Interview: Frank Turner and the Sleeping Souls


Frank Turner and the Sleeping Souls came through Ottawa on their cross-Canada tour March 12, 2016.

I sat down with Frank for an interview before his show at the Bronson Centre supported by Mo Kenney and Northcote. This was a big deal for me as I have been a big Frank Turner fan for years and have listened to his music to pick me up at some of my lowest points, but also to dance to when I am at my happiest.

The show was packed and people sang along at the top of their lungs throughout. Frank and his band of merry men, the Sleeping Souls, certainly know how to entertain. The show was one of the best I have seen him play, he plays Ottawa a lot, and it may also finish as one of the best shows of 2016. It may be risky to say that in March, but they played for more than two hours and never had a moment of respite.

Check out my interview with Frank below.

What was it like touring Canada as a solo act playing in smaller bars and club, considering you have sold out much large venues as a band? And how important is it to you to still be able to do that?

We were actually having a discussion about this as a band last night. The reason we’ve been doing the solo dates on this run has been financial more than anything else. I wanted to play more than just the big cities and it’s difficult to afford to afford to pay a full band when for example in Moncton we only had 180 people at the show. Can’t pay four musicians and a crew of people with that kind of money.

So it’s kind of been a sort of advantage I have that I can do these solo shows and then pull the band in. It’s funny though, it affects my playing quite a lot. When you’re playing with other people you lock in, but when you’re playing solo not only am I in sole control of the music that is being played, but also it’s not quite the same thing you’re essentially countering all of the musicality out of one instrument. And essentially my timing goes awry when I play a lot of solo shows. At the beginning of this tour Nigel, the drummer, was just kind of going dude what the fuck? You’re speeding up and slowing down all over the show. And I was like I know, it’s because I’ve been playing a bunch of solo shows and it makes sense to do that at a solo show. So there are some differences.

But it’s also kind of fun going back to the solo thing here and there, because it’s nostalgic for me in a way. But it’s kind of nostalgic for me in a slightly sort of triumphant way, because when I was only doing solo shows at the beginning before the Sleeping Souls got together as a thing, there weren’t many people there. So it’s nice to do a solo show with a shit ton of people there and you’re kind of like ‘Yes, I’m achieved.’”

How was it to make the transition from recording and touring Tape Deck Heart, a self-proclaimed break up album, to recording and touring Positive Songs for Negative People, an album with a different feel and message?

The further away I get from Positive Songs [for Negative People] in time, the more its clear to me that it’s a companion piece to Tape Deck Heart in a way. I mean Tape Deck Heart was such a huge event in my life. It was the most time I ever spent in studio, it was talking about this calamitous event in my life but also the tour we did for Tape Deck was insane. We are in the middle of a hard tour right now but we have learned to kind of have a week off here and there. We toured hard before, but there was something about the Tape Deck Heart tour that was really off the deep end hard. And almost the process of the catharsis became complete on that tour and all of the material for Positive Songs was written and rehearsed on that tour. I also had the idea, having effectively made a studio album with Tape Deck I wanted to make more of a live record with this one, so that’s what I mean that they are linked and sort of the inverse of each other.

We built a monitoring rig with my crew which basically means we don’t have to spend any time sound checking and doing the boring bit of kick drum up kick bass down or whatever it might be. We get up on stage put our ears in and have the exact same sound we had yesterday every day. And that meant that we had an hour and a half every day to play new material in sound check and that’s what we did for two years. So everything on Positive Songs has been played to pieces, you know what I mean we had played them to fuck before we got anywhere near a studio, which was the idea. And then we made the record in nine days which is so radically different from what we did on Tape Deck Heart. So yeah they are companion pieces.

How is it to play songs from both Tape Deck Heart and Positive Songs for Negative People in the same set?

The way I kind of think about structuring set lists is more about energy levels than about specific lyrical content. Although I have to say, last night we dug out the song “Tell Tale Signs” which we haven’t actually played as a full band for a very long time and we worked the arrangement out again. We played it as like the third last song of the set and it sounded great, but I realized that only thinking about the sound of it while playing it because it wasn’t the most kind of rousingly triumphant end to the evening. You play this really introspective song about self-harm and go ‘Thanks very much for coming out good night.’ So yeah, that was an interesting set list moment.

What are some of the older song you wish people stopped requesting or that they request so much that you are tired of it?

I don’t know. I mean I don’t think there are that many that I feel that way about. Really just because first of all everyone singing along to songs is a wonderful thing. And probably the song we have played most other than “Recovery” which we have played a hundred billion times is “Photosynthesis” which I wrote a very long time ago. The way we play it and my feelings about the song and the way I interpret it has changed dramatically but it still kind of makes everyone lose their shit when I play it, so to complain about that seems childish.

One of the interesting things that has happened in the last year or two is I’ve realized that when you’re starting out you view the process of gaining fans as purely cumulative, like you play to ten people and then the next time you come through you play to 20 people which was that first ten people and ten other people, and you kind of assume that once you’ve got someone that you’ve got them. In the last kind of year or two I started realizing that’s actually more of a turnover process. I met someone the other day who told me ‘I’m a massive fan, but haven’t really listened to your first three records though.’ And I was like, what how does that even compute as a sentence. But then I remember about nights where we drop a song like “Reasons Not To Be An Idiot” off my second record which has forever been a sure fire bam this is going to get them going everyone fucking loves this song and then like dropping it at a Canadian or American show and people being like ‘what the fuck is this?’ and I’m like ‘how can you not, everyone knows this song, don’t they, don’t they…and they’re like nope.’ It’s kind of an interesting thing on that level as well, seeing what songs stick around and which ones don’t. And seeing as people are getting into me now, and then they go backwards, if they do, and which songs stand out to them.

Frank Turner dedicating “Wanderlust,” the bonus track from England Keep My Bones, to Ottawa singer-songwriter Jim Bryson live in Ottawa.

What are some of the old songs you wish you played more or would like to dig back up?

The problem I have is I’m an unashamed populist and nothing makes me happier than seeing a room full of people go off. So there are songs we don’t really play anymore, certainly not at full band shows because then five people have to lay around and just watch, that I kind of think that we should play that, but the problem is if it’s a choice between “Reasons Not To Be An Idiot” or “A Love Worth Keeping,” I really love the song “A Love Worth Keeping,” but not many other people do. And if we use up that set list spot with that song, then the overall gig is less good. Sometime I think we should do a B-sides tour or album tracks tour and say we are not going to play the following song on the tour, but then those shows wouldn’t be as good if you know what I mean.

The thing I’ve learned over several years is that the people who shout loudest about certain things, in fact this applies to way more than just song requesting, it’s a life lesson everyone should learn. The people who shout loudest are not often representative. The example I like to use is I have this song “Redemption” that is probably the most requested song that I have, and every time we play it the crowd just goes like ‘sigh, cool this one, what the fuck is this,’ and there are like two people losing their fucking mind down at the front and most people don’t care. And that’s the thing, I have my email on my website and everything, and I’d say 10-15% of the people who come to my shows email me and then not necessarily represents the whole room. But like I said that’s a life lesson that we can apply more broadly to politics as well.

What does it mean to you to announce the number of the show during your performance?

It’s a mixture of OCD and bravado. With my old band A Million Dead we kept a list of all the shows we did and after the band broke up I was really happy we did that because it means that even now, it is still on my website and you can go back and look into all the shows that we did. And that’s really exciting to me to be able to do that. So I started keeping a list and then there was definitely a period of time, and this again goes back to the Tape Deck Heart thing, where there was a sense of confidence and I want to say machismo around my touring schedule. I was very much like ‘I can fucking tour harder than any other fucker in the world.’ And then my back went out and we didn’t stop touring for like eight months and then the schedule from Tape Deck Heart. I remember getting home from about 18 months of touring and no one even said bye to each other at the airport, we all just walked off and were like ‘fuck you’ and not because anyone had fallen out with anyone, we had just had enough. Particularly in the states where we were doing two or three shows a day on that run and I sort of realized I was in a competition that no one else was taking part in, you know. And I thought I’m about to kill myself for the sake of my own ego and that’s idiotic.

I guess I’m trying to be a little less insane with my tour schedule these days, although not much less insane it has to be said. We’ve gotten into the habit of taking a week off in between one and another and I’ve got a house in London now and I’ve got a girlfriend who I want to remind that I exist every now and again. I want to live a normal life, but I always wanted to be a lifer on the road and I still do, but I also don’t want to be a boring person. And I suddenly realized that if all you ever do is the same thing day in and day out, that’s kind of boring. So for example this touring schedule for this album we agreed that we will do 24 months straight for this record from release ‘till next year, but once we’ve done that I’m going to take six months to a year off and close down my email account, stop calling my manager every day and I’m going to go fucking work in a bar in Costa Rica or something. Just do something else for a bit, if nothing else it will help with my song writing. I always think that ever band you can tell which is the album after they got successful because all of the songs are about being on tour. You’re allowed one album about touring but then you have to write about something else.

Anyways, sorry, huge answer to a short question. The show number thing, other people are really on board with it now. I know there are fans getting show numbers tattooed and this kind of thing. And I am still pretty proud of the accumulated body of effort that it represents, but it’s hopefully a little more tongue-in-cheek now more than it perhaps was at one point.

Whose your favourite Canadian act not called John K. Samson or The Weakerthans?

Joel Plaskett, definitely. There is a lot of Canadian music that I have been fortunate enough to get into, there is sort of an insular scene here. Joel introduced me to Mo Kenney who’s on this tour who is amazing, Northcote has be a revelation to me on this tour as well. We have played together before me and Matt, but I had never seen him with his band before and fucking hell. You know sometimes you see a songwriter with a band and it’s not as good or whatever, but his band takes him I think to a new level. Which is really satisfying thing to see. But yeah, I think Scrappy Happiness by Joel Plaskett and the Emergency is one of the best rock albums ever made and I will stand up in public and defend that statement. I think he is a phenomenal writer. We toured together four years ago and he is a super nice dude. We correspond quite a lot, and I hadn’t realized that I hadn’t seen him since that tour. I only really realized that when we met up earlier in the tour. It was lovely to catch up with him for a night or two.

I think one of the first times you came to Ottawa was Folkfest 2010-2011. My buddy told me there was only about a dozen people who cared and paid attention. What brought you back to Ottawa after that?

From memory there was only a dozen people paying attention at the beginning, but maybe there was two dozen by the end, and that’s my job at the end of the day. The way that I have been successful in the music industry has been very old-fashioned, which is by getting in front of people and shouting at them until they pay attention. We came back through, and this has happened all over the world for me, you come once and there is 50 people, then come through twice and there is 100. It’s a hard slug but its rewarding. I think it means I have a better shot at longevity than maybe some of the bands who just sort of go ‘blugh’ onto the world stage with a huge marketing and media push behind them or hype. And I should add that I am not cussing out those bands at all, it happens. I always think of the Arctic Monkeys, they arrived in this gigantic wave of hype and got super famous really quickly, but that’s not their fault, and it’s not a fault. They just wrote a really good record and good for them. So yeah it gives me a really good shot at longevity and I feel like I can hold my head high. You know I’ve earned what I have however small or great that may be, I did this. I mean I did this with the help of an incredible band and crew and team and all the rest of it, but it wasn’t like somebody at the top of a major record label went ‘this one will be famous now.’ So I am kind of proud of that.

The amazing war memorial in Leipzig, Germany called Monument of the Battle of the Nations.
The amazing war memorial in Leipzig, Germany called Monument of the Battle of the Nations.

What are some of the fun things you like to do with your “free time” while touring?

I took a new year’s resolution a few years ago to try to get out of the venue a bit more than I habitually did. I mean Ben, who plays guitar in the Souls, is really good at that. He is always zipping off around town and making plans every evening for what he is going to see the next day. I don’t have as much time because I have press to do and all that kind of stuff.

One of the things I did this year was I went to this war memorial in Liepzig [Germany] that was one of the most insane things, like a fucking prop from the Lord of the Rings. A gigantic pile of stone and statues of warriors asleep holding swords and shit. I am just trying to get around and see some stuff. I had a lovely walk around the lake in Kelowna on this tour. Not really much to see in Red Deer, but my girlfriend has family in Red Deer actually so we hung out with them.
Also just reading more. Again another New Year’s resolution to read more. I try to get 50 to 100 pages in day. That makes me feel like I am doing something with my brain.

What do you do with time off back home in London?

My hobby is history walking, I do walks around London. I am obsessed with London history now. I have always been interested in it, but the last couple of years it has ballooned into like a problem. There are all these books about the secrete walkways and old pathways and all this kind of thing around London, and I’ve been trying to learn more about my city.