13 Ways of Looking At a Futurebird
Jason Thrasher

13 Ways of Looking At a Futurebird

I. Among 13 wistful tracks, chiming-bell guitars weave languidly through gauzy blankets of pedal steel on the hypnotic new album from Futurebirds. The band’s second LP Baba Yaga plays like one long, gorgeous, road-weary sigh. There’s a lonesome distance to the music. As if it’s coming from some other place. If you put on a pair of headphones, dim your laptop and close your eyes, you’ll soon find yourself adrift on an ocean of sound. “Space can be just as powerful as any instrument,” says Thomas Johnson, who like most of his Futurebirds bandmates, sings, writes songs and plays a variety of instruments including guitar, banjo and mandolin. “Part of the purpose the music serves for us is, not escaping, but transcending. We have a weird, dark energy amongst us—it’s supposed to be moody.”

II. The Futurebirds are of six minds. They are of one mind. They play like fingers on a hand. Each member—Johnson, frontman Carter King, Payton Bradford, Brannen Miles, Daniel Womack and Dennis Love—adds his indelible stamp to the music. Five of them contributed songs to their carefully crafted new record.

III. By far, Futurebirds spent more time on Baba Yaga than anything they’ve released since forming in Athens in 2009.  They began by making demos of 30 songs in the summer of 2011, and then hit the studio with friend and engineer Drew Vandenberg at Athens’ Chase Park Transduction in autumn of the same year. Though Vandenberg was co-producer and principal engineer on the project, several band members have interned or currently work at Chase Park as engineers themselves. “It was nice having multiple people who could run the studio,” Johnson says. “To be able to not completely drain your engineer, let him have a break if he needs one, and still continue when the creative juices were flowing.”

IV. By the time Futurebirds finished the record seven months had passed. The slower pace allowed for a more relaxed, collaborative process: more experimentation, exploration and tinkering. Each little part was nursed and massaged until it was just right. Not to mention that, several years of touring now under their belts, they were a far tighter, more experienced band than they were on the first LP. “We had more focus, more aim making this record,” Johnson says. “Coming in, the songs were less developed than they had been in the past, which allowed us to write our parts as the songs were being written. So it sounds more focused, less meandering.”

“There was more time for songs to evolve,” King says, before adding a caveat. “Of course, you have to be careful—when you’re dealing with more time, you can be more creative and have time to think things through, but the other side of that blade is that you can start overthinking, overanalyzing every little note and frequency. But I think we found the right balance.”

V. Now that they’d made a record they loved, the band was in no rush to squander it. They took a year figuring out their next move, waltzing with several labels before finally settling on Oxford, Mississippi’s Fat Possum, for whose back catalog they had a particular passion. “Now,” King says, “we’re labelmates with Iggy Pop, which is awesome.”

Futurebirds. Photo by Jason Thrasher

Futurebirds. Photo by Jason Thrasher

VI. Though it ended well, the whole lengthy process of making and releasing the new record was not without its shadowy patches. For a while, they wondered whether they’d ever find a home for it. “At certain points, things looked bleak,” King says. “Thomas and I were talking and I said, ‘maybe we haven’t actually made this record. Maybe it was all in our heads—a big joke that’s been played on us; some myth we made up.”

VII. That conversation in mind, Carter began researching mythical creatures. It wasn’t long before he’d unearthed the album’s title. “Baba Yaga perfectly nailed this record for us,” he says. “She’s an old witch out in the woods in these Russian folktales. She’s really ugly—this horrible child-eating witch, and most of the time [with this record] we felt like we were the children out in the woods being eaten. But also, in these tales Baba Yaga always provides some bit of wisdom—without it, the protagonist would not be able to achieve their quest. So she’s a necessary evil.”

VIII. The new record is a coming-of-age manifesto for the Futurebirds, who—now a bonafide touring machine—have been lured into the lucid, inescapable rhythms of the road. “These songs were written within the scope of us all living in a van together,” King says. “Some of the themes are communal because we’ve been playing and spending so much time together. For the last three years, we’ve shared so many experiences. The sound comes from that, too.”

IX. On Baba Yaga, Futurebirds are out on the edge, at the fringes of normal society, mining some undeniably classic, primal rock ‘n’ roll territory. “A lot of the record is about growing up from being 22 to being 27,” Johnson says, “and since we’re always traveling, how life evolves over that time—the disconnect between what we’re doing and what the majority of our friends and family are used to. The disconnect, and the struggle and stress it puts on your relationships. There’s a dark energy to the record, and I think that comes from the uncertainty of what we’re doing. Not about whether we should be doing it, but about where it’s gonna lead.”

X. One place it’s led in the last year or two is away from Athens, as band members have returned to old hometowns or followed girlfriends to new cities like Atlanta, Savannah, Chattanooga and Nashville. Womack is the only one who has remained near Athens. “He’s in Danielsville,” Kings says, “12 miles outside of town, living in a cabin in the woods, losing what’s left of his mind.”

XI. Wherever the Futurebirds reside, Athens will always beat strong in their hearts. “It’s the perfect incubator for a small band,” Kings says. “It’s a small town, but the university is there, so young people are just flooding in and out of the place at all times. It’s dirt cheap to live, there’s a supportive music community. It was the perfect place to start out.”

Futurebirds. Photo by Jason Thrasher

Futurebirds. Photo by Jason Thrasher

XII. Part of this fondness comes from the wily Athens veterans who have taken Futurebirds under their wing—David Barbe, David Lowery, Widespread Panic, Drive-By Truckers. “We’ve learned numerous valuable lessons from them,” King says. “Getting to see from the inside how these bands run their ships, you try to take as many notes as possible. And they’ve schooled us on mistakes they’ve made, in hopes that we won’t repeat them.”

“I think they see a little of themselves in us and what we’re doing, and that’s inspiring,” Johnson says. They have endless knowledge we can only hope to obtain someday.

XIII. Bobbing in the tide of Futurebirds’ transportive sonic waves, it’s best to cut loose the sails and drop the paddles overboard. There’s a letting go in their sound, a separation from the self. And perhaps the band has no choice in this matter. The very name Futurebirds is imbued with the idea of  transcendence—of flying away, of rising above the now to some mysterious, normally unattainable plane of consciousness. That aforementioned other place. Where it’s evening all afternoon. Where it’s snowing and going to snow.

“It’s not something we had in mind when we named ourselves Futurebirds,” Johnson says, “but it’s an apt analogy for what our music is about. As much as we can, we’re standing above the moment, looking down at what we’re doing. There are some shows—and they always seems to come at just the right time—when we’re dragging, or on the long end of a tour, and we have a show that reinvigorates us. It’s hard to explain. You’re up there playing, and everything is just flowing out of you. You’re consumed with it, but you’re not thinking about it. It’s like you’re watching the whole thing happen.”

Related Posts