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Frank Turner: “Stop asking musicians about politics”

The punk rock singer on indie venues in crisis, his transgender father and songs inspired by Keir Starmer.

By Rachel Cunliffe

Frank Turner’s 2,729th live show wasn’t your standard gig. Instead of playing to a drunken crowd in the back room of a pub on Britain’s “toilet circuit”, where his career began, or to the thousands of fans who now spend £50 a ticket to see him at some of the UK’s best-known venues, the punk rock musician spent 26 January at the Houses of Parliament. In the House of Commons Terrace Pavilion, overlooking the Thames, Turner played some of his best-known songs, led MPs in a singalong, and accidentally said “fuck” – all in support of the Music Venue Trust (MVT), which had just published its annual report on the state of the UK’s grassroots music scene.

It was, Turner said, “one of the weirdest gigs in my career”. This from a man who performed as part of the 2012 London Olympics opening ceremony.

When I caught up with him two weeks later (just before gig number 2,740, in the more conventional surroundings of the Shepherd’s Bush Empire), he was quick to stress just how brutal the last few years have been for music venues – especially smaller, independent ones where artists start out. “If the business model relies on gathering together large numbers of people who don’t know each other in confined spaces, it’s going to be a nightmare to do that during an airborne pandemic,” he said. “There’s been a pretty perfect storm in recent years for all forms of live entertainment, but for independent music venues it’s a particularly acute issue.”

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The MVT – of which Turner is a patron, along with the likes of Paul McCartney, Billy Bragg and KT Tunstall – was founded in 2014 by Mark Davyd, who has spent nearly a decade campaigning to keep grassroots venues open. Even before the pandemic the sector was in trouble: 35 per cent of grassroots music venues in London closed between 2007 and 2016; the same percentage have closed across the UK in the past 20 years. Now that life is returning to a post-Covid “new normal”, old challenges – low margins, high rents, insecure tenancies – are being compounded by a change in behaviour. The MVT’s report shows a sharp reduction in both live events (16.7 per cent) and audience numbers (11 per cent) in 2022 compared with 2019.

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I asked Turner whether he thought an aspiring musician now could have his career trajectory: 18 years of gradually gaining recognition as a solo artist, playing thousands of shows in venues of all sizes in 48 countries, before finally last year reaching number one in the charts with his ninth album, FTHC (which stands for “Frank Turner Hardcore”). Within thirty seconds, he quoted Karl Marx: “all that is solid melts into air”. He is devastated by the closures – particularly of Nambucca, the legendary 300-capacity venue on Holloway Road, north London, that was integral to the Nineties and Noughties indie scene, which closed last May. (Turner headlined the farewell gig.) He’s also exasperated by the way social media platforms and streaming sites have fundamentally altered the process of writing and releasing music: “You spend two years working on a record and then people talk about it on social media for 36 hours and then they move on to the next thing and you sit there and go, ‘What the fuck’.”

For all that, he is optimistic about the future for the industry. “There’s an undercurrent of euphoria to live music in the post-Covid world,” he said, wistfully. “I think that getting in front of an audience and wowing them, physically in the same room, the power of that has almost increased. People will remember that experience much more than they will scrolling past an advert for your album on their phone.”

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Political concerns about the state of the music landscape were made explicit at Turner’s show at Shepherd’s Bush Empire – a charity performance in support of War Child. The support act, Pet Needs, joked about how little Spotify pays artists; those at the after-party lamented the obstacles facing British bands when touring Europe thanks to Brexit.

Turner has got himself into trouble discussing politics in the past – he was the subject of a tirade in the Guardian in 2012 over comments he’d made about his libertarianism and contempt for the far-left, and angered fans who’d assumed he shared their ideology thanks to the style of his music and his friendship with Billy Bragg. The fact that he was educated at Eton and had written a song (“Sons of Liberty”) inspired by Adam Smith and Karl Popper that turned the language of left-wing protest songs into a defence of classical liberalism didn’t help. Burned by the fall-out, he wrote a furious punk anthem, “1933”, which begins with the line: “Stop asking musicians what they think.”

But after insisting that no one should care about his views on politics, Turner was happy to spend half an hour dissecting them. Now 41, he is no longer fuelled by the righteous rage that prompted songs such as “Thatcher Fucked The Kids”, from 2005. “My adolescent politics were all about anarchism and destroying things, the destruction of everything,” he said. “Part of the function of being adolescent is being sure that you’re right.”

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For Turner, the son of a teacher and investment banker raised in idyllic Winchester, punk rock was “a life raft… a refuge”. He found being sent away to boarding school deeply traumatic. “I got very into suicidal ideation and self-harm, at 13,” he said. He rebelled in the proud tradition of teenagers everywhere: “I was thrown out the house repeatedly as a kid on the occasions I was allowed home from school, for dyeing my hair, for certain T-shirts.” He once wore one that read “Jesus died for his own sins, not mine” on Christmas Day. “My mum was pretty upset by that. I’ve still got the T-shirt somewhere.”  

His tempestuous relationship with his father – often laid bare in his music (one of his songs is called “Fatherless”) – is more complicated. “There is a pronoun minefield ahead of us,” Turner warned me as we approached the topic. After decades of acrimony and estrangement, Turner’s father came out to him as a transgender woman eight years ago. Turner now refers to her as “Miranda” or “my dad” – and, miraculously, the pair have reconciled. In a song on his latest album named after her, Turner reveals how “my resentment has started to fade”. It’s a dramatic turnaround, given he says he was once insistent that he wouldn’t attend his father’s funeral.

Turner recalled his father’s harsh response to his teenage years: when he turned down a place to study at Cambridge, he was kicked out of the house. “I spent a summer living in a squat in Tufnell Park.” But in the last few years Turner has come to be able to reflect on their relationship with more compassion.

“I think there’s a strong argument to be made that my dad has always been gay, and I think he was not allowed to be that in his younger life,” he said. “I think in retrospect one can see a degree of anger at my having found a community and an identity of choice in a way that I don’t think my dad was ever really allowed to do.”

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So after all that, does Turner still see himself as a rebel? He paused. “I’ve realised that the act of being rebellious does not in and of itself have a moral content. It is entirely dependent on what you’re rebelling against.”   

It’s a nuanced answer for an artist who would shortly go onstage and lead 2,000 people in chants of “I will not grow up”. But Turner has grown up. He’s given up cocaine, for a start. In 2019 he married Jessica Guise, a fellow musician, and the two have moved out of London to rural Essex with their cat (“she’s called Boudiccat – my wife and I are big fans of pun animal names”). He’s also more than happy to admit the limitations of his knowledge – about everything other than music.

“As I get older, I get less confident in my options about most things,” he said. “With every passing day I realise how little I really know about anything in the broader scheme of things. It makes me want to read more books.”  

One thing Turner is sure about is that Britain needs a change of government – and he is hopeful that one is coming. “Put it this way, my mum likes Keir Starmer, which means the Tory party is fucked,” he said, cheerfully. So will he be writing any songs about the Labour leader? He laughed.

“Keir Starmer does not strike me as a man who’s inspired many songs. In many ways that sounds like an insult, but I mean it to his credit. I want people to stop trying to fall in love with politicians. Politicians shouldn’t be people you love, politicians should be people who organise bin collections efficiently.” 

“But seriously, stop asking musicians,” Turner said. “Why the fuck does anyone care what I think about politics?”  

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