After listening to Frank Turner’s latest record, England Keep My Bones, earlier this year, I recognized themes from his first three albums, including carpe diem, restlessness, freedom, and memory; however, this time, there was also the obvious connotations of home, nation, history, and place. While Turner’s work is very often earnest narrative taken from his lived experience, these new songs are about being rooted to a particular space and time in a larger context of England. He sings of waterways and the sea, which seem to intersect and limn the psyche of Great Britain. Water serves as artery and barrier; it can provide freedom of mobility and circulation, but also inward-turning isolation. It is constant and ancient, but also erosive and ephemeral, a signifer for both life and death.
To me, Turner has always reflected and refracted his North American influences, whether they’re drawing on Springsteenesque anthems or American punk and hardcore. I, myself, have been the antithesis, growing up in the middle of Canada with anglophilic tendencies and a passion for British bands; whenever I visit Britain, I feel like it’s home. Yet at the same time, I’m probably recognizably Canadian to both other Canadians and non-Canadians. Turner’s English identity still clearly bleeds through. I know this because I have a feeling that I wouldn’t be as apt to enjoy his music without it. This record seems to highlight the tension between perpetual motion and stable identity. Where is home in a globalized world? As a practicing global citizen, Turner explores this issue in a no-nonsense, grassroots way. By turning to nation and homeland to establish some kind of grounded roots, Turner reveals his own conception of English identity, which is partly influenced by past mythmaking, and partly influenced by his own storytelling. Though there is an apparent human comfort in tribal recognition, there is also a need to pursue and push beyond frontiers to find and fetishize difference. In “If Ever I Stray,” Turner asks to be doused in the English Channel to remind him of who he is, while the chorus of “Peggy Sang the Blues” begins with “It doesn’t matter where you come from, it matters where you go.” The record seems to say that we can choose our identity even as we are constantly shaped by comparison and contrast.
With its evocation of history and memory, England Keep My Bones is also about time, and by extension, mortality. And this is a mortality unmediated by religion. Instead, Turner derives redemption, rebirth, and salvation from other humans and their art. His is a belief in action today and personal responsibility, which is a system I can get behind. In “Rivers,” Turner requests that he is buried in English seas, and in “One Foot Before the Other,” he asks for his ashes to be dumped in the London drinking supply. Even in death, it seems Turner would like to keep moving.
I had an opportunity to conduct a phone interview with him last month ahead of his North American tour. In my mission to elicit answers I hadn’t already read or heard before, I may have erred on the side of pretentious. Or perhaps it’s a lesson in why some people are artists and some people are critics. Or why some people do and some people observe.
FAHH: I’m Larissa, and I’m calling you from Winnipeg, which is home of The Weakerthans and Propagandhi, as you probably know.
Frank Turner: You know what, I had a long drive today across island and we literally, me and my tour manager, listened to the entire Weakerthans back catalogue songs start to finish. I’m in a Winnipeg frame of mind today.
FAHH: Okay, great. I also want to thank you for a brilliant gig last October. I was at The Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto…
Frank Turner: Oh yeah, you know what, there’s honestly no lie saying this to you now, without it sounding like I’m kissing your ass, that was literally pretty much my gig of 2010. That’s how gigs go for me. Do you know what I mean, that’s how perfect gigs go.
FAHH: It seemed like a perfect gig. And somehow I ended up with the signed drumhead – I don’t know how, but…
Frank Turner: Oh, you got the signed drumhead? Okay, nice one.
FAHH: My first question is to do with the last album, England Keep My Bones. As I was listening to it, a whole bunch of different themes came up for me, but I was wondering what does home actually mean to you?
Frank Turner: Well, that’s a good question. It’s been quite awhile since I had my own place. And I did have, for a couple years, some stuff in the corner of an upstairs room in my mum’s place. But actually not so long ago–last year–my mum moved house and put all my shit into storage without actually telling me she was doing that. So, from a strict point of view, a technical point of view, I don’t really have a home. I’m certainly legally of no fixed abode and all this kind of thing. But I think the thing about that, though, is that fact, and the fact that I travel a lot for my living means that my psychological conception of home reverts to being something actually more abstract, and essentially being England, which I think is one of the main reasons why this record came out the way it did…y’know, with the preoccupation with English national identity.
FAHH: And so, to follow from that, how useful is nation as an idea or a definition of identity, do you think?
Frank Turner: Well, I don’t know. When I was younger, when I was a teenage leftist–it sounds like a song title–I spent many years subscribing to the idea that nationalism is completely constructed, and it’s artificial and all that kind of thing. And I’m not sure I’d call myself a nationalist, but at the same time, the older I get, the more conscious of being English I become. And that’s a neutral statement. It’s not to say it’s good to be English or bad to be English or anything like that, it’s just more and more a kind of plain fact of life to me. And so, I don’t really know whether it’s kind of useful as a concept or anything like that, but it just seems to be part of my reality as time goes by.
FAHH: Okay, how does the inclusion of American culture, especially in this album–you mention Bob Dylan, Woodie Guthrie, Patty Hearst…you have a gospel choir featured–how does that complicate your identity or complicate English identity?
Frank Turner: Well, here’s the thing. I think rock ‘n roll is essentially an American art form, certainly in its genesis. I mean, I’m sure there’s lots of people at this point who would start shouting about The Beatles or something like that, but to me, it’s an American art form. And certainly my own taste in music has been predominately American or Canadian when I was growing up. But I think one of the things I sort of want to do is, not just with this album, but generally, is kind of be an influence on the influences and pay tribute to my influences. But not sort of slavishly copying the form of what they do, but just starting with it. I guess what I’m trying to say is Springsteen sings with enormous moving passion about New Jersey, and I want to be influenced by that, not by writing a song about New Jersey, but writing in the same way about the places where I’m from. And so in a way, I guess I’m sort of anglicizing the American music that I love.
FAHH: England Keep My Bones seems particularly tied to water metaphors, including rivers and oceans, and even your latest video for the b-side “Sailor’s Boots” had its use of the ocean as well. Was that actually Holy Island or…that looked like Holy Island to me, but…
Frank Turner: The video?
Frank Turner: No, actually that was a place called Bamburgh Castle, which is in the Northeast. [Interviewer’s Note: Since Holy Island is only 16 miles away from Bamburgh, I feel a little less of a geographical nitwit.]
I have to say I was really annoyed about the problems with that video because basically, with that song, it was going to be a video that involved me being in water in some way or other, right? And then, y’know, the treatment came through with the chair and the water and I was happy with it. But when I okayed having that video treatment, in my mind, I was, like, obviously we’re going to be shooting this in, like, the Caribbean, you know what I mean? Somewhere where the water is warm. And then because my tour schedule being what it was, not only were we not in the warm, not only were we in England, but we were in the northeast. We were almost in Scotland, absolutely fucking freezing in that water. And I sat there thinking to myself, “What the fuck? Whose idea was this?”
So, it’s funny – there are a lot of water metaphors on the record, but that wasn’t something that I sort of consciously decided to do. And I can’t really say that I have any particular insightful, psychological comment on why I’ve been using a lot of water metaphors recently, but there it is.
FAHH: Also, the latest album begins with “Eulogy,” and many of the songs I would say on both this album and on your past albums deal with memorialization and needing to be remembered. Why is memorialization important to you, do you think?
Frank Turner: Again, good question, but I’m not sure I have a short and sharp and ready answer to it. I mean, I think that certainly on this record in particular there’s a theme of mortality, essentially. And obviously not only “Glory Hallelujah,” but also “One Foot Before the Other,” for me those are songs about…they’re both atheist songs, let’s put it that way. And I don’t personally have to believe in any sort of life from the hereafter or any of that kind of thing. And so, being I hope a kind of a questioning, curious and perceptive mind, it sort of raises the question of what does get remembered when you pass on and what are the motivations for actions in life and all of those kinds of things. And all of that then throws up the idea of memorialization, and what sort of marks do we leave behind when we die? And I don’t have much more to say on the subject in an interview sort of context because, in a way, I think for me it’s kind of a central question of the art I make, and if I could distill it down into a few sentences in an interview, then I wouldn’t need to be writing songs about it.
FAHH: Right, okay. That’s fair enough.
Frank Turner: Hopefully that didn’t come out as a massive cop-out.
FAHH: No, no, no…I know you’re a libertarian, or you’ve called yourself a libertarian. Would you also say you’re a humanist? Like, do you believe in humans and their progress, and that we are progressing?
Frank Turner: Hmmm…hmmm…good question. Y’know what, funnily enough, there was a moment in time when one of the working titles for the album was actually Humanism, but then I have to say that thereafter I did a lot more reading up on, like, the sort of official philosophy of humanism per se and came across some stuff that I was less comfortable with. Let’s put it that way.
I don’t know…I certainly think human beings are generally wonderful individual creatures. I’m not sure how much I subscribe to their sort of ideas of…the word “progress” makes me uncomfortable in politics, let’s put it that way. I think that it’s kind of like people declaring that they’re the good guy before going into a fight. Kind of like, “Really? Surely that would be self-evident from your actions.” Just whenever people announce that they’re on the side of progress it’s a bit…it makes me kind of suspicious, I don’t know if you know what I mean. It’s just kind of like, “Ah, yeah, really, okay, so you’ll be the judge of what constitutes progress as well, will you?”
Frank Turner: I think history, particularly twentieth-century history, is littered with people who declare themselves on the side of progress but end up killing millions of people, so I’m uncomfortable about that word, let’s put it that way.
FAHH: That makes sense to me. You’re a self-confessed history nerd, so I was wondering which historical period interests you the most?
Frank Turner: Oh, well, what a question. Where to start…when I was studying history, my main kind of period that I studied and was really obsessed with for a long while was Central and Eastern Europe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Y’know, everything from the Treaty of Berlin through ‘til the end of the Second World War. I have to say that recently my historical obsession at the moment is actually with the Old West. The kind of period between the end of the Civil War and sort of the formation of the final States in the early 1900s. And you know I’m man enough to admit it that it was the TV show Deadwood that kind of got me really thinking about it. But yeah, I’ve got a lot of interest in that place and time in history.
FAHH: I was also wondering how you came to be involved in Faber’s Wasteland iPad app. I’d read that you did something for that, and I was wondering…
Frank Turner: Have you seen that?
Frank Turner: Okay, because this is the thing… I don’t really know all that many people that have iPads…
FAHH: Well, I actually haven’t seen it because I don’t own an iPad, so…
Frank Turner: Oh, right, okay, some guy got in touch with me and kind of spotted the fact that there are a fair few T.S. Eliot references in my lyrics, and more so in Million Dead than in what I do now, but I’m a big T.S. Eliot fan. And so he asked if I would be interested in making some comments about The Wasteland and I said “Hell, yes.”
FAHH: I guess my last question will be…since a couple of your favourite bands, Propagandhi and The Weakerthans, are from Winnipeg, I was just wondering what their music conveys to you about Winnipeg, what Winnipeg is, or what you get a sense of…
Frank Turner: That’s a good question. I think…I feel that that’s a question more directed at The Weakerthans and Propagandhi in a way. I dunno, it’s funny I’ve been toying with…well, in fact maybe you can advise me on this, but I’ve been toying with the merits of doing a cover of the song “One Great City” in the Winnipeg show coming up, and…
FAHH: Oh, good…that would be great.
Frank Turner: Y’know it’s a fantastic song, but it’s just kind of like if somebody from Winnipeg stands up and sings that song with the chorus of “I hate Winnipeg,” that’s one thing, but if it’s coming from England, I’m not sure whether the joke still would work – if you know what I mean. So anyway, we’ll see. I dunno…I’ve been growing up and listening to bands from Winnipeg that I love. It’s kind of been this mystical, faraway city that’s full of awesome bands.
Frank Turner: But then I’ve been to Winnipeg once in my life and I had an absolutely fantastic couple of days, so it’s got form, it’s got a track record for me as being a good place from my own experience.
FAHH: I’ll be seeing that show when you get here in October. Thanks a lot, Frank.
Frank Turner: Okay cool. Thank you. I will see you in Winnipeg.
Frank Turner will be playing at the West End Cultural Centre in Winnipeg on October 22.
Eulogy – Frank Turner
One Foot Before the Other – Frank Turner