Words by: Wesley Hodges | Images by: Duke Street Blog
Athens, GA's Futurebirds are one of the hardest working, best live acts out on the road today, but they aren't traveling to places like Ybor City, FL or Tucson, AZ (a long way from the familiarity of Georgia) because they've established sizable followings in those places. Instead, Futurebirds believe in their product, embrace the chaos of life on the road and share the time-honored notion (along with many of the bands highlighted here on JamBase), that if you book it, they will come. Musically, Futurebirds can be compared with the raw sound of early My Morning Jacket with a nod to the more recent litany of folked-up, reverb-heavy psych-rock out there. But, don't let their haggard appearance or carefree attitudes fool you though - these Birds fly a very unique, peculiar pattern musically.
|Futurebirds by Kevin Kaim|
The high, lonesome twang on the killer opening track "Johnny Utah" on the band's full-length debut Hampton's Lullaby (released July 27 on Autumn Tone) is evidence of a well-read traditional country appreciation, where banjo and pedal steel are essential pieces to the puzzle and not simply added elements. Despite this nod to the past, Futurebirds are markedly forward thinking, and songs like the cinematic, peak-happy "Yur Not Ded" bathe front porch melodies in a psychedelic dreamscape of heavy reverb, lustrous harmonies and soaring guitars of every shape, size and color. The Birds jibe well with the past, but offer a splendid peak into the future of roots rock. With all the pillars in place for success with the support system of a label, the booking expertise of the Progressive Global Agency (who handle Widespread Panic, R.E.M., Dead Confederate and more), and some of the more rabid and vociferous fans around, the Birds are primed and ready to ascend the ranks, building themselves from the bottom up the only way they know how: By playing with reckless intensity whether they're doin it for 3 or 3,000 people.
JamBase recently caught up with two of the guitar birds Thomas Johnson and Carter King on a rare break from the road to talk about Hampton's Lullaby and their experiences headlining a national tour for the first time this year.
JamBase: Before things get too otherworldly, out-of-hand and ridiculous, can you just start by talking about Hampton's Lullaby and how you guys ended up getting set up on Autumn Tone Records and the ultimate recording process?
Carter King: Autumn Tone came along after we had decided to record the album. We paid for it ourselves and ended up doing that anyway. Through the help of our good friend and guiding light Dawson Morris (Dead Confederate's manager) played [Autumn Tone's] Justin Gage our EP, he really liked it and it kind of developed from there. They were really cool about the whole thing, very laid back and not trying to get anything out of us, just trying to help us along.
JamBase: So, you guys got the experience that every new, young band should by self-releasing an album on your own dime before the benefit of a supporting record label came along?
|Futurebirds by Kevin Kaim|
Thomas Johnson: They never really offered any input and didn't pay for it, so they couldn't really have too much say. It's also really cool we get to own the masters, which is a great way to not get fucked. They put a lot of trust in thinking that whatever we did was gonna be cool, and luckily they still think it is. For the album, we went up to [pedal steel] Dennis Love's lake house up at Lake Burton and recorded 20 or something demos of us playing in the bottom floor of his house. [Producer] Drew Vandenburg went up there with us and did all the vocal set-ups. A lot of those were goofy cover songs that we were jammin' on late at night didn't make it but a lot of the stuff that made it onto the record came including the last track on the record "Hampton's Lullaby," which was recorded at about 4 in the morning.
What exactly is "Hamptahn's Lullaby"? Is that an original Futurebirds lullaby? Or is there a story behind the title?
Thomas: It's actually a song that Womack and I wrote about a landlord we had where we lived in this house/ski lodge, which was actually advertised as the "Ski Chalet." So, we wrote this song about this redneck that after everything he would say would end the sentence with, "If ya know what I mean?" The song is pretty much a series of his ridiculous quotes and then, "Ya know what I mean?" and us responding, "We know what you mean!"
There seem to be a lot of stories on this album about the last few years about your final years of college and the first couple years starting up as a band. Without being completely insulting, it's kind of got that unshaven, un-showered, raw feeling that goes with the territory.
Carter: You callin' us unshaven or un-showered?
Thomas: You are treading the line between offensive and not offensive.
Is this sound more of a reflection of your touring hygiene and haggard looks or is it more of a reflection of the personal musical style you're trying to capture?
Carter: [Laughs] Probably a little of both.
What kind of stuff were y'all listening to when you made the record?
Thomas: I dunno. I that was like two months ago!
Carter: I didn't really listen to music until about two months ago [laughs]. Everyone is always listening to a bunch of different stuff and when you're in close quarters with people you try to listen to everyone's music. It was a wide range of different stuff. Then when you get done after a few weeks, you get in your car, go home and you don't want to listen to music for awhile.
Thomas: I would say there's generally a country influence to the things.
Carter: I was really into the inspirational tunes. Those really were there to help me get through the darker times.
"Yur Not Ded" is a standout and may be the least musically emo song ever, but the lyrics have a little bit of a emotional feel in the verses. Tell me where that song came from.
Carter: [Laughs] Definitely the most emo song lyrically. I started thinking about writing the song when we were out on a boat in Jacksonville and we were trying to come back to land. A real dark, powerful, freaky storm raged in, and it was one of those scary moments where you also really feel very alive. It was a great adrenaline rush. It made me think about a lot of people just going through the motions in life, and I guess it's kind of directed towards them.
Just because you walk, doesn't mean that you're not dead
Just because you talk, doesn't mean something's been said
Tell me about the Futurebirds traveling armada. I heard the other day that Lady Gaga rolls with like 23 semi-trucks. Is that similar to what you're working with or is it a little more subdued?
That's definitely what we're going for. But those trucks are really expensive and if you don't have anything to put in them, it doesn't make much sense. We're currently crusin' around in a Yukon XL with a trailer, going six-deep. It gets really cozy in there.
You guys played 24 shows in 30 days last month. Tell me a story from out on the road or just shine some light on that experience playing some of those shows in new cities with some crowds almost wholly unfamiliar with your music.
Carter: I don't wanna incriminate anyone but…the St. Simons show on the Fourth of July was pretty out of the ordinary and ridiculous, and we'll leave it at that. Pretty much every show we played in Florida was distinct and interesting. In general, they don't really get our kind of music down in Florida. Not that they don't get it, they just don't hear a lot of bands like us down there. But, we've gotten a pretty good response everywhere we've gone.
So you're saying that Miami isn't your typical Futurebirds fan base?
Miami was totally different from everything. We played in this swinger's lounge lookin' place with $8 drinks and really modern looking couches (with pillows!). There was a grand piano in the corner, and the stage was in the middle of the room with this polar bear skin rug on top of it. The promoter was a South African dude who loved us more than anyone else. He was really into it and was trying to compliment us. He said, "You guys are like the next Eagles," which was pretty funny. The last three shows of the tour were a nice microcosm of what this tour has been like, with three different venues. New York was packed in with low ceilings; really loud, and nasty and awesome. Charlotte was more like a mid-sized venue and we all went to the Widespread Panic show beforehand. It was sad to drag the bassist B Miles away from it; he was in his element, and it was actually my first Widespread show. After that, we played the tour closer at the Buckhead Theater, which was a bigger, nice, new venue, and we ended up having a great crowd there, too (Carter: "Like a million people"). It was just cool to play three really different types of venues back-to-back-to-back and have good responses and good crowds and feel great about the shows. I think we can adapt to any kind of venue we're given, which is fortunate considering the various kinds of places we're playing right now.
|Futurebirds by Bill Antonucci|
Since it's you're first time playing a lot of these cities in a lot of new clubs, it's gotta be a trial-by-fire each night trying to react to different sounding rooms and new club owners, promoters, etc.
Carter: You don't even know…
Thomas: It's kinda ridiculous the bands we end up playing with on some of these bills. In Indianapolis, we were with a scream-pop band and a ska-soul band. It was a pretty good-sized crowd and at one point during "Ski Chalet" we're raging onstage and I look up and everyone's got their arms crossed and just looked like they were observing some sort of exhibit or something. It was a little confusing.
You guys are kind of like a living, breathing art installation piece.
Carter: I was kind of thinking more like the zoo than the museum but...
Let's talk about the way you guys carry yourselves onstage - kind of like a bunch of reckless banshees on speed. Tell me about the injuries and property damage bills that you guys have racked up out on the road. Does that ding into the profit margins or have you been able to skip town before that became an issue?
Carter: I mean, if you break a stage it's not like they can really do anything. If we break a stage, it's because the stage isn't strong enough. We've incurred more damage upon ourselves than anything. I landed on the corner of Dennis' pedal steel, which left a pretty unsightly gash.
Yeah, the pedal steel, as much as it accents y'all's sound, seems to be more of a liability and dangerous metal object than anything.
Thomas: It's really big and has a lot of sharp, pointed metal. We usually try to put it in a strategic position for maximum safety/separation from the chaos.
When you guys move up the chain a little bit, you can do the Tommy Lee thing and suspend him above the stage.
Thomas: Maybe we can get it so Dennis could play the pedal steel from his basement in Atlanta. He could stay there all day and play a show at night without leaving and still be in a rock and roll band.
How has playing with bands like The Whigs and Dead Confederate and being a band in Athens informed you guys as a band?
Carter: Dead Confederate knows a lot since they've been around the block for a little while and have dealt with the trials and tribulations of a band coming up through the ranks. As far as how we carry ourselves onstage, when you're opening up for Dead Confederate, who is one of the hardest fucking raging bands I've come across, you tend to bring it a lot harder.
|Futurebirds makin' banjo rock by Bill Antonucci|
Thomas: Last time we did a little run of shows with them it was like we'd play an especially good set and they would come out and one up us, and back and forth. We just push each other to get better each night and it makes for a great night for all involved. Those guys are really cool. Sometimes when you don't know a lot of musicians you don't realize that they are just normal people like everybody else. To actually meet the people in Dead Confederate and The Whigs, well, it's nice to see that they're not a bunch of self-absorbed assholes like some people are. They're just good, down-to-earth people who like to play music.
Carter: You'll see these people in passing at night and we'll go drink and hang out. So, we're especially looking forward to any shows with Dead Confederate. Needless to say, the opportunity to go out on the road and play and hang out with our friends again will be awesome.
Let's talk about the recent headlining tour to spread the word about Hampton's Lullaby. The songs have that sort of "new car smell," where they still feel fresh to play. How's that different then when you guys were touring before the record came out?
Carter: It was only really the last few shows where the album was officially out, but we started selling them on the road as soon as we got them. Actually the night we released the album was kind of funny. It was a perfect storm (and Thomas' birthday to boot). We were playing in Philly with a local band and they told us when we got there, "We've just been playing around here so much that we didn't promote the show at all." Ariel Pink was playing a sold-out show two blocks down and it pretty much left us playing a show to a handful of shadows in a nasty club.
Thomas: It's hilarious though, because we ended up filming a promo video with a guy that approached us in Philly about doing it and it turned out pretty comical. We played a really weird, kinda funny set.
Well, I guess the crowd at the show I made it out for on St. Simons Island for the 4th of July was a little more ahead of the curve. It seemed like half the crowd up front knew all the words already, and this was three weeks before the release date.
Carter: We weren't very intense about keeping the album in our inner circle. We wanted to obviously sell CDs but it definitely benefits us more to have our friends who knew about it and wanting to tell their friends about it and create a buzz. When you play a show and people know the words, it's never a bad feeling, no matter the circumstances. We played a show way back when opening for Dr. Dog at Tasty World and there was a kid in front trying to sing along without knowing the words. We were playing a song off the EP that we had written like hours earlier. It was one of those things where he was trying to pick up stray words and then mumbling along the rest.
Futurebirds from lsureveille fall 2010 on Vimeo.
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