Turnstile: “There’s no higher priority than having this feel special and unique”

As Turnstile bring thrilling third album GLOW ON to stages across the UK, Kerrang! catches up with frontman Brendan Yates to find out how they’re keeping feet on the ground while stagediving their way to the top of the world…

Turnstile: “There’s no higher priority than having this feel special and unique”
Sam Law
Nat Wood

The last time Brendan Yates stepped foot on a UK stage, he wasn’t sure whether he’d ever get the chance to do so again.

Preparing to drop curtain on their globe-trotting Time & Space album cycle at London’s 800-cap ULU on March 13, 2020, the Turnstile frontman and his bandmates realised they had been caught off guard by the rapid, exponential escalation of the COVID crisis. With each fresh report that flickered across their cellphones and hotel TV screens, it seemed like the unthinkable was unfolding. Flights home had been arranged for the next morning. That night, they would throw everything into a raucous 16-song set with the frisson of a party at the end of the world.

“There was this looming mystery,” says Brendan. “I remember standing on the stage watching [support band] Gag perform before we did and thinking to myself, ‘This could be the last show that I ever see!’”

Some 526 days later, that fear was finally laid to rest. Baltimore’s Clifton Park Bandshell, a stately structure, is not the obvious setting for a hardcore show. For Turnstile, however, it was the perfect platform for their August 21 return. No ticket gate. No barrier. No heavy-handed security itching to wade in. In this unusual open-air space, with incredible third album GLOW ON about to hit, uncertainty remained, but it was coloured now by hope rather than dread.

As anyone who’s watched the band’s Hi8 footage of the full show posted to YouTube – shared, in part, for the benefit of fans whose local venues remain shuttered – will already know, it didn’t take long to get back up to speed.

Turnstile shows have always felt like two-parts house party to one of outright riot. This felt like that on an epic scale. An unticketed crowd of thousands descends. The Equatics’ soul classic Where Is Love? rings out over the PA. As the sun-bleached, spring-loaded opening riff of MYSTERY hits, compassionate chaos is unleashed. Friends who’ve been apart for months surge together towards the stage. Wave after wave of stagedivers hurl themselves headlong, happy not just to fly free but to transform this from a show into a spectacle. Brendan’s button-up shirt is open by the second song, and gone by the third. Afterwards, one punter gushes into the camera: “You know what that is? That’s Turnstile, baby.”

Brendan grins.

“That was definitely one of my favourite shows. There was the excitement of getting to play again after a year of not knowing whether that was going to be a thing. We were in our hometown, surrounded by the love of family and friends we’d not seen in so long. And we’re getting to play new music that we’ve never played before, feeling that connection with those songs for the first time. Those elements culminated in this amazing feeling. It was overwhelming, but in a good way.”

On the day we speak, Turnstile are opening for genre-busting hip-hop duo $uicideboy$, alongside Northampton rap hotshot slowthai and south Chicago trap star Chief Keef, they’ve just travelled the 900-odd miles from Milwaukee’s 3,500-cap Eagles Hall for tonight’s show at Oklahoma City’s 4,000-cap Criterion. Breathing in the crisp air of the middle-American fall, Brendan reckons on the elemental power to be wielded onstage, and the thrilling alchemy when artists step outside their box.

“Music is this universal language that can connect with people, and the live environment is the purest form of that,” he says. “It’s when you’re most connected to the song, to yourself, and to the people listening with you. It’s about everyone connecting to something a little bigger than them: music itself.”

Do you remember the first time you were caught in a mosh? The narcotic euphoria of treading that thin line between exhilaration and peril has a way of sticking with you.

“There’s something equally exciting and calming about it,” Brendan reckons. “Feeling simultaneously connected to the music and the other people there.”

He can’t quite recall the bands from his first-ever show, but Brendan remembers the feeling. During middle school, parents in his childhood hometown of Burtonsville, Maryland would drop rowdy kids at an “event stage” erected at the local church or town hall, where misfit bands would tear through on a monthly or bi-monthly basis. Music was a focus, but Brendan was as interested in the social aspect. “Sure, you can meet friends at school, but that’s kind of a forced environment,” he says. “At shows, there’s something drawing you there.”

Having come together with eventual Turnstile lead guitarist Brady Ebert in their pre-teen years, and playing in bands before they’d ever been to a real show, getting the call to step onstage was a breakthrough. “To go from playing in the basement every day after school to getting our first opportunity to feel like we were a part of something was incredible.”

High school came with a graduation into real hardcore. Brendan remembers the intoxicating menace of the first time he headed into the big city with older, cooler neighbour Juan to catch legendary Baltimore hard-nuts Scout at the city’s gritty Sidebar. “Going from little kids goofing around on each others’ shoulders in Knights of Columbus halls, to Xs on backs of hands and big, scary guys with face tattoos beating each other up in this dark, grungy bar felt like the scariest situation I’d ever put myself in.”

Brendan sidestepped macho posturing, far more interested in the scene as a space for free-thinkers to challenge norms with the support of a steadfast group of peers. Turnstile’s prolific drummer Daniel Fang is Brendan’s college friend and a veteran of several renowned bands, who famously discharged himself from hospital suffering from potentially life-threatening rhabdomyolysis to play the first show of the Time & Space cycle. Bassist Franz Lyons joined, having jumped on the bus with Brendan’s other band Trapped Under Ice one day, and never left. Rhythm guitarist Pat McCrory is an old hometown friend who joined up in 2016, and had shared stages with Angel Du$T, in which Brendan now also plays guitar.

A project “born out of friendship and enjoyment”, there was never any pressure on Turnstile to perform, but when the opportunity came up, they would grab it. Brendan remembers the full-circle feeling of stepping to the mic at the Sidebar on their debut.

“We were all insanely nervous, but we killed it!”

Therein, perhaps, lies a clue as to why these most soft-spoken, right-on personalities are responsible for some of the most off-the-chain moments in modern rock.

“I get nervous before every show,” Brendan continues. “When we first started, the way I would channel that nervousness was to hurt myself – in a funny way. I would scream as hard as I could. I would throw my body head-first off the stage. That nervousness still exists, but you find new ways to channel it. I’ve always joked about it, but I have kinda bad vision, too, and I don’t wear glasses whenever we play. It turns off the hyper-awareness and makes things a little blurry. You’re just existing in this blurry experience, in that moment.”

Asked whether he’d rather play a sprawling festival headline or the craziest club show of his entire life, Brendan Yates answers with disconcerting swiftness and certainty.

“I’d always choose the more intimate environment, the place where it’s easiest to feel connected. When you’re playing these big festivals you can feel a little bit disconnected. The perfect place for this band is a more intimate environment where we’re engaged with everyone, and everyone is engaged with each other, to the maximum possible degree.”

It feels like an unusual declaration for a band so hot. Here, they’re doing 2,000-cap rooms. Stateside, they played Jay-Z’s Made In America Festival, and even the mighty Coachella pre-lockdown, and have stormed Slipknot’s Knotfest Iowa, and Metallica’s Louder Than Life. Conventional ideas of status, however, have never been of interest. Brendan counters our suggestion that the band’s performances have reached another level since their return, arguing that “every show now comes with a different level of excitement.” He shifts awkwardly when we probe him on fans’, peers’ and industry heavyweights’ virtually unanimous declaration that Turnstile are rock’s next big thing.

“That’s never really something that we harp on about,” he says. “For us, the perspective has always been on ourselves. We never really like to make these priority lists of who’s ‘big’, ‘small’ or whatever.”

He’s always been like this. “[Hardcore is] about a sense of community where a show can happen anywhere there’s a room for people to come to,” Brendan once told Kerrang!. “It’s about the collective diversity, where bands can express themselves in the ways that best resonate with them.”

When Turnstile talk about individuality, it’s less an abstract concept than a real desire to tangibly connect with every person watching. It’s natural that they’re wary about losing faces in the crowd. That’s not to say they’ll ever turn fresh converts away.

“Since we’ve been back, we’ve been getting to experience the full spectrum of all the different types of shows you can play again, from club shows to tours to festivals,” he says. “There are so many different [venues] to play and different ways that you can perform. It’s about challenging yourself and trying different things, finding new ways to adjust to your environment and connect to the people who are there. Everything is about beautiful balance.

“Sometimes that’s not so obvious, and you’ve got to take a risk, like playing some festival in the middle of Norway where you’re the only band with distorted guitars,” he continues, referencing Trondheim’s Pstereo gathering in August 2019, where Turnstile performed alongside Bloc Party, Underworld and Carpenter Brut. “On paper, that can seem like it would be a weird thing. But then you go and actually give it a shot and realise that it’s a different experience to anything that you’ve ever had.”

This June, Turnstile will re-enter the UK to headline Outbreak Fest for the second time. Performing alongside heavyweights like Knocked Loose, Stick To Your Guns and Madball, as well as trailblazers like Loathe, Higher Power and NOTHING, it’s hardly coincidental that their return coincides with the event’s expansion from its traditional home base in Leeds into Manchester’s 4,500-cap Bowlers Exhibition Centre.

Joyous carnage feels like a safe bet.

Brendan remembers Turnstile’s first appearance at the fest. Facing a crowd of around 1,000 ravenous punters back in 2013, it was the furthest they had ever travelled from home. The raucous reception that followed felt like an affirmation that Turnstile were a band to stay. “It was so cool to come so far,” Brendan remembers, “and to find all these people that feel this connection.”

Pressing the singer and his bandmates for anecdotes to illustrate the adventure of life on tour over the years, they’ve always struggled, offering colourful vignettes that don’t quite capture the big picture: Brendan bringing his father to a show in California so they could road-trip to Joshua Tree for some 70th birthday celebrations; performing in Vietnam at the torrential height of monsoon season. Ultimately, though, far-flung places aren’t half as important as the people you find in them.

“One thing that’s been put into perspective for me recently has been the friends I’ve made touring,” Brendan says. “I see a lot of these people more often than I see people who live down the street. You realise that as somebody playing music, you build this community. They’re people who’ve let you crash on their couch or sleep on their floor, and you have this lifelong connection that will remain.”

In the end of, course, no-one is more important than the five players behind the music. Now with 11 years’ experience as a collective, they’re as committed as ever to maintaining the magic of those precious moments onstage.

“After having seen what the world can go through in such a short period of time, you realise that going to a show, connecting with the other people in the room are things that are too easily taken for granted. There’s so much power in something so simple. None of us look at this as any kind of job or obligation. There’s no higher priority than having this feel special and unique.”

Indeed, life is an adventure when the future is unwritten, and there’s no map for the road ahead.

“At a certain point, you’re out of control of what happens,” Brendan smiles, blue eyes lit by untold possibility. “Yes, we can have dreams and aspirations. There’s always going to be a desire to make music, to play shows, to challenge ourselves in ways that we haven’t before. But there’s always going to be a mystery and an unpredictability in this. I like that idea of being out of the driver’s seat and just along for the ride.”

Turnstile are on tour from January 29. This article was originally printed in December’s one-off live music special.

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