Ezra Furman: Free Radical

words: Ryan Matthews
photos: Matthew Fleming

pensiveguitar

UPDATE: Ezra Furman’s touring Europe this Summer and Autumn. Scroll down for 2015 tour dates after you’ve checked out this classic interview from September 2014.

We met with indie troubadour Ezra Furman in an anteroom at Lancaster Library, stacked to the rafters with poetry books. He read a few psalms out loud as we waited. We know that sounds strange, as though we got lost looking for the latest issue of ‘The Hamstrung Analogy Quarterly’ and stumbled upon one of Chicago’s more thoughtful exponents of splintered rock and blues just stacking shelves and reading Ted Hughes – but every word is true. Like Furman, Lancaster Library is a beautiful oddity; a genuine library by day and a live music venue at night. It’s one of those things treasured and loved by those who know about it. You know, like a good book. BOOKS. And now we’re really beginning to stretch the analogy.

Furman had just finished an interview with some keen and chirpy local media students and already seemed primed for a swift exit. He was fidgety throughout our encounter, eyes flitting to the door and to his watch, consciously avoiding our gaze until hearing a question worthy of response.

It felt hard to be worthy.

We interrupt Ezra Furman as he reads us the word of God.

We interrupt Ezra Furman as he reads us the word of God.

Furman’s a formidable musician with five critically acclaimed albums under his belt, three with former band The Harpoons and two as a solo artist. The latest, 2013’s Day of the Dog has attracted a slew of five star reviews.

To ease Furman in, we deployed one of our solid gold rookie questions; “How would you describe your music?” He baulked, understandably. He really didn’t want to answer at all, describing it as a ‘disservice’ to the work. When pushed, he conceded that he made guitar music “for excitable people with mood swings”. It seems like a fitting description for both the artist and his output.

As for the interview? The room was starting to feel pretty small. So far, so prickly!

Do listen to Day of The Dog, if you haven’t already. It distils some of the best elements of outsider rock n’ roll from the last century into 13 slices of gritty, flame grilled mayhem. For ‘but who does it SOUND like?’ fans, there are equal parts Velvet Underground, Ziggy-era Bowie and 50s R&B, all tied up with a bow of Pixies’ flecked intensity. It’s the sound of an artist and more importantly a band (Furman’s solo outfit, the Boy-Friends) at complete ease with one another. It was in evidence as they blew through a bombastic live set, featuring amazingly, a cover of Madonna’s ‘Like A Virgin’.

We are entertained and tolerated in equal measure by several different Ezra Furman’s during our short chat; at times he’s pensive, others animated and others distracted. Intensity and sincerity go hand in hand with this man. In other words, he is the real deal.

Born in the electric blues capital of Chicago, in his words, ‘if not the birthplace of rock n roll, at least the nursery’, Furman couldn’t help but absorb the influence of Chess Records, Howlin’ Wolf and Hubert Sumlin. Sumlin, was the first man, Furman asserts, who “used a guitar as a weapon”.

Furman’s love of music stems from the freedom of expression it gives him, summed up as a mixture of ‘confrontation mangled with musical excellence’. This is what enchanted him to the Chicago music scene and it can be heard on record. However, it’s live where is truly realised – his performances are a kinetic explosion of creative energy.

Given the critics’ tendency to make comparisons between Furman and The Pixies, it would be easy to read too much into his next move; from Chicago to Boston, where he formed The Harpoons. We had to raise the similarities.

“It’s not a matter of imitation,” says Furman, “Just needing someone that I could hear, to say that a singer could sound that way. Lou Reed was important that way, in the way he almost ‘talks’. He breaks rules.”

Breaking the rules is the credo that most potently sums up Ezra Furman. From the skewed image (today it’s a white t-shirt with marker pen scrawl of ‘HELP – John Lennon’ on the front, snapback and bright red lipstick) to the joyous, candid and visceral honesty of his delivery.

He seems to delight in toying with and ultimately dismantling boundaries; consistently confounding expectations, living his creed of rock music as ‘radical freedom’; The freedom to realise a raucous, mile a minute, acid splashed version of heartlands rock n roll. To cut and paste from an impeccable collection of sources and still sound achingly new.

Ezra Furman and The Boy-Friends tear through an afternoon set at Lancaster Library.

Ezra Furman and The Boy-Friends tear through a set at Lancaster Library.

But it isn’t all sound, fury and bluster with Furman. Another facet to this confounding kaleidoscope of a performer is his transition into a bona fide 21st century troubadour.

Civil rights are back on the agenda in the wake of Ferguson, the USA’s mirror for the riots that we had in the UK a few years back. Like those riots, the town of Ferguson exploded into weeks of street violence after police shot and killed an unarmed young black man.

Furman released new track Ferguson’s Burning as a response. Written, recorded and posted to YouTube within a day, it captured the complex feelings of the moment. He channelled a young Bob Dylan with his powerful, righteous indignation and barbed words.

We suggested that his use of social media might be a blueprint for future protest. He agreed, saying that while his work isn’t usually so topical, “now is weirdly the perfect time for protest music, now is a really good environment for that kind of thing”.

If every generation has its own troubadour, there are qualities that could make Furman our frontrunner. He’s a bit lost and a little frightened, but brimming with passion. The transient nature of touring means that he doesn’t really get a full impression of a place, he says. He may see one street in each city and every tiny glimpse becomes a piece to build a jigsaw portrait. Perhaps this is what it’s like to be Ezra Furman; passionate to the point of rage; a man candidly singing about his fractured vision of a broken world.

Before we know it our time with Furman is over. This homunculus of nervous energy and contradiction, both sly and sincere, was escorted from the tiny interview room and we were left to wonder whether rock n roll is the only way people are ever truly and radically free.

Not many recent artists have cut so simply cut to the core, simultaneously ecstatic and destructive. We know this much; it is a privilege to listen to and watch the crimson lipped tour de force that is Ezra Furman play.

More:

Thanks to Matthew Fleming Photography for images.
Find out more about Ezra Furman at his official website.

Update:

2015 UK Tour dates:
JULY
7 Tue – Rough Trade Nottingham UK TICKETS
8 Wed – Boileroom, Guildford UK TICKETS
9 Thurs – John Peel Centre, Stowmarket UK TICKETS
10 Fri – Westgarth Social Sunday, Middlesborough UK TICKETS
12 Sun – Broadcast, Glasgow UK TICKETS
13 Mon – Bedford Esquires, Bedford UK TICKETS
14 Tues – Joiners, Southampton UK TICKETS
17 Fri – Latitude Festival, Suffolk UK TICKETS
26 Sun – Tramlines, Sheffield UK TICKETS
26 Sun – Cloudspotting, Sheffield UK TICKETS

AUGUST
1 Sat – Port Eliot Festival, Port Eliot UK TICKETS

OCTOBER
19 Mon – Limelight 2, Belfast Northern Ireland TICKETS
20 Tue – The Workman’s Club, Dublin Ireland TICKETS
21 Wed – Brudenell Social Club, Leeds UK TICKETS

NOVEMBER
14 Sat – The Fleece, Bristol UK TICKETS
15 Sun – Arts Club, Liverpool UK TICKETS
16 Mon – Gorilla, Manchester UK TICKETS
17 Tue – The Art School, Glasgow UK TICKETS
18 Wed – The Glee Club, Nottingham UK TICKETS