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Frank Turner "When we arrived at Kingston, everyone had just got out of bed for the show"

With a new world record, LP, and an upcoming global tour including an Ally Pally sell-out, Mersea Island's finest has turned on the afterburners.

FT Most Gigs Pic

"Quiet weekend?" is my first question to Frank Turner who, when I ring him, is taking a sunlit stroll on East Beach at Mersea Island, just alongside the Blackwater Estuary.

It's a smart-arse question, as on the prior weekend Turner had broken a world record by playing 15 gigs in 15 towns in 24 hours – all in aid of the Music Venue Trust (MVT), 15 grassroots gig spaces and 13 independent record shops.

"Ha! There were bits of it that got pretty challenging, but we made it to the finish line and I went home and collapsed in a heap!" he responds. I mention that I saw the third leg at The Foundry, where he made the somewhat schoolboy error of saying he was "fresh and warmed up". Did he, like a marathon runner, hit a wall at any stage?

"I shouldn't really say this but the 6am show [at Banquet Records, Kingston upon Thames] was a real turning point. Up to and including the 4am show, everybody was up for it and still on a night out. When we arrived at Kingston, everyone had just got out of bed for the show."

Turner wryly continues: "The energy level in the room was, let's just say, somewhat different as a result, all at the very time I needed an energy boost too. But we got through it thanks to lots of water and plenty of doughnuts."

The MVT has been at the forefront of positive action in supporting grassroots venues. It has engaged with the government and the music industry itself to create funding and investment options, and it has also pushed for restrictions on the ability of landlords to evict small tenants.

Indeed, as I write, the NME reports that after taking its case to court in Leeds, Sheffield's Leadmill is "one step closer to winning the battle against the landlord". Transferring the case to the High Court, the judge said he thought three of the four amended defence arguments put forward by The Leadmill had "a real prospect of success”.

In a £5.5bn industry that has seen a 30% decline in nightclubs, shed 4,000 jobs and seen some 14,500 shows lost, MVT have seen some positive developments recently. A Select Committee hearing in May backed the idea that large venues should be subject to a levy to help grassroots venues, and the organisation itself has been investing in venues directly – they recently helped purchase the building housing The Ferret in Preston, safeguarding it for generations of future gig-goers.

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So how did Turner become involved?

"It was back in the mists of time, some ten years back really, that I first started working with Mark [Davyd, MVT founder]" he explains. "He contacted me recently to do the [world record] shows and it was an obvious thing to do really, as I've always supported small venues in my time as a musician."

"One of the things I like about it is that the older I get, the less forthright I become about things I don't know about. But one thing I definitely know about is small venues, so I feel like I'm on confident ground philosophically."

I mention MVT are at the vanguard of support for grassroots venues, by buying up buildings themselves and allowing the industry to invest in itself. Is that the right route to follow?

"I think that's a big part of it for sure, as the government wasn't supporting grassroots venues prior to the pandemic. The independent grassroots sector and rock’n’roll in general have always been perceived as the black sheep of the arts family, especially when you think of the money given to opera and ballet. I'm all for opera and ballet of course, but given the respective numbers of people who come through the doors, it's an unjust situation.”

"In the long run though, I'd like to see a grassroots venues sector that was self-sustaining. That said, if it is in crisis, which it is, I'd like to see the Arts Council lend a hand too."

One notable idea recently has been an initiative by the rock band Enter Shikari, who became the first to add a £1 levy on ticket sales for their gigs to be recycled back into smaller venues. The idea has been cited by a recent Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee hearing as a positive example of what could be done.

Turner sees this as a step forwards too. "There are a few people who say that it won't work, but it already does – in France there's a 3.5% levy on stadium and arena shows."

"In terms of my role, I try to be an evangelist for the culture that small venues represent. The first gig I ever went to was at an independent venue called The Joiners in Southampton in 1995. I felt like I'd found my tribe. There was no limit to entry – you didn't have to be cool, you didn't have to be rich, it was safe and you could see some amazing music."

Of course, it would be remiss not to mention the impact the pandemic had on all aspects of musical involvement and education, an issue Turner has clearly thought long and hard about: "Specifically there's been a good two or three year graduation gap through Covid, so young kids have missed the opportunity to be introduced to that culture due to lockdown."

The pandemic has also had an effect on the mindset of a new generation attending shows. "I have nieces and nephews, and recently there was an Olivia Rodrigo show at the O2. They look at that as something you do once a year, and it costs £200. With no disrespect to those kinds of artists – and good for them – you want to say to those kids that there are gigs and artists you can see for a tenner!"

"You'd be with your friends, and if the band went on to great things you could boast about seeing them for a few quid, and if they didn't make it, well you'd had a good night out and a laugh with your mates. It's always a win-win."

The beach east of West Mersea geograph org uk 6209370

The beach at Mersea Island.

Mr James D on Wikimedia Commons.

That all-important need for development as a musician is a journey that resonates strongly with Turner, especially regarding his education as a live performer.

"I feel there are transferable lessons to take from one space to another,” he says. “I've played better shows at bigger arenas because I've just played at a small set of venues. I always remember a few things, particularly about engaging with and being among people. The experience reminds you how important that is."

We turn to his recently released tenth LP Undefeated, recorded without major label support in his new studio on Mersea Island. What differences did Turner experience now he had independent autonomy over the album's direction?

"Well, I can produce myself which is not something I've done before, and I couldn't have done it earlier in my career as I didn't have the space or skills to do it. I did my five records with the Meze label and even though offered a chance to do more, I decided to walk away. It made me feel strong, which was quite nice, quite satisfying!"

So more ownership of your creative output?

"Yes. In the past it was sometimes hard to maintain control, whereas this time around it was there from day one. It's great being here [Mersea] as it's quiet, spacious and peaceful and as soon as you cross The Strood [causeway road], you feel as though you've left your troubles behind."

Artists as prolific as Turner usually have a store unfinished pieces that resurface at some stage and evolve into strong new songs. Did he have any music leftover from his previous LPs that bubbled up during recording?

"Sure, there was some stuff hanging around. I always have an ongoing list of unfinished ideas, and some of them come to the fore at different times, you know? There's one song on the LP that's been hanging around for at least a decade, and I didn't find a way of finishing it until last year. Most of it is new material, certainly lyrically."

And how did his band The Sleeping Souls react to the new music?

"Very well. We do tend to work on arrangements a lot when we are on tour, and we all agreed we sound better than we've ever done. I have a new drummer in my band [Callum Green] so there's a bit of a reset there too. He had an influence on the new record, which is great."

Turner's appetite for performance is legendary, so it's no surprise to hear he's lined up a mammoth tour for the remainder of 2024 across Europe and North America. But it's his Alexandra Palace show in February next year that hit the headlines by selling out in record time – and for being his 3,000th gig.

"Selling out so quickly at Ally Pally was definitely not the plan!" he replies modestly. "I'm rather at a loss as to what to do. We were aiming to hopefully get there on the night. Incredible. It's going to be a great gig and I'm very excited about it."

In closing, and knowing the part of Essex he's walking in pretty well, I mention that I used to go walking on the shore opposite Mersea Island, past the disused nuclear power station at Bradwell.

"I'm looking at it now. It's a beautiful evening here, it looks just fine," he replies. With a new world record, 14 box-fresh tunes on a great new album, a global tour and a sell-out 3,000th gig to look forward to, Frank Turner's future looks just fine too.

Learn more

Undefeated by Frank Turner is out now. Turner is on tour across the UK later this year.

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