Ezra Furman is a talker.
It’s 3 p.m., and he’s sleepy after a video shoot that ran long, yet he’s still rattling off phrases like “untouchable figures of glory”—the kind of meaty soundbite quote-hungry rock journalists crave.
It should come as no surprise to anyone who’s heard his music. The words have always come first in the Chicago songwriter’s career, and Mysterious Power, his third studio album with The Harpoons, is no different in that regard.
“There are great bands that were more interested in having a sound, but I just always wanted this band to be about the songs, giving them the spotlight and not worrying about band aesthetic,” he says. “We’re not The Ramones. They clearly had a whole package they were going for.”
There may be a lack of packaging, but what hold the seemingly mismatched pieces of Mysterious Power together are Furman’s voice and the stories it tells. On “Teenage Wasteland,” Furman plays to the adolescent in all of us, wailing, “I can’t tell what I am gonna do next, ’cause I always do whatever I feel.” Depending on how you listen to it, it’s a self-aware ode to youth culture (“the title’s a play on The Who’s ‘Baba O’Riley,’ because you know there’s no actual song called ‘Teenage Wasteland,’” he explains) or a mission statement from an artist who fancies himself an amateur. Or a little bit of both.
“Well, I was a teenager for a long time,” he laughs. “It kind of stuck with me. [‘Teenage Wasteland’] is a song about being a screw-up as a badge of honor, as a statement of purpose. I was inspired by that early punk music—bands being proud of the fact they can’t play, proud of being social burn-outs. People need that kind of song to survive their teenaged years. I know I did.”
It might seem odd, then, that the track appears on the band’s most polished record to date. Furman’s delightfully raw, nasal yelps will still draw Gordon Gano comparisons, but the band plays tighter, thanks to some extended studio time.
“The first album, I just purely didn’t care,” Furman says. “The next album, I did, but we didn’t have a bunch of time to record it, so it was just plug in and play. Finally on this one, we had the time to sit down and go through a few takes.”
Fresh off a run of shows in Germany, Austria and the UK, it’s clear Furman is no longer just a kid with a hobby. However, he insists that success isn’t something his DIY ideology needs to be reconciled with.
“I still can’t play like Eric Clapton, or even play a guitar solo, really,” he says. “This [record] is maybe a bit more together, but the real important thing about being an amateur isn’t whether or not you can play; it’s if [people] can relate to it. I’ve never cared about long guitar solos or chasing untouchable figures of glory. I just want to be relatable.”
Furman isn’t interested in becoming a superstar. He admits to being overwhelmed by “all the people handing you business cards and shaking your hand” that he encountered at SXSW back in March, and as he continues to gain prominence in an industry so often dominated by image, he’s got no plans for posturing.
“Looking cool is like the most boring thing ever,” he groans. “I’m not going to hustle for someone’s attention. A smart person’s gonna get frustrated at times with show business.”
“For example,” he continues, “I think it’s cool to be unpretentious, but then you get into this thing where you’ve got to prove just how unpretentious you are, which totally contradicts what you were originally going for.”
On “Too Strung Out,” Furman declares, “I’m not one of those guys that you see in most bands because I hate everyone and I don’t want any fans.” It might be a slight exaggeration—“It’s not something I endorse, but I’ve definitely felt exactly that way at times,” he says—but it’s obvious he knows he doesn’t need to sell records to reach people.
“Music is like a search for love, you know?” he asks. “To me, to get the most out of music, you’ve got to put some work into it. A lot of bands aren’t really looking for success. A real music fan owes it to herself to dig.”
He’s done some digging of his own, and it’s why you’ll hear a mixed bag of influences on Mysterious Power, including everything from doo-wop to folk to blues. A firm believer in letting each song stand on its own, Furman most likely won’t be churning out a dense concept album any time soon.
“The whole record is so hopeful and starry-eyed and nihilistic at the same time,” he says. “Human beings are messy, and that’s led us to make some messy records.”
Fans might have some more messiness to look forward to in the near future; Furman is constantly writing (early in his career, he assigned himself a regimen of one song a week), and he’s got plenty more stories to tell. He’s not a superstar, but like anyone blessed with the gift of gab, he’s finding a way to be heard.
“I’m hoping we can get going on the next one, jumping right in,” he says. “I think we’re still talking to the audience.”