When Frank Turner’s new album title was first announced as FTHC – a play on the Frank Turner X Hardcore logo that he’s used since the very beginning of his career – it felt like a firm statement of intent from the musician. It also helped that FTHC heralded Turner’s return to a more straightforward form of punk rock, after the strange genre excursions of 2018’s Be More Kind (electro-pop) and 2019’s No Man’s Land (a historical concept piece).
After the pandemic hit, most of us found a renewed sense of contemplation, a harkening for old selves, former lives, the before times, and Turner was no different. It helped that several other major events occurred in his life around the same time: he got married and moved out of the city; he lost his longtime drummer just before recording; turning the big 4-0 grew ever closer.
Maybe that’s why his ninth studio album sounds like Turner at his most open and vulnerable. Nothing is left out in these songs. In ‘Miranda’, he details his fractious relationship with his father, with the pair only recently reconciling after his father transitioned from male to female.
‘A Wave Across the Bay’ is Turner dealing with grief – namely the tragic suicide of Frightened Rabbit’s Scott Hutchison – the only way he knows, forthright, unvarnished, and uncompromising. Several songs see him open up about his schooling background and politics for the first time: Turner attended the same Eton school as Boris Johnson and it’s clearly something he resents.
FTHC was recorded remotely over several sessions last year, although the original plan, Turner tells me over Zoom, was to record it in summer 2020. It turned out to be a slight blessing in disguise. “I had more time to work on songs,” he reflects. “I wrote 28 songs for this record which is double what I usually write.
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My band and I were in a studio in Oxford, our producer was in Vermont, our drummer was in L.A., but making a record in that fashion was really focused. You’re not in the same room together and can’t fuck around showing each other cat videos or nerding out about guitars for half a day (laughs). You’ve just got to work and get on with it and I think it made for a better record.”
About that L.A. drummer: Turner was rocked at the start of the pandemic when his longtime drummer, Nigel Powell, parted ways with the band (“it was a sadness but it was what it was”), and was left trying to find a replacement for the new album. Incredibly, without having ever met him before, he ended up with Nine Inch Nails’ Ilan Rubin.
“I couldn’t quite believe it,” Turner exclaims. “Rich Costey, who I’ve worked with before and is a capital R Rock producer, casually said, ‘well I do know this one guy, Ilan Rubin. I think he’d be quite good’. I was like, ‘quite good?!’ Ultimately given that this is a more aggressive punk rock record, Ilan brings an energy to the record that is impressive.”
The return to proper punk was not necessitated but welcomed. “I was considering this as a stylistic move before the pandemic anyway,” Turner remembers. “The music I make has always been punk with an adjective, do you know what I mean? In the summer of 2019, I did a bunch of festivals – including this one in Slovenia of all places – and I started feeling like I was at home. I felt like these were my people.
The last two records in particular have been a bit more experimental within my frame of reference so I really thought I should spend some time at “home”. The stylistic change might not have initially been provoked by the pandemic but it did still have an impact. “One of the effects of the pandemic is that what was going to be a short wander in that direction became a headlong sprint because I had fucking nothing else to do!”
Australia was another place Turner felt at home. He racks his brain to remember when he was last Down Under. “I think 2019? All life before the pandemic feels like it was a thousand years ago! I used to come down pretty regularly and with joy in my heart though.” It was Chuck Ragan of U.S. punk rock band Hot Water Music that first brought him to the country in 2010.
“As we toured other parts of the world together, he kept saying that Australia was ‘the promised land’ for touring and that it’d blow my mind,” Turner says. “It got to the point where it got slightly annoying so I just went, ‘alright, prove it!’. So he took me on tour with him and it was just fucking magic. I’ve been back many times since and always had an amazing time.
The title of the first track on FTHC sets Turner’s stall out immediately. ‘Non Serviam’ is Latin for ‘I Will Not Serve’, which Turner explains came from John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost. “Essentially it’s what Lucifer says to the devil before getting kicked out of Heaven. The thing about that book is that Milton was a Christian and a Puritan and it was supposed to be a pro-God book, but you read it and you really get the impression that there’s a part of Milton that thinks Lucifer is cool (laughs).
The song title is a statement of artistic integrity. I don’t judge my art or my politics by what’s popular, I judge it on what I think is right. In the social media age, there are a lot of people confusing that issue.”
The subject of politics comes up. I ask if seeing Boris Johnson as British Prime Minister feels surreal given their school connection. “It fills me with rage,” he responds without hesitation. “This is my ninth record and I’ve gone out of my way to not talk about where I went to school because I’m not proud of it. I didn’t enjoy it and I don’t want it to define me as a person. What I’ve realised in recent years, though, is that me not talking about it doesn’t stop every other fucker from talking about it!”
Turner is on a roll now. “First of all, that education is quite traumatic and doesn’t prepare anyone to be in charge of anything. Nobody that went to my school should be in charge of a fucking paper round! I think there are psychological wounds inflicted from that education. Besides all of this, I just think that Boris is a prick (laughs). It fills me with a particularly white hot rage to see him – and David Cameron before him – in charge of anything.”
I mention how bizarre people from other countries find it when you tell them about the Eton/British Government pipeline and we share a rueful laugh, like Vladimir and Estragon wearily resigned to their fate. “I find it kind of embarrassing, honestly,” Turner adds. “It’s nuts.”
When it comes to describing his experience at that boarding school, Turner is unrestrained. “I got shipped off to boarding school when I was eight-years-old which is fucked up. There’s a lot of people who’ve talked about it with no prior knowledge and they think that I had a lovely time. No, I had a fucking horrible time. I wanted to kill myself within a week of arriving.”
Why does he feel comfortable to be more open about such things now? “I just turned 40, which is largely awful, but one of the consolations of getting older is you become more secure in yourself,” Turner says. “Even a few years ago, he wouldn’t have felt strong enough to do so. “I don’t think I was stable enough five or ten years ago, in a funny way. Standing on stable ground allows you to fish in deeper waters.”
‘A Wave Across a Bay’, the absolutely heartbreaking tribute to Scott Hutchison (it’s almost four years since the Scottish singer died far too young at the age of 36), is probably one of the songs he couldn’t have made before he found more stable ground. I ask Turner how the pair first became friends.
“It was in 2010 I think. Our careers were on pretty similar trajectories, particularly in the States for a while. Basically at the beginning, I don’t think he had any fucking idea who I was! I was a big Frightened Rabbit fan and decided I was going to force him to be my friend.” It was bonding over their shared artistic job that really brought them together. “Essentially the central plank of our friendship was that we did the same thing for a living,” he says. “I do a weird thing for a living and there’s not actually that many people who do that same thing.
We’d compare notes about pretty obscure stuff and we just had this really quite specific bond on that level. We hung out whenever we could but we’d have these long phone conferences where he’d be in a hotel in Iowa and I’d be in a hotel in, say, Florida, and it’d be like ‘what is your radio plugger trying to make you do today?!’” “And of course, most importantly, he was one of the greatest songwriters of his time,” Turner hastily adds, as if it even needed to be said.
With it being such a forthright track emotionally, I ask if it was the toughest one to write. “It wasn’t actually that hard to write because it sort of arrived fully formed,” he says. “What was tough was to then go, am I actually going to put this out?!’ The first thing I did was call Grant, Scott’s brother, and send him a copy of the song to check if it was ok. Obviously I didn’t want to put out a song that was going to offend friends and family.
Grant was amazing though. He said that he thought Scott would want me to release the song because he also wrote this kind of emotionally unforgiving music. And in many ways, the song is supposed to sound like a Frightened Rabbit song with the arrangement choices and everything.”
Turner might be looking forward to a year of touring his new album but the wider music industry is still struggling in the face of COVID-19. Back in 2020, he started Independent Venue Love, performing live stream shows to raise money for independent grassroot music venues. I briefly explain how tough it’s been for such venues in Australia and his sympathy is clear. “Running a small independent venue is not a way someone’s going to get rich, contrary to what some people on the internet think. There are really small margins involved and it’s always a labour of love.
Everytime I see someone set up a new independent venue I want to kiss them on the mouth. It’s hard work but it’s also this enormous contribution to culture in my opinion. When people talk about independent venues, they’ll talk about the big bands who used to play the venues, like Adele, Ed Sheeran, Oasis. And that’s cool but at the same time there’s a lot of bands who I fucking love who will never play anywhere bigger than King Tut’s.
They deserve a place to exist as well. These places exist for a number of different things. It’s my culture, I grew up going to small gigs. Not just playing gigs but just going to them, finding bands and finding friends. They serve this irreplaceable role in my opinion.” Non Serviam.
FTHC is out on all platforms now.