Turnstile: The Feel-Good Mission of Hardcore's Biggest, Brightest, Most Surprising Stars | Revolver

Turnstile: The Feel-Good Mission of Hardcore's Biggest, Brightest, Most Surprising Stars

In a scene full of dark imagery and tough-guy attitude, Baltimore's favorite sons are the antidote
turnstile_2021_credit_angelaowens.jpg, Angela Owens
photograph by Angela Owens

"Our band's called Turnstile. Thank you for giving us your time. It's great to meet you."

To anyone who's even tangentially checked in to hardcore music within the last decade, it's almost funny to think that Brendan Yates still has to introduce his band to anyone. The frontman is squeezing in those humble formalities before a sea of gothic rap teens who've congregated to get fucked up and rage to the massive bass drops of $uicideboy$, the metallic SoundCloud rap titans that Turnstile are directly supporting on their current fall tour.

It's early October, a couple months after the Baltimore hardcore crew unveiled their magnificent third album, Glow On, and then celebrated with a smattering of U.S. headlining gigs and festival appearances that reminded everyone in their orbit that they're the biggest, most uniformly beloved band in the genre — not to mention one of the greatest live acts in all of rock music. But right now in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, they're playing to the type of crowd where plumes of smoke dance in the air, bras get tossed onstage and at least a few young women feel inclined to flash the headliners when they trot out later in the night. The only straight-edge people in the room might be the ones with "Turnstile member" on their resumes.

As the sole opener on the bill who required 15 minutes of changeover time instead of a swift DJ introduction, Turnstile are the outliers here, and their unflinching sprint into Glow On highlights and faster back-catalog cuts is initially met with more blank faces than grinning crowd-surfers. But by the end of their set, which they played with the same amount of energy and chutzpah they'd bring to a room of stage-diving kids in Gulch shirts, there was a palpable change in attitude as everyone got baptized into the church of Turnstile. To quote a verse from Glow On's a capella psalm "No Surprise," "You really gotta see it live to get it."

A few days later, Yates is wandering around rainy Cincinnati while on a call with Revolver. "I'm not good at giving a good headline," he quips toward the end of a long, thoughtful conversation that produced plenty of generous introspection but none of the juicy gossip or flippant remarks that music journalists pry for. He's not wrong, but that's not because he's being withholding. Turnstile are a band who've always left the curtain wide open to show everyone exactly what they are: a hardcore band that can't stop winning and won't stop feeling good.

In a genre where bands rarely make it past a debut album (if they even get there) and where rotating membership is custom, Turnstile have made it 11 years with just one minor lineup change (a rhythm guitarist swap in 2015) and essentially zero drama. The most controversial thing they've ever done was make hardcore kids question the validity of funk-rock icons 311 when they cleverly jocked their riff style on 2015's then-contentious, now-classic Nonstop Feeling.

Across a near half a dozen EPs and three progressively experimental full-lengths, there's been no blow-out fights, no scandals and no significant creative disagreements between the five members — vocalist Yates, guitarists Brady Ebert and Pat McCrory, bassist-vocalist Franz Lyons and drummer Daniel Fang. Hell, neither Yates nor Lyons can even think of a time when they so much as bickered with one another.

"Compromise is pretty easy when everybody else's suggestions are really good," Lyons remarks during a separate chat. "So, we don't really argue. Ain't much to argue about."

Therefore, in lieu of any internal turmoil and their resistance to react to any of their myriad successes with anything other than outpours of gratitude, Yates and Lyons both repeatedly return to their guiding principle of "feeling good" to explain any of the decisions that made them longstanding hardcore phenoms whose star, almost improbably, won't stop rising. It might register as spiritual mumbo jumbo to anyone who hasn't heard a Turnstile record or experienced their show, but truthfully, it's hard to talk about Turnstile — or hear Turnstile talk, for that matter — without slipping into vibey wellness lingo.

"All we really want to do is make music that feels good," Lyons says of their sole mission statement. "But I don't know what the sound is going to be like, I don't know what all the instruments on it are going to be. Straight up, I can walk in the room, and if a kalimba sounded tight on the thrash part, I would be in there playing a kalimba on the thrash part."


Despite being the current best-sellers in hardcore, a scene overpopulated with black-and-white music and merch, Turnstile's songs are bright and exuberant — a healthy mix of bouncy grooves, zippy punk dashes, memorable one-liners and cutthroat mosh parts that serve every shade of hardcore fan. A jack of all trades, master of all. Their songs aren't funny, and what little banter they do engage in at shows is never humorous, but they also don't take themselves too seriously. Lyons and Yates are both known to drop their respective instruments and leap into the crowd mid-song, and one of the few live taglines Yates has been shouting for years is a friendly, though not demanding, invite to come on up and share the stage with them. It almost feels reductive to simply call them fun, but sometimes, water's just fuckin' wet.

"I think what we've always tried to do is highlight the things that excite us and build a world around us that we want to live in," Yates says of their approach to fostering fandom. "As opposed to trying to change anyone else's world."

That idea of, "Hey, you come to us, we're not coming to you," might seem counterintuitive to hardcore's history of insurgent and prodding political ethos — from the giddy preachiness of Youth Crew's straight-edge lifestyle and Earth Crisis' combative veganism, to Terror frontman Scott Vogel's self-help pep talks. But not having a clear-cut agenda has actually worked for Turnstile, and in a way that's allowed them to smoothly leverage themselves as a band who can play to practically any audience, all while making music that's indisputably hardcore and without having to make their live performances more "marketable." No awkward crossovers, no snobby rejection of where they came from, but also a complete openness and genuine excitement for where they still have yet to go.

A couple weeks before our call, Turnstile had a long weekend of back-to-back festival appearances that traversed four radically different markets: sharing a flier with Billie Eilish and Lizzo at Firefly Festival, playing a few hours before Metallica at the old-school rock and metal bonanza Louder Than Life, appearing alongside horrorcore maestro Tech N9ne at Slipknot's rap-metal conglomerate Knotfest Iowa, and then tearing up the Warped Tour nostalgia party Furnace Fest, headlined by Underoath and Taking Back Sunday.

"We were just kind of laughing at that collection of four days in a row and just how wide that spectrum was," Yates says. "And honestly, how cool it felt to be able to get the opportunity to play all those different things all in one weekend. And somehow, it all made sense, you know?"

Their heavier peers in Knocked Loose and Code Orange might have greater standing in the metal community, but Turnstile are the only band in hardcore — quite possibly ever — who can play with Coachella denizens one day and Gojira the next and not feel like an out-of-place gimmick on either stage. If you tally up those opportunities and consider the massive draws they still have in the punk world, it's not a stretch to say that they're the most popular hardcore band of the 21st century. But the group aren't impressed by that metric. Rather than vertically increasing the head count of their own crowds, they're much more interested in sprawling horizontally and continuing to play to even more diverse audiences.

"I feel like what we're doing is something [we've] never looked at as growing in size," Yates explains. "But more so, something that's always weaving back and forth and doing new things and growing with us as people."

His levelheaded and patient approach makes him sound wise beyond his years, but Turnstile isn't his first success story. After growing up playing in local bands, Yates got his big break when he became the drummer of Trapped Under Ice, a heavier and darker Baltimore band who are one of the most important acts in the hardcore generation that just preceded Turnstile. (The time it takes to complete an undergrad degree is an epoch in hardcore history.)

When TUI had downtime from touring in 2010, Yates recruited four friends for a new side project, including TUI's longtime merch dude, Lyons, a drummer who had never touched a bass before. Their first two EPs, 2011's Pressure to Succeed and 2013's Step 2 Rhythm, unexpectedly took off, and between the time TUI broke up in 2013 and returned in 2015, Turnstile had already become just as big. None of that was part of the plan.

"I remember having a conversation before Nonstop Feeling came out," Yates recalls. "I was like, 'Dude, I love this. I'm so happy that we tried all the things we did. It was such a great experience to put these [songs] out. The snare sounds insane, and I wanted it to sound insane.' But I was also like, 'As much as I'm fulfilled by this, I don't think the world or music listeners will like this.'"

It was a smash, and their 2018 follow-up, Time & Space, took twice as many risks and achieved twice the payoff, winning over old heads who were skeptical that Nonstop Feeling was a fad and becoming an essential gateway into hardcore for young fans of all stripes. The production was sleeker, the hooks were more plentiful and EDM kingpin Diplo even made an appearance on one track. It had all the trappings to be cynically read as a sophomore sellout by spiteful OGs, but the pile-ons never came. The songs were so undeniably good that prior fans could only double down on their excitement, and Turnstile's eagerness to spread into non-hardcore territories didn't come at the expense of their home court advantage. It's a win that the band have yet to fully wrap their heads around.

"I hate patting ourselves on the back, but Diplo was on Time & Space," Lyons says with an air of disbelief. "That's so hard to me. He basically had a guitar solo with a keyboard on the record and I haven't thought about it in a year and a half. I forgot that that shit is so amazing."


At this point, it's not unreasonable to question whether they're wielding black magic, because Glow On is another, even more glorious slam dunk. It crosses the half-hour threshold by packing 15 songs into a busy 34 minutes, and the whole thing is rife with radical creative choices — oodles of analog synths, colorful auxiliary percussion, triumphant melodies, multiple features from R&B visionary Blood Orange and a palpable influence from dance and funk music. The most punk song on the record, "T.L.C. (Turnstile Love Connection)" imagines a mystical club collab between H.R. and Sly Stone, flipping the Family's "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)" into a Bad Brains-y jaunt that trails off with a pulsing house beat. For as radiantly fresh as that and every other ambitious play on Glow On are, all of the songs sound like Turnstile.

"[We were] exploring different things that, in the past, maybe we didn't have the time to explore," Yates says of the album's creation. "Or maybe seemed a little uncomfortable to explore."

All of that musical journeying went down in rural Tennessee, where the band decamped to record with big-wig producer Mike Elizondo over six spacious weeks in the summer of 2020. "It was like the sickest summer camp," Franz warmly recalls. "With bonfires and music all of the time. There was plenty of land, plenty of space for everybody." By the time the band arrived, the songs were already in well-developed demo form and the exact tracklist was even locked in, but taking their time working with the veteran Elizondo — whose resume stretches from Eminem to Mastodon — allowed the band to patiently consider each and every idea that landed on the table.

"Mike was such a cool extension of Brendan's brain. He had a plethora of cool analog instruments and pedals," Lyons says, confirming that there are some very old and rare keyboards on the record, but not giving up the specs. "Brendan's excitement was met with Mike's knowledge, and it was like, 'We're about to find some sounds.'"

Although Turnstile are very much a band who make democratic decisions together, and Yates would never publicly define his position as such, Lyons looks to the singer as the band's leader and chief communicator. He also casually praises him as a "genius" at multiple points.

"First off, man has a communications degree," Lyons says. "So, he's very good at learning the lingo and what's going down, whatever scenario, and speaking directly to it in a very calm and full manner. His [creative] process is very gradual, it's a slow build."

He also clarifies that Yates is a superior multi-instrumentalist and uniquely gifted songwriter who fully earns his role behind the reins. "Bro can bang the drum, he can smack the piano, he kills it on the digital things," Lyons says glowingly. "He can just think of everything. Put an idea on paper, take a step back and see the beginning and the end, even if it's just pieces."

The helm may be Yates' position behind the scenes, but that's not his public-facing persona. Most people know him as the leaping shirtless dude onstage — visibly excited but not particularly smiley — who'll generously hand the mic to fans for entire verses at a time. Even within a genre that's premised on putting audiences and artists on the same level, Yates is more of a facilitator at Turnstile shows than a frontman, ensuring that the performance includes as many bodies as the stage will hold while his bandmates play without missing a note.


After nearly a decade of doggedly steering that ship, the pandemic yanked Yates out of his community leadership position and forced him into a year-and-change of isolation. He and his bandmates all live within walking distance of one another in Baltimore, but he estimates that he spent 80 percent of the pandemic in solitude, and that's when he started putting many of Glow On's lyrical ideas onto paper.

"Lockdown and quarantine was a very lonely time for everyone" Yates says. "But on the flip side, it made me appreciate alone time a lot more. And it made me realize how much I benefit from not constantly being socially engaged."

He stubbornly avoids pinning Glow On with any specific lyrical themes or overall narrative, but loneliness is a transparent motif. "Still can't fill the hole you left behind," Yates snaps during the wounded hook of "Fly Again." In the bubbly "Underwater Boi," he's lost "living with a pain he don't know," and in "T.L.C.," he identifies exactly what he's missing: "I want to trust/Less loneliness/A little charm/A constant rush." As if those lines didn't make it obvious enough, the record ends with a song called "Lonely Dezires."

"I think the idea of loneliness is always kind of an intangible thing for me," Yates muses. "Because when you feel those things, it's not like you necessarily know what the answer is or know what you want. ... Like, 'Oh, I'm lonely and I just need a friend.'"

"Sometimes, you could be lonely surrounded by people you love," he adds, unconsciously regurgitating his line, "In a crowd I'm lonely all the time," from the yearning "New Heart Design."

For as joyful and physically uplifting as Turnstile has been from the jump, there's always been an underlying melancholy in Yates' lyrics. The bitterness and anger was more overt on earlier songs like "Death Grip" and "Out of Rage," respectively, but even now, poignancy is a central aspect of the music that frequently gets overshadowed by the optimistic chord progressions and gleeful live shows. That side of his songwriting getting neglected doesn't bother Yates. In fact, he sees the darker parts as a service to the good vibes that he always hopes his music elicits.

"I think even the saddest music, the saddest stuff I could think of, I think at the end of the day, people love it because you can relate to it," Yates says. "It makes you feel good. Maybe it doesn't make you feel joyous and happy, but it makes you feel like you can relate, which gives you a sort of comfort, I guess."


There's that militant philosophy again: feeling good. It informs every artistic decision they make, and it's the only reaction the band wants their listeners to have. So naturally, it's also how they run their business. "We were never really a band that necessarily looks at it like a job," Yates says. "Or looks at [our career in terms of] record cycles."

Glow On is the band's second album on heavy-music powerhouse Roadrunner Records, and with these marquee festival appearances and tours with groups like $uicideboy$ who exist on the precipice of the mainstream, Turnstile have been thrust into an ecosystem that's a lot more complex than thumbing through the door money in the back of a VFW hall. The band are grateful that their label respectfully trusts their judgment, but not falling into the industry's order of operations requires a lot of conscious effort on their parts.

"We turn down great opportunities sometimes just because it doesn't feel right with what we would be excited about and all feel good about it," Yates says. "Other people might be like, 'What? You're crazy.' But I think it's something that keeps us inspired and keeps us excited to make Turnstile music."

He emphasizes that it would be unconscionable to force themselves to make a record when the inspiration wasn't there or do a tour that they weren't entirely stoked on, likening caving to those pressures as going "against nature." Not that they've ever seriously considered it, but they'd rather break up than put any-thing above their own personal happiness.

"I have memories of the last three records that we did and telling a friend, 'Yeah, I think this is probably the last one we're going to do,'" Yates says. "And that's just because there's never an expectation for me. I've never looked at it as, 'Oh, I'm going to do this and then this and then this and then this.' It's kind of just in the moment."

That might be Turnstile's most impressive feat. Despite the scope of their crowds and their trophy shelves of achievements, they've never strayed from the hardcore mentality of treating every show like it's the last. They've never stopped chasing that nonstop feeling, and it's that very humble, head-to-the-ground ethos that have lifted them to atmospheric heights. They couldn't be more excited for what the next show has in store, but if it ended up being their last, they'd walk out grinning from ear to ear.


"Any song that I play with them could be the last song," Lyons says without a hint of sorrow. "Because every single time I plug in my instrument — practice, soundcheck, playing a show — is the most fun I've had playing my instrument. So, if that time was the last time we ever played, I'd be all right."

"All this stuff could be gone today, right now," he adds. "You just got to be able to be happy to have it one more time."

To quote the aforementioned "No Surprise," the only song on the record that Lyons sings in its entirety: "You never feel it 'til you die from it."