Fight and flight
Furman is no stranger to reinvention. From his early records with The Harpoons to his solo recordings and his work with The Boy-Friends, the Chicago native has never been one for reiteration.
Fast forward the nearly three years since his last full-length record and the person who stands before us is a musician intent on starting anew.
“I made an honest record, and kind of presented myself as I felt,” Furman says of his last release, Perpetual Motion People. “Over time, you quickly grow out of it.”
Sitting in an East London bar, Furman might not look too different from the suit jacket and black dress-clad individual who adorns that album cover but there’s every sense that the years between records have helped change him.
“To kind of increase one’s fame, you have to make a sort of story of yourself, or a cartoon version of yourself, and you build it,” Furman explains. “I built this bright coloured drawing of myself out of records and interviews and self-presentation. I totally outlived it. It wasn't really me any more.”
Seeing photos of himself on posters for shows and not quite identifying with the image he was confronted with, he knew that something had to change. “If people are coming to see that person that's in that picture, that's not really me,’” he says.
With promotional cycles for albums stretching out a year, two years, or more, Furman found himself no longer entirely comfortable with taking to the stage to “play the character” from the record that came out two years previously. “I kind of had to do this self erasure process,” he says, “blacking out the old self.”
This process took on quite a literal meaning on social media. Black squares took the place of photographs, drawing visible blocks between past and future. Instead of songs, or even lyrics, Furman shared short poems or verses. “I'm also a prose writer,” he says. “I always wanted to write stories. I was writing stories and fiction since I was a kid. I don't think any of it's really good – probably because I've mostly spent more time writing songs. Songs are actually more immediate and satisfying to me.”
"The skin on my hands and on my fingers started peeling off... I was like, 'The old me is dying right now'"
The dark colours and shared verses were a representation of Furman’s mood: a mood that seemed increasingly present in the public consciousness. “I think that it was a mood of mourning, of fear, of paranoia, and also of power – a suppressed, underground power,” he says. “It's that feeling of, 'There's some kind of power about to break out of me.’”
Resilience and strength have long been celebrated in Furman’s music, but this time he wanted to engage with these in a new light. It’s a combination of his love for fiction, a need for rebirth, and an inherent sense of capability that‘s led him to where we find him today.
“It was the Spring of 2016, and everything in my life was pointing towards, ‘Out with the old, in with the new,’” he recalls. “I still don't know why this happened, but all the skin on my hands and on my fingers started peeling off.” Quite literally shedding his skin, the prospect of rebirth and reinventing himself was one that was too prevalent to ignore. “It was springtime and everything was blooming anew. I was like, 'The old me is dying right now.’”
“I think my records usually tend to sound a lot like what my life is like at that time,” he reflects, by way of explanation. “This idea of bodily transformation was so strong in me. It made me feel like I was once again in motion and a more powerful version of myself was emerging.” This stoic sense of self has risen from the ashes of the old with the disbanding of The Boy-Friends, the formation of The Visions, and the release of Transangelic Exodus.
A collection of songs that swallow garage punk and rock and roll and spit it out into the 21st century, the record – for those who want it to – can be taken as more than a sum of its parts. Transangelic Exodus is spun around the story of a man and his lover, an angel, on the run from a government that outlaws them.
“I was starting to form a concept of what would be cool for the next record to be. I thought I had it all worked out,” Furman says. “Then crashing into my brain comes this song, ‘Suck The Blood From My Wound’, which is set in a car in a hospital and involves an angel, and involves all this stuff I didn't know what to do with. It sort of ruined my plan to make a certain kind of record.”
The poet Robert Burns once wrote that “the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” Faced with ideas of a dystopian romance and an escape from exile, Furman was determined to prove: “though this be madness, yet there is method in't.”
“I was like, 'so, am I going to make a concept record? Am I going to try to tell some story?’” he says. “I actually didn't want to. I didn't have to or want to.”
It might have been unplanned, it might even have been unwanted, but the idea itself proved too big to ignore. “When that kind of thing shows up in your brain, it's not accidental,” he says. “Sudden ideas arrive for a reason. They ferment in your unconscious and then demand attention.”
Inconvenient though it may have seemed at the time, “Suck The Blood From My Wound” and the concept behind it gave Furman and The Visions the building blocks they needed to forge the rebirth they were craving. “I think when I wrote that song I started to realise that I knew I would do it one day: to write an album that's more like literature. I think of it as trying to kind of write a novel in album form.”
Conceptual though this might make Transangelic Exodus seem, Furman is quick to point out that the album is not a story. “It's a setting and a character and a situation,” he says. “You wake up at the beginning of the record, bleeding in the crotch of a tree, and you're suddenly in it.” Hinged, however loosely, on the framework of falling in love with an outlawed angel and portrayed through the vehicle of a life spent on the run, the album is less a narrative and more an exemplified mood of fear, of paranoia, and a defiance of the two.
“I sort of created this whole backstory and sort of dystopian setting and explanation for why there's an angel, but I don't think you really need it,” Furman says. “The songs that I wrote that were sort of explaining more what happened or how, I was like, 'Actually, we don't need those.' The good stuff is not the contrived or planned out, but rather the stuff that just asserts itself as pure, emotional content.”
“I think to be a really alive and aware human being now, lately, you kind of have to be concerned with what's going to happen to the vulnerable"
The fictionalised concepts that listeners can explore through the record are an embodiment of fears and concerns that are very real today. “There's something apt about me and my companion, whose body is illegal, on the run from authorities – possibly real, possibly imagined,” explains Furman. “That's just apt that I think that's how a lot of people feel this year.”
Resonating with his own experiences of coming out as queer, the album is a resolute ode against marginalisation in any form. “I think to be a really alive and aware human being now, lately, you kind of have to be concerned with what's going to happen to the vulnerable,” he implores, “and with how can you resist a sort of moral decay of the foundations of societies.
“A lot of the record is about being queer. That's the main marginalised population that I'm a part of,” he continues. “I've been writing for a few records now about refugees and people with no place to go and what it's like to have no place to go, even for one night.”
The feeling of not being safe where you are is one that might be abhorrently familiar. Transangelic Exodus is an embodiment of the battle between seeking escape and clinging onto what you have.
“I know the feeling of paranoia and sort of wondering if me fearing for my safety is delusional or legitimate,” Furman admits. “That's a very live question, and not always for my own safety. That feeling of, 'They might kill us…' It's something that is overblown and overdramatic in one way, then in a way it's not at all. The times where you feel like there's no home you can go to, like the world's not safe for you. That's a big part of what the record is about.”
In a society riddled with explicitly sanctioned injustices and prejudices that fear can be very real but it can also be one we’re lulled into discrediting. “I normally think of myself as, 'I'm safe,' or, 'I don't live in a place where they kill people for being queers,'” Furman says. “But then again I do live in a place where trans women get murdered kind of often. It could go sour, really fast. You think you know the society you live in, and then suddenly there's Nazis demonstrating in the street and the president of the United States is like, 'They're okay.'”
The presence of the far-right in America inspired more than just the music that Furman and The Visions were writing. Furman recalls the cultural controversy following a TV interview in in which American white supremacist Richard Spencer was punched in the face.
Furman poses, “There was this sort of debate of, 'Is it good or bad to punch a Nazi?’ It was actually, to me, a very morally ambiguous thing.”
The musician elected to tackle that question head on when working on the video for Transangelic Exodus’ lead single, “Driving Down To L.A.”
The original concept behind the video was to show a character threatened by a neo-Nazi or white supremacist who then takes their safety into their own hands by brutally beating them to a pulp. The idea was amended to instead focus on the aftermath: the getaway from that situation. The questions it presents still stick in Ezra’s mind. “What is it like when you’re threatened?” he asks. “You can become a monster, a violent thing, in self-defence. It's a question of action and reaction.” There are no clear answers.
The various upheavals of last year fuel the fire that courses through Transangelic Exodus. “It's a very live question,” Furman repeats. “How real are my fears? How legitimate are they?” These are all anxieties nestled into the situational backdrop that underpins Furman’s new record. “It's actualised into a situation of, ‘We actually have to get in the car tonight and leave town. We're going to sleep in a parking lot in another state tonight, and then we're going to stay at somebody's house. They're after us,’” he says. “That just seems like something that could happen – and has happened to people who aren't me.”
Addressing such fears harboured real strength to fight against them. And Ezra has found some sense of freedom and security.
“When the world makes me feel weak, or helpless, or overlooked, or unseen, I'm like, 'I know that I carry a power’”
“A kind of underlying psychological underline of this record is finding this secret suppressed power within,” he explains. “I've seen a lot of people whose power is taken away by the society around them, and they just are so powerful within themselves. You can see it. It's just burning in there. It's not reflected in the world around them or the way they get treated but they're just carrying this fiery power.”
“I've started to think of myself that way sometimes,” he adds. “When the world makes me feel weak, or helpless, or overlooked, or unseen, I'm like, 'I know that I carry a power.'” That sentiment of strength takes shape as a lyric in Transangelic Exodus’ “God Lifts Up The Lowly”. A recurrence in Furman’s music, it’s this affirmation of strength in the face of fear or doubt that rings strongest on the record.
“It became this queer hero’s tale, in a way, because of where I come from,” he says. “The things that the narrator, or narrators, of the songs are afraid of are things that I'm afraid of. The concerns of the record? I feel those feelings. But I think that's true of all fiction. Emotionally, realness is the only thing that ever works.”
Immortalising his own emotion through fiction, Furman is presenting a new story to the world, and now it’s open to listeners to take from it what they wish. “I don't mind saying stuff on stage the way I want to say it,” Furman mulls, carefully, “but it’s really hard to see your story told and retold by a bunch of different people in a way that you didn't get to curate.” Such is the nature of any art, open as it is to interpretation. “The microphone's not more honest,” he adds. “It distorts what you sound like.”
Despite listener discretion, Furman clarifies what it means to him. “[It’s] a growing appreciation of how vulnerable marginalised groups of various kinds are. People in society who get stigmatised and are thereby threatened – which is all kinds of groups of people, really.”
Driven by the emotions intrinsic to him, through fiction, fear, and ferocious strength, Transangelic Exodus is a world of its own making, ripe for whatever empathy and exploration listeners are searching for.
“When I love a record, I really love a record. I live in it. I get into everything about it,” Furman continues. “That's what I really wanted to do. Obviously that's not its main function. You can take the record as you take most records, which is a collection of songs. I think it's main function is to be good music, really arresting and powerful songs. But I think if you want to delve deeper into what it is, I trust the listener to do that work.”
With faith that the audience can find their own meaning, the album is something of an open book. “I think a lot of really good art sort of expands your capacity for empathy as a listener,” Furman says. “You can suddenly see a world that you have not been exposed to, and see what it would be like to be a person that you haven’t ever been. I hope it'll do that.”