has been a busy man.
The Chicago songwriter and his band of renegades, The Harpoons, are back on their home turf taking a much-needed break after two straight years of touring. Somewhere in between gigs, Furman and company found the time to release Moon Face (which featured personalized tracks for fans who pre-ordered the album online) and record a follow-up to 2008’s Inside the Human Body over the summer. Paste caught up with the singer to discuss personal connections, identity crises, and why The Replacements are the best band ever.
: Let’s talk about Moon Face and the personalized songs on it. What was the inspiration for doing that?
Furman: I’ve got a lot of weird attitudes about music, like just feeling like it should feel like it’s super personal, and I just feel that all these albums that I love, I just have this complete suspension of disbelief where I kind of think it was somehow made just for me or like somebody’s really kind of talking to me through the record, you know? The truth of it is, what I’ve discovered—well, I don’t know, that’s how I want my music to feel, you know? Individualized. We got done being on the record label we were on, Minty Fresh, because our contract was up, and it was just like, “Well, we could do anything!” I could literally write songs that are just for one person and address people. I worry about it becoming disposable, you know, or impersonal. I’m just into the personal connections. The other thing is, I was just writing a song every week or more, and I was like, “Well I could write a song about pretty much anything! I’ve just done this so much, it’s such a compulsive habit, that I can’t even think of like what would be a worthy thing to write about anymore.” So it kind of came from writer’s block. If somebody actually asked me to write a song about something, well that would definitely be a worthwhile thing to write about.
: So how many of those did you end up recording?
Furman: I did exactly 129, and I’m in the hole. I didn’t finish. I didn’t finish because it took too long, and somehow I got super interested in writing again, and then I started writing a bunch of songs that’ll be on a later album, and I just felt like I couldn’t do it anymore. I started sending people refunds or free tickets to shows. I’m gonna have a show for all the people that I didn’t end up writing their requested song, I’m gonna invite them over to my house so I can play them a concert in honor of my failure.
: What can you tell me about the new album you’re working on?
Furman: Well, the truth is, it’s completely finished and done. We recorded it at the beginning of the summer, and the thing is, we don’t have a record label anymore, and we’re showing people the album and saying, “This is what you’re gonna put out if you sign us, and do you want it?” and they’re like, “Well, we’re very interested.” So it’s kinda like all in the works of what label we’re gonna sign to. I guess the detail about it that I’m most excited about is that it’s way better than our previous album, like way better if you ask me.
: What do you think makes it better?
Furman: Well, we hadn’t fully integrated our guitar player Andrew Langer when we made our last record. He kinda just played on a few songs when our guitar player quit shortly before we recorded the album, so this is kind of our first album as the band that we now are. The other thing is, I did a thing on our first albums, writing the songs, where I feel like I tried to put my entire life, my entire worldview into each song, and it’s all these emotions like mashed together. There’s anger and joy, anxiety, sadness and love, and I kind of decided to focus it, to make these focused emotional blasts, and I think it works a lot better. The dark ones are darker. The happy ones are just floating on air.
: I read an interview with you where you said you name all your shows. What would you say is the best show or your favorite show that you’ve ever done?
Furman: The best show at all? Ever? Wow. Man…
: Or you can give me like a top three if you can’t narrow it down.
Furman: Well maybe the reason I started naming them is that they’re so…if you play so many shows in a row, it’s like they’re so good, and then they just disappear into nothing, and as soon as you’re done, you honestly forget about it. A great show, it’s just the greatest feeling, and then you just play another one the next night. I don’t want them to be disposable, so I want to somehow document them, but anyway, right now I’m gonna say that our best show ever was the last show that we played with Delta Spirit this summer, in Washington, D.C. at the 9:30 Club. Maybe I’m just thinking it was the best Delta Spirit show I ever saw. They were really great. I mean, like really, they killed me. That was a good one. I mean, one of the largest crowds we ever played for, but it felt like I was like looking people in the eye, talking to people right in the front row.
: Do you feed off of that personal connection at shows?
Furman: I do, I do. I’m sure a lot of bands probably see the crowd as like its own thing, like a moving, mysterious mass they’re playing with, you know? But I try to look at one person as if they’re the only person in the room. I’m just compulsively into like finding the little drop of sweetness, humanizing the whole enterprise. In a big crowd, sometimes I get freaked out and feel like I’m disappearing or something or wish they’d wait like one second to let me take a deep breath and stop saying stuff like “Are you ready?” I don’t know. “How are you doing?” And like, I can’t answer. Everyone’s gonna cheer no matter what. So I try not to ask the crowd as a whole how they’re doing.
: I know that you write some poetry. Is your writing process for poems any different than when you’re writing a song, or do you take pretty much the same approach?
Furman: Yeah, I mean I don’t know anything about either one, really, except that I’ve listened to a lot of songs and I’ve read a lot of poems. I guess I approach it all from a place of “I don’t know anything about this, I don’t know the subtleties, I just know what I like.” I know what I would want it to be if I was the audience right now. I’ve got some kind of sense of what moves me. It’s kind of a similar process, because it’s usually this gut instinct kind of thing where I’ve got most of it instantly in the first five minutes, you know? I guess there’s a stream-of-consciousness element to both of them for me. I just find myself in a place where I feel like, “I can start right now, I can go.” I bet it’s way like if you know more about poetry or music than I do, you’re not such an amateur, then you could break it down and find a lot of serious flaws. But I appreciate when writers write to me like I’m an amateur, like I’m no virtuoso, you know? I’m not impressed by virtuosity usually, and I’d rather act like an amateur.
: So would you say that your songs are like poems set to music, or do you sit down and say “I’m gonna write a poem,” or “This one’s gonna be a song”?
Furman: Oh, I would say that the poems are more like songs with the music taken out. It’s kind of by any means necessary. I’ve done it where I wrote all the words first and then put music to it. More often I’m just by myself alone and bored enough to just compulsively start playing on an instrument and start making stuff up, and then one phrase, and it’s like, “There it is! There it is! Now we’re off and running.” I’m addicted to phrases. Which is good for poems and songs, cause it’s all looking for that perfect phrase that’ll stab you in the heart.
: On your blog you’re usually posting songs and things from other artists that you enjoy. Have you been listening to anything good lately? What’s on Ezra Furman’s radar right now?
Furman: Somehow I started this project of working my way backwards through listening to The Replacements, and I just think they’re getting better and better. I’m down to their second album, Hootenanny, and I heard it yesterday for the first time, and it’s like the greatest thing ever! I don’t know what to say. Hootenanny by The Replacements. It’s an album on heavy rotation. Yeah, that band is perfect. I don’t know how I didn’t hear about them till like this year, but I’ve been devouring it…They’re kinda perfect. They’re amateurs with open hearts. I also started seeing that, like my band, I could see how it’s kind of like The Replacements. The Replacements, they were like kind of an underground band, but they didn’t sound so underground. You know, there was like a real poppiness to them, and they didn’t know if they were punks or like a great pop songwriting band. My band is that kind of same identity crisis. I think it’s being both super into wildness and rock and roll energy and simultaneously wanting [the songs] all to be intelligible and heartbreaking, you know? Trying to be both, you get confused.
: So how do you deal with trying to be both?
Furman: I don’t know. The thing is, our records are kind of bipolar. There’s just loud songs right next to soft songs or entirely acoustic guitar and voice songs, you know? It could be a fatal flaw of our band. I’m not sure. But I feel like we never tried to nail down a sound of our band.
: But that could qualify as a sound in itself. Sort of a confused, bipolar sound? That’s it’s own thing, you know?
Furman: Yeah. I agree. And I like records that have very different sounding songs on the same album. This is what happens when you’re raised listening to The White Album. I never got the concept that a band should have its own sound. I just think we do what we have to do for each song, as if it were our only song ever.