Blue October's Justin Furstenfeld talks guitars, feedback and bagging "emotional drama"
"The last record was pretty heavy, and it came from a very dark place," says singer-songwriter and guitarist Justin Furstenfeld, referring to Blue October's 2011 album, Any Man In America. "That was a record that had to be made, not necessarily for listeners or critics but for my daughter."
Any Man In America was a raw, emotional concept piece that chronicled, in sometimes exacting detail, Furstenfeld's divorce from his first wife and the bitter custody battle that ensued. Happily, the singer, who remarried in 2012 and recently sought treatment for a dependency to alcohol and prescription pills, says that he's in a much better place these days, as evidenced by the upbeat tone on Blue October's just-released album, Sway.
"For this album, there was no turmoil or emotional drama," Furstenfeld says. "This is a record of peace and confidence, getting through to the other side. The main rule for me when we cut it was, not one song can be about how hard Justin has it. I've done that. How much more can you beat a dead horse, you know?"
MusicRadar sat down with Furstenfeld recently to talk about making pain-free music, his love of feedback, what new artists he's listening to and which guitars do the trick for him.
Even though your life has calmed down now, it's certainly true that many great artists have made some of their best music during times of trouble – like John Lennon, for example. Do you think that a content artist can make great music?
"I wouldn't say 'content.' I would say 'growing.' There's only so much time you want to spend watching somebody circling a drain. If you watch a film or a documentary about somebody in turmoil, there comes a point where you want to say, 'OK, get off your ass!' You don't want to sit there forever going, 'Oh, poor guy.' It's exhausting. That gets old pretty quick.
"Content artists – and I again, I wouldn't say 'content'; I would say 'growing' and 'learning' – they take you to new places. The truth is, I've only used up about five percent of the subject matter that's available to me as a writer. I've only written about me. There's 95 percent of other topics that I can find all over the world by just looking. There's so much that's in front of me. You can only write about yourself so much. Enough, you know?" [Laughs]
The overall theme to the last record was pretty easy to pinpoint. What's the new album about?
"I'd have to say that it's about the light at the end of the tunnel, and that it's here right now. You only have so much time on this earth, so you need to live it up and be proactive with your life. Whether it's depression or whatever it is you're going through, there has to be a solution to the problem. And if there isn't a solution, then what are we here for? The only reasons why we're here are to be happy, joyous and free."
I've read that you wrote over 60 songs for this album and whittled them down to a more manageable bunch. Sixty songs sounds like a lot.
"That's what I do. There's a lot of songs – they're happening all the time. There was a lot of dark songs, too, but they're ones I wrote a while back. Like I said, I didn't want to shine a light on those ones 'cause I did that already. When we started honing down the songs for this album, we focused on the ones that were about hope, empowerment and confidence.
"There's an essence of anger in some of the songs, but it's anger directed at the turmoil; it's about getting past the bullshit and the drama – letting go of the stuff that's weighing you down. It's about living in the 'now.'"
Oftentimes, we ask artists about who influenced them when they were growing up, but I'd like to know who you're listening to now. Is there a current artist who's having an impact on you?
"I'm a huge Sigur Ros fan. I like bands that work hard, like the Kings Of Leon. I'm impressed with bands that don't wait for somebody to do it for them; they go out there and make things happen for themselves. Peter Gabriel is somebody I've always admired, but he's not a new artist. There's some new ones, but I go back to The Cure, Gabriel, Johnny Cash, Nine Inch Nails – artists that really dig in and work at it."
How do you work at your guitar playing? Do you sit down and practice? Do you study other players and take a little from what they're doing?
"Lately, I've gone down to simplifying my sound. I've always relied on so many different pedals and amplifiers. You know, I call myself a 'stunt guitarist' – I'm not really a guitarist like some other guys. I put my fingers in the right places, and I make the sounds happen. Our guitarist, C.B. Hudson, is more of the real guitar player in the band. He actually knows scales, notes, chords – I don't.
"What I've gotten into now is taking off the reverbs, the wahs, the phasers and the crazy digital aspect of everything. I'm only playing through a Tube Screamer and a delay pedal, and I'm working the natural sound of my guitar and the Vox. And doing that actually makes me look at my playing and work on my chops – I can't hide behind so much stuff anymore."
Furstenfeld on stage with his treasured Ibanez AS80NT. © Tim Mosenfelder/Corbis
You've talked about your love of feedback – and I hear you letting the amp go crazy on the song Sway. Who do you think used feedback well?
"Oh, my God, that's a great question! The band Idaho out of California. They're one of my favorite bands of all time – really understated, real underdogs. They taught me how to use feedback as an atmosphere, as a solo, as a landscape for the art of it all. Feedback is gorgeous, and it sounds like your instrument is crying.
Pick up any Idaho record, particularly the early stuff – you'll see what I'm talking about. It can give your chills, dude. I think that guitarist uses a Jaguar and a Matchless amp, with a little bit of delay. He makes it all swimmy-like, you know?"
What about Hendrix? He loved to use feedback.
"I never got into Hendrix. I think he's awesome, and I love the guy, but I never studied him in that way. I'm funny with some players. Now, David Gilmour… God, I love him. I'm more into the smooth licks that just tear your heart apart than the guys who are all over the whole realm. But then again, I did grow up on Motley Crue and stuff like that. Mick Mars just blew my head off. That guy's amazing!"
The song Bleed Out is very atmospheric, with lots of guitars crashing into one another. What's the architecture there? How do you like to build giant guitar sounds?
"Man, I like your ear – you notice that. In the chorus to Bleed Out, I wanted to make the 16th notes on the hi-hat so much more prominent - they couldn't drag. So what we did was, we took the bass and fuzzed the hell out of it, and then we chopped the parts up in that 16th-note pattern. We didn't play it on a synth; instead, we got Matt [Noveskey] to play some really hot licks. Then C.B. came in and did his wall of sound.
"Once we gave that to Tim Palmer to mix, forget it – it was on its way. Tim has a way of making everything incredible. He's the baddest motherfucker I've ever met. I did some airy shit on top of it all – feedback and some Cocteau Twins-sounding stuff. Once you put all of that together, you have a pretty eclectic-sounding song."
Breathe, It's Over is a very captivating, gentle song – not one that many people would use as an album opener.
"I hear you, but we wanted to start from a dark place and show everybody how we've grown. It's more of an intro for the album, really. I wanted to show people where I was on Any Man In America, which is where I left off at, and take them someplace new. People might be expecting the dark: 'Oh, God, let's see what drama he's got for us now.' Going from that song into Sway is a nice way of building up and up."
I know you favor your '96 Ibanez AS80NT, but are there any other guitars you've been using?
"Man, ever since I bought that Ibanez, it's been my constant. It has the best clean tone I've ever heard, but if you want to get wild with feedback, it's there. The thing's amazing – so responsive. I have a Tele that I like to play, and I like playing my Jag, too. The Jaguar is from '94 and the Tele is a '90s guitar, as well. I can't afford to buy those vintage models. I'd love to have some, but I'd wind up breaking them and fucking them up somehow.
"But I can't say enough about the Ibanez. I've taken it everywhere, thrown it around, done all kinds of things to it, broken the neck, and it still hangs out with me. Plus, it's a nice big guitar, so it hides my belly. I look skinny with it, so you gotta love that."