By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
The last time I saw Ezra Furman, he was in his underwear.
Performing, no less. The mad Evanstonian — one of the most visceral singer-songwriters I've encountered in this city — stepped onto a bare stage during the South by Southwest music festival in 2012 in Austin, Texas, nearly bare-assed, wearing only socks and boxer briefs. The rest of him was just the same — wild eyes, spasmodic moves, an unnerving earnestness.
"I was incredibly tired," Furman recalls. "That probably influenced the decision. Plus, that kind of environment needs a little ridiculousness."
At the time, Furman had just relocated to the Bay Area and self-released a new solo album with a title related to his exodus from the Chicago scene: "The Year of No Returning."
One year down, and he's returned — sort of.
Splitting his time between Chicago and Oakland, Furman has assembled a new Chicago-based band, the Boy-Friends — on the same turf where he and his former and formidable band, the Harpoons, ruled from 2006 until last year — with whom he'll launch a summer tour this weekend from the stage of a classic Chicago summer street festival.
The new backers include Ben "Chewy Bar" Joseph on keyboards and bass, Sam "Grape Crush" Durkes on drums and Jorgen "The Diddler" Jorgensen on bass and guitar.
The occasion for the tour is twofold: "The Year of No Returning" is getting a proper release on July 16 from storied indie label Bar/None, and a brand-new set, "Day of the Dog," recorded with the new band, comes out Sept. 17.
As a fairly rabid fan of his raw songwriting, I'll take it as an auspicious omen that my final interview before leaving the Sun-Times was this typically interesting recent chat with Furman:
Q: Where in the world is Ezra Furman today? And where do you call home now?
Furman: I'm in North Carolina by the beach on a little trek with family and friends. The question of home is a bit more complicated. I mostly live in Oakland, and I spend a lot fo time in Chicago and Evanston, where the band is. ... If you interview a musician in their 20s these days, they're having a harder time answering the question of "Where are you based?" The real answer is, "Well, I drive around a lot ..."
Q: The new band is not armed with any Harpoons, correct?
Furman: Yes, that band is defunct. They're all pals. They're doing responsible and good things. I wouldn't dream of kidnapping them from any of that.
Q: Tell us about the new album.
Furman: "The Year of No Returning" was made with various musicians, but I had to put together a touring band. To my delight, I've been able to put together a really great rock and roll band that I don't want to change. I call them the Boy-Friends. What I'm trying to do: I want to be like Elvis or Buddy Holly or Patti Smith — a rock and roll solo artist. They have bands, really good bands. I don't know why some people go by their name and some go by a band name. Going by my name gives me a certain freedom. A band name can be ... constraining.
Q: Like Chrissie Hynde, who's made great records for years using a variety of players — that she's trapped into calling the Pretenders every time.
Furman: Right. You buy a Paul Simon record, it could be him or a whole mix of stuff, Africans and what-not. That freedom appeals to me.
Q: At that SXSW gig, in your underwear, you said from the stage: "I was supposed to be a wide-eyed sort of singer-songwriter, but I don't feel like that anymore." What do you feel like?
Furman: I was afraid things were getting a little cute with me. I think some people think of me like kind of sunny and young and cute and innocent. They were starting to say, "He's like Jonathan Richman. He's a big sweetheart." I love Johnathan Richman, but I don't think that's how I feel. I don't feel particularly innocent. I don't feel so childlike anymore. Maybe I'm wrong about this. But I was getting that impression from people, and I was starting to play it up over the course of being in the Harpoons. And now, I wanted to make a record that had to do with adult rebellion. I think I got that phrase from Bruce Springsteen, from the idea of "Darkness on the Edge of Town."
Q: In all of my days, I would never describe your music as sunny or innocent.
Furman: Well, I know there's complexity and darkness and mixtures of anger and joy in the music I make, but I worry that the complexity doesn't come through — especially live, with crowds of people happy people on a night out. I hope that phrase doesn't sound condescending. It's just easy to believe that they didn't really hear the kind of messed-up thing I just said. I always wanted to be fun but not fun. I mean, what do you do with a song like "Bloodsucking Whore" [from Ezra Furman & the Harpoons' phenomenal 2011 album "Mysterious Power"]? How sexist is that song? It's complicated. I think that in my underwear at South by Southwest I was trying to remind myself and everyone else that it's complicated.
Q: I watched you play one of your last solo Chicago gigs on one of the Flesh hungry Dog Show bills at the Jackhammer. You were spewing, yes, some very complicated lyrics for an audience that, let's say, wasn't really getting it. It wasn't a listening room.
Furman: It's complicated, getting things across but also leading the party. I went to a Titus Andronicus show — there's a bunch of drunk dudes with drinks in the air, pumping fists and moshing. I was getting batted about. How do you have fun but also listen to the complicated things they're saying. How does the fun of going to a concert mesh with the sickness in you? It just does. Or it doesn't. It usually hangs together somehow. Springsteen, you know — you worry about him. I worry about him just listening to him. Does he still remember the feelings that led him to write "Nebraska"? It's a tense thing to mix in that complication, and when that sickness creeps into rock and roll — that's very interesting to me.
Q: What's new about the new record, "Day of the Dog"?
Furman: "The Year of No Returning" was recorded a year before I formed the Boy-Friends, and to me "Day of the Dog" is a sequel. There's similarity in the title — it's a time of something. This one's the manic side, though — the mania to "Year of No Returning's" depression. That was an introspective record, made in a careful way. It's really rather meticulous. The new record is manic.
Q: What do you mean by "manic"?
Furman: Mostly I mean a musical thing. Trying to get at something like "Maybeline" by Chuck Berry — a sensational moment, a musical thing. It has to do with the tempo and the backbeat and a going for broke. It has a strong theme of messianic hope, of waiting for a time when all bad things will be fixed and all downtrodden people will rise up. That's what the title track is about. There's something in the air that unites these things: rock and roll mania, and the downtrodden or just people who aren't doing well hoping for justice. I think these things are related in the human heart. Rock comes from the blues, which has that thing of the way things are is not the way they're supposed to be and that the broken-hearted people are maybe the secret heroes. That's this album.
EZRA FURMAN & THE BOY-FRIENDS
• 8:30 p.m. June 15
• 6 Corners BBQ Fest @ Irving Park, Cicero and Milwaukee
• (773) 685-9300, 6cornersbbqfest.com
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.