TO a young Frank Turner, Iron Maiden posters weren’t just cool; they were inspirational.
"I really wasn’t into any kind of rock ’n’ roll and was only dimly aware of its existence. I had an older brother who had a Stranger in a Strange Land poster with a zombie cowboy from the future and I thought, ‘Whatever that is, I want to be involved with it,’" Turner, 29, says with a laugh over the phone from Florida.
The interest in the Iron Maiden poster — featuring their mascot, Eddie, decked out as a cyborg gunslinger standing in a bar — set off a journey that brings the acclaimed British folk punk to the West End Cultural Centre Saturday with his band as part of his first North American headlining tour (tickets are $22.50 at Ticketmaster).
Turner grew up in the town of Meonstoke, Winchester in southern England before moving to London to go to school. He was a member of post-hardcore band Million Dead and embarked on a solo career after the group ended in 2005.
He knew he didn’t want to be in another collective, so he picked up his acoustic guitar and started writing the personal and political songs that would form the foundation of his style and eventually attract the attention of American punk label Epitaph, who signed Turner to a distribution deal in North America.
He used a part of a Shakespeare quote from the play The Life and Death of King John as the title of his latest album, England Keep My Bones, which alludes to his love-hate relationship with his country and is not intended to be a patriotic statement, he says.
"There are things that frustrate me about England and things that I love. I love the landscape and some of the people, and on the flipside there’s how painfully rude everybody is all the time and everyone’s obsessed with class," he says.
"Having said that, particularly with the English identity, it was associated with football thugs and racism for a very long time… Nationalism is a stupid idea. I’m not fighting the fight to reclaim a national identity for people who are insanely thuggish racists."
While his home country is noted in songs like Rivers, English Curse and Wessex Boy, one of the most affecting songs on the new album, I Still Believe, was inspired by a trip Turner took to China, where he performed illegal shows for fans hungry for live music.
Turner declares, "Now who would’ve thought that after all / something as simple as rock ’n’ roll would save us all?" in the song, but it isn’t a statement about music saving the world or creating any kind of change; it’s about music’s effect on the soul and bringing people together.
Westerners don’t give much thought to how fortunate they are to have such wide access to music, but it hit home during his shows in China, Turner says.
"I didn’t have a Visa or anything. I was playing these punk underground shows in club basements. It’s kind of new to them and they have taken to it with a wild energy," he says. "The buzz was crazy, and the hunger for it, man, it made me kind of sheepish of how much I take rock ’n’ roll for granted — I’ve had rock ’n’ roll available on the TV every day since I was a kid."
His experience in China is part of Turner’s philosophy to play anywhere he can. He even recalled playing a "guerilla show" at the Yellow Dog Tavern in Winnipeg when he was in town opening for the Gaslight Anthem at the Burton Cummings Theatre a few years ago.
A fan of Turner’s couldn’t make it to the Burt gig, but met up with him outside the theatre and wanted to hear him sing then and there.
"He frog-marched me into the Yellow Dog and I played a short set. That was an eventful evening," Turner says.