Justin Furstenfeld talks with Pollstar about the band’s new album, “Sway,” what fans can expect from the tour, and why he doesn’t want to meet his heroes.
In March the Blue October-cofounder chatted with us about his solo tour entitled “An Open Book: An Evening With Justin Furstenfeld.” During that conversation Furstenfeld described his battle against alcoholism and depression and said his solo outing was a way for him to thank fans for supporting the band throughout the years.
The next time we caught up with Furstenfeld, he said that he had moved past the turmoil that he documented in Blue October’s last album, Any Man In America, and that he can’t wait to show fans how much he’s enjoying life. “I’m able to make music for a living,” he said. “How blessed is that shit? I should never take it for granted.”
How does Sway differ from previous Blue October albums?
It’s a bit of a night and day experience. The last album we put out, Any Man In America, and any album before that was pretty much a self-explained diary of what turmoil I was going through at the time. While I don’t regret writing about things like that, especially in Any Man In America, because that was probably to this day the most important thing I’d ever done in my live … after that album I don’t think I could have taken my live personally any more seriously or any darker or any lower.
After that album I had to take a big look at myself and say, “If I’m going to continue making music, it can no longer be about how hard this life is.” There were certain things that I had to look at myself to be able to do that. Certain things I was doing in my life that were making things harder for myself. At the end of Any Man In America I had begun drinking so horribly, and I had begun using [drugs] again, just because of things going on in my life that weren’t changing. I thought when I put Any Man In America out that people would listen, then there would be some change and … everything would be fine.
And it didn’t happen that way. It just go got worse. I did the wrong thing. I turned to alcohol and drugs instead of getting healthy. At the end of that tour my wife looked at me and said, “Nobody grieves like this. You’ve been circling the drain for some time. Nobody grieves like this, you hypocritical motherfucker.”
I remember that day. I stopped. I was like, “Oh, my God. You winy little boy. Get off your ass. Do something with yourself.” Then I decided to change my life. … I decided to quit drinking, quit using all together. Not even just normal drinks, wine here and there, a joint here and there. Unacceptable. I’m a father and a husband and a person who’s striving to be a better person. And a person striving to be not so sad. I stopped self-medicating. I got clean and sober and realized life really isn’t that hard to begin with. That’s where I’m at now. When I started recording the album it was more work but man how much more fulfilling to not sit there and sing about what a fucking sad life I had and to be able to sing about hope.
In the advance press for the Blue October tour your brother Jeremy said, “The band is in a really great space now. Everyone is healthy, happy and doing well.” Do you think fans will see a revitalized, more energetic Blue October this time around?
Definitely. In the past it was like, “OK, I got to go tell this story. Tonight I got to really show them … the pain I’m in. Every night has to be so dark.” And now it’s like, “Oh, my God I can’t wait to get up there and rock this shit. I can’t wait to get up there and smile and show them … I’m just enjoying life.” It really exists and it’s not hard to achieve it. Just really look at yourself hard and follow through with it. Yeah, as far as the tour goes, I can’t wait to get [ on stage] and enjoy every second of being with everybody who has supported us for all these years. And for the first time in my life not have to stand up there and go, “Listen everyone. … Listen to the pain I’m in.” It’s so great [now] to be able to go, “Hey! Have a good fuckin’ time!”
It’s time to really respect the people that come to the shows, respect what I do for a living and don’t take it for granted. Just love it. I’m able to make music for a living. How blessed is that shit? I should never take it for granted.
Speaking as someone who, as a child tried to learn more than one instrument but couldn’t get past picking out notes from sheet music, hearing a professional talk about not taking his talent for granted is really illuminating.
To be honest with you, I still don’t know what chords are on a guitar. I just put my fingers where it sounds good [laughs]. If you ever ask me what key a song is in I have to look at Ryan and go, “Hey, Ryan. What key is this song I wrote in?”
Sway is only the second Blue October album with a one-word title. To spend so much time writing and recording an album and then put it all under one word – did you select the word “Sway” because you felt the song itself was a strong recording or does the word and not necessarily the song refer to something that may not be so obvious?
It’s the word. There are four strong members in this band, there are four letters in the word. It’s the way we live now. I used to go through life speeding through it and blowing up buildings left and right. … [Life’s] not so sad and depressing. Life is so simple and it’s so fuckin’ beautiful. Some people have swagger, some people have … whatever. We just sway now. This is nice. It’s so fuckin’ nice to sit in peace and just sway. When I heard that word I was just like, “Oh, my God, that’s how I’m living.”
The last album with one word was called Foiled which means to fuck everything up. I’m sure glad I’ve grown up in the past year. Now that I’m 37 years old it’s about time.
Had you already selected the name for the album before the band went into the studio?
No. I knew the name of the album when I finally heard the songs in their complete entirety. Tim Palmer mixed the album. It got mastered and I drove around … I was used to … get in the car, light up a joint and listen to the album. Now I don’t get to do that anymore. I don’t need to do it. What a difference listening to it completely levelheaded and going, “Is it good or is it not?” But then feeling like, “It’s good, Justin.” … It kept making me dance, it kept making me smile and rock back and forth. And I was like, “Man, what a great name it would be just to call it ‘Sway.’” I was thinking of calling it “Debris,” too, but then everything happened in Oklahoma with the tornadoes and I was like, “This is horrible.” So “Sway” really came through.
What surprised you the most about the album the first time you listened to it from start-to-finish?
What surprised me the most was that I actually got through it without hurting anyone’s feelings and making an ass of myself somewhere along the way. … I didn’t lose the handle and end up screaming at people because they didn’t know their parts. I actually made it through this album without being a dick.
That’s a real important thing because I think in the past, as much as I don’t regret anything, I regret how maybe I would have done something. … Any Man In America is a mean, mean sonofabitch. Foiled was controlling because I wrote that fucker down in a certain way. I’m sure the band is pretty sick of hearing me go, “No, no, no, do it this way.” I thought I made it a very poignant point [with Sway] to make sure everyone there [provided] input. And they blew me away. The band really stepped up on this album and really blew me the hell away. I was like, “Wow, man. I don’t even have to work this hard. It’s just coming out.”
Rams Head Live!, Baltimore, Md.
April 1, 2012
You wrote something like 50 or 60 songs for the album.
Yeah, about 60. I always like to start with a shit load of songs and then find a subject and build around it. Find a blueprint … build a building and make sure there are all kinds of accommodations for the subject. Then you’ll notice that [some] songs … didn’t really work.
The first rule was no song on this album can be about how hard I got it. No song. I’m not going to put an album out that has the word “I” and “hurt” and “pain” and all that crap. So any song that was called “Still Broken” – take that shit off just because of the title. A song called “Keep On” that was talking about how rough things were – No. Any song about my ex-wife, take that shit right off. … Any song that I wrote when I was messed up, I had to examine those, too and go, “Well the music is pretty bad-ass.” Like “Light You Up” [on Sway] was written when I was completely out of my mind but the lyrics weren’t. Just the music and the insanity of it. Which is great in turn because it’s a song, a letter to my drug of choice. That’s why I love the song so much.
You talked about how you dropped some songs from the album, but how many songs went through the “Justin filter” and were dropped before you even presented them to the band?
They all go through the Justin filter before I show them at all. If [you don’t want the songs to ] end up on the album, you might as well not show them. Because you don’t want to have that argument later.
Then, right off the bat once you start playing them, make it known, in a nice way because if someone else had written some of it you don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings, make it known that it won’t work for this album. … Of course someone might get upset. But if you trust you and you respect them, you also listen to their opinions on [the songs].
But you know a song, when it hurts your heart to listen to, or when it fills you up with inspiration or when it gives you chills down your back because you can only imagine where it can go. Or when it makes you want to run outside and scream how badass the world is, you know those [songs] have to end up on it. But when you sit there and pull and pull teeth and it’s like having a loose tooth that never comes out, that’s when you know that fuckin’ song has to go right now.
“I’m sure glad I’ve grown up in the past year. Now that I’m 37 years old it’s about time.”
Let’s take a look at what’s going on behind the scenes when planning a Blue October tour. For instance, how many guitars does the band take on the road? I have this mental image of you or C.B. Hudson standing in room filled with guitars and trying to narrow it down to how many you can take vs how much room there is on the bus.
Matt gets to take three bass guitars on the road. I get to take one acoustic, C.B. gets to take one acoustic. … C.B. takes three electric guitars on the road, I take three electric guitars on the road. I would say 12 in its entirety. We would really like to take about 50 guitars on the road with us but we only have so much space on the tour bus [laughs].
It’s funny because now that I tour with my wife and child, we have a family bus for anybody who wants to stay sober. … That bus has started to accumulate a few extra guitars. All these baby toys and then a few extra guitars nobody knew were coming.
We were having this conversation today during rehearsals. “Okay, C.B., which Les Pauls are you taking?” “Well I’m taking four or five.” “No you’re not.”
Ryan’s a violinist. He has to take four violins, one viola, two mandolins, keyboards, I mean that’s a lot of shit to go down. Thank God I play though a box with an Iverness or a Fender. Boom. Done. Simple. Ryan plays all kinds of shit. I do not envy him.
Blue October has a very close and personal relationship with fans. They know about each member’s personal life and many identify with the personal problems that you have struggled with. My question is, when you were growing up, were there acts that you felt a bond with much in the same way your fans have bonded with Blue October?
I would hope so. I grew up listening to The Smiths, The Cure, Pink Floyd and Peter Gabriel. Especially Peter Gabriel spoke to me in a way that if he were to call me and say, “I need the shirt off of your back and I need you to give me your dog and I need to borrow your BMX bike, I need you to steal the car from your parents and drive to England,” I would have done it. I loved that man. I loved every single thing he had to say because he made me feel less alone. I loved every one of his albums because when I listened to them I could be weird and obscure just like him.
Same with The Cure, The Smiths and Pink Floyd. I remember the one line that I heard that affected me the most from Pink Floyd – [from “Hey You”] “And the worms ate into his brain.” And I just remember going, “Oh, my God. He gets it.” It changed my fuckin’ life.
Also Peter Gabriel when he sang [in “Mercy Street], “Looking down on empty streets, all she can see.” And The Cure, you could name any song from The Cure and I’m just like, “What? ‘The Spider Man is having me for dinner tonight?’ What are you on, Robert Smith? And I want some.”
I think our fans, we are so blessed to have them because they have allowed me to speak through my mind and heart from the very beginning and I think that’s why we connect with them so well because they’ve all been somewhere where I’ve possibly been. And we’re all looking for that light at the end of the tunnel in dark times. I think that I said during the “Open Book” tour I think the light at the end of the tunnel is now, and we have to really embrace life. That’s what I’m hoping they’ll see in this album. We’ve been through enough, guys. Enjoy ourselves now.
It’s been said that we should never meet our heroes. Have you ever met any of your personal heroes?
I’d rather not meet my heroes. I met one of my heroes a long time ago and it was like he shit on my face. I went to see a band called The Trash Can Sinatras. I loved that band so much when I grew up. I was like a little girl when I heard that band. I went to see them in a little place called Fitzgeralds in Houston. After the show the singer came out and I said, “Oh, my God. Oh, my God. You, sir, have changed my life. Your lyrics have spoken to me. They’re so beautiful …” this long spiel and I handed a poster to him. He gave it back to me, he didn’t say one word, and when I read it, it said, “Fuck off!” and his signature under it. Broke my stupid winy little … It didn’t make me mad it just made me like, “Wow. Holy shit. OK.” I’d rather not meet Peter Gabriel unless he wants to do a song with me.
What would you like to tell fans about this Blue October tour that they might not have caught through the usual press channels?
That we won’t let you down because you guys have never let us down. We’ll make sure you guys come out and enjoy yourselves. Live it up. Life is short.
“It’s the word. It’s the fact … there are four strong members in this band, there are four letters in the word. It’s the way we live now.”
Upcoming shows for Blue October, including Barnes & Noble instore performances:
Aug. 20 – Houston, Texas, Barnes & Noble (12 p.m.)
Aug. 20 – The Woodlands, Texas, Barnes & Noble (7 p.m.)
Aug. 21 – Dallas, Texas, Barnes And Noble (12:30 p.m.)
Aug. 21 – Frisco, Texas, Barnes & Noble (6 p.m.)
Aug. 22 – Dallas, Texas, House Of Blues
Aug. 24 – Salt Lake City, UT Gallivan Center (X96 Big Ass Show)
Aug. 27 – Austin, Texas, Barnes & Noble (6 p.m.)
Aug. 28 – San Antonio, Texas, Barnes & Noble (7 p.m.)
Sept. 4 – New Orleans, La., House Of Blues
Sept. 6 – Saint Petersburg, Fla., Jannus Live
Sept. 7 – Lake Buena Vista, Fla., House Of Blues
Sept. 8 – Atlanta, Ga., Center Stage Theater
Sept. 9 – Charlotte, N.C., Fillmore Charlotte
Sept. 11 – Philadelphia, Pa., Theatre Of The Living Arts
Sept. 13 – Silver Spring, Md., The Fillmore Silver Spring
Sept. 14 – New York, N.Y., Irving Plaza Powered By Klipsch
Sept. 17 – Millvale, Pa., Mr. Small's Theatre
Sept. 18 – Cincinnati, Ohio, Bogart's
Sept. 19 – Cleveland, Ohio, House Of Blues
Sept. 20 – Detroit, Mich., St. Andrews Hall
Sept. 21 – Chicago, Ill., House Of Blues
Sept. 22 – Columbus, Ohio, Newport Music Hall
Sept. 27 – Austin, Texas, Stubb's Bar-B-Q / Waller Creek Amph.
Oct. 3 – Denver, Colo., Ogden Theatre
Oct. 5 – Boise, Idaho, Knitting Factory Concert House
Oct. 6 – Seattle, Wash., Showbox At The Market
Oct. 8 – Portland, Ore., McMenamins Crystal Ballroom
Oct. 9 – San Francisco, Calif., The Fillmore
Oct. 10 – West Hollywood, Calif., House Of Blues
Oct. 11 – Scottsdale, Ariz., Talking Stick Resort
Oct. 12 – Anaheim, Calif., House Of Blues
Oct. 13 – San Diego, Calif., House Of Blues
Oct. 15 – Las Vegas, Nev., House Of Blues
Oct. 16 – Albuquerque, N.M., Sunshine Theatre
Oct. 18 – Tulsa, Okla., Cain's Ballroom
Oct. 19 – Little Rock, Ark., Juanita’s Cantina Ballroom
Oct. 22 – Grand Rapids, Mich., The Intersection / Showroom
Oct. 24 – Minneapolis, Minn., Varsity Theater
Oct. 25 – Omaha, Neb., Sokol Auditorium / Underground
Oct. 26 – Milwaukee, Wis., The Rave Eagles Club
Nov. 7 – Moscow, Russia, Izvestia Hall
Nov. 8 – St. Petersburg, Russia, A2
Nov. 9 – Kiev, Ukraine, Music Palace
Nov. 12 – Munich, Germany, Backstage
Nov. 13 – Mannheim, Germany, Alte Seilerei
Nov. 14 – Frankfurt, Germany, Batschkapp
Nov. 15 – Berlin, Germany, Columbiaclub
Nov. 16 – Cologne, Germany, Bürgerhaus Stollwerck
Nov. 17 – Birmingham, United Kingdom, The Institute
Nov. 18 – Manchester, United Kingdom, Manchester Academy
Nov. 19 – London, United Kingdom, Koko
Dec. 6 – Oklahoma City, Okla., Diamond Ballroom
Dec. 7 – St. Louis, Mo., The Pageant
Dec. 8 – North Kansas City, Mo, VooDoo Lounge / Harrah's North Kansas City
Dec. 11 – Boston, Mass., House Of Blues Boston
Please visit BlueOctober.com for more information.