Today, Frank Turner and NoFX release their split covers LP West Coast vs Wessex. so, Punknews' Steven Farkas spoke to Frank Turner about his reaction to working with a band that was such an influence on his life and what it was like seeing them bring their own take to his songs. We also delve into his process to the seemingly impossible talk of selecting five songs from NOFX’s long career to record himself as well as why Fat Mike could have had him banned from the USA and what it’s like making videos in lockdown.
How how are you coping with life in this current climate?
I mean, it's fucking weird. I am trying not to complain too much as I think it’s important to be thankful for your own situation, but like a lot of people at first, there was a focus on us all being in this together, but then you think about it for 30 seconds and you realise it’s complete bullshit, because it depends on who you are, what your life is like. And I live with my wife and my cat and we have some outside space, so I'm going to shut up. But it's been fucking weird.
It is weird! We really appreciate you making time for Punknews. You have said before that the idea for the split with NOFX West Coast vs Wessex came about after a post gig conversation with Fat Mike. How long did it take you to say yes and were you trying hard not to simply snap his hand off?
About point three of a second. I mean, it was funny. We crossed paths on the festival circuit, as you tend to do. We were in Italy and we had just played, there was another band on and then NOFX were due to play. In that intervening time period, I was hanging out with Mike, just shooting the shit and he said how much he enjoyed the show. Now we we've been friends for like a decade or so and then (and I don't know whether he had come up with the idea there and then) he turned around and said, “Do you want to do like a split?”
And I was kind of caught off guard. Mike's been really good about presenting the whole as a meeting between equals and I appreciate him doing that. But the one level on which it's objectively not true is the level on which I grew up with posters of him on my wall and not vice versa. You know what I mean? The last split they did was with Rancid 18 years ago, and I bought that when it come out and love it! If you had told me then that the next time they did a split it would have my name on the front cover, I would have shit myself!
It's a huge sign of respect, you know, which I appreciate enormously. I think the other thing is that Mike and our friendship, right from the very first time we hung out, has been based on songwriting, not like punk songwriting or folk songwriting or anything, but just like songwriting, divorced of genres. That's always what we talk about, so it (the split) makes sense on that level. But I was not expecting it, I'll tell you that.
In preparation for talking to you I was looking back at live footage of you covering NOFX songs and came across video from your 2010 performance as Fest where you called Mike up on stage to play “Linoleum”…
…It was great, but he did try and get me to do drugs on stage! I’m in the US on a Visa, so I’m feeling like its going to get me fucking arrested, you know? It's all very well being punk rock, but if I lose my visa, I’m not coming back into the country! So anyway, God bless him, he's he is an irrepressible human, shall we say?
So after you after you played it cool and said you were up for the split, did you did you immediately know which songs that you want to throw into the mix or how did you approach the selection process?
I had some initial ideas. One of the first times we everhung out socially I said to him that “Falling in Love” is the best song he's ever written. He looked at me like I was a bit mad, but then he said he thought so too, but literally no one else does. To which I replied that they're all idiots and so that one was always going to make the list.
I mean, it was an interesting process because there's a lot of different kind of directives for song choice. On the one hand, you don't want to just choose the obvious songs, but at the same time, I didn't want to do all obscurities, I wanted to pick my favourite songs. But the most important one for me is that there's not really much point in doing a cover unless you bring something to the table.
This whole process really highlights something that I've kind of quite firmly ideologically believed anyway, which is that arrangement and songwriting are two separate concerns. The classic example being Joe Cocker's version of “With a Little Help From My Friends” which I happen to think is better than the original. I mean, lets face it, history is rife with great covers.
I actually sat down and listened to their entire back catalogue, which took quite a long time. They've released a lot of songs! I went through all the b-sides and everything, got a long list together and then me and the guys in the Sleeping Souls start kicking them around. That was also an interesting process, not least because nobody in the Sleeping Souls grew up listening to punk rock music. They all know NOFX because we played with them, but none of them really knew any material, which I think was good because it brings clean ears to a song. But we definitely tried some stuff that didn't work like we thought it would. We were desperately trying to make “Seeing Double at the Triple Rock” work as I fucking love that song, but it's so based around that riff that if you take that riff away, it's not quite the same song.
The hardest one to put together was “Eat the Meek”. I fucking adore that song and really wanted to do it on the split, but we kept kind of drifting back to playing it the way they play it and in the end, the secret word that broke the logjam was when I said to (Sleeping Souls drummer and bass player) Nigel and Tarrant to try playing it like Fugazi. That finally created a really original sounding bedrock for the song.
It was it was funny because when I first listened to the record, that's the one that to me, sounds like it could have been written by you.
You yourself though have said that you though “Perfect Government” was the closest to your sound?
Well when it came to “Perfect Government” we thought that as we were doing all this stuff kind of out there within the context of what we usually do, we went towards doing one that's in the wheelhouse like “Recovery” or “I Still Believe”. And it didn't take very long.
I understand it was a graphic designer friend of yours who came up with the kind of boxing theme for the cover and I'm going to avoid asking the obvious question about who would win…
I think we'd both run away is the short answer!
Well, the thing that got me when I when I first looked at that cover, I was like, how the hell did they get Mark Ruffalo and Ed Norton to play Frank and Mike on the cover of this record?
Cue laughter! (Frank did actually laugh at this weak attempt at humour)
Ok, so now I've got I've got to tell you this. This is one of my best tour stories. I was in Moscow about 14 years ago and was sat in booth at a bar and our guide, translator, interpreter, promoter dude was sat on the outside. These two staggeringly attractive women came over wearing not very many clothes, kind of like elongated strings and started making eyes and talking to me in Russian. Anyway the interpreter was chatting away with them and then got really angry and told them to fuck off! So I ask what was going on and he says to me, laughing that they think you're Ed Norton!
Well at least you have someone looking out for you over there!
Yeah, well, I mean, I don't know if you've been to Russia, but it’s intense!
Yeah I have, back in the 90’s when I left University. Intense is the right word for it. Going back to that competitive theme of the LP’s cover, Mike said that he had to get in shape to do vocals to “Glory, Hallelujah”. Did you have to change your process in order to sing his lyrics?
No, I kind of wanted to sing it like me, you know? What I will say is that there's some there's some serious vocal acrobatics on it in places. The end of “Bob” for example has some of the highest notes I have sung on the record and I had to take a run up for that motherfucker! It also presents an interesting challenge to see whether we can make them work live.
On “Thatcher Fucked the Kids” the second verse is sung in a pretty poor English accent. Were you tempted to try out an American drawl on any of your songs on the split?
I am not a man who is skilled in accents, and I think their English accent is kind of supposed to be awful!
Were you tempted to change up any lyrics in the same way he did to you? (On “Substitute” NOFX changed “sleeping next to me” to “tied up next to me”)
Yeah, it hadn't really occurred to me to do that until I heard that side of the split. So no is the short answer, but that instantly brings up a really cool facet of the split, which is that neither of us had any awareness of what the other one was doing until it was finished. The first time I heard anything was when I had the five finished mixes and vice versa. It was just kind of understood, which again, is a sign of respect and it was just a cool “I'll see you at the finish line” kind of thing. It's difficult for me even find the vocabulary, to explain what it feels like to hear songs that you wrote played by one of your favourite bands. It is just fucking mental.
Did you expect a ska version of “Thatcher Fucked the Kids”
I kind of weirdly did as we both kind of lent early on each other’s’ respective catalogue for whatever reason, I did actually have a moment where I thought I’m not going to be that guy and play something off their most recent record (2016’s First Ditch Effort), but the selections and arrangements just came out the way they came out!
With that song specifically, it’s a song that I've had a bit of a weird relationship with myself because when I first put it out, it was a dipping of my toe into the world of the political singer songwriter thing which can be a tiresome world because essentially people think you're Jesus if you just sing that pre-existing opinions back to them in rhyming couplets and if you do anything else, they hate you or they don't pay attention. I just thought it was boring, so I actually stopped playing that song for a long time; not to disown the song in any way, but just because it had bad associations to me. However, in a lot of interviews I’ve flippantly said I would love it if somebody else claimed that song, I just didn’t t think it was going to be fucking NOFX! Plus it's been it's been a long while since they did a straight up ska song, so that was very cool as well.
Does the fact someone else has now claimed it change your relationship with it in terms of playing it live more regularly again?
I've played it twice in recent years. I played at the first Lost Evenings Festival because I was doing songs from that era and everybody fucking lost their shit. It reminded me what a well written song it is and then I thought just fucking get over yourself and just play it and for that reason it is definitely in a much better place with me than it has been for a long time.
Growing up being such a fan of the band and being aware of NOFX’s pedigree with covers in addition to Mike’s role in Me First and the Gimme Gimmes, did you feel any extra pressure in terms of putting the songs and arrangements together?
I'm not sure that I did feel a huge amount of pressure. I mean, there is a well trodden path of pop punk bands from back in the day doing a pop punk version of a non-pop punk song, and that works stylistically. It was kind of cool because it like for me, it was like, I can't do that to that to a NOFX song, because they are already like that and therefore that easy route is off the table, which is kind of liberating.
In fact, the only approach like that we had is the version we did of “Scavenger Type” was kind of fun because it was like I wanted to do on song on my side of the split that was more punk, stylistically and there's no point in trying to a punk version of a NOFX song, because it's there already. The only song they have that's a straight up acoustic song is “Scavenger Type” so it was an easy choice, we were always going to do a fucking version of that one.
We tried to make it not a kind of west coast so-cal punk, we went to something a lot more kind of Clash-y or whatever, but it was a lot of fun to find one route into doing an aggressive version. It's it's one of the one of the most amusing things about this whole split for me is that there is definitely a breed of NOFX fan who like them because they like music was fast and aggressive. And that's totally fine, that's legit. There's nothing wrong with that, but a lot of those people, who were maybe not aware of my existence prior, have heard my version of “Bob” and fucking hate it! Oh my God do they hate it and in a way that fills me with joy, I mean, it's just funny. It is quite entertaining to me to see people losing their mind because somebody has done something not punk to a punk song.
At least you are getting a reaction out of people, right?
That's what it's all about. It's better than indifference!
Your version of “Falling in Love” has such a dark and haunted feel to it, was that an aim from the start?
I think I wanted to do something that was stripped back, finger picked and sung low, because that is a colour in my stylistic palette. I think the lyrics to that song are dark as fuck anyway, in a cool way. Declaring you love somebody because your plane is going to crash is kind of intense.
Did you have did you have one song that you really wanted to fit on that you couldn't?
Yeah, I mean, I think I'll probably have another stab at “Seeing Double at the Triple Rock” if we did a volume two. There was a day where I quite seriously debated the merits of doing “The Decline” just because it would have been fucking funny. But at the same time, it would have been difficult because that song is fucking absolute genius from top to bottom and the sleeve to that record there's a little note that says don't try this at home, which incidentally it is where I got the song title “Try This at Home” (From 2009’s Poetry of the Deed)
Were you disappointed that the two videos that kind of were put together to lead off the songs both featured NOFX and not you?
Well, so the story behind the “Thatcher Fucked the Kids” video is that a very dear friend of mine had just made a video for his wife's birthday of his kids playing “Breed” by Nirvana, and I had seen it just at the moment when I've been told we need to make a video for each track. This was kind of in the depths of lockdown and I'm not a budding film director so I just ask my friend if he would do one and I fucking love it. It’s his two kids playing me and Mike.
With their video (for Frank’s version of “Bob”), fucking hell, man. Mike just sent me a selfie of him wearing a white shirt, I had just dyed my hair pink and he had done the same. So he has the white shirt, the pink hair and waistcoat and everything. He just sent me that selfie with no comment and my immediate reaction was “you fucking son of a bitch”, but it was amazing. it's great.
I have to say I think they're both brilliant, but you didn’t get to really appear in either one of them!
I know, but, if I could if I could make music for the rest of my life without having to show my face, I would happily do that!
Frank, it’s been an absolute pleasure talking to you, thank you again for making time. Good luck with the record, and we hope to see you back out on the road in front of audiences again soon!
Fucking fingers crossed, man. All right, take care