R. Turner: fighting the good fight someplace else

Dick Turner has vanished. So has Ricky Turner. So has R. Turner. He warned us that he’d be doing this, that all three of his songwriting personas would be leaving soon, for Asia, someplace mysterious, for Japan maybe, and beyond. And he did. For now, his personal media brands are gone, too. No more drawings. No more posts. Silence. He slipped silently away, out into his mysterious world. However, he did leave us his music — and, just days before he left, he granted The Palace one final thin interview in early September.

I’ve been chasing Ricky for weeks, months, trying to set up something. I followed his band to Spokane thinking I could talk to him there. It didn’t happen. As the enigmatic frontman and songwriter of Buffet, he’s made his mark on the punk scene with “All-American” (as Dick Turner). As the homeschooled rustbelt songwriter R. Turner, and alternatively as Ricky Turner, he’s created a remarkably touching and consistent body of solo work that, when taken in a certain light, is every bit as punk as his punk. Reading between the lean lines of some of his songs, there’s a sadness, and even a darkness, too. Like even as he works sporadically on his story, his story remains incomplete. I wanted to talk about it. I’m not sure Ricky did.

So here, the final fleeting interview — by turns inspired as well as sparsely introspective — The Palace and R. Turner. He just might be the artist you never thought he was. Or, maybe, you knew who he was all along, and it was just me who didn’t understand. With the interview locked down and awaiting transcription, I still didn’t know the complete R. Turner. I still don’t. Except now, Dick Turner has vanished. What I have is what I have.

Ricky Turner, May 2018

Sometimes I wish I was a bird
So I could fly to you
In Vietnam
I’m all alone
And I want to go home

from the song, “Vietnam” on “Even My Dumb Dog in the Heat of the Summer Has Lost His Passion” (self-released, 2012)

Let’s begin with Buffet. I think of Buffet as your band — maybe yours and John Van Deusen’s — because you and he talked about a punk band first, years ago, but mostly as your band. You, certainly, as the lyricist, play a directing role. What’s the future of Buffet?

R. Turner:
That’s a good question. I mean, ever since we thought of it as band, we’ve always kind of held it with open hands, whatever it’s going to become, it would become. And, so far, we’ve recorded an album and played a dozen shows, and it’s going to keep going. I know that. We definitely have a sonic idea of where we want it to go. We’ve been talking a lot, especially on the ride back from our Spokane show at Berserk, so hopefully when I get back from Asia we’ll start writing some new material again.

GP:
How do feel about the Spokane show, at Berserk?

RT:
I thought it was great. I think, being that we hadn’t played together in so long, and then coming together and feeling like it was probably one of the most in-synch shows we’ve ever played, it felt really nice.

GP:
So, I have to ask — how does that even work? Most human beings who are collaborating on something big like a band have to get together with each other, from time to time, to synchronize like that. How does it work for you guys, as a band?

RT:
You know, I’m not really sure. I’ve been thinking a little bit about it, and I think a big part of it is that it’s fun and we all really enjoy the music. Which doesn’t always happen in a band. And I think that might be a big element about why it’s so easy — for us to just get together and do it well — because we all just enjoy it. As far as I can tell. And the songs are catchy. I don’t know. We all feel very passionately about all of the parts, so it just sticks in our minds, I guess.

GP:
Yes, but it seems utterly bizarre to me that the show you just played in Spokane – you’re getting better, but you’re not playing together. [Laughs] Is that normal?

RT:
Yeah, maybe it’s because we have lots of time to think about what we would do differently in between every show. I don’t know. I really have no idea. These are just wild guesses.

GP:
I walked out of the Spokane show and wondered if I had just seen the last Buffet show. Seriously.

RT:
Yeah, I mean, I think there’s speculation that we’re all continuing to get busier, mostly me and John, but I don’t think that’s necessarily true. I’m very busy right now, but you know, my life’s been going in seasons. I definitely don’t see that as the last Buffet show.

RT

I feel compelled to ask these next questions, as a fan of your work, all of your work — I also love your solo work — it seems to me that your life these days is taking you away from music. The work you’re doing now, where you live now, the fact that you’re going to be leaving the country soon, how do you think about all of that and your songwriting?

RT:
I think I’ve been playing music now more than I ever have, but just in more spiritual settings. So not necessarily in public concerts. I’m making music all the time. I’m writing music as much as I ever have.

Yeah, the thing with what I’m doing now is we run programs, as a seasonal thing. Right at the moment we’re right in the thick of it. And I’m not really sure how many of the schools I’m going to staff, but that’s what has kept me the busiest, for sure. In a lot of ways I feel like I have more artistic and creative energy than I did when I was just working full time in retail. I just feel more energized in general doing things I care about.

Yeah, I haven’t been playing as many concerts but I have a lot of things that are kind of cooking that are waiting to happen.

GP:
So, if I may ask, what is your job?

RT:
Technically, I’m a self-employed minister, I guess. Not like a pastor, but I’m in ministry. I’m technically self-employed, and I’m on-staff voluntarily. At the moment my roll kind of fluctuates, but at this moment I’m like school staff for a mission school, a mission’s program.

GP:
When you were growing up, immersed in the world of religion in your family, you’ve spoken about how that environment had a stifling effect on you musically. And now you’re in religion again, this time as a professional, as a minister, and now it seems to be having the opposite effect. For an outsider layperson like myself, how does that work? You don’t sound stifled at all!

RT:
It’s hard for me to answer that concisely because I feel like I could sit here and write a book about it. And I actually want to write a book about it because it’s something I think about a lot. American and Western Christianity is a huge and broad thing. It’s often misrepresentative of who Jesus was, and what the core teaching of the Bible is. And I don’t want to throw shade at churches. You can’t really do that because there are so many types and styles and interpretations.

What I discovered back home didn’t teach me anything about anything I would ever want in my life, really. I came to discover on my own a very different world view. Just the way that I see the Bible, and the way that I see Jesus, and the way that I apply that to my life today is just totally different and has really changed my life in several ways. That’s really the core of what I want my life to be about.

Yeah, it’s a stark contrast from what I knew before. I wasn’t allowed to play music because my hair was too long. Stuff like that. [Laughs] But that’s not at all what I’ve found elsewhere. It was just a poor representation, really.

GP:
I ask, not to throw shade on any person’s faith, I just think a lot of young people are growing up the way you grew up, because of the proliferation and accessibility of so many church options for young people today. And you not being allowed to play music as a young person in one such environment eventually led you to create a very dynamic punk band that today doesn’t operate in the Christian punk space — is there a Christian punk space? [Laughs]

RT:
Yeah, I’m not even sure what Christian punk would be. It exists. [Laughs] I haven’t really listened to it much, but it definitely exists. Yeah, I don’t know. I don’t really think of art as being defined by any religious system.

RT

So, working as a songwriter, do you feel like you have to split your brain into two separate things?

RT:
As far as religion and secular worlds, however you want to put it? Definitely not because I feel like — I was having this same conversation recently — I feel like what I believe is true, and I believe any truth points to God, essentially. Like, any truth at all in the world. Even universal truths about the way the world is, or the way your life has gone. If you’re speaking the truth, you’re speaking good things. And in Christian language, I believe that is glorifying to God, when you’re speaking truth. And that’s really my goal with art. To be honest and to speak truth, whether it’s in Buffet or my solo music.

Like Jesus said, “I am the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Truth is truth. You can’t deny truth. It’s everywhere.

GP:
How do you make time to make music? You have a family, a young child. You’re working as a minister, working in your school, creating programming for your school programs. You’re also about to travel. When do you have time to write music?

RT:
I’ve talked to a number of people about how different songwriting is when you’re a dad. I think that’s the biggest difference. Even less than moving away from Anacortes or changing careers. Being a dad probably makes it the hardest. Taking care of my family takes priority over making art. So, you let the art slide and don’t get anything done.

That being said, a lot of the time I’ll just wake up early, clear my head, pray or journal, or whatever it is, and I’ll write songs during that time, just the lyrics. Or I’ll read a news article, and something just triggers me, and I’ll write a song. I just have these ideas and I try to record them in whatever way I can. Whether it’s a voice memo on my phone, or whatever it is.

Hopefully, soon, I’ll be able to carve out enough time to sit down and record it all. That’s the real goal. That’s kind of where it’s at. I’ve been sitting on two full albums. One of them I’m not sure if I will release it and time soon. I have all the lyrics written, but it’s so personal and a lot of people I know are mentioned directly — I don’t think it would be kind to release it. We’ll see.

GP:
So what’s next? More Buffet songs? More solo songs?

RT:
I do have a private timeline when I want to release everything I have, with flexibility, because I know that my schedule gets the best of me a lot of the time. Yeah, I have a rough timeline for about four albums I want to release. They’re all pretty much musically done, I just have to record them.

Yeah, I have the timeline, but I would say as far as releasing things, and taking it seriously, Buffet is a priority at this point. Because it’s bigger than just myself.

You called Buffet my band, but I feel like I’m just a part of the equation, really. The group effort is really important to me. I think that’s why I’ve prioritized Buffet over my own stuff.

Buffet

Outside smoking, the kids are all in black
They don’t need, they don’t need to see this act
And the dull light from their phones
And the neon signs, well it makes their bodies glow

Inside, on a wooden floor
There you are, you’re pouring out your soul
You’re killing it tonight, for twenty people
You’re killing it tonight, for twenty people

from the song, “Killin’ It” on “R. Turner” (Monopath Records, 2017)
Music is forever