By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Ezra Furman knows you probably haven't heard of him, and he's not terribly worried about it. Make no mistake, he'd like you to hear his music — I recommend it highly, it's damn good — but he's more concerned about making that music, and making it good, than he is about spending time marketing himself. He wouldn't even know where to begin.
"I'm not worried about being rich and famous," Furman says. "I see a lot of rich and famous people in our culture, and most of them are jerks. I wouldn't want to be them. I'm not saying it's bad — I dream of greatness, you know — I just want to be good at what I do, great at making songs. I'd rather be the starving artist who goes unrecognized. I'd rather be Van Gogh than Jack Johnson. I want to be one of those guys who does it for a long time, who after a while just doesn't quit. They make great records and nobody listens to them and then suddenly they're a cult hero. I could do that."
He's nothing if not quixotic. Stammering in his speech but blistering in his singing, Furman idealizes the artist as idealist. He's having this chat with us from the living room of his parents' Evanston home, where his band rehearses because they can't afford anywhere else. He mentions several times how poor he and his bandmates, the Harpoons, are despite having met each other at Boston's private Tufts University.
"Sometimes it gets a little dicey," Furman says. "I've been a little too poor sometimes. Now may be one of those times."
But his confidence in his music is well placed. Whether its existence attracts money or not, Ezra Furman & the Harpoons — guitarist Andrew Langer, bassist Job Mukkada and drummer Adam Abrutyn — make rootsy rock 'n' roll that's fiery, fierce and, above all, honest. The songs on their third and so far best album, the new "Mysterious Power," are at once familiar and exciting. Furman's not doing anything we haven't already heard from Dylan in the early '60s or Neil Young across the span of the '70s or the Violent Femmes in the mid-'80s, but he's doing it with such ferocity and abandon that makes him an individual stylist rather than a mere imitator. You don't have to reinvent the wheel in rock 'n' roll just to get it rolling.
Question: You seem pretty cavalier about claiming to walk the poverty line.
Ezra Furman: It's the life of an artist. It's fine with me. My only real goal is to be good at this. I've idealized all these people who were never very successful. I don't know. Maybe I should care a little more. I'm getting by. ... I don't need much money. I like the 99-cent loaf of bread better than the $3.50 one.
Q: Who's one of those not-very-successful people that you idolize?
EF: Paul Baribeau, for one. Nobody's heard of him, and he's the best songwriter in America, basically. He's always playing people's houses or basements. He's in his 30s. He's such a heart-stopping, great songwriter and performer. He can write a really passionate song, and he mostly just plays acoustic guitar and screams. He's my No. 1 evangelical project.
Q: So what would success look like for you?
EF: My version of success is someone finding my album in a bargain bin one day and falling in love with it. Beyond that, everything else is a bonus.
Q: What could lead you to the point of "selling out"?
EF: I don't think I'll get there. I was reading this article recently by the guy from OK Go [singer Damian Kulash, in the Wall Street Journal] all about how making money in the music business is different from what it used to be. He's talking about selling music to corporations for commercials and all kinds of stuff, and how it's not selling out anymore. Nobody sees this as impure anymore. He was so cavalier about it — just do it, this is how you get rich now, and you wanna get rich, right? I was like, shut up, stop. Not everybody is in this just to chase money.
Q: You're chasing, what, gratitude, affection, artistic credibility?
EF: Just some sign that what we do is good. I know how I feel about my favorite records. I want people feeling that about us. To be somebody's favorite record, at least for a period in their lives — that's the ultimate success in being a musician. What could be a greater honor than to always be in someone's car stereo? I'm not going to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. F—- that. I'd rather be in someone's stereo.
Q: The new record, "Mysterious Power," sounds more energetic and cohesive than the previous two, which is saying something. What's behind that?
EF: We just had more time. It's a more carefully chosen album. The first ones were slapped together pretty quick. Each one was done in five or six days, like, "This is our band, this is how we play songs live, there you go." We didn't have a record label, no one was asking for the album. We made the album and then found a label for it. We spent time on it, and some songs I thought were throwaways wound up being turned into some of the best ones simply because we had time to find out.
Q: Give me an example. Which songs followed that course?
EF: "Bloodsucking Whore" is a good example. That was a bitter joke. That was me in a messed-up relationship, and I was, like, listing off Buddy Holly songs. I wanted to write some simple, classic Buddy Holly ballad. I just threw it out and didn't think much of it. It was a joke to me. But the Harpoons, believe it or not, they're musicians. People probably don't know that enough about this band. I'm just sort of a strummy, singy guy. I write these songs and the Harpoons know what to do with them. They picked that one out and masterminded the sound of it. It's one of the best on the record.
Q: What compels you to keep writing songs?
EF: Dissatisfaction with what I've already done, I guess. I listen to so much music. The real answer is I listen to so much and I'm like, "Oh, man!" It's a healthy sort of jealousy. It's like the competition. The past year, I started getting into the Replacements. The things they got away with. I think, "I could do that better than he does!" Or some great record like [the Beach Boys'] "Pet Sounds" — man, I could totally pull off my own version of this.
Q: What are you recognizing in this other music? What makes a great album great?
EF: Well, that's just it. They didn't know they were making a great record when they were making it. They didn't think they were capable of writing the greatest album ever. That's what keeps me going. Who knows what could happen if I keep writing? Maybe I'm about to drop a total masterpiece if I keep pushing myself. I see some sort of potential in myself. You just never know. You should always write another song.
EZRA FURMAN & THE HARPOONS
with Tristen and the Apache Relay
♦ 9:30 p.m. April 23
♦ Subterranean, 2011 W. North
♦ Tickets, $10-$12, (773) 278-6600; subt.net
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These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.