Split albums can serve as an economic way for bands to share costs in creating an album. They can expose fans of one band to another. In the case of Frank Turner and NOFX, their ten song split out this week is an opportunity to explore one another’s songs. Turner and NOFX are known for different tempos, yet both are excellent songwriters. Listening to the covers of each other’s music, this is apparent. New structures bring unique life to these songs for an uplifting listen. We recently zoom-chatted with Turner on his process and thoughts of the output—and also visit the interview from Fat Mike of NOFX.
These are strange times—I’m recording from my mother in law’s guest bedroom.
Lovely. Punk as fuck.
Mike invited you to create this split, how were you feeling about the idea?
I was very stoked and surprised. Mike’s been presenting this as us being equals, but there’s at least a level in which that is objectively not true. I grew up with NOFX posters on my wall, and he didn’t grow up with posters of me on his wall, because I wasn’t born at that point. Do you know what I mean? It can’t be a complete meeting of equals. The last time NOFX released a split was in 2002 with Rancid, which I bought since I’m a huge NOFX fan. If you told me in 2002 that I would be doing a split with them, I would have shit myself instantaneously.
We were at a festival in Italy, and we had just played. I think Sick of It All were on the stage, and I was hanging out with Mike on his bus. We were talking about my show, and talking about his show. Then he asked if I’d want to do this split, and I was like ‘Ehmmmm?’ [let’s out an anxious gasp] I was very flattered. Mike and I have been friends for a decade, and we talk about songwriting and arrangement in depth. There’s an understanding and a way that we think about music that we share. So it made sense. To be asked was startling, really exciting, and humbling.
You come from a punk vein, and have made a folk shift during your career. Are there any tracks that were off limits between the two bands?
Goodness no, one of the cool things about it—It was never discussed, it was just understood that we would each go and do our thing, and reconvene when we were done. Neither of us was allowed opinion about what the other was doing. I didn’t know what songs they were doing, I didn’t know what style they were doing them in, and vice versa. The first time I heard anything from Mike was when he was sending the finished mixes. There’s a degree of trust in that. I don’t think we’d want to do this project if that trust wasn’t there. That’s kind of the point. It was exciting, wondering what they were going to cover.
I had some guesses, some of which were correct, and some that weren’t. And it was really fun. I knew they’d do “Glory Hallelujah” because they’d covered that in the past. And I think Mike knew I’d be covering “Falling In Love” because we’ve had many late night, overly long drunk conversations about that song because I’ve been saying to Mike since I first met him that that’s his best song. When I first said that to him, he said, “Huh, I kinda think that too, but no one else does.” And I was like, ‘Well I fuckin’ know!’ It’s not a hit, it’s not in the spotify top five, but I’ve always thought it’s a beautiful, beautiful song. And that’s my favorite NOFX record as well.
It was really exciting hearing the songs for the first time, and hearing them as a listener. I got the ability to be a third party. NOFX are a distinct band, they have a guitar tone, they have a vocal sound, they have a drum approach. And to hear all of that arrangement brought into my songs, it’s an experience hard to put into words. It was cool as shit.
Any intimidation in covering NOFX? Especially with “Bob” which is one of their hits?
I always knew I’d cover that one, I have always thought it was secretly a country song. It’s a fuckin’ Merle Haggard song! I’ve always thought that for years. And I wasn’t intimidated, but now you’re making me think I should be. The other thing I would say is that I’m not stranger to rearranging my own songs pretty radically. It’s a trick I learned from listening to the Counting Crows B-sides when I was a kid. Those B sides would be reimagined version of the songs of the album. That was when I started listening to albums and that was a lesson that songwriting and arrangement are two separate musical concerns. And that’s the sign of a good song is that you can dress it up in different ways. The obvious example for me is Joe Cocker’s cover of “A Little Help From My Friends,” which is better than the Beatles one personally. It’s the same song, but radically different. And I think as a kid, that was a principle—a song can be dressed up in different ways.
We put out a live record in April that was a recording from Newcastle, and that included acoustic reimagining of my own songs. So me and my band were already kind of in that headspace anyway, and we do it quite a lot. And none of the other guys in my band are punk fans. They’ve all met NOFX and have seen them play at festivals, but I don’t think a single one owned a NOFX record prior to them touring with me. And that brings a cool angle to it. You have these four excellent musicians, and I say here’s this song I wanna do. We had a lot of fun with these arrangements, some of them easy and some of them hard. But there’s no point in doing a cover that’s the same as the original.
It was interesting, we spent some time fucking around and tried to do “Seeing Double at the Triple Rock” but it’s so rooted in that riff. We tried playing it without that riff and it didn’t work really well, and you can’t play that riff in a different feel, it doesn’t really work. We ended up playing it in the same way that they do, and it was a waste of time. With “Eat The Meek” which is my favorite track on my side the split, and one of my favorite NOFX songs. We initially kept gravitating back towards the original, which is a waste of time. But then I said the magic word to my band, which is “Fugazi.” I said to my bass player and drummer, try playing this like Brendan Canty and Joe Lally. And they did, and it was radically different but cool as shit, with a kind of National vibe overtop of it. U2 you might even say, that’s not a dirty word. It was really fun to dig into the songs and pull them apart a bit.
Is there any particular arrangement from NOFX that surprised you?
“Glory Hallelujah.” The version I’d heard live was a pretty straight NOFX cover [mimics Smelly’s drumming style], which when I went to see them live, they did it in this different time signature, and then Mike calls me up on stage and I fucked it up completely because the rhythm falls in a different place. If you haven’t rehearsed it, it’s very difficult to sing. So I ran on stage, grabbed the mic, and sang in front of 2,000 people like [mutters garble], and it was like ‘You fucked this up!’ But their version of that was fantastic. Mike told me they were trying to do a Beatles thing on it, and I think it’s great. It’s a completely different take. I was very happy they did a ska version of “Thatcher Fucked the Kids.” It’s been a while since NOFX did a straight up ska song, and it’s obviously something that’s in their armory. And it was really cool for that.
“Perfect Government” has a theatrical approach, with layers that broaden the track from the original. We were trying to be stylistically diverse. “Bob” is a country song. “Falling in Love” is a folk song. I wanted to do a punk type of song, and the only acoustic song of NOFX that we could punkify is “Scavenger Type.” With “Perfect Government” we all wanted something in our regular wheelhouse. Something that’s stereotypically, in quotes, a Frank Turner song. It was really fun, it feels like The Pogues or something.
Punk is a broad word, and boringly so, arguably. Even within the context of music, NOFX do a certain type of punk, which I love. But it’s not the only type of punk. I’m aware there are going to be people that come to this thing liking NOFX and having no idea who I am, or possibly know me as the guy that did, “The Way I Tend To Be” or whatever, and thinking ‘Why the fuck is this guy doing a split with NOFX?’
So I wanted something aggressive on there. But like I say there’s no point in taking a middle of the range NOFX song and doing a punk version of it, because it’s already a punk song. When I came across “Scavenger Type” it was open, and fun to put on a kind of British punk vibe.
And as an aside, one of the things I fucking love about this whole thing is that people might well know me as the guy with indie folk pop hits with songs on the radio. When I reference punk in interviews, people get angry asking why am I talking about punk. That’s cool, I get it. My sound isn’t stereotypically punk—I grew up with it, but people don’t know that or have any reason they should, but what I love about this phase is that it’s the closest you can get to a blue tick in the punk world. You’ve done a split with NOFX? Definitely a punk. I can win every argument now, y’know? It’s ‘what have you got now, motherfucker?’
Punk seems like the only genre that has to defend itself, right?
Well the other one that comes close and is folk. And guess what I did? I mean, goddamnit, couldn’t I have picked an easier battle? But actually, who really gives a shit about any of that kind of thing? It’s just music at the end of the day. Something Mike and I have in common is that genre descriptions are generally a waste of time. We have a passion for the concept rather than the sound.
How did the boxing theme come about?
Mike suggested a boxing cover, and I said sure, so a very old friend of mine who’s also a NOFX fan and a graphic designer was a perfect fit. So I called my friend Evan (Cotter) and asked if he’d like to do the cover art for a split I was doing with NOFX, and first of all he was like, “You’re doing a split with NOFX. You mother fucker?”
He’s the one who developed the whole artistic style of the thing. Then all of these people are asking, who would win in this boxing match? And I’m like, ‘I think we’d both run away?’ There’s no shame in that where I’m from, and I’m not very physically good at attacking people.
What do you feel is your haymaker in this split?
“Eat the Meek” is my favorite, I just think it’s really fucking cool. It doesn’t sound like anything that I’ve done before. As a writer I’m not interested in repeating myself, I’m always looking for new things to do sonically. And it was the hardest to pull off. “Scavenger Type” took us like 20 minutes—we changed the chords and went for it.
Well it’s punchy and a good way of easing in fans not used to you.
Yeah, well, I don’t want to sound judgmental, but I’m gonna. There’s a certain breed of NOFX fans that are into the classic [air drums and sounds out double bass/snare combo], and that’s cool, there’s nothing wrong with that. The comments underneath the (“Bob”) video are fucking golden. (Mimicking comments) “What is this boring bullshit, it’s not even punk! Aghhhhh!”
That’s cool, I get it, but I’ve been doing this in the public eye long enough, that worrying about those comments is a thought process that got cleaned out a long fucking time ago. Otherwise I’d go mad.
You aren’t able to tour for the first time, but have a 2,500th show coming up.
We won’t have 2,500 people in front of us. I tend to mark my milestone shows, and it’s an excuse to party more than anything else. If you told me that our 2,500th show would be virtual a year ago, even four months ago, I’d be kind of outraged. But it is what it is. We’re making the best of the situation.
This is the longest amount of time I’ve spent in one place since I was seven years old, cause I got shipped off to boarding schools when I was a kid. So that’s strange. And it’s the longest amount of time I’ve spent with my wife, which as it turns out, we get along really well! It does strike at the chord of my identity though, so it’s strange. I initially thought this would all end with people ringing church bells, and us running into the streets to hug. Then everyone goes into a basement for a sweaty punk show that would be completely redemptive.
I can’t speak for the US, but over here it’s complicated. They’re using lockdown in a very gradual way that I can understand, but people are really angry and really scared. If the government said I could do a punk show tomorrow—first of all no one would come, and second I would be crucified for even attempting to do such a thing. So it’s going to me a long road back to normality for shows. I do hope shows return to how we knew them. And one silver lining is that this has demonstrated that the act of being in a room with people is not incidental to the experience of live music. It is the experience of live music that we crave. Community is what matters, so I’ll take some solace in that.
Purchase the album here. And check back tomorrow for an interview with Fat Mike of NOFX on this split.