F rank Turner describes his signature sound as “Springsteen by way of Sick of it All”. It’s the most eloquent way to describe a songwriter whose weightiest, often melancholy self-reflections fuse seamlessly with straight-ahead barroom stomp. That sound continues to evolve on Turner’s latest album Positive Songs for Negative People (a follow-up to 2013’s massively successful Tape Deck Heart). Turner describes it as ‘an ode to moving on, and to catharsis’. And while he was content to delve into that album’s creative process and challenges, our conversation took an explosive turn when Je Suis Charlie (and the ensuing, ferocious free speech debate) entered into it. Come for Turner’s jaded personal mantras; stay for his absolutely epic political rant.
You were a huge part of the Je Suis Charlie protests earlier this year. Now that we’ve had some distance from that tragedy (and a ton of dialogue), what are the most important lessons artists need to carry forward from it?
I’m weary of restricting it to just artists, really. It’s a lesson that applies to all of us. Not to get too cantankerous about it, but I’m an extremist about free speech. I’m a fucking liberal, and that’s what the term ‘liberal’ was coined by John Milton to mean. In the 1640’s, the term was created specifically about freedom of the press, freedom of consciousness and freedom of expression. There should be absolutely no restrictions on anyone to say fucking anything that’s on their mind, unless of course it’s a direct incitement to violence. And if you don’t believe that – it’s a perfectly valid point of view that’s often voiced coherently – but then you cannot call yourself a fucking liberal, can you? There are instances where people who’ve just been speaking their mind have come under a very real threat of violence (Turner himself received death threats for quotes taken from interviews he did with the Guardian between 2009 and 2011) and that’s something we can’t afford to be blasé about. These days, some of the most stringent pro-censorship voices are coming right out of university campuses. Can you imagine? University fucking campuses! The place you go in order to encounter views that you don’t agree with. We are fortunate enough in the West to live in a free society. The problem with that is, because ‘liberty’ and ‘freedom’ have become ensconced as universally agreed-on values, the words have been distilled down to ‘being nice’. That’s not what they fucking mean. In fact, they often mean the opposite of that. Every day, I come across opinions and beliefs that I think are mean or unreasonable. I take very seriously the right to disagree with them, or argue with them, or stew about them in my flat. But the last thing I want is for them to go away because they offend my sensibilities. That’s what’s gotten us into this fucking mess to begin with.
Million Dead broke up about a decade ago. How did being in a hardcore band help sculpt the kind of sound you have today?
Well, both negatively and positively. Negatively in the sense that when we broke up, we broke up acrimoniously. We’d been touring for 2-3 years and I had grown tired of the genre. That’s not to say I declared it “over” or anything – because I’m not Billy Corgan – but I really just wanted to try something different. So that’s when I picked up an acoustic guitar. Now, having said that – it was around that time that I was discovering Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen and, as it would for anyone, I found it really fucking influential. Punk is still a huge part of the songs I write, particularly Sick of It All. In fact, at this point, I’d say that the sound I’m usually going for is Springsteen by way of Sick of it All.
You described Tape Deck Heart as a breakup album. What are the overarching themes on Positive Songs for Negative People?
I think creative people are always reactive to the last big thing they did or experienced and that’s what Tape Deck Heartwas. I’d been spending a lot of time in the studio during a particularly difficult time in my life. In the end, it was the catharsis for getting through that – because as I was writing it, I could actually feel myself becoming a bit less of adickhead. Positive Songs for Negative People is kind of an ode to surviving all that. It’s about straightening the handlebars after a bike crash, dusting the shit off your jeans, wiping off the cuts and continuing down the path.
But listening to the album, it’s not optimism for optimism’s sake.
Right, not at all. While I was recording it, I was trying to be mindful of not creating a bunch of mindless optimism. That type of “Don’t Worry Be Happy” shit always infuriates me. I mean, that’s not to say that song isn’t an amazing piece of music, but I’d rather acknowledge the messy stuff. It adds the necessary amount of realism to whatever optimism I’ve got.
You brought Butch Walker (producer for Taylor Swift, Pink, Katy Perry, The Donnas and Sevendust) on for this album. He’s really good at finding the pop act in a rock band, and finding the rock band in a pop act. So what did he do for you?
The record was pretty fleshed-out by the time Butch came on, really. Butch navigated it into its final stages in a way that was phenomenal and totally required. I had this idea of a pop record with punk edges to it – kind of like Weezer’sPinkerton. I am absolutely distraught to hear they performed that whole fucking album last night and I wasn’t here to see it, by the way. Before Butch came on, I was sticking to my guns about the album having punk edges, which made the label a bit nervous. But, in comes Butch and he says “I know exactly what you’re talking about – let’s make it happen.” From then on, he guided the whole process in this wholly Butch sort of way. With “Get Better”, he just told us to run through it on tape the one time, and we did. Once we were done, he said, “that’s it. That’s making the record, gentlemen.” and that’s how a lot of the process worked with him. He made it feel raw and kind of unclean – which is the whole essence of a punk record.
That raw sound also gives Positive Songs for Negative People more of a live feel.
It’s the holy grail. So many people say “you haven’t experienced a band till you’ve seen them live” and I feel like Butch and the Sleeping Souls – who are an excellent group of musicians by the way – were instrumental and achieving that.
You had CM Punk in your video for “The Next Storm”. What’s something you could only know about him by being in the same room together?
(laughs) He’s quite short. I mean, to me he’s quite short. (Turner stands about 6’3). But the thing is, he’s one of the most physically intimidating human beings I’ve ever seen. When I found out we were doing the video together, I started doing a bunch of press-ups to try to look better around him, but as soon as he took his shirt off, I mean, I may have towered over him and everything, but he still looked like a beast standing next to a beanpole.