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Interview: Ezra Furman & The Harpoons

| March 30, 2011 | 0 Comments

Vulgar Display Of Power

Pop music needs a magic story to stir our imaginations again. Enough talent shows, “leaked” tracks, and teen boys prancing in front of a Web cam. What would it take to find a local band on the cusp with a bit of fantasy behind them? From whom can the sweat-pantsed masses draw inspiration?

Appearing: Saturday, April 23rd at Subterranean in Chicago.

“The first time we went on tour,” Ezra Furman offers, “the owner of Minty Fresh Records came to our show because he knew our manager. We gave him a demo CD that was really crappy, but based on the show and that CD he wanted to sign our band. That seemed, um, impossible. The whole thing seems impossible. I can’t believe any of it ever happened.”

Hell, yeah. Ezra Furman & The Harpoons will lift Chicago (and their other hometown in Somerville, Massachusetts) into the dreamsphere because someone sprinkled the fairy dust on them that night. Glory, glory, serendipity!

“But that’s not serendipity,” he poo-poos. “Things have gone in our favor, probably more than is normal for a band. There’s been a lot of luck — I readily admit that. In terms of uncanny coincidence? It’s hard for me to think of any right away. We say yes to almost all opportunities to perform or do anything. Anything can push serendipity along, I guess.”

Before you think Furman to be a denier of the supernatural, it happens to be the topic of his band’s new album, Mysterious Power (Red Parlor).

Does he possess any mysterious powers?

Oh, yeah.”

What are they?

“You want to de-mystify these powers?” he scoffs. “They’re mysterious!”

So they’re mysterious in the sense that they’re unrevealed, not because they’re strange?

“Both. Principally,” he explains, “the title Mysterious Power refers not to my own mysterious power — although I won’t deny that I’ve got various mysterious powers. And the album has a mysterious power, probably over most people who’ll listen to it — to different degrees. But it’s about external mysteries that exist outside of me.”

Furman fans undoubtedly can anticipate what’s coming when the album arrives mid-month. The band’s first two albums overflow with whimsical tales that dive and soar like the broken marriage of Rolling Thunder Dylan and Neutral Milk Hotel with Tom Verlaine as frontman. As he explains Banging Down The Doors and Inside The Human Brain, “there was a zooming-out faculty I was using, a key component of the first two albums. There was a lot of different emotions in them and then I’d zoom out to get my whole world view in one song. Pain and joy, fun but alienation.”

He attaches the dreaded qualifiers “focused” and “mature” to Mysterious Power, though he does so knowing if his album were a screenplay, David Lynch would struggle to wrap his head around it.

“The day after we finished recording our last album,” says Furman, “I wrote the song ‘Mysterious Power.’ And I’m glad we ended up agreeing on that as the title. I was trying to make [this album about] that guy, that boy in his room as the protagonist of the album. It’s a character study: he’s confused, he’s spiritually inclined, he’s bi-polar kind of, he has manias and depressions, and quiet moments. This character’s almost identical to me, now that I think about it. But that’s the starting point — that guy in his room. He keeps going out and coming back, sometimes it’s beautiful out there, sometimes it’s horrible. He tries to make sense of it all when he comes back to his room. That’s the general idea. I usually listen to records in my bedroom and I listen to the whole thing, and that’s the design. It’s designed to speak to that kind of person who gets emotional about stuff.”

So while the emotions are more focused, that doesn’t mean they’re anymore controlled. He explodes when asking a lover if he can be her “bloodsucking whore,” reels a litany of bizarre circumstances on “I Killed Myself But I Didn’t Die,” and swears off shaving on “Too Strung Out.” There’s never quite the shock how he opened the debut album, “This song is about a whore that I knew in Chicago,” but still has its moments.

“Some of those [old songs] are from age 16,” he says. “I think I was 19 or 20 when we recorded that. I’ve gotten better, I think. That’s a classic sort of problem: you have your whole life to write your first album and maybe a year to write the second one. But I think that problem didn’t really happen. I think I got better. The new one, each song has a specific mood and feels more focused and a correct presentation of different things: of high energy, spiritual calm, nihilism. It’s more separated. We’re a new band, got a new band member. Andrew [Langer] played four songs on the second album, but he wasn’t a permanent member. He just added guitar parts on top of our three-piece. It’s changed our sound and made it a lot better, cohesive, and closer to what we always wanted.”

With the way Furman writes and performs, it seems the danger of a recording losing focus is very real. But he doesn’t think so.

“My ambition and concern was that it would be a softer sort of album,” he reveals, “more intimate and a little bit more dignified, but mysterious and tender. Calmer. And we had a lot of songs. As we went through, I was pleased it balanced out and we got some loud songs on there, dirty stuff with reckless abandon. Still, I don’t think we sacrificed this feeling of maturity or focus. I thought that was going to be at the expense of the rockers, but it didn’t turn out that way.”

Furman also has his band to fall back on, which he insists is a partnership instead of a boss/employee relationship.

“We take turns in terms of being responsible or irresponsible,” he laughs. “We’re all both of those things at different times — hopefully alternate times. Confidently, I can say Joe [Mukkada, bass] can be the voice — the pessimist — who keeps us honest by considering all of the worst-case scenarios. Which I think is incredibly, incredibly important. He helps us keep from being full of ourselves or expecting every show to be a roaring success. I really like Andrew’s role; he was in The Redwalls, and they did a lot of touring, huge stadium shows. He’s got that experience and he’s seen it all before. Nothing scares him. He comes off like an elder statesmen sometimes, even though he’s also the newest member of the band. Adam [Abrutyn, drums] might be called a ladies’ man. I don’t know. He also points us toward the best food. He knows food, and knows how to find a good place to eat. Which can be lifesaving.”

Together, the quartet boast something approaching actual superpowers, that is, if they can keep from turning on one another.

“There are some small details that I was out-voted on by other band members,” he sarcastically sneers, admitting that there were minor issues during the mixing phase.

What those were, however, will remain a mystery.

— Steve Forstneger

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