KQED Interview

July 11, 2013

KQED music writer, Amanda Roscoe Mayo catches the guys of Futurebirds on their way to Eugene, OR rousing them from their slumber to speak about the new record, Carter Kind at the helm for most of the interview. They play The Independent in San Francisco on Thursday, July 18th.

Amanda Mayo: I’m excited to see you guys in San Francisco right around the corner from my house at The Independent. It’s one of my favorite venues in the city. But you guys are no strangers to the Bay Area right?

Carter King: Yea, we’ve been through San Francisco a handful of times, We played Outside lands last summer, it was incredible and one of the best music festivals ever. It was like going to a music festival in Jurassic Park.

AM: Since I’ve been on the West Coast I’ve really been exposed to that surfer dreamy sound one would expect from California music. This of course is not how I would describe Futurebirds, but I would say your sound is certainly dreamy, just from a more Southern front. I don’t want to speculate too much though so what are the musical roots you guys are exploring with such ease?

CK: We’re not necessarily aiming to explore anything, just what comes out of the band. We’ve got five people who come from very different backgrounds, we kind of meet in the middle and that’s where the sound comes from. It sorta just happens.

AM: I guess I’m wondering if there’s more so any influence from being in Athens and the South?

CK: Yea, one thousand percent! For the most part we’re all from Georgia, and we met in Athens. The music community there and everything that’s going on there is a huge part of why we came up with the band and the music that we play, without question.

AM: Before we jump into talking about the new album Baba Yaga, you recorded a live session on KEXP up in Seattle. I’ve always wanted to know what that experience is like for a band, to be playing on-air, filmed, and interviewed all at the same time. I’m asking because your music creates such an atmosphere, it’s really transportive, is it something you can sort of come in and out of as performers and talk about in the middle of playing a set of sorts?

CK: Yea I think so, it’s definitely different. One, we were there at noon, had to get up at 8 to get there didn’t go to sleep until 3 or 4 the night before so we were kind of in a daze of sorts. You just get in and it’s a little more of a different thing than playing live. It’s on the radio, it’s gonna live forever. We’re still able to delve into what we’re doing live just as much as if we were in front of a crowd.

AM: Baba Yaga in itself has a distinctive sound as a whole. When I listened to the record the first time I was comfortable, falling into it and found myself sort of along for the ride. I had to keep reminding myself to check for track titles to find where I was on the listening journey. You’ve been very transparent about how long a journey making this record was, but there really isn’t any dissolution or disconnection in the music. Was there anything in particular that helped you to arrive at this cohesion as a band?

CK: A lot of that comes from us playing so much longer together when we made this record. Playing with other people is a journey of sorts, you gotta figure out what everyone’s strengths and weaknesses are and what your own role is. Just playing together so much live and touring to figure all that out. We also had a lot more time to record that record too. We were able to experiment with different parts and focus in on the different parts of the machine.

AM: “American Cowboy” is one of my favorite songs, and really showcases the talents of the band in terms of musical composition, vocals, narrative, and mood. Would you give us some insight into that song?

CK: No, I could pass the phone to Thomas, another member of the band and I’m sure he could tell you all about it.

Thomas Johnson: The song kinda came from me, you know dealing with everything that was happening with the band and the record to go from not knowing anything about the music to how to navigate through the industry. There are a lot of people who don’t have your best interest at heart, there’s a few people who do. Who’s on your side and who’s not, wanting to not be a part of the fakeness that happens in the business, and just the business side in general you have to be engaged and aware of them, you need to look out for yourself. You know you gotta try to keep that separate from the creative.

AM: The other two songs that really stand out to me from the album are “Felix Helix” and “The Light.” Where did those two come in in the writing process?

CK: Well those are two other people’s songs in the band, God Amanda you just don’t like any of my songs!

Daniel Womack: Felix Helix, the inspiration behind that song… I think we were in Alabama one night and it was the last night of a run for us. After the show we decided we wanted to stay up late and howl at the moon and stuff. Yea it was a fun time, I just wanted to come up with something that made as little sense as what was happening that night, like lyrically, that was just really fun and exciting melodically. It was one of the first songs I put together for the album. It was quick and a crazy night. Felix Helix was just sorta in my head.

AM: Well who am I gonna be passed onto next? Who wrote “The Light?”

DW: The light was written by our bassist, Brannen Miles, you wanna talk to him? I’m sure his story makes more sense than mine does…here he is.

Brannen Miles: I remember we had some time off, I was in Athens living there and was hanging out with some friends at the studio, another band who was recording. I was just kinda there with my friends who were in the other band there. I realized the studio next door was open and I just always wanted to write a song so I just started messing around with some chords and the songs just kinda came out. I just did it all within like two or three hours. Played guitar and then went back and did bass and then a kit and went back and sang on it. I just kinda weighed things by myself. When we were recording the actual album, I just brought that to the table and everyone gave their own take on certain parts.

AM: So when you guys were touring and working on the album at the same time were you playing any of the material you were writing for audiences live or did you save it all for the recording process?

BM: No most of it was just people writing in their downtime. Most of it was people coming with a skeleton of a song to the studio. We’d hear a lot of Thomas strumming a guitar during soundtrack and then when we’d get to the studio I’d be like “I’ve heard this song before…” Most of the time it’s a skeleton not a complete song and it gets worked out in the studio.

AM: This record has been constantly compared to your live set both in terms of arc and energy. Could you speak to the placement of songs on the album? Is it organized in the same way you would say, organize a set list?

CK: The sequencing of the record was a huge puzzle, cause when we got done we had fifteen songs total that made it to final mix and master. Figuring out what the actual record was gonna be, we had one that was 9 songs and one that was all 15, but we came up with the order of thirteen songs once we found it, that was it, every song transitioned well into the next. When you have five people writing songs and you’re all making one record, it’s one of the more difficult challenges you face. You know to make it not sound like five people’s songs but one band’s record. Once we got down the order I was talking to people about putting it out a lot of people were like, 13 songs, is too long. We knew from the get go it was long but really when we started thinking of cutting it down for other reasons we realized there weren’t any songs we could take out without totally ruining that arc you’re talking about. So we had to stick to our guns on that.

AM: It’s nice to have a long record though, The National’s new record, Trouble Will Find Me, is also thirteen songs. I feel like we just don’t get those albums as much anymore, people are either not writing enough or they’re worried about the listener’s attention span being too short. It’s nice to have a solid full-length record.

CK: Yea, alsoit had also been so long since we but out a record. We wanted to give more.

AM: Since Futurebirds never seems to stop touring does that mean song writing on tour has become the norm for the band?

CK: A little bit, definitely a place to flush out ideas, when you’re on tour you have a lot of down time and time off, but the core song writing goes on—I say that coming up with the skeleton of the song—happens in people’s off time. Really that’s kinda how it works, people have an idea and bring it to the table and sometimes it’s a full flushed out demo and sometimes it’s “hey I’ve got this verse.” You give your songs up to the band and everyone gets to put their stamp on it. No matter how many ideas you have about it, other people have their ideas too.

AM: Do you guys have a day off in California?

CK: I think we have one day off around San Diego and L.A. Hopefully we have a couple days off. We’re on tour with our friends from Nashville, Diarrhea Planet, so we’ve been talking with them about trying to get in some beach time. I’d like to see a Redwood tree at some point too, that’s top on my list.