Nine Songs: Ezra Furman
In his early teenage years, Ezra Furman’s ambition was to write prose, but when he discovered music he changed his artistic path.
A combination of finding unexpected musical treasures in his parents record collection, punk rock and classic songwriters set the tone for the music he would go onto make himself. “These songs made me want to become a musician and made me fall in love with music - abnormal music.”
As with the way that storytelling informs his songwriting, the songs that Furman has chosen also have a narrative, of connection, self-expression and individuality, as well as a linear storyline that charts his path of musical discovery. “These songs are the nine massive influences from my youth, they don’t really represent the latest sphere of what I’ve been listening to. They’re all from before my first band and they’re chronologically organised, so let’s do them in order and I’ll get older as we go.”
“This song was on a tape of the Billboard Top 10 hits of 1961 that my parents gave me. That tape was a big deal to me, I listened to it all the time. I got a Walkman and it was my first experience of private listening to music on headphones. When I go back to this tape it’s like a crystallised moment of when listening to music became a spiritual thing to me almost, like this sanctuary.
“It had ten amazing songs, there was ‘Blue Moon’, ‘Runaway” by Del Shannon, ‘Tossin' and Turnin' by Bobby Lewis and a weird, great song called ‘Goodbye Cruel World’ by James Darren, which is about getting your heart broken and joining the circus to be a sad clown. ‘Daddy's Home’ made Doo-Wop really important to me, it’s this Doo-Wop ballad and there’s these funny, weird choruses where they 'rat-a-tat' and I love it.
“But one time when I was listening to it, because I’d been listening to the tape so much the batteries in the Walkman were getting low and the songs went slower. I thought I was going crazy, like, ‘I don’t think the tape sounded this way?’ It was 10pm at night, I was a kid, it was on ‘Daddy’s Home’ and the Walkman was totally running out of batteries. I thought I was going crazy and I was so afraid, but something about that always stuck with me. When something that’s so familiar to you becomes fucked up and sounds really weird and starts to scare you, that’s some of the most interesting music in the world.
“I felt like the same thing happened with The Beatles when they got experimental, they were so friendly and loveable and then they started to get strange. Hearing that as a kid, I sometimes try to access that making music and ‘Daddy’s Home’ is like that for me.”
“I cannot emphasise enough how much this band was my gateway into music. I wasn’t really interested in music, although I had that tape from my parents when I was ten, with the first CDs I bought I just saw the other kids had CDs and I was like ‘I’ll get a Sugar Ray CD and Kid Rock and stuff.’ I didn’t actually care about any of it, it was just something you did, the other kids would take out their books of CDs on the school bus in 6th Grade.
“But then in 7th Grade, when I was twelve years old, I found a copy of Dookie in my house that my older brother had left lying around. It was my favourite music I’d ever heard and it was the first time I thought ‘this belongs to me, this is for me,’ I’d never heard punk music of any kind before. I loved it mostly because it was music where the guy is admitting that he’s fucked up, that he’s a messed-up person, not well-adjusted to the world around him and he’s owning it as a badge of honour. It was saying to me ‘the fact that you don’t fit in might be a good thing about you.’
“I was very upset when I was eleven or twelve that I wasn’t one of the popular kids and it was very obvious to me that I was, I don’t know, like a nerd or something. It could have been any punk band, but I think Green Day in particular is so twelve-year-old, it’s so hyperactive, it’s like ‘screw all you.’”
“I was thirteen and I guess that’s where I was led, going down the branch and trails of punk rock. I saw The Sex Pistols on VH1 and it took a ten-second clip of Johnny Rotten singing ‘Anarchy in the U.K.’ for me to be ‘That’s me, what he’s doing is exactly how I feel, my destiny.’ I didn’t care that they were British or that it was about the UK, I cared about the way he said ‘Anti-Christ’ and how he enunciated it. His singing was a big deal for me because of his enunciation partly, he wanted you to know exactly what the word is and it hits home.
“With both Green Day and The Sex Pistols, I don’t swear by them and I don’t totally respect everything they’ve done. If you compare The Sex Pistols to The Clash it’s a gag, but there’s no denying the sheer importance of this guy as a screamer and a singer. I heard The Ramones around the same time and I didn’t hear The Clash until a couple of years later, but there was really no punk music that ever got me as much as Johnny Rotten as a singer did. The Clash were more lasting for me, but in terms of sheer first impact and really influencing my singing especially, it was Johnny Rotten.
“Sam Cooke once said ‘You have to go to the audience, lift them from their seats and make them feel what you feel.’ He was another great enunciator; I feel like him and Johnny Rotten really have something in common, they’re like ‘Here’s the song, it’s going to land in your mind when I sing it, because I’m going to grab you by the collar and say it to you.’
“The next summer I went to summer camp, me and this other kid were into The Sex Pistols and he asked me to shave his head into a mohawk. I got into so much trouble, I had to mow the lawn all summer.”
“It’s historical in my life but this is the Bob Dylan song that showed up first. Here’s what happened, I was getting into punk rock and at summer camp this kid said ‘You just have to learn one chord on the guitar, anyone can do it’ and I was ‘Great, I’m going to learn to play the guitar.’ My uncle bought me a guitar but the rule my parents made was ‘you have to learn some stuff that we like, like Bob Dylan.’ I was like ‘OK, who’s that? Fine, I’ll do it and then it’s back to The Ramones.’
“My mum got me a book of Dylan songs and I went to the first one, ‘Absolutely Sweet Marie’, it was alphabetically arranged. I’d listen to it and learn to play it for my mum as a chore but hearing it... it was all of it actually, but most of all it was the sound of his voice. Millions of people have talked about this, but he’s a mind-blowing singer, one of the greatest ever. I can’t believe that people are like ‘that guy can’t sing’, whoever says that doesn’t know anything about music or the point of it.
“I heard it and was like ‘what is this?’ I listened to the whole of Blonde on Blonde and that was the biggest feeling I’d gotten since discovering Green Day and punk, it was such a big deal and I was like ‘I want to be a great songwriter.’ I started going through my parents records and it was ‘Oh, they don’t only listen to boring music’ and essentially that’s when I started to be interested in songwriting and writing great lyrics. Before that I was working on writing prose, but with songs it was ‘this thing is way more satisfying to write and it’s faster.’
“Blonde on Blonde is still my favourite Dylan record and that’s a hard choice, because he’s got some pretty damn good records. He has this world, Bringing It All Back Home was like building a world of this Rock and Roll, surreal poetry stuff, but by the time he got to Blonde on Blonde he was able to freely play and do these crazy seven-minute songs.
“With ‘Absolutely Sweet Marie’ there’s not a lot of pressure on it, it’s clearly not the centrepiece of the album but he so fully inhabits this person he’s created and that’s something that I aspire to still, to create a voice in which you can almost say anything and it still sounds good.”
“So I’m getting into my parents record collection at this point and Sail Away by Randy Newman jumped out. He was really inspiring to me as a songwriter, he’s so concise and nothing he does hammers stuff over your head. I really got into ‘Political Science’, it’s just a great song.
“A couple of years later it was the war, the US had invaded Iraq. I was sixteen and going to anti-war protests and stuff and I decided to play ‘Political Science’, which is about bombing the shit out of everybody. When I played it to this open-mic, anti-war crowd, that was maybe the first standing ovation I ever got and that was a big deal. I wasn’t an amazing performer at that time, I’ve got to tell you. I missed a lot of notes, trying to play it on guitar and screwing it up in a big way I’m sure, but it came across anyhow and it’s a great piece of writing.
“That was my gateway, good songwriting is a disciplined art. When you’re listening to Bob Dylan it’s easy to think ‘Oh, he’s just going a million miles a minute’, maybe that’s fair, maybe that’s not, but with Randy Newman, he’s a fucking writer. Randy Newman remains a huge influence on me.”
“I first heard ‘Mother’ when I was fourteen. I know the Plastic Ono Band album could not be said to be underrated, it’s one of the more famous records in history, but I still get the feeling that it’s something that’s underrated, it’s literally one of the greatest things I’ve ever heard.
“It’s got three things that aren’t usually combined. One is obviously top songwriting instincts, few can match John Lennon in terms of those, it’s in his blood and he’s one of the best at it ever, on a pop level the structure, the part that makes you get into it, is always going to be there. Then there’s his decision to go very stripped back and simple, which doesn’t often go with or most people would do to a song like ‘Remember’ or ‘Mother’, most people would put more on it. The third thing is just the pure, raw subject matter and delivery.
“Most people who feel like screaming their guts out are going to do it over some loud-ass sloppy music, but he is both one of the best screamers ever recorded and also in charge of this band that’s just like the band from ‘I’m So Tired’. It’s really bare-bones and that’s so affective, but you couldn’t pull it off if you didn’t have his songwriting ability, it’s my gold standard of raw music.”
“So we’ve gotten past me getting into my parents music collection. I first heard The Strokes on Saturday Night Live playing ‘Hard to Explain’ when I was fifteen.
“Up to this point I thought there were no new bands in the world that were worth listening to. It was a combination of where the music world was at in 2001 and how little I knew about it, but it seemed like ‘you don’t listen to something new, because something new is N-Sync or Korn. I’d better stick to the ‘60s and ‘70s.’
“I instantly responded to the fact their music was about feeling a lot of feelings, yet trying to look like you feel nothing. That’s what Julian Casablancas was doing, he was trying to be cool in a cool rock band, but it was intensely transparent to me that he’s an emotional guy and he’s acting cool. When I was a teenager, all my male friends were trying to act tough but this just hits that thing, it manages to be cool but you could also see right through him. I could see it in his eyes that we had something in common, a repression, like a broken-heart in a leather jacket.
“There’s also a feeling of being out of control but staying totally in control, that was one of The Strokes things, they seemed like this sloppy Rock and Roll band but they’re so precise. I remember he left the stage and the microphone nearly fell down but he got back to the microphone barely in time, it’s very clear that they’re almost off the rails and then they’re totally not.
“I became the biggest Strokes fan. What changed was ‘Oh, there are good bands now.’ I started listening to the radio and it was like ‘music culture is actually mine’. Me and my friends started going to shows, seeing The Strokes at The Aragon Ballroom or whatever. So many people were like ‘They’re just a throwback and all the songs sound the same’ and I’d defend them and say ‘This might be the greatest band ever.’
“As time goes on I think they sound really original, I don’t think they sounded like Television or whatever, they sounded very much like themselves. There’s definitely antecedents, but the way the drums sound like a drum machine and the guitars almost sound like they’re made by computers, I don’t think anything sounds quite like that.”
“I think it was the version of ’Sweet Jane’ that came out when I was fifteen, the Loaded version but the original intention, which they cut up after Lou Reed quit the band and he was so disgusted by. At the time I probably loved ‘Sweet Jane’ or ‘Heroin’ the most but ‘Sweet Jane’ was the most important one for me and influenced me to think that I could maybe be in a band.
“By this point I was starting to write songs but had no intention of having my own band, I was just interested in being a solo troubadour or something, or that’s all I felt up to. But the way he delivers that song, I feel like it still influences me, it’s not only his freedom as a Rock and Roll singer, but you can intuit his freedom as a human being and it’s like nothing I’ve ever heard. It’s the asides, the way he’s not bound by the structure of the song, he’s kind of improvising, he made a song that was so powerful he could dance on it. He was in touch with the essence of the thing and it wasn’t anger, it doesn’t seem reactionary, it seems free, as he drives towards some kind of death.
“Me and my friends used to sit in the car and turn ‘Heroin’ up to top volume and blast it, listening to it all the way through and not talking. We all felt this drive towards freedom and/or destruction and I think that’s what this band is, a drive towards freedom and destruction and you don’t know if you’re going towards total freedom or if you’re on death, or maybe those are the same thing. ‘Sweet Jane’ has it too - ‘life is just to die’ - I found it very life affirming.”
“This is a jump forward, I’m probably twenty when I heard this. My sister played it to me, I was pretty versed in punk bands and was ‘How did I miss this one?’ I thought they were an original punk band and I then discovered they’d just come out. This was in the run-up to me finally forming my first band, Ezra Furman and The Harpoons and starting that band changed my life, ruined/saved my life and brought me to the world I’m in now.
“I think it was Art Brut’s sense that you could just yell what you have to say and get as excited about it as you feel. ‘Emily Kane’ was the first song I’d heard of theirs, it’s also maybe the first time I’d really heard that kind of actual excitement. I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone get as excited as that. I mean everyone’s heard punk singers screaming and but on this he’s like ‘Oh my god, I feel so much!’ That was the kind of thing that made me think ‘I’ve got something here’ and my first band was about that, being overwhelmed by your own nervous energy in a way that’s exploding out of you.
“I don’t think Eddie Argos is trying to be cool, or if he is it’s not in the way of trying to seem like he knows more than you do, which most singers do, or maybe I just think that everybody knows more than I do. Art Brut was like a re-write of the obvious stuff about punk, clearly he can’t sing and he doesn’t try to, it’s like ‘Is there a band? Great, because I have to yell a bunch of stuff right now.’ It’s really well-written and dynamic in a brilliantly paced way.”