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Preview: British punk veteran Turner brings his theme of change to town

June 1, 2013

YellowBrix

June 01--While he hasn't gained popularity in the States like Ed Sheeran or Mumford & Sons, Frank Turner is a force to be reckoned with. The British singer-songwriter has toured here as the opener for the likes of Green Day, Dropkick Murphys and Flogging Molly, and on his own he has played close to 1,400 live shows in 35 countries.

Across the pond, he's been a sensation, playing for a sold-out crowd at Wembley Arena last year and performing in front of a live audience of almost 80,000, with a television audience of millions, as part of the Opening Ceremony for the Olympic Games.

"There are obviously differences between playing an arena show and playing in a bar," he said in a phone interview. "You learn new things about the songs and stagecraft every time. The whole thing of switching up venues as I go is ... It keeps me on my toes."

In 2010, when Mr. Turner was a tour-opener for Flogging Molly, he found a way around a clause in his contract that stated he was unable to play a solo show in Pittsburgh. "I got an email from a guy called Dan, who said, 'I'd love you to come play. I'm having a house party at mine. I have a basement where I have bands play. Do you want to come and play?' " Mr. Turner went, played to about 50 people and said he had a really fantastic time.

The 31-year-old folk-punk troubadour was born in Bahrain but grew up in England, where he studied at Eton College alongside Prince William. Afterward, Mr. Turner traded books for a guitar to front the post-hardcore band Million Dead. He started his solo career after the band parted ways in 2005.

The punk veteran and his longtime backing band, The Sleeping Souls, will return to Mr. Smalls Theatre in Millvale on Tuesday on the second stop on an 18-city U.S. run promoting his fifth album, "Tape Deck Heart." It's a breakup record with the theme of change; something Mr. Turner knows all about.

"I don't want to repeat myself. I was never going to write another record about England immediately after 'England Keep My Bones,' 'cause I've worn that T-shirt; it's laundry day. 'England Keep My Bones' is a very outward-looking, lofty, grandiose record in its themes. And that's fine up to a point. I think if you go too far down that road you cross the line from being grandiose to pompous.

"It seemed much more interesting and, in a way, counter-intuitive to me to go to from having quite an outward-looking record to quite an inward-looking [record]. I had a whole ton of [stuff] go down in my personal life that I needed to talk about."

Mr. Turner's ability to tell a compelling narrative that is both fragile and hard is part of his appeal. Highlights from "Tape Deck Heart" include heartfelt pop-punk song "Plain Sailing Weather," breakup song "Tell Tale Signs" and art-rock ballad "Broken Piano."

Although he's no stranger to the States, until "Tape Deck Heart" Mr. Turner had never recorded outside England.

He joked about the musicians who make it to a certain level of success, and then go to Hollywood to record their new album. "It's a cliche and a sort of betrayal of your roots that I was really cautious about making. In the end, though, I really wanted to work with Rich Costey [Muse, Interpol, Franz Ferdinand]. He's an amazing producer."

Mr. Turner said that recording the album in Los Angeles and on a major label hasn't affected his music or the way he promotes himself. He still personally responds to emails from fans and said: "I think it's important. It's a gesture to the world that I don't hold myself above the people who enable me to do what I do for a living."

Last September, a music writer from British national daily newspaper The Guardian gathered some of Mr. Turner's past quotes about politics -- where he spoke negatively of socialism and said that leftist politics lead to the crushing of the little guy -- and concluded that his libertarian views are more right-wing than left. As a result, the singer went through a two-week period where he was receiving death threats and daily hate mail.

"I quite strongly feel that I've come out of it with my head held high," he said. "I made what is essentially counter-cultural statements, I got castigated and I didn't back down. That, ladies and gentlemen, is called punk rock.

"When you're a kid, you think punk is going to save the world. And it isn't," he added. "But you might be able to build a space in which you can live out your life in the way that you think is right. I think it's really important in that level. It certainly is to me."

The new song "Four Simple Words," he said, "is a slightly misty-eyed look at the whole thing." He noted that his relationship with punk is a concept that, much like his music, has changed over time.

What hasn't changed is his passion.

"I don't find it difficult to be enthusiastic about playing live ... I feel more comfortable and more free and more myself when playing music on a stage then any other point in the rest of my life. What a fantastic thing to do for a living and what a lucky [expletive] I am."

Katie Foglia: kfoglia@post-gazette.com or 412-263-4903. Twitter: @ktfogs.

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