Ezra Furman Talks ‘Transangelic Exodus’
Narratives drive everyday life. They feed our desires and intentions. They, ultimately, act as the framework through which we behave. For Ezra Furman, never has the narrative been so essential. With the release of Transangelic Exodus (out February 9 on Bella Union), Ezra Furman has cemented the necessary steps for personal assessment and cultural progress.
When Ezra Furman’s first three albums (with the Harpoons) were released from 2007 to 2011, their self-effacing lyrics and folk-influenced rhythms closely resembled a more unwieldy Bob Dylan. There were songs of the lovelorn, Americana tales (“Wild Rosemarie”) and identity (“I Wanna Be a Sheep”). Among these collections of music were sketches and traces of a portrait.
After the disbandment of the Harpoons, Ezra released a record under his name and two records with the Boy-friends. The music on these records ultimately filled in some of the blank space. Now a constantly touring and well-regarded musician, Ezra had room to breathe and divulge upon their core beliefs and inquisitive nature toward societal norms. It seemed Ezra wanted to talk about their perspective more and needed to sing about it even more. In tribute to the punk and rock & roll that shaped him, there was an exuberance clear on 2015′s Perpetual Motion People that revealed itself in a do-or-die manner.
Feeling spent and like a “chapter has ended, musically,” Furman disbanded the Boy-friends and renamed his backing band as the Visions. On the first single of his newest record, “Driving Down to L.A.,” Furman addresses a personal need to kill off the ego. Thematically, it serves as the optimal entry point for the album’s relationship toward impressions of selfhood and the value in seeing that within everyone. While his previous records maintained the autobiographical characteristics of folk, Transangelic Exodus takes cues from Lou Reed and David Bowie’s prolific output in the ’70s that became defined by poignant, forthcoming messages of liberation and tenacity told by an observant and caring person. The album is anchored by Furman’s perpetually analytical mind, reigned in by a sense of purpose; to fight and to feel.
TIDAL spoke to Ezra Furman about the construction of his newest record, self-awareness and religion.
Where were you at in your life when you started writing this record?
It was an interesting couple of albums before this one. There was an interesting progression. I got a sense that more people were paying attention to the band. I think that happened a little after Day of the Dog was out. I think there was a process of me coming to understand, ‘Oh, if I put out a song, more people will hear it now.’ I think you can hear me starting to realize that on the last album, Perpetual Motion People. I think a song like ‘Lousy Connection’ is sort of grappling with these questions of ‘What’s going on? What has changed about the stage I’m on? How did the microphone get louder?’ Lines like ‘I’ve got the world’s ear/I’m all fucking mumbles’ deal with that.
I think I wanted to make a cartoon version of my personality. In a human life, there are all these times that are so fucking perfect and no one see them. Like the time when you woke up in the middle of the night, put on your clothes and shoes and went down to the all-night diner, ordered a sandwich and read. Nobody saw me do that, or saw ages 21 through 25 when I was just this creature in the world with no footing or home.
I think the song ‘Restless Year’ was trying to show I’ve had this life where I move through cities and I’m feral. I’m just so alive and no one knows these afternoons I’ve had in my life. I have to show that I am this person. The thing is, when you paint a picture of yourself, by the time you’re done, you’ve already changed. Maybe it’s seeing yourself and seeing people who don’t know you care about you, there’s a weird alienation thing that goes on. All in all, it makes me want to be a better writer. I wanted to do more writing that’s like the literature I am into. If I was trying to write a book in album form, it’s more like a Jennifer Egan book. Things that are sketches and stories, both fact and fiction.
There is a more aggressive and driven nature to your work on this album. Was there an intention to drift from the reverential tone of Perpetual Motion People?
I felt like we had access to more resources than we were using. I think the last album was more a love letter to 20th century music. As we got more comfortable in the studio, we started to assemble these records that sounded like us as a live band.
I guess just when listening to lots of new music, it starts to be very exciting. I have all of the resources at my fingertips to make music that sounds original. I could do more.
Are those resources something tangible, or is it knowledge-based?
Well, you can manipulate sound and cut anything and add it anywhere. You can splice songs together. There are just a ton of cool options with music that we were not playing with. I was hoping we could push ourselves to make something that doesn’t sound like much else. You can hear my other albums are making reference to older music. This album doesn’t feel like that. We always asked ourselves, ‘What is the most exciting sound we can make in this song right now?’ We took much longer to make this album and I really enjoyed taking longer. We changed the songs very much from where we started.
Over the past 10 years, the name of your backing band has changed (from the Harpoons to the Boy-friends to now, the Visions). What is the impetus behind that and does that represent a specific change?
The members of the band are all of the same people, but they have changed. It’s people at different stages in their lives. Ezra Furman & the Boy-friends had a very specific intention, to play a specific live show, and we did it. We did a lot of shows and a few records like that and we thought, ‘This has experessed itself. Something quite different should happen next.’
At our best, we did that thing of being a fun, live, punky, slightly rock & roll band at a high level. We were a great band and I think we mastered it. I knew I wanted to see us do something better.
How does location affect your music?
I’ve made everything in Chicago with my bandmate Tim [Sandusky]. He has recorded me since the Harpoons broke up. We’ve collaborated a ton on producing and recording. I live in California and stay in Chicago when I’m recording. Going to the studio is like going to the office. I was riding my bike there and I feel like I was really influenced by a chocolate factory. I had some plans for an eight-minute dark epoch, a minor key song. I was thinking, ‘This is going to be important,’ that it’s going to be part of this big album. Then, I had smelled this chocolate and I couldn’t do my scary song.
Why did that smell do that to you?
I think some beautiful parts of life, some sensory experiences just bulldoze the cynicism in me. I’m in a world of sound and smell. It may have contributed to me thinking that, ‘The best things in life are invisible.’ I may have become a musician because I am trying to listen, and I don’t trust what I feel and care about.
Some circumstances of my life influence what the music is. It relies on what the story of the song is. That’s what will show in these songs. There’s, of course, been this springing up of institutional callousness and this spread of fascism. There was this ongoing struggle to accept my queerness, my gender, my sexuality, all of this stuff that has made me a fearful person, in some ways, and a radical person, in some ways. These are two main ideas explored on this album. There is a fear from vulnerable people being threatened by the government and their social conditions and how that goes together with this sense of fear, shame, power and differentness that comes from being gay, or gender non-conforming, or whatever things I am.
Like on most of your records, you discuss the social and political ramifications of the current cultural landscape. I’ve been hearing Transangelic Exodus as an instruction manual on how to survive prevalent hatred. Do you feel you created music to specifically address to present chaos in society?
That’s all certainly there in the record. As I’ve honed in on my artistic mission over the past few years, I’ve learned the best thing art does is to give you a moment of, ‘Oh, this is a way to be a person.’ It wakes you up from your default mode and it gives you another way to contribute. It shows you the incredible potential someone has to be human, or a better human. It shows you how to be awake.
I’ve been going for days and weeks sleepwalking. Suddenly, a ray of awareness is shining through the fog of the boredom with life. Right now, in the United States, it’s obvious to most people that the way to be a good human being includes being disturbed by the situation of open threatening of vulnerable people. It’s more clear than ever. The political shows up in the music because it seems integral to being a human being right now.
There’s an incredible line in one of the songs from the album called ‘Come Here, Get Away From Me’ where you say, ‘I believe in God/but I don’t believe we’re getting out of this one.’ I think it obviously speaks a lot to your religious beliefs, and there isn’t really a lane or much of a dialogue about faith in indie rock. How does that line relate to the album and to your career as a whole?
When I was a teenager, that’s when I first became seriously religious and spiritual. I’ve gone through many versions of that, but most of my friends were kind of anti-religion. I was hanging out with a lot of punky, indie kids. They thought religion was a crutch. I never got that. It never seemed to be something to fall back on. Maybe it’s Judaism or religious thinking that I am into, but it seems like such a challenge.
If this stuff is real, is it true the source of the universe cares about human beings? Does it care about poor people and strangers and immigrants? We have a problem with being rich and not really helping other people live. It’s always, ‘They do their thing, I do my thing.’ That always stuck with me the most. No, you have work to do. It’s embarrassing humankind is so callous so often and self-interested.
This is a major factor of the record. It’s definitely my most explicitly religious record so far. I think that’s good, it’s kind of a coming out moment for me. It’s hard to talk about religion in this indie rock world, or whatever world we are in. People tend not to talk about religion. It’s definitely a representative line about how I feel more often disturbed by my religious beliefs, rather than comforted by it. To me, the real use of it is to wake up and be a person and care about the people around you. It’s almost the essential message of religion.
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