Catching Up With Ezra FurmanPhotos by Elizabeth Herman Music Features Ezra Furman
It was high time we caught up with Ezra Furman. Between leaving his band, the Harpoons, moving across the country and putting out two excellent records this year (The Year of No Returning and Day of the Dog), there was a lot that we were overdue for a chat about. Furman gave us a ring from a truck stop on the way to a gig recently to discuss the new albums, flying solo and his encounter with Lou Reed. Check out our conversation below, as well as the exclusive premiere of Furman’s new video for “I Wanna Destroy Myself.”
Paste: Well, a lot has happened with you since we last spoke, most obviously that you went solo. Can you tell me a little bit about what was behind that decision?
Ezra Furman: Yeah, let me think about that. I guess there’s the normal lead singer’s lust for power and control, which I was not immune to. But I think moreso than that, my band, they went on to begin to do other greater things with their lives than just hang around in bars and play music, you know? And I feel like the Harpoons had a good run, and I was looking to make a different kind of record in a different way. I was also living in a house in Chicago where there’s a studio on the top floor, and it was just up there and my friend ran it and I just kept wanting to go in there. So the first solo album, I just went up there and did a lot of tinkering, you know? And it was a very solitary thing, me and the producer/engineer/recorder guy, Tim, who is now in my new band.
Paste: And you’re based in Oakland now, is that right?
Furman: Yeah. I’m actually moving back to Chicago. But yes, I was in the Bay Area for…well, it’ll be over two years by the time I go back to Chicago.
Paste: And what’s the reason for moving back to Chicago?
Furman: Well, I made a few stabs at forming a band, and the one I really clicked with and made good music with and got along with the best was the one I found in Chicago. Because I was playing with people in the Bay Area, and that was really fun. I met a lot of really good musicians. But something just fell beautifully into place with these Chicagoland cats. That’s who I’m driving around with right now on tour. I wanna be around them, you know? And this is a time in my life where I’m playing music full-time pretty much, and I want to be near the people I most want to play music with. Also Chicago’s just kind of like my town, you know. I feel very at home there, and I’ve got more connections there. The San Francisco Bay Area is too beautiful a place for a Midwestern nut like myself.
Paste: Well, that was actually going to be my next question: does the place where you’re living get into your music at all? Does your setting influence your writing at all?
Furman: I would say generally no, but the big exception to that is I wrote the song called “Day of the Dog” after going to the rallies for Occupy Oakland after the cops were severely beating people up and gassing them, and that song “Day of the Dog” was directly influenced by being there and by all the world rising up like vomit—actually, that one’s from a different song. [laughs] But I guess that mood in America got me writing some more dissatisfied protest rock and roll. But I might have caught wind of that mood no matter where I was, you know? It was happening all over.
Paste: The Year of No Returning is sort of your protest album, and you’ve described Day of the Dog as being about longing more than anything else. Would you say it’s sort of a natural progression from the first one?
Furman: Yeah. It was the sequel. Yeah, I guess Year of No Returning was starting to be protest, but it was really more of just complaints and dissociation and all these reactions to a sick society. That’s a chronicle of the various sicknesses, that album. And the new one is more like “I don’t want to be sick anymore. Something must change.” Very close thematically, but with a different flavor. It’s a little more proactive. It’s less passive, this one, I think.
Paste: It seems like both albums, despite being solo albums, are sonically a lot fuller than some of your previous work, with horns and different instrumentation.
Furman: Well if the band is a lot less set in their roles, you can put anything on any track. I guess that’s the thing that’s freeing. I think the Harpoons were open-minded and adventurous, as was I. There’s a tendency to be like, “Well, it’s so great to be in this rock and roll band. We all play our instruments and everyone just ends up doing their role.” The clarinet doesn’t get played because we’re focusing on our roles. I’m glad I’ve gone solo and it’s just under my name, whether it’s a band with me or not. I like the freedom. I don’t want to have to sound like anything. I want the freedom of Paul Simon or Patti Smith.
Paste: You’ve always been really prolific, putting out almost an album a year and obviously two in the same year this year. Are you already working on an album for next year, or are you gonna take a little bit of a breather after this tour?
Furman: I always am working. I’m always working on my work. That’s my job. My job as a songwriter is to write songs, in my mind. And the business aspect of if and how they get released, it’s an afterthought. I mean, it’s not primary. So I haven’t planned what’s gonna happen with what I’m working on very slowly now, but I’m sure I’ll think of something.
Paste: At what point in your process then do you sort of say, “Well, wait a second, I’ve got an album here”?
Furman: I’m not sure I’ve ever been asked this question, or even thought about it very hard. What makes the album? I think I just start to feel like recording it, you know? I mean, I feel like if you forced me to, I could make a pretty good album right now in a couple days. And there’s that draw towards doing that, and there’s a fear of doing that, and then the desire to do it eventually gets stronger. Every time I think about it, I want to do it a little bit more. And then finally I’m just like, “I can’t keep waiting. I definitely have enough to make it real good.” I think Day of the Dog is—you know, I went on tour twice with this band, The Boy-Friends, and I don’t know, I couldn’t wait any longer. I just think this band is so good. And then the record label wanted to sign me when they saw us play in New York, so I got right on it because I knew somebody wanted one from me.
Paste: Let’s switch gears for a little bit and talk about Lou Reed. Because with his recent passing, everyone’s remembering the huge influence he had, and I’m sure he was a really big influence of yours. And I read on your blog post about him that you actually met him at SXSW a few years ago. Can you tell me a little about that?
Furman: Yes. I was shocked that I got to meet Lou Reed. But it was the first time I went to SXSW, and just via having a friend of a friend who was putting together this party that was being thrown in Lou Reed’s honor—because Lou Reed was the keynote speaker at SXSW in ’08, and there was a guy putting it together and he happened to be a fan of our band, of our band’s just pretty recently released first album. And he just invited us to come play there, so there were a bunch of bands and each band was playing two Lou Reed covers, and then Lou Reed performed at the end of the afternoon. So me and my band learned to play the Velvet Underground song “New Age,” and then I for years have been playing “Heroin” on an acoustic guitar, so I did that, and then Lou Reed was there and he watched the whole show, every band. And he was like snapping pictures, and he talked to me afterwards and gave me compliments and he said that he hoped I wasn’t doing heroin and I said that I wasn’t. I don’t know, I was just melting into a puddle of liquid. We only talked for a couple of minutes, and it was still a brush not only with greatness, but with a particular greatness that meant a lot to me, you know? Lou Reed and the way he sang kind of opened the door wider than it had been opened for me to enter into the rock and roll life, to enter the world of being a singer and a rhythm guitar player. His influence on me is hard to put into words because it launched all of that. It was a transcendent moment to hear the Velvet Underground in high school.
Paste: Do you have a favorite Velvet Underground record? I know it’s pretty impossible to choose…
Furman: You know, it’s not. It’s not a very popular choice—well, I don’t know what’s popular—but I love Loaded. It’s the one. I don’t know, I guess because it brought together something very traditional or accessible with this perspective of such weirdness and such freedom, you know? I mean, the first record was also a towering event in my life, but Loaded was the most, the fusion of these two things. The rules and the freedom. The weirdness and the simplicity. Something about its mood just gets me.
Paste: Is that something you hope people get out of your music as well? I know you have that mission statement on your site where you say “give this album to someone who needs it—don’t ask them to buy it, just give it to them.” It seems like it’s really important for you to reach people through your music.
Furman: Yeah. I think there are just particular people at particular times in their lives who for some reason need certain records or benefit greatly from hearing certain perspectives. I know there’s one every year for me that’s sort of a lifesaver. A life raft. And I cling to these records. But that’s the highest purpose in my mind that a record can serve, reach the right person who’s hungry for it to cling to it or live in it for a little bit. And it’s a lofty goal, and I don’t dare to comment on whether or how often I’ve achieved it, and I’ll never really know if and what it meant to people. But that’s the work, the toiling in the darkness of making records for people to love.
Paste: Well, you talked earlier about how this new record is more proactive and addresses how something must be done. Do you see that theme recurring throughout the new material you’re working on?
Furman: Ahh, you’re asking if it’s a trilogy. [laughs] Well, I was hoping actually it would be a trilogy, but we have to see what comes into focus. I can’t hurt these songs too much. They’re free things. They want to be what they want to be. If you force them into a little kennel, they might atrophy. So I’m wary of the concept album. Don’t want to push too hard on that. But longing has been one of my major concerns as a songwriter in general. Longing for freedom, dissatisfaction with myself and the world. What I just hope to do is the most valuable, the most interesting thing I could possibly do. We’ll see what that is. It’d be kind of nice and satisfying, it would be aesthetically satisfying, to have it be a trilogy. And then I feel like the Harpoons records form a trilogy, so maybe I could have a trilogy of trilogies. And then I could be a very pretty little career. But you know, life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans, so we’ll see what life offers me.