Stuart Turner and the Flat Earth Society are a band that defy categorisation; there’s obviously a strong foot-stomping Delta-blues core but the music is wildly eclectic and very definitely unique. This owes much to Turner’s influence; not just his immediately engaging and distinctive voice but the breadth of styles that inform his song writing. During our interview he enthusiastically flicked through his massive collection of vinyl pulling out and playing bands from a disparate array of genres and eras. Turner’s own output is remarkable; I lost count of the number of albums and EP’s he has recorded whether with the Flat Earth Society, as a solo artist or with previous band Keratin. After arranging all his own releases on the floor I asked in amazement, “How do you feel looking at it all?” After a pause he said, “It does look like a lot more than I thought”. “How did you manage to write so many songs?” I asked. “I don’t know” he replied looking genuinely bewildered, before adding “A lot of its rubbish. But I miss those days when you are 21/22 and you are absolutely right about everything”. It’s clear he is driven to write and play but also engage with others; throughout our conversation he continually stressed the influence of other local musicians and artists on his career and his genuine desire to plug into and support Medway’s woefully underappreciated artistic community. We spoke before the release of his band’s latest EP “The Gentlemen’s Club” and during the final stages of the recording of their new eponymously tilted full length album.
So how did this all start?
I moved to Medway in 2003 and met a man who had an eight track recorder. We recorded “Are We Having Fun Yet” in his lounge with some of my friends; that was when I really started writing songs. It was rough and rubbish but my band Keratin started from that. We did a lot of gigs for Dave Wise on Urban Fox but no-one liked us. We couldn’t find an audience, it was just a weird band. I couldn’t decide if I wanted to be in The Clash or be Tom Waits. It existed for a year and a half. The guitarist left and I went to Rome. I took a guitar with me, went with my friend who went to paint and we got drunk for the week; we couldn’t go anywhere because the Pope had died. When you’re swore at by nuns at four in the morning while drinking brandy, smoking a cigar and playing guitar on the veranda you know about it. I wrote a bunch of songs and recorded them; that was the first Stuart Turner solo album.
Not being from Medway did the place influence you initially? Was there a “Medway sound” that had an impact on your music?
I never heard anything about Medway until I moved here. I met Wolf Howard and people like that when I arrived and that was an influence. But there is a lot more going in Medway than people playing songs that sound like the Small Faces. When I moved here there was a lot of bands that wanted to do that sound but they didn’t know how to so ended up sounding like something else which ultimately was good for the music scene.
So you played solo gigs here then after Keratin?
Yeah. My first solo gig was recorded as a live album; I was terrible but thought I was great. That was the night I met the Singing Loins; it was Rob Shepard’s first gig with them. I met Kris Dollimore who previously played with The Damned, Del Amitri, and Adam Ant. He liked what I was doing and asked me to produce his first solo album. Then he asked me to do an album with his label Sun Pier records; he had distribution, I mean this was before DIY when everyone was looking for someone to release their stuff, so this was like my dream, what I’d been waiting for all my life. So I recorded “A Galleon of Water Makes a Mile of Fog”. This was the first proper album. I thought I was never going to do this again so there are 24 songs on there! I wanted it to be everything. I give them away to anyone who will have them now but weirdly they’re £15 on e-bay in Germany.
How did you feel when you had it in your hands?
I was unbelievably excited but then about six months later I thought “I’ve got to be able to do better than that.” Then I went back with Jim Riley at Ranscombes and recorded “File Under Carnal Knowledge” which came out in 2009. In many ways it was more flawed than the first one. It has many things I’m unhappy with; I chose the wrong cover and title! My only bad review for a commercial release was for that; a shoddily written hack piece in this soho-based thing called “The Organ”. “He’s from Medway so why doesn’t he sound like Billy Childish?” I’m not from Medway! The Blues-based magazines liked it though.
The next releases were with Stuart Turner and the Flat Earth Society; how did that start?
Robbie Wilkinson, then of Long Weekend now Theatre Royal, heard my stuff the same week he saw the film I Walk the Line and he’d got obsessed by Johnny Cash. The Long Weekend were going to be the “next big thing” and then the album came out and the NME shot it down in flames. Robbie invited me to his house and we played the songs and then there were two of us. And when he could make it he played gigs so I had to call it something; I wanted the six people who liked my stuff to know it was still me so we came up with “Stuart Turner and the Flat Earth Society” as a joke. It was a convoluted way of saying “…and Robbie”. It wasn’t really a band but I started writing more songs with a band in mind. So then we wrote the album “Gin and Bitters”; Robbie was arranging the songs with me, it was very much Turner and Wilkinson; We got Daryl in to play drums he was in The Vanderbilts at the time, part of the garage clique. And Matthew Ashdown played saxophone; him and John were the horn section. It was a real departure; a lot louder and the songs were better. Robbie’s arrangements were a really important factor; he had a real pop sensibility. But at gigs it was just me and Robbie and occasionally John. But were playing at the Man of Kent and this guy came over and said “I love what you’re doing; if you need a drummer I’d love to do it”. He took the cd away and learnt all the songs. That was Ray Hunt, local tattooist and man about town. Everyone seemed to know him. People started coming to the gigs to see Ray! We drafted in the bass player from Keratin and we were a band. We played our first gig at the Man of Kent and Ray knew the owner so we could play really loud and he was like a Bonham-esque drummer; the windows were rattling. So we had an album and a band but no way of putting it out; we played a gig at the Command House and said “we have this album; if anyone has a record label and wants to release it let us know”. Dave Goggin of the band Brigadier Ambrose said “I’ve got a record label I’d love to release it”. And that was it. He’d some success with his band and thought he’d be able to get the same attention from radios for us but nothing! We sold all the copies but he thought he’d get us on the radio and get people downloading it. Six people downloaded it! We still really only sell our stuffs through gigs; we don’t really fit the downloading demographic. We started gigging about; few gigs in London with Rip This Joint; we started getting a name as the acoustic bad its ok to put on with Motherboy bands! We’d recorded “Weekend Hearts” the EP with Ray and the album “On the Brink of Misadventure”. The day after we recorded it Ray left. We had a few line-up changes; I got James form Keratin on drums. The first gig at the Nags with the new line-up didn’t go well. But we got another new bass player Nick and things started to improve. Nick pulled it all together again.
Is writing something that you find easy? Given the amount you have recorded
At certain periods there was no quality control. Like ‘A Gallon Of Water Makes A Mile Of Fog’; it was written in two weeks and recorded in two days. Four of the songs are just sticks being banged on the ground. That was I was told it would be available for download and people were going to pay 75p a song and I thought “That’s absurd; if you are going to download the album you can pay 75 pence to hear someone bang sticks on the ground”.
So how did you approach writing “The Art and Science of Phrenology”?
I was writing a lot of songs and once a month I’d say “Right, studio! Let’s go!”
You recorded that over a few months? That must have been expensive?
A long time and it cost a fecking fortune. We’d go to Jim’s in the evening and try and do three songs; normally we’d manage two. Because Robbie was so busy with Theatre Royal he couldn’t rehearse so he’d come to the studio and from 6-8; he’d listen to the songs and then from 8-10 he’d put down his parts. So from 6-8 there was this big gap in the studio and so the reason the album has this big treacly sound was because I’d be in the studio thinking “what else can I put on there?” So I put hammond, piano and percussion and quadruple track the vocals. The intention was to do a John Wesley Harding-esque strip back acoustic record! But then Robbie came in and added 90 guitar parts! We did a gig in Folkestone with Bob Collins as the acoustic support act and Bob said “can I play a couple of songs?” He knew our songs and he’s an absurdly good musician and afterwards I said do you want to do that again and he said “yeah great”. So he came and played on the album.
Are you happy with how it turned out?
I don’t know. In some ways it’s a very flawed album. Some of the songs are very good; the layering really works. Other ones I found frustrating because they weren’t how I wanted it to be. I’d just say “oh ok that’s fine”. But only about two songs are like that.
The song “Walking Through Snow” from “The Art and Science of Phrenology” has got a lot of positive reviews. It’s quite different to your other stuff.
Nick wrote the music for that. He had my guitar and I went to his place to get it and we sat around playing. His flat is quite small and we were playing almost on top of each other and it felt quite claustrophobic. And that added to the mood of it. He played this and said what do you think and I said it was great. “Really? It’s just four chords”. “Yeah” I said “but they’re in the right order”. I left there humming a melody to myself and by the time I got back to my house I had the words, so I had to write them down really quickly; he doesn’t live far away. There’s much more of that type of song on the new album.
For “The Art and Science of Phrenology” you recorded a video for every song; what possessed you to do that?
Well the album wasn’t time consuming enough so I thought “this needs more self-indulgence more gratuitous time-sucking”! The video we did for “Decimation” from the album “On the Brink of Misadventure” with Dave Wise got a thousand hits in the first week; a lot more than we were going to get on the radio so we thought this is the way to go. Young Knives had released an album with a video for every song; They Might Be Giants as well. We thought “That’s a good idea and we know lots of people that would be interested” and they were.
Are you planning to do that for future albums?
No! We kind of overdid it but I’m glad we did it.
And what about “The Gentlemen’s Club” ep; when was that recorded?
While we were making the Phrenology album the Singing Loins split up. We asked Rob Shepard to play on the album. James left then and then we got Steve who was Nick’s next door neighbour. So as Steve joined the band we wanted to include him; he was already doing the artwork. So he played on the songs on the new EP. We wanted to release the EP at the same time as the album. They have similar covers and one was to be the companion piece to the other. But the curse of record store day meant the vinyl wasn’t ready!
How would you describe your music?
I don’t know what to call it. We’ve always had a problem with genres. You get a promoter who wants to lump bands together that complement each other. They say “we want a blues band” and we do have some blues songs but when they hear us they don’t know what to do with us. They say “I like what you’re doing but we’d be interested if you ever start doing blues songs”. These are people I have no time for; people for whom the blues happened and are not happening anymore so if you are a blues band you should recreate what happened; put it in a blues museum and sell souvenirs. You wouldn’t get that in jazz or any other musical format. You don’t get people saying “there’s no authenticity there because you’re from Dorset”.
People have said that to you?
Yeah and you know being from Dorset there’s all the more reason to; isolated agricultural communities, with lots of inbreeding and hard-drinking!
Your voice is very distinctive but do you ever get tired of people picking that out?
It depends what kind of mood I’m in. It’s an obvious thing but it’s upsetting when it’s all people pick up on. From a song-writing point of view it can be quite frustrating; it denigrates the words and the melody. We’ve got some hooks but people sometimes don’t hear them. Generally when people do go on about the voice it’s quite complementary. It is a thing and it’s hard to not mention it. I used to try and bury it. When I was doing Keratin there was a sense that we should make the voice quite low in the mix. But that was a different type of music. I’ve come out of that now and we stick it up out front. Solo gigs were never as successful as I’d hope they’d be because I kind of swamped it with the voice. The band gives it wings; it allows the voice to be big without it being bombastic. It upsets me a bit when people say it’s put on. I had cancer when I was 25; I was told I was going to die. That took out a lot of my neck around my vocal chords causing my voice box to expand. It doesn’t come out when I’m talking but when I sing everything is projected and basically when I sing it comes out different! That confuses people; for a lot of gigs a while back I didn’t talk between songs to avoid that.
Who are your main musical influences?
Someone on Facebook asked me to list my ten favourite albums; I got it down to 25. And even then I forgot a lot. It’s really difficult. When I was young me and my brother would spend hours trawling through my Dad’s record collection listening to his stuff and loving it. That was The Stones, Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley. There was a live recording of his from when he played in the early sixties; “Bo Diddley’s Beach Party”. He refused to go unless the audience were allowed to be black and white together. Years later I met Billy Childish and he loves it as well; we must be amongst the ten people who have a copy of it on vinyl. The sound is really punky; that’s a disturbingly big influence. “Exit on Mainstreet” is another big influence. And when I was 15 watching Top of the Pops the Stone Roses came on and it was like no record I’d ever heard, something from outer space. I projected a lot of things on to them that weren’t there. I didn’t read any of their interviews because I didn’t have access to the NME; I lived in a little village in Dorset. There was one record shop in the town where I went to school and that was Woolworths. They couldn’t tell me anything. My Dad said “if you like the Stone Roses you should listen to The Cure” and I liked them and my cousin said “if you like The Cure you should listen to The Jesus and Mary Chain and if you like them you should listen to John Peel”. So I listened to John Peel and that’s when I heard “Brassneck” by The Wedding Present. “Bizarro” by the Wedding Present is my favourite album by anyone; I wore out two cassettes playing it. I have it on vinyl and cd now.
You must have the “Hit Parade” albums so?
These? [Stuart pulls out each of The Wedding Present’s 12” singles (on vinyl) which were released one a month in 1992 and later compiled as “The Hit Parade 1 & 2”]. This is why when Kris Dollimore said “do you want to make an album” it was so important. It was a proper record. If you grew up where I did even buying a record was absurdly difficult.
Your musical tastes are much broader than traditional blues then?
Yeah but that’s all there, that’s very much a thing. I don’t want to denigrate that. The first instrument I played was a harmonica and I used to play along to everybody that came on the Paul Jones show on Thursday nights. So it was a big deal when one of our songs was played on that show years later. When I went to University in Canterbury I was determined I’d start a blues band and the weird thing is the band I always saw myself forming does exist today but in Brooklyn; a band called Daddy Long Legs. I fell in with these weirdoes and we were called Slink; for about five minutes we were the most successful teen-jangly-indie-adolescent whatever-you-want-to-call it band.
What band – alive, dead, whatever – would you most like to play with?
Me personally, probably The Waterboys. I think it would work quite well. Steve and I are fans but Bob doesn’t like them and I don’t think Nick does either. We played at Fruit Bat’s [from Carter USM] party. That was great fun. Everyone on the bill was quite well known, and then there was us. The band I was with at University supported The Wedding Present at Canterbury. There’s that line in High Fidelity “some people never got over the night their band opened for Nirvana” and it’s that kind of thing. But I don’t know…Bruce Springsteen! Less kudos but he does big music. I always like the three hour gig thing. Let’s play stadiums!
Is the music scene here is in a better shape today than when you first arrived?
Yeah. Everyone is in their little caves but everyone is aware of other people’s caves now. The garage thing; that was the Medway sound. An overhang from the eighties. It was good but there was a lot of other stuff going on as well and people are more aware of that now. The younger bands don’t care about that older sound anyway. You can possibly see it as three different groups of bands; Billy and Graham Day and all that garage; then the Theatre Royal age bracket who were young and happening and now are middle aged; then there’s the younger bands like Crybaby Special but they kind of fell apart. I think the Motherboy stuff is quite interesting; the louder stuff is going well. Those bands maybe are more prominent on social media than they are in terms of actually playing gigs. Ten years ago it was all done through leafleting and posters in second hand music shops but that’s all gone.
Do you think that rise of social media you mention is a good or bad thing for music?
Both. You read about people in their late 20s committing suicide because they don’t think they are as good as their peers. But like psychologists say Facebook is basically a press release on an hour by hour basis. And for some bands it’s like that, a perpetual press release. And it can be good. In other ways people aren’t as excited about coming to see you if they know they can see you again next week.
What do you hope to achieve with the band; is wider recognition important to you?
We get good radio play but not so much in this country. I get this guy sending me messages in Spanish from Argentina; I don’t know what he’s saying but I assume it’s complementary. I want the album to come out and that’s about it. I’d love the next album to come out in vinyl. I always wonder how people get to “wherever”. I guess they do that by consciously thinking “right we need to get there, there and there”. We’ve never done that. I’d like to play fewer little gigs here and more gigs elsewhere. If you play the same place over and over again people stop coming.
And so what are your plans for the band?
We’re just finishing recording a new album and I think it’s the best. Now the writing is more collaborative; I love Johnny Hooker and stuff like that which has just one chord. I have a tendency to sit in a groove and just plough it so it’s good to have others involved. Rob records a lot of demos which he e-mails to me; they’re so easy to write lyrics to and a melody for. The whole things sounds cohesive. Other albums sound good but always have a random one. In complete contrast to the last album, this time we just went in and recorded everything pretty much live; two days 14 tracks without all the fannying about. It sounded like it was the recording of “the band” hence it’s eponymously titled. It’s hard not to feel like this is the definitive one. Maybe not to the others but to me it does.
It’s not the last one is it?
That’s not the intention. But I’d like to be defined by this one. It’s got everything; all the different aspects of all the others things we’ve done. I’m happier now with the music we are making then I’ve ever been. That’s no disrespect to the people I’ve made music with before. I never planned anything; there was never a plan to be a band but there is one; there was never a plan for all the people to leave but they left. I don’t know what will happen; you never know.
New EP “The Gentlemen’s Club” is available to buy via the Stuart Turner and the Flat Earth Society webpage; http://www.stfes.com/. More information on the band and details about future gigs can be found on their Facebook page; https://www.facebook.com/pages/Stuart-Turner-and-The-Flat-Earth-Society/106232359398372?sk=timeline
Interview by Aidan Hehir
Image courtesy of Stuart Turner and the Flat Earth Society