Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Interview: Ezra Furman

By Andrew Hertzberg

Ezra Furman is one of the unfortunately often forgot indie musicians of our day. Maybe because he started making waves around the same time as Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and it was easy to compare his unconventional vocals to CYHSY's Alec Ounsworth's. But unlike them, Furman has continued to mature with each recording, growing equal parts more refined and primal. He and fellow Harpoons released Mysterious Power earlier this year, which nabbed a number two spot from the Sun-Times for the best of 2011. Now, Furman has a solo album: The Year of No Returning is ready for release on February 7th, 2012. The Evanston native now calls San Francisco home, but let's not hold it against him. The opportunity to go solo shows how consistent he is making stellar recordings, his gut-spilling yelp still in tact. Take a listen to the album's first track "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" here, and catch him live with the Harpoons at the Hideout this Thursday, December 29 and solo at SPACE on Friday, December 30. Read more to see what Ezra had to say about going solo, moving west and starting fights. 

WCR: The new album that you have coming out was recorded in the attic of your apartment at Montrose and Damen. Why did you choose that environment as opposed to a studio or somewhere more conventional to record in?

Ezra: Well, it is a studio. I was living in this house full of musicians and weirdos and outlaws and stuff. And the top floor was a recording studio. It was just there, it was there and I was living there for months, went on tour and came back and it was still there and it was just calling my name, you know? I probably wouldn’t have even made the album if the studio wasn’t there. Well, maybe I would have. The house really birthed the album in a way, living in this house. I started writing most of the songs while living there. I moved into this house that musicians lived in, had a studio on the top floor, a live venue on the basement floor and I just started feeling differently about what to do with music. And it culminated into going up the attic and making an album. 

Since Mysterious Powers was released only less than a year ago, how would you say the new album differs from that?

All the albums I’ve put out so far, I consider them rock and roll affairs...part of the goal was to capture the joy of playing in a rock and roll band where everyone’s playing together, having a good time. The new one is made in a lot more contemplative way. It’s built every track from the ground up, kind of. I was doing it alone without any outside help, except Tim [Sandusky] who was recording with me, the producer and engineer; there was not much input from anyone else. Rather than the rock and roll collaborative version of a musician, I was like the creative guy just kind of tinkering.

Is this your first foray into an entirely solo thing?

Yeah. Well, since the band has existed. I used to make some recordings before I was in the band. It’s so great to be in a band. It’s so fun for us, for me, to play live shows, and we want to make our records like our shows in a lot of ways. And that was always distracting us from getting down to the…I mean, you can hear it on some of the tracks we’ve made that we also have this drive to make…well, not softer music, but something that’s sort of less off the cuff and more composed and more contemplative. I don’t want to give the impression that the new album is all soft and stuff. It’s just made differently, where you can hear every instrument when it comes in.
I wanted to get into that next. You wrote these new songs after starting fights with strangers at bars. How exactly did that inspire you to write?

I’m a little shy on that matter actually. But yeah, it was a fight a song. This is where it starts to get sort of strange and mysterious and I’m not able to understand what's happening when I write a song…with maybe some exceptions, they’re not really songs about fighting. It was just this thing where…I don’t know, I think that writing songs you have to engage with what’s your idea of yourself as a musician and as a person, you know, and you start to get bored with yourself. I don’t know, there’s something about that fighting that was like a waking up kind of thing [laughs]. I don’t know, it’s strange, a song sort of stood up after each fight. 

How often are you Jekyll and how often are you Hyde?

[laughs] I don’t know, the thing about that story is neither of those characters are really…you think of it as good and evil, and I guess it is, but it seems more about "normality" vs. "non-normality." While writing this album I started to feel less "normal" at some point. I don’t know if I can answer that question. 

In that sense, you recently moved to San Francisco. Any particular reason?

You know, you can’t move much further west than San Francisco.…I think it was an echo of manifest destiny still bouncing around that I got a hold of just to go as far west as possible. Strange forces pulled me to San Francisco. Also, "normal" life outside of music distracted us as a band from being a band. There’s various band members who’ve got different things coming up and sort of, I won’t say totally unfortunately, but by a turn of events there was no…I wasn’t leaving anyone in the woods by leaving Chicago. We took a break as a band, sort of an indefinite break, that might just stop at any point. We might just get together at any point and go on tour or make an album. 

What do you think about the music scene in San Francisco?

I don’t know, there’s a lot of bands I like in San Francisco but I haven’t met them. But I have met some nice, really cool, good musicians who are interested, who are engaged, I guess is what I mean. I don’t have that much to say about it. I like San Francisco. I like to walk around--everything’s a little bit fancy and a little bit dingy, kind of like New York without a certain East Coast bad feeling that I remember. That may have all come from just me. It just feels different. It feels like a different country. You should need a passport to go really. 

Any favorite Chicago memories, music related or otherwise?

I used to really like going to the Hideout Tuesday nights for that bluegrass band, Devil in the Woodpile. There was a time I think I was going to every week. I don’t know, I don’t remember all far back in the Jekyll past. I have a buddy I like to walk around with. We’d have good times just walking all over the city. Like walk from Wrigleyville to the South Side. A loooooong walk. I’m not good with cities, though. I’m not good with Chicago. Whenever someone comes here and asks “What should I do in Chicago?” I say go to some second-hand record shop or something.

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