jun-30, Boston, MA, Royale
Sun/Jul-1, Boston, MA, Royale
Mon/Jul-2, Boston, MA, Royale
Mon/Jul-30, Big Indian, NY, Campfire Punk Rock
Tue/Jul-31, Big Indian, NY, Campfire Punk Rock
Wed/Aug-01, Big Indian, NY, Campfire Punk Rock
Thu/Aug-02, Big Indian, NY, Campfire Punk Rock
Fri/Aug-03, Denver, CO, Red Rocks
Thu/Sep-06, Portland, OR, Crystal Ballroom
Fri/Sep-07, Seattle, WA, Moore Theatre