Thomas Johnson Talks Coffee Collab, Upcoming Album

By Gabe Vodicka @FlagpoleMusic

Photo Credit: Jason Thrasher
Since releasing and touring behind the milestone Baba Yaga LP (Flagpole review) in spring 2013, Athens-based alt-country outfit Futurebirds has mostly laid low. But last month, the band announced it was teaming up with coffee roaster Jittery Joe’s for the first in a planned series of Athens music-themed blends. Baba Java, as the roast is dubbed, is a quaffable, medium-bodied blend, smooth and yet nuanced, like the band’s stirring, slow-rolling music.

The group released a four-song EP, also titled Baba Java, to accompany the rollout of the beans. And despite the fact that the group’s members have splintered, with half now living in Nashville, the ‘Birds are cooking up a new full-length. Hotel Parties, co-produced by Drew Vandenberg and recorded at Chase Park Transduction and Montrose Recording in Richmond, is tentatively slated for an early 2015 release.

The group will tease material from the upcoming record at the Georgia Theatre Friday, where they’ll also be slinging Baba Java coffee and T-shirts. Flagpole caught up with singer and guitarist Thomas Johnson for a chat over—what else?—a cup of joe.

Flagpole: It’s been a while. What’s been going on?

Thomas Johnson: We’re in the midst of changing management, and we’re sitting on a finished record. We’ve just kinda been re-setting everything… Hopefully, we’ll have new music out early next year. We just put out the EP, so that was fun. We got to work with [Jittery Joe’s] a bunch, so that was awesome. We were thrilled that they asked us to do it. It took us a while to get it all coordinated—but people seem to like the coffee.

FP: How did the Jittery Joe’s collaboration come about?

TJ: Michael [Ripps, Jittery Joe’s owner] and David [Barbe, UGA Music Business Program director] were talking—I think it was Michael’s idea to partner with local artists and musicians on limited-run blends. David threw our name out there, and they reached out to us, and we were like, “Hell, yeah.” Jittery Joe’s is awesome, and we love coffee.

We had a bunch of unreleased material and B-sides, so, we thought, why not package it with some music? Anyway, we kicked around some ideas and came up with Baba Java as a name—a play on our last record. Using that as a theme, the EP is made up of songs from the Baba Yaga sessions, or that era. We recorded the R.E.M. cover [“Don’t Go Back to Rockville”] when we were practicing for a tribute show at the [Georgia] Theatre. Two of the tracks are songs we had mixed and mastered all the way through, but when it came down to sequencing the record, they just got cut. And then the other one is a demo from the record.

I drank a full cup of three of them, and they were like, ‘You know you can just take a couple sips’.
FP: What do you think of the coffee?

TJ: It’s good. It’s a medium blend. It’s not too powerful, as far as caffeine content. You can drink a cup-and-a-half, two cups, and you’ll be humming along but not feeling like you’re gonna have an anxiety attack. It’s a good in-between blend. I don’t like super-light coffee, personally. They say it’s got more caffeine in it, the lighter roasts. But I don’t love the super-dark stuff, either. So, for me, it’s the kind of coffee I like to drink.

FP: Did you guys have any input on the blend?

TJ: Not on the front end. [Roasters] Christian [Hampton] and Charlie [Mustard] came up with five different roasts, small runs of all those, and labeled them: “A,” “B,” “C,” “D.” David and Michael and I went around and drank a bunch—I drank a full cup of, like, three of them, and they were like, “You know, you can just take a couple sips.” I was jacked by the time I was out of there. But we all ended up picking the same two that we really liked and then narrowed it down to one from there.

It’s been cool learning about the process, getting back there and hearing about where they get the beans and the different stages of roasting and all that. I feel like they kind of take the Southern approach to it: Slow and steady wins the race.

FP: Do you see any parallels between that process and music?

TJ: Of course. Anything that’s got an artistic or creative aspect to it, you can draw parallels. They spend time going down to Colombia or Ecuador, all these places. You can think of that part as pre-production—going out and getting your demos done. So, you’ve picked your beans, you find your songs you want to work with, and then you start roasting. These guys do a lot of [experimenting]. You can look at that as the recording and mixing process. Then you settle on the right one and package it and send it out.

FP: What’s the new record sound like?

TJ: It’s definitely gonna be more compact than the last record. It’s a little bit more chorus-driven. The arrangements are tighter. We wanted to do a record where there wasn’t so much layering. Sometimes you get in the mode, when you’re recording, where you’re like, “Let’s add this, that would sound really cool.” And then you have a section that has five sub-melodies going on at the same time.

Being a six-piece band is hard. Everybody would like to contribute. But we focused a lot more on trying to strip things down. We don’t all need to be playing [all the time]. We don’t have to have two guitars, a pedal steel, bass and drums on every song. If we’re gonna add a keys part, maybe we take one of those out. Maybe we take them all out. We focused a lot more on not overloading it, clearing things up, so everything has a little more room to breathe.

Also, we cut back on some of the reverb. We’re always gonna be a band that utilizes reverb. But there are some songs on the new record that don’t have much at all. Part of the way we got comfortable with that is, when you have more room for the vocals to breathe, you can use less reverb and hear it just as well.

When you’re a young musician, and you haven’t played in front of people a lot, you’re not as confident with your voice, especially. The reverb can kind of give you a blanket to wrap around you. But as we’ve gotten more comfortable singing, our voices have gotten better, and it’s something we don’t feel the need to fall back on as much. So, now when we use it, it’s an artistic choice as opposed to an insecurity… I’m really liking the way it sounds. We’ve been getting a really good response so far, so we’re excited.