Ezra Furman | Just Keep Keeping On

ezrafurman 75That song in particular crystallizes a lot of my concerns and my preoccupations: blood and love and halos around everything.


Ezra Furman is an indie songwriter and native Chicagoan; his latest band is Ezra Furman and The Boy-Friends. He has a very unique style of songwriting, and the sound is passionate garage punk pop with R&B sensibilities. His music has a certain wow factor for me, upbeat and dark, simple and deep, and has the insight of someone older. The first song I heard by him on a random YouTube search was this version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I’ll let it speak for itself.

I interviewed Furman prior to his latest tour.

I noticed a cover on YouTube you did of “Heavy Metal Drummer” by Wilco. What’s the story behind that?

[The Onion] AV Club films these live sessions, and in the summer they film people doing covers all about summer stuff. That particular song is a real classic of my generation and came out when I was 16 or something. I like that it is a Chicago song and it’s on such a serious record, but it’s like such a fun song smack in the middle, it was like a breath of fresh air.

You just had two albums come out within the past year; is that correct?

I put out two albums in kind of quick succession. The previous one, The Year of No Returning, I put that out myself without a record label, and then I signed to Bar None Records so they rereleased it. I was already finished with the new record, Day of the Dog, and I was itching to have that one to come out, too. So they weren’t made quite as quickly in succession as they might seem.

My goal has been to put out about a record a year. Just trying to imitate the Beatles, I guess.

What is your recording progress and how is that evolved?

Day of the Dog was more similar to the way I made the first Harpoons record. We had a small budget; we wanted to use a good studio, so we wanted to do it quick. We knew it pretty well before going in so we can spend as little time doing similar takes as possible. This was a live band, and we got really good at it before we spent any time in the studio. This is different from not knowing what the songs will sound like and kind building them one track at a time. From that I learned some stuff and there are more possibilities; almost anything you can think of you can probably find a way to put it on your record. It’s really humbling and striking how unlimited the possibilities that almost everybody has.

Have you ever looked back on particular song you recorded and wish you done it differently?

Yes! Yes!

Is there a certain song that pops into your head when I say that?

No, like all of them, across the board. I can’t listen to my music without a fair amount of time going by after making a record, maybe a year or two. I’m so impressed with myself, pat myself on the back, and then there’s the steep drop-off. Oh my god!

As a musician, what other than music inspires you to write music?

[Thoughtfully] Let me think about that. You know, the first thing that comes to mind is the classics of Jewish philosophy, thought, and prayers. I’m deeply and heavily and debilitatingly interested in Jewish thought, and Judaism in general. There is a long tradition of Jewish writing and a lot of prayer books that tell you who wrote the various prayers that have been carried over the centuries.

In some sense, I feel like I’m in this tradition of Jewish songwriters that goes back to Moses and King David, and everybody in between. The prayers and spiritual psalms—they reflect their time, they reflect the author. Obviously, I feel kind of arrogant to compare myself to that kind of writer. Songwriting is a meat-and-potatoes kind of job, but I do feel like there can be a spiritual side to it. That’s what I thought of immediately.

Do you have a favorite song you perform live, or one you know you’ll get a really strong reaction from?

You can never tell. You can never think too much about things that you think will get a reaction. Some I enjoy more than others; it changes with the wind. I try to stay and attentive; I enjoy it the more aware I am of what’s happening.

Have you ever heard a song that made you cry?

The song by Joni Mitchell, “River,” makes me cry. I listen to music all the time and my goal is to be moved, to be awoken from my usual sleep. Not long ago, I was listening to Janis Joplin—believe it or not, that song “Crybaby—I cried with joy. I was just thinking what could be better than her: the voice that goes beyond passion, a realm beyond understanding. That’s how much is in her voice to me.

Every time I think I’m sick of music I hear something and it’s all new to me, again.

Have you ever heard a song and said, “Oh god, I wished I had written that”?

That kind of thought lad me to put a cover on this most recent album, “The Mall,” originally written by Paul Baribeau. He is truly a songwriting giant of our time, and he avoids the limelight; he does not court fame at all. He’s written some truly great songs—“The Mall,” of course, being one of them. That one in particular crystallizes a lot of my concerns and my preoccupations: blood and love and halos around everything. And also “Thunder Road”; I wish I wrote “Thunder Road.”

If you could have a dream band from any time or place, who would be in it?

My gut tells me I would choose my band. I love them; I love being in this band. If they weren’t available, maybe I’d ask Sumlin who played guitar with Howlin’ Wolf. Or maybe that guy—what’s his name?—who played bass on all the Motown records and with the Funk Brothers. Greatest bass player ever. [Note: He is talking about James Jamerson, who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000. Jamerson performed on 30 number-one hits, more than any person or group in music history, and on more than 70 number-one R&B hits, also the most ever. I guess if you’re going to have pick, why not the best?]

Does anyone else in your family play music?

My little brother Jonah is in a band called Krill; I would venture to say it is better than my band. I believe they’re more original and stranger. They live in Boston; they’re a three-piece; they make truly odd music, which is harder and harder to do as more things have been tried.

My younger sister plays guitar, as well. We went to private Jewish school and prayed all day, so you get some music in your everyday experience that way. Also, lots of records were played in our house. My parents are great lovers of music. I use to howl along, when I was a little baby boy, to “Werewolves of London” by Warren Zevon. Fun to howl with when you’re five.

If you weren’t a musician, what do you think you would be doing?

I kind of thought I was going to be a teacher, especially in high school. I hated high school and had a couple of good teachers help me through it. I do have a dream of being some kind of helpful figure to just anyone is becoming themselves. It’s part of why I got into making records. There’s been all these helpful figures and rock ’n’ roll for me, a kind of role model of freedom and bravery.

You just got back from England. Do you notice a different response in the U.K. compared to here in the U.S.?

Yes, something may be sort of happening for our little band in the U.K. We sold out almost every show, which does not happen in the United States. Something from the U.K. has finally smiled on old Ezra Furman. It’s small and they have national radio. You can hear something start to catch on in one area, and it’s national instantly.

These winds of fame can blow one way one day, and another way the next; you can’t put too much stock in it. I’m just glad that people like it now, and if they don’t like it later, I’ll just keep doing it. | DL Hegel

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