Former Million Dead Frontman Frank Turner Now Finds Folk More Punk Than Punk
Frank Turner's got something to say. It's apparent in the bite of his words and the gruff roar of his voice.
The former U.K. punker led Million Dead for five years before the band dissolved in irreconcilable personal and creative differences. As a result, Turner grabbed an acoustic guitar and turned his cutting wit loose on a trio of albums, the latest of which, Poetry of the Deed, returns to a more band-oriented sound. Along the way, he's captured the attention of critics and fans with his wry observations and a no-surrender attitude that just about rescues punk's ethos from the dustbin of history.
To us Yanks, his folksy strumming and hard-bitten wisdom recalls Billy Bragg. He rallies the listener to never "grow up" if it means "slaving 50 years away on something that you hate/Meekly shuffling down the path of mediocrity" on the U.K. hit "Photosynthesis" and confesses, "I'm not as awesome as this song makes out/I'm angry, underweight and sketching out/I'm building bonfires on my vanities and doubts/To get warm just like everybody else," on the wonderful "Reasons Not to Be an Idiot," both off last year's Love, Ire & Song. (It was first released in America this summer on Epitaph.)
But don't call him a protest singer.
"I want to be taken and judged on my music rather than my politics or, even more insanely, perceptions of my politics," Turner says. "It's absolutely mind-blowing the assumptions people make about my politics on the basis that I have an acoustic guitar and I have sung a song that addressed politics in any shape or form. That means I'm definitely a socialist, an assumption I actually find pretty offensive. I reserve the right to talk about it in my music, but it's not the focus of what I want to do, and it never was."
After Million Dead broke up, Turner fell in with some folkies. They seemed a lot punker than the people he knew.
"They seemed to be doing all the things the punks were talking about and not doing," he says. "They were making direct community music that wasn't about ego and was about communication among equals. These are the kind of things that attracted me to punk in the first place."
Though it was a little intimidating at first to be onstage without the safety net of a band, or at least an amplifier, Turner adjusted. ("You can't blame it on the drummer when things go wrong," he says.) Indeed, his second album, Love, Ire & Song, collected plenty of accolades and encouraged Turner to go in a new direction, his latest record being more of a collective release with the guys he'd been touring with. While they were written in a similar vein as the previous release, working with a band gave them a punchier, foot-tapping sound.
"I got very into the E-Street Band and The Hold Steady. I guess I was kind of on a bit more of a rock 'n' roll trip," Turner says, admitting concern that several songs aren't performable solo. "I always had a rule that I would be able to play all my songs solo."
But maybe getting older means letting go of old "shoulds." Turner no longer wants to change the world by shouting at it—but that doesn't mean he's given up. "The only thing that punk rock should ever really mean/Is not sitting round and waiting for the lights to go green," he sings on "Try This at Home," off his latest.
"My priorities in how I would like to see the world change have also evolved as I've gotten older," he says. "I think you get better at understanding things that are worth expending energy and being angry about—or at least I hope you do. It's about finding ways of remembering there are things worth being angry about, while also being intelligent enough not to sound like a screaming 14-year-old when you're nearly 30."
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.