Playground for the Perplexed
EZRA FURMAN. PHOTO COURTESY OF CANTWELL FAULKNER MUCKENFUSS IV.
Clad in a red dress and pearl necklace, musician Ezra Furman recently made his television debut on the U.K. show Later with Jools Holland. “Death is my former employer/Death is my own Tom Sawyer,” Furman proclaimed in a burst of cathartic release, while backed by his band The Boyfriends. Last month, Furman performed throughout Europe (continuing to don his eccentric wardrobe) and released his third LP, but today marks his tour’s arrival in the United States with a show at Rough Trade in Brooklyn.
Perpetual Motion People showcases an increased confidence and willingness to explore various sonic directions—a shift from his quietly received 2012 debut and 2013’s Day of the Dog. Furman’s first albums posses a rhythmic soul and energy along the lines of The Velvet Underground and The Modern Lovers, but his recent release veers from blues-tinged tracks to punk-rock dizziness to doo-wop rock ‘n’ roll, with each track retaining a certain fluidity.
On “Lousy Connection,” Furman sings, “It’s late at night/It’s time to tell you my secrets/My personalities cut up into pieces.” Like a friend on a late night drive, Furman explains his personality’s contradicting pieces—manic, joyful, and otherwise—and how they helped him shift from a state of self-consciousness to confidence. He addresses the unstable feelings and reminds us that we are constantly in motion, always transforming.
Shortly before his Brooklyn performance, we spoke with the Chicago-born, Oakland-based musician over the phone.
J.L. SIRISUK: Have you been on the road all day?
EZRA FURMAN: I got up, picked up a few people, and now we’re driving to The Port Eliot Festival in Cornwall. Right now I’m literally climbing over a fence in a field in Suffolk, just drinking and smoking and giving thanks to the god of heaven and earth.
SIRISUK: How do you feel about the tour so far?
FURMAN: It’s been amusing. I don’t have the same hunger for total world domination that I used to have; now it’s funny that a bunch of people care about my band. It went past the point of the desperation to succeed, and as I went past that point, I got a little attention and success. I mean that’s how it goes—once you stop trying so hard, that’s when that success arrives.
SIRISUK: When you sing “Death is my former employer,” it’s a big middle finger to any previous self-consciousness. When did you stop caring about world domination?
FURMAN: I used to care a lot. Then when that album Day of the Dog came out, nobody was interested. We did a tour in America and nobody came to our shows. I was like, “Okay, it’s over. I don’t care anymore because I failed. It failed.” So I was going to quit, and right as I decided “I’m gonna quit,” that’s when I started to hear about five star Guardian reviews and lots of radio play in the U.K. I went past the point of caring and that’s when things started to look up.
SIRISUK: There are certain albums that people consistently go back and listen to. Is there an album that has stayed with you?
FURMAN: It might be Blonde on Blonde by Bob Dylan because I heard that when I was 13. It was one of those things where it was like, “Hey, the world is much bigger than you imagined as a little kid.” There’s a sense on that album that it’s sort of encompassing a whole world with all these strange characters and little towns and themes—like a bigger life than I had imagined for myself.
SIRISUK: Were you already playing music at that time?
FURMAN: I was pretty much into punk rock and that’s all I cared about. I was into Green Day and the Ramones. I wanted to get a guitar so I could play punk songs because this kid taught me power chords at summer camp. He was like, “You could play all punk songs if you just learn this chord and just move it around on the guitar.” So I was like, “Okay, I need a guitar.” Then my parents said, “Listen, if you’re gonna get a guitar, get an acoustic guitar. And you’re gonna have to learn some songs that we like, so here’s a book of Bob Dylan songs. Learn some of these.”
I was like, “Who the hell is Bob Dylan?” I was going to learn one song to appease my mom and alphabetically the first song in the book was “Absolutely Sweet Marie.” When I heard it, it was like “Oh, there is something going on here. It’s not like my parents’ boring music that I don’t care about. This is totally electrifying.” Then I thought, “Maybe I don’t want to start a punk band necessarily. I just want to learn to be a great songwriter,” and got really into trying to figure out how that could be possible. [laughs]
SIRISUK: What can you tell me about your experience writing Perpetual Motion People?
FURMAN: I write all the time and I try to think of ideas all the time. I’ve got a little notebook or memos for myself on my phone of phrases that I think of. I think most of the work of songwriting is thinking of great phrases—I’m addicted, always on the hunt for a really great phrase.
SIRISUK: Are there any phrases that you kind of surprised yourself with? Or a favorite phrase?
FURMAN: I’m still partial to that one in the song “Tip of the Match:” “I sold my body so my brain could eat.” [laughs] It sort of surprised me because that was a song I had almost finished a long time ago. I had it around for six years or something and I was like, “Oh, I’ll never finish it. It’s not real good.” Then I came up with the ending for it. Actually, I hadn’t looked at or thought about it for six years, then I came back to it and it was like “Oh, wow. I wrote that.”
SIRISUK: A lot of people think of recklessness and breaking rules when they think of rock ‘n’ roll. You’ve mentioned the Bible and I know spirituality is important to you. How do you merge those in your life?
FURMAN: Implicit in your question is some kind of death that has happened for both religion and rock ‘n’ roll. The fact that there’s a dichotomy, that one is structured and one is wild, it’s sort of the first thought we have in the collective unconscious about each of those things. But I’m certainly not interested in religion for religion’s sake or for some kind of structure or stabilizing force. Religion is supposed to be for God’s sake and God is an unpredictable, wild thing.
If you get into really learning about the roots of monotheism, it was utterly a radical cultural moment. The Bible was so revolutionary and against all that came before it. It was a force for siding with the oppressed and a rebellion against hierarchical, ancient societies. Now it’s institutionalized and all the life has been sucked out of it. Same thing happened to rock ‘n’ roll, too. For me, it’s an attempt at transcendence. What really is wild about rock ‘n’ roll? Nothing. It’s so banal and so part of corporate culture. It threatens to lose all its life. I think its essence is what made it good and has a lot in common with what originally made monotheism good—it’s against everything that is fixed, all the social structures that you can’t go past. Both religion and rock ‘n’ roll were meant to transcend things that oppress us and hold us in place.
SIRISUK: Did you feel the songs changing when you went into the studio with The Boyfriends to record the album?
FURMAN: Most of them we didn’t figure out before we went into the studio. That was a lot of fun, a lot of discovery happening in making this record, more so than the last one. The last one I kind of entered the studio with the concept of what I wanted to make, and maybe that produced a more pure record. But this one is more adventurous and less pure… Or even a little bit more ridiculous or strange. This is sort of a weirder record than its predecessor, which I feel good about.
SIRISUK: I like that your website is a guide for the perplexed and people can actually send you questions. Are you perplexed about anything right now?
FURMAN: That’s my whole life. Why is anything the way it is? I’m in a constant state of bafflement at a lot of things. You wonder at the very existence of the world and the beauty of it. And this other perplexed-ness of “Why are people so terrible?” I’m perplexed by it and I don’t know that much. I’m an amateur at music and an amateur at most things. I like the idea of offering some music and some records and a website to people who feel perplexed.
SIRISUK: I know Lou Reed is important to you. I’d like to hear about the first time you ever listened to The Velvet Underground.
FURMAN: The first Velvet Underground record that I listened to was Loaded, which was nothing really spectacular or innovative. It was kind of like Rolling Stone-ish traditional rock ‘n’ roll, but Lou Reed’s performance, songwriting, and word choice suggests such freedom. “Sweet Jane” is the clearest example. There are no rules for him as a vocalist; he talks and yelps and emotes his way through these lyrics with no consistent meter. He just skates his way through like an unrestrained wild thing. You get the sense, in that song, that he could sing it forever, that he could write a thousand versus. He’s just created this playground where he can say anything and I think that’s what I have my sights set on: making that world where anything can be said because I was in a world where I couldn’t say anything.
I had so many secrets and so much social repression throughout my life. I guess I’m just a shy person and feel like my true self is unacceptable to most people. I think I gravitate towards rock ‘n’ roll as a playground where I can say anything.
SIRISUK: Do you still feel a bit shy or do you feel with each album that you can express yourself more fully?
FURMAN: On the albums I feel more and more free, more and more powerful and unrestrained. I still feel pretty shy and anxious in my social life but I’m trying to shake that, I’m trying to get better. I’ve tried to stop lying. I’m a champion liar. I’m trying to break that habit.
SIRISUK: What are you most looking forward to when you get back home and you can relax?
FURMAN: I want to go to the diner and have breakfast with some of my closest friends who live nearby. That’s the first thing that comes to mind. I called some friends the other day and they were all hanging out at this diner having breakfast. I was so jealous.
EZRA FURMAN AND THE BOYFRIENDS ARE PERFORMING AT ROUGH TRADE IN BROOKLYN TONIGHT, AUGUST 5. FOR MORE ON EZRA, VISIT HIS WEBSITE.