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Callous in Sunderland

Futureheads Pull Ahead Of The Postpunk Pack

GOTTA WEAR SHADES: The Futureheads are the postpunk band of the moment.

By Michael Alan Goldberg | Posted 6/1/2005

“I know I shouldn’t, but I do,” laughs Jaff—the singularly named bassist/vocalist for British foursome the Futureheads—over a cell phone from his native Sunderland. In the nine months since the release of the band’s fantastic self-titled debut, so many doors have opened for the steadily rising quartet that the affable, animated 23-year-old with the damn-near indecipherable northern English accent could probably indulge in whatever he pleases. But the conversation at the moment is far more innocent than illicit: He’s talking about the temptation to read articles and reviews about his group in the music rags both at home and abroad, despite the possibility of either a swollen or crushed ego.

“If I know we’re gonna be in something, you know, I’ll just so happen to walk past the shop, and, y’know, I’m gonna go in and have a quick flick,” he continues. “But so far we’ve been really lucky with the press, almost media darlings. I read these amazing things and I’m like, ‘I don’t get it. Why don’t all bands read their own press? It makes you feel great!’ But we’ll see how I feel when they turn on us.”

For the moment, however, Jaff and his band mates—singer/guitarists Barry Hyde and Ross Millard, plus Hyde’s younger brother Dave on drums and vocals, all of them in their early 20s as well—are indeed living a charmed, and exceptionally frantic, existence. At home, their latest single, “Decent Days and Nights,” has topped the charts, and they’re slated to headline all the major summer festivals. And here in the States, despite no bona fide radio smash just yet (but plenty of that aforementioned enthusiastic press), the group’s stock has risen so much since their inaugural tour last fall supporting Franz Ferdinand that they’ve since packed venues on two U.S. headlining jaunts and are now embarking on a third.

No doubt timing is on their side: The Futureheads’ frenetic, serrated guitar-pop—which explores a mountain of rhythmic, melodic, and four-part-vocal possibilities after starting from base camps XTC and Gang of Four—has enough commonality with Franz Ferdinand, Bloc Party, and the like to get swept up in all that still-chugging postpunk-revival mania. They certainly are in demand—between the touring, the ceaseless interviews, the radio sessions, and all the other appearances and commitments, Jaff says that these past few days at home have marked his only time off, excepting a week at Christmas, since the album hit stores. What a difference from a year ago, he adds with a chuckle.

“I remember sitting around three or four months before the record came out, thinking, Jesus Christ, do we do anything? Are we even in a band? We’re not writing, we’re not performing. We’ve finished the album but it’s not released, we’re not touring . . . And then from September on, once we got hit with everything, it was like, ‘Ohhh yeah, this is what it’s like being in a band!’ We’ve been really tired and really excited at the same time, but no complaints. We wouldn’t have it any other way.”

And it’s hardly the Futureheads’ first encounter with hard work. Prior to that brief lull in the summer of 2004, the band spent the four years since their 2000 formation at the Sunderland City Detached Youth Project—a local center where teens could congregate and play music rather than, say, shoot heroin or steal tellys—rehearsing nonstop to hone their tricky precision playing and vocal harmonies, and touring the U.K. and Europe as much as possible—playing in squats, youth centers, and cricket clubs—to generate fan and label interest, all the while holding down crappy supermarket jobs.

Eventually they signed an independent record deal and linked up with producer Andy Gill, also the guitarist for (now temporarily reunited) Gang of Four, who was very keen to work on the band’s debut long-player. But the inspired pairing soon turned into a nightmare—the band hated working with Gill, hated the material he’d overseen, and ultimately scrapped the entire album. “That whole situation broke our hearts,” Jaff recounts. “We were so stressed out and we felt like we’d blown it entirely.”

But the label gave the band one more opportunity, and this time they went into the studio with production whiz kid Paul Epworth, who’d previously been working as a live sound engineer for the Rapture and LCD Soundsystem. Together they revamped the band’s ideas, fashioning them into the album that’s garnered loads of accolades and set the Futureheads on their current course to success, with the lessons of those earlier struggles always in mind.

“Just like you can’t take things for granted when they’re good, you can’t get too worried and down about things when they’re rough, because as we found out, it all worked itself out in the end. Now we have a much more positive attitude about everything,”

Still, that outlook strains a bit when dealing with the constant pigeonholing of the band’s sound; Jaff readily admits that their stylistic roots lie in the late-’70s/early-’80s postpunk to which they’re invariably compared (and further claims such collective influences as Radiohead, Fugazi, and Philip Glass), but naturally bristles at being lumped into any prevailing movements or written off as trend-followers.

“We’ve been playing this kind of music for five years, you know? A lot of times, in America especially, you see ’em write, ‘They’re the next Franz Ferdinand,’ and that gets our gourd a bit. I mean, they’re a great band, and it’s nice to be compared to them, but we don’t really sound like them. I guess that’s how scenes work, innit? I know that after everything that’s happened with us, they’re poking around Sunderland now, in our little out-of-the-way corner of England, and all these bands round here are getting record deals, and they’ll probably say of them, ‘They’re the next Futureheads.’ It’s the exact same thing that happened in Liverpool and Manchester in the ’90s.”

Controlling public perception is a futile pursuit, Jaff concedes, but he says that the Futureheads plan to use their next album—which they hope to write and record this summer, busy schedule permitting—to distance themselves from the postpunk pack.

“I think we are desperate to make the new record sound different, you know, just for ourselves,” he says. “We know we can, and we wanna progress. We don’t wanna be a postpunk band all our lives. We wanna be a band. Heaven forbid you might have some slow songs on the album! I don’t wanna talk too much about the new stuff until it’s written, but we definitely aren’t gonna make the same record again.”

And Jaff is optimistic that Futureheads followers will come along for the ride, wherever the band goes next. “We’ve managed to build up what we think is a pretty secure fan base that hopefully won’t desert us. I think that as long as we keep churning out good records they’ll keep buying them and coming to the shows. We’re just gonna keep our feet firmly on the ground and take small steps to build this thing up and keep it going. It’s best to do it that way rather than leap into the limelight and then be forgotten about just as quickly.”

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