by Ashley Rouen
The Futurebirds fly into New Orleans this Saturday night to perform at One Eyed Jacks. The band is stoked to be back playing in Louisiana, close to their Georgian roots. The six piece band, formed in Athens, has been pursuing a rigorous life on the road for the past six years, maturing as artists and honing their original sound, which founding member Carter King believes “lives somewhere deep in the collective process and in the songwriting itself.”
In an interview with NoDef, King talks arrangements, the buzzing New Orleans music scene, goat sacrifice, cheap beer, impromptu jam sessions and the beautiful yet alien nature of the pedal steel. However, he says it’s the band, synced as a unit, that is the glue holding everything together.
Thomas Johnson, Dennis Love, Brannen Miles (better known as B-Miles,) Daniel Womack and Carter King form the core of the laid-back, psycedellic country-rock group. Their latest 13-song studio album Baba Yaga, released in 2014 is a mythical adventure, inhabiting a music realm not easily defined. A live show with these guys picks you up and shakes you a little. Makes you want to head bang until the music stops. Or, be sedated by the syllabic charm of their rocking lullabies crooning against the backdrop of unexplored frontiers.
Futurebirds perform at One Eyed Jacks Saturday (3.14) with Water Liars and Yard Dogs. Tickets are $10. Doors are at 9p.m.
In your bio, your most recent 13-song album Baba Yaga is said to deliver “an expansive yet intimate set that takes the band’s trademark mix of earthily accessible songcraft and free-spirited experimentation into inspired new territory.” Describe free-spirited experimentation.
Experimentation is a natural and necessary part the process for anyone undertaking any kind of creative endeavor. When we are making an album, the songs ebb and flow from the get-go with people's parts, instrumentation, and arrangements slowly finding their way to where they will live on the record. A lot of times, that is a very personal thing, even if its someone else's song you are working on, "what do i have to add, or not add, to make this song the best it can be?" And other times, it's a collaborative thing, "what if we tried this here, or everything fell off at that part?" More often than not, that ends in, "no way. scratch that, that's terrible. who's idea was that?!?" But you've got to go there. You have to wade through all that to get to the good stuff.
And it doesn't end there either. The songs continue to evolve in the live setting. Arrangements and different parts continue to morph because what works on a record with the opportunity to overdub and overanalyze endlessly, doesn't always work on stage. You have a more restricted palate with which to make it interesting, so you have to find ways to do that.
You’re playing in several upcoming festivals. Tell me about what it took to get to this point where you’re touring full time and booking shows all over the country. Any plans to go international? Any advice for amateur musicians?
We've been at this now for 6 years, 4 of which have been filled with pretty extensive touring. It's a slow and determined ascent for sure, one foot in front of the other. On the international front, we've played in Canada, so we already are a true world band… But we'd love to get over to Europe, Australia, Japan, and wherever else they'll take us. All in due time. To the younguns out there: god bless ya!
What kind of tour bus are yall driving these days?
We travel around in a Ford Econoline E-350 15-passenger van, named Paco. She's safely delivered us through some pretty sketchy situations, some of our own design…
Tell me about your roots in Athens, GA. How has “place” influenced you?
Athens, GA could honestly be the 7th member of this band. We never escape an interview without talking about it. And even though we live all spread out now around the southeast, with only one member still actually living in Athens, we still call it home when people ask where the band is from. Because it is where the band is from. It's where it was born, and we wouldn't sound the same without our Athens upbringing. Like New Orleans, Athens is swaddled in a sort of hazy myth and mystery all its own, and that's recognized by people everywhere, whether they've been there or not. There's something in the water there, or more likely, it's in the cheap beer…
Pedal steel is a driving force in your harmonies. It accentuates the emotional quality of the songs. Your voices even mimic its lulling melody at times. Has this instrument become a solidifying factor for Futurebirds’ sound direction?What do you consider to be your driving sound? How do each band member and each instrument complement the other?
People really latch onto the pedal steel when they first hear our music. I think its the beautiful, alien nature of the instrument to most people – the "what is that sound?!?" kind of thing. And it's a great tool to be able to utilize outside of a strictly country or gospel realm where it usually lives. As far as a driving sound of the band, I think that truly lives somewhere deep in the collective process and in the songwriting itself. People are always trying to pin 'the sound' on stuff like the pedal steel, the big harmonies, the use of reverb, or jangly guitars, but those are all byproducts or end results of what came before that. There are plenty of bands with one or all of those things, and I refuse to think that if we move away from those elements, we are losing what makes this band this band. We've been working on a new record, that will hopefully be out this year, on which we stripped away a lot of that stuff and it may honestly be the most we've sounded like ourselves yet.
Everyone in Futurebirds writes and sings his own songs. What is the role of subjective story telling in the song writing process? What is the collaborative process like?
Like I was just saying, it's that collective process where I believe the sound really comes from. It's what everyone brings to the table on a given song. No matter how solidified a song is when it comes to the band, even if its a complete, polished demo with all the guitar parts worked out, it's still going to take on a life of its own when everyone else gets there grimy hands on it… Also, it's kind of a necessary element when you do have multiple songwriters, because we aim to make cohesive albums, not sound like 3 or 4 guys, who put some songs of their own together on a record. It takes the sound of the band as a unit to glue that all together.
There’s an awesome jam that gets pretty deep into a psychedelic groove in “Death Awaits” – is it the product of an impromptu jam sesh? How do you come up with the arrangements for extended instrumental segments?
They are all born in different ways. And you just have to accept that, and try and recognize the keepers when they surface so that you can keep fanning the embers down the road. That one, in particular, actually did have its roots in an impromptu jam session on Tybee Island, GA, off the coast of Savannah. A few of us were staying with some of B-Miles' friends and they had a bunch of gear set up in the house. Once it made it to the studio, we spent a lot of time on that part, probably too much time, figuring out the intricacies of how all the madness going on in that section would work together, flow in and around itself, so its not just indiscernible noise, but rather melody and specific parts hidden under the guise of indiscernible noise.
What is the physical sensation of being on stage while entrenched in an epic jam? Do you ever improv on stage?
We only have a couple songs we do live where the jam itself dictates the structure or length of the song. When those sections are taking off and everyone is going the same place together, it's a lot of fun, probably more so for us than the audience. There is a good deal of other improvisation on stage aside from those songs, but it all happens within the confines of the songs themselves. Guitar solos will change up, people will try things – different things on certain sections, playing in a different manner, trying to give the song a little different feel for a short bit. It's fun to try and pull something new out of your hat in front of a crowd, adds a small rush to the set. This all is mainly an aspect of us trying to keep the songs fresh for ourselves as much as we can. If we are getting bored with the music, the audience will pick up on that and probably become bored themselves.
What is the most noticeable progression from your first studio album Hampton’s Lullaby to your latest, Baba Yaga?
It was between the recording of those 2 records that we really started to hit the road hard, so the main difference we all noticed was that the band itself sounded way more like a unit. That came from playing together all the time. Probably from living together for so much of the year as well. So, 'Baba Yaga' sounded way more like one concise record, coming from one band, where 'Hampton's Lullaby' was a little more sonically all-over-the-place.
What is New Orleans’ role in today’s current music scene? What is the importance of music preservation and how do you apply to your songs, either consciously or subconsciously? How has the music of the past helped you evolve your own signature sound?
New Orleans is the coolest. There's so much going on, buzzing on so many different levels, all happening simultaneously, and all at full ramming speed. Sometimes it's overload for someone just dipping a toe in, I've been there. But all those streams of energy, some very very old and some new, are tangled up into a culture purely its own. There's nothing like it anywhere else. New Orleans exists as most bands can only wish to sound: a wide mix of influences, that span time, and add up to something that is purely original. Something that is gorgeously inviting by day, but can also scare the shit out of you if you turn down the wrong alley at night.
How do you prepare for a show? Any pre-show rituals worth noting?
Usually a couple drinks, a little stretching, try not to eat dinner too close to show time, that one is a sure-fire show killer. And right before we go on, we sacrifice a goat.