Published May 31, 2011Frank Turner's sound evolves with every album, but it's his roots that give England Keep My Bones its edge. Wedged between the poetic, a cappella "English Curse" and the country two-step of "If I Ever Stray" is "One Foot Before the Other," the heaviest thing Turner's done since his days screaming for Million Dead. With other nods to the past, like "Wessex Boy," a could-be continuation of Love, Ire & Song's "To Take You Home," and "I Still Believe," a re-used track off last December's Rock & Roll EP, a lesser artist could be criticized for over-familiarity, but Turner's lyrics and the diversity of these 12 songs are enough to carry the album beyond such criticisms and, in the end, help make England Keep My Bones his best album yet. It's quintessential Frank Turner; he's at his most confident on choir-accompanied anti-God anthem "Glory Hallelujah," and at his most vulnerable on "Redemption," a piano-driven tale of love lost. Equal parts contemplative and patriotic, and the hyphen that divides folk-rock, England Keep My Bones is a collection of sharply penned songs begging for beer-in-the-air sing-alongs.
You're back at home now, more or less?
I'm in England, certainly. I'm currently in a town called Stoke-On-Trent, which is a little farther north up the country from where I'm actually from. But given that I don't actually currently live anywhere, this is... yeah, "home" will do, yes.
Does it feel good to be back? I know you just did a big tour in the U.S. and Canada.
Yeah, it does feel good. I miss being in England when I'm away, certainly. It's the little things, like a decent greasy spoon café to get all-day breakfast and that kind of thing in the mornings, and an English newspaper. Those are the things I miss when I'm away.
You've written songs, past and present, about wanting to go home. You left England before the Royal Wedding happened and got back after. Are things any different?
[Laughs] That was actually a good thing, I think. I'm something of a Republican myself so it was kind of nice to be out of the country while that was going down. I hold no ill will against two rich strangers that I don't know getting married, but the whole ― all that goes around it kind of bores me to tears, to be honest.
Are you excited for the new album to come out?
Yeah. It's always the way in the music industry that you have that time lag between finishing something and it being released. I understand why, I get it and everything, but it's always frustrating. I've spent the last couple of months wanting to walk down the street and grab random strangers and plug them into my iPod and force them to listen to my new record. So it's a relief that it's finally going to be in the public domain.
How has the reaction been so far, either from the singles you've released or what you've played live?
It's been really good so far. Everyone seems positive and stoked about everything, which is encouraging, for me. Again, I guess every musician, or I suppose, "artist," if you like, likes to pretends that they don't care about what the critical reactions are going to be, but you do, a bit. I'm obviously satisfied that I did my best with the record and that I think it sounds great, but I hope that people like it.
What was the songwriting process like? You've said that Poetry of the Deed was your most collaborative work to date. Is this an extension of that?
This one I reined it back a bit on that front. That's not to disrespect the band in any way, but I think the thing was that last time around, because it was the first time I made a record with a stable line-up for a band, it turned into kind of a "band" record. Arrangement-wise, it's kind of a rock record, and that's fine. That was a fun thing to do for that record, but this time around I wanted to rein it back a little on that front and use the band as a more sparing and precise instrument rather than all the way through every song. I wanted to have a bit more light and shade on this record, to make the loud bits louder and the quiet bits quieter.
Speaking of the loud bits, I noticed that "One Foot Before the Other" is a bit reminiscent of your stuff with Million Dead. Is that an intentional nod?
For a long time I shied away from writing anything along those lines when I was doing solo records because I was at pain to keep some clear water between what I'm doing now and Million Dead. But it has reached a point where it has been a long time and I've put out twice as many albums on my own and done four times as many shows that I don't really have a hang-up about it anymore. That song started coming together feeling like that and it was kind of nice, sort of liberating for me to go, "fuck it, I'm going to just do a song like this that's kind of a hardcore-edged song and it doesn't matter." It was a good feeling; it was fun to do.
It bridges your sound; it has the heavier stuff you used to do and your newer vocal style.
It was fun. Certainly the lyrics were a bit more like the things I used to write when I was with Million Dead, a little wordier and darker. It was fun to get back into that scene again.
Is that something you've had the urge to do? To do something a little louder sometimes, even just for old time's sake?
Definitely. As much as I have no desire to do Million Dead, specifically, again, I certainly have a plan somewhere on the back burner to do a noisy, heavy side-project at some point. Maybe just make an album with some friends that's kind of heavy and scream-y and screechy and sounds like Jesus Lizard.
That's assuming you can find the time. You seem like you're pretty much on the road non-stop.
This is the problem with my plan for the side-project: I have a habit of continually touring and saying "yes" to everything. And I love it; it's great and I wouldn't have it any other way. But it often doesn't leave time to do much else.
You're pretty active on Twitter, making sure fans can get into your shows. Is that something you pride yourself on? The interactivity?
I'm not sure I'd say "I pride myself on it"; it just seems like the decent thing to do. The thing is the shows on this tour, in the UK, where we are right now, the whole tour sold out in a day. There have been a lot of people getting quite stressed about trying to get into the gigs. If I can help people pass on tickets so they don't go to waste and also so they don't go to the kind of people who are just going to sell them for stupid, inflated prices outside that's a good use of my time, I think.
Can you talk about how the EP fits into writing your full-length?
The thing about doing the EP, and there are a number of reasons, but one of which was that the song "I Still Believe" had become a live favourite, if you like, last summer, and suddenly it was like, "are we really going to wait an entire year before we put this song out?" So I wanted to go record that; I had loads and loads of songs this time around, so I had enough songs for us to do an EP. I had one that would be on the record and four other tunes. The other thing as well that's kind of cool is that we got to try out a method for recording. Tristan [Ivemy], who produced this record, mixed Love, Ire & Song, which was the second record that I did, but we never actually worked with him in the studio, with him engineering stuff. It was good to be able to try it out with him before actually committing to doing the whole record with him just in case all of a sudden we totally hate each other's guts and couldn't stand being in the same room for whatever.
What's your recording and songwriting process? You're a strong lyricist, so do the words come first or is it the music?
There are no hard and fast rules. Each of them creeps forward at their own pace. Sometimes it'll be that the music done first and then the lyrics will arrive and sometimes it's the other way around. But my favourite ones ― the ones that I feel best about ― are the ones where the music and the words come hand in hand: a little bit of this, a little bit of that. Like I said, no real hard and fast rules.
You've been working with the guys in your band in different capacities for a while now. Is that easier not having to be on the road with just yourself and a guitar?
I feel like I've got the best of both worlds at the moment. One of the advantages of doing a thing as a solo project is that you retain control of the helm, which is great, but one of the things that's good about being in a band is you get that camaraderie, the sense that you're in a gang, on a pirate ship or whatever. At the moment, I kind of have both at the same time, which is nice, for me.
The title of your new album comes from a Shakespeare play, but I'd heard you haven't read it yet, so what does the title mean to you?
The thing with the title for this record... usually, with pretty much every other record I've done I've had the title from very early on in the process and things have always coalesced around it. This time around, I didn't and then I did come up with a title, which I was then told I wasn't allowed to use by the legal department. It's nothing particularly dramatic; I wanted to call the record Salvation Army and, apparently, the Salvation Army would have sued the living shit out of me had I done that. That wouldn't have been a very Christian move on their part. Then basically a close friend of mine ― in fact, he directs all my music videos and he's also an English teacher ― and I were kicking some ideas back and forth, talking about how the central themes of the record are England and mortality, I suppose, and he fired that quote over to me in an email and said, "what do you think of this?" And I said, "bingo, that sounds great." So there it was.
You think you'll read it?
I will get around to it one day, I promise.
If you can find the time, right?
I'm one of those types of people who are always reading, like, three books at the same time, then I see another book I really want to read and then I buy it, then I don't have time to read it, otherwise my brain will explode. But it's definitely on the list.
You mentioned the irony of possibly getting sued by the Christians at Salvation Army. How do you feel about our supposed Rapture?
I am looking forward to it. I think it's supposed to have started already, hasn't it? In New Zealand? It was supposed to start with earthquakes in New Zealand, I was reading. I can only say that I imagine the world will be a more wonderful and lovely place when all the sanctimonious twats have been taken up to heaven, leaving the rest of us to get on with our lives.
Not a believer then?
I can't say I am, no.
I guess they didn't factor the time differences into their predictions. So what on the album are you most excited for people to hear?
I'm pleased to say that I don't feel like there's any filler on the record and so, in a way, I'm excited for people to hear the whole thing. At the same time, my favourite song on the record is "Redemption." It was certainly the hardest song to write, and it's a very personal tune, lyrically speaking, but I'm very proud of the lyrics and I think they came together really well.
How did the a cappella track come about?
"English Curse"? I've been doing a lot of listening to and researching traditional English songs recently and most of them are a cappella and there are certain common traits. They usually repeat the last line of each verse and the first verse at the end, stuff like that. There are certain scales and melodies that pop-up. It's an original song, but it's definitely written to sound like it's traditional. I'm just interested in that part of music. I was reading up on some folklore from Hampshire, which is the area that I'm from in England, and came across this tale of a blacksmith who placed a curse on the king. The minute I saw it I was like, "man, that has to go in a song." It was perfect. It's good to have in the set; it's kind of a showstopper when you do it in a live show, if you pull it off. Even the hipsters at the bar generally tend shut up if you sing an a cappella song.
They almost don't have a choice. Does it help to break up your set a bit?
It's a fun thing to be able to throw in the middle of a set, certainly. Generally speaking, when I play live I make up my sets as I go, but it's definitely ― I feel like it's a thing where you're surfing a wave of the crowd. You've got to steer the evening and turn their expectations, where it's not all at one pace, but also that you don't lose people's interests. Having an a cappella song helps with all of that.
You play a lot of covers and I read that you recorded a bunch when you were in the studio. Do you know if we'll ever hear those?
Definitely. I couldn't tell you where or when, but definitely. I knocked out some Bob Dylan covers, some Townes Van Zandt and some old English songs that I really liked. Hopefully they'll see the light of day sooner rather than later.
Were you just in a groove in the studio?
I learned to play guitar by playing other people's songs and I'm constantly in a state of learning. If I hear a song I like, I'll generally learn how to play it; it's generally an ongoing process, for me. The mics were up and running so I thought I'd just lay a few down.
What's your favourite cover to do live?
Recently I've been knocking out "I Want to Break Free" by Queen. That's always a fun one to do live because it kind of takes people off guard.
Do you do it in your style?
Yeah, I try to give it like a Townes Van Zandt-y kind of feel
Does it take people a minute to know what you're singing or does it catch on quick?
It's interesting; it depends on where you are. In the UK, everybody knows that song instantly the minute you sing the first line. In America, I've had people take a little longer with it.
When you were hear a while ago you covered a Propagandhi song and it was amazing how quickly the crowd caught on.
Yeah, they're one of my favourite bands. (Epitaph)