Sunderland four piece The Futureheads have never been a band to toe the line. Always striking out in their own direction, with rich four part harmonies, strong north-eastern accented vocals and angular melodies, The Futureheads have been doing things their way for a decade.
The band's latest project has seen them do away with their instruments to produce a completely a cappella album that pushes their distinctive vocal harmonies to the fore and proves their commitment to breaking new ground. It was a risky concept, but as Futurehead Ross Millard explains, "it's a record we needed to make for ourselves".
With initial responses to Rant being positive and the band currently showcasing their vocal acrobatics on an a cappella and acoustic tour of the UK, we caught up with Ross Millard to talk about all things Futureheads.
Hey Ross. So, Rant is on everybody's mind now. Why are you calling it Rant and why did you pick an a cappella album?
Well we said we'd make an a cappella record because we've made four albums with guitars, bass, drums and four part harmony and I think that we've been going for over 10 years, and you get a little boxed in to your own identity.
Y'know, the rules in place start to become limitations. I think we decided to try and make acapella records so that we would blow those limitations away and change the rules for the band, so that we improved as musicians. It's not that we'll never pick up instruments again, we definitely will, but it changes things making an album like this…
So, it's not a total change of direction?
Yeah often when we did studio sessions people would say "oh you guys have interesting four part harmonies". It's just sometimes you don't hear them because of all the other instruments. In the studio when you mix a track and we were just hearing the vocals alone, we've thought "that that sounds pretty good, and maybe with a little more work we could do something with this…"
OK, who in the band's idea was it?
Well, we had an a cappella track on the very first record we released, and that was actually at the insistence of the producer. Then someone else suggested that we do Live Lounge acapella around 2010. Once we'd done that it seemed pretty obvious to all that there was a future to it.
What's your take on the festival season and touring. Do you have a most memorable gig you've ever done?
Oh yeah, without a doubt Glastonbury 2005. It was a highlight because we'd done festivals before, but this was the first time we did an open air stage at a British festival, and everyone was aware of the songs. That was a huge crowd, like 25,000 people singing along, OK, so not in harmony *laughs* - but still singing! It was an emotional experience, you don't get things like it anywhere else.
How would you describe the philosophy behind the Futureheads?
There's a few things that are important to us. In the beginning we had some set rules, we would definitely sing with our voice and accents, we wouldn't put on the 'Mid Atlantic' accent, which was pretty popular back then. In the beginning there were no effects pedals and no talking in between songs. In terms of writing songs it would be not repeating anything, so songs would usually have three separate sections.
I think over the years you sort of bend the rules, and invent new ones, but one of the main things about us is that we've been a total democracy the whole way through. A lot of bands have a frontman and then some backstage characters. But for us we split everything equally, total democracy in terms of decision making and things that we do. I think it's what kept us together over the last decade.
How have the machinations of the music industry affected the Futureheads?
Sometimes your head gets turned and it's quite easy to fall into this world, by accident, when all of a sudden people are throwing money at your project. Before long it becomes political, and there's difficult decisions to make. When we started the band, where we're from in the north east, there wasn't much of a music scene and certainly no music industry. No bands that led the way in terms of signing deals, touring the world and things. We had no peers, so for us we never entertained the option of doing those things. It was very much going to be part time whilst we were doing other things. But, some opportunities came along and we went for them. We run our own label now and we own the copyright to all our material. It turned out really nicely but it could have been really different.
So you never really planned to go full time as a band?
Yeah it was utterly by accident. We toured Europe in squats and youth centres with a band from the local scene. They took us on our first tour. That was the world that we inhabited, the underground scene of individuals putting on these shows where a band were lucky to get their petrol money paid! But it was a friendly scene and it was really exciting because bands from the States came over and we were very much outside of the traditional music industry.
By chance some guy came along to a show in Newcastle, and approached us afterwards as a manager. At first we said no. But he kept persisting and showing up at different gigs. After saying 'no' a few more times, we finally said 'OK, maybe you can get some shows that we can't get ourselves?'. It just slowly blossomed from that.
Well, it's good to hear that bands can still go out there and make it big!
True, it's hard out there. A lot of bands seem to have the wrong idea about moving to London and trying to network or meet the 'right people'. I truly believe if you just work hard and play as many shows as possible in the right places, and carry on working as a musician and a songwriter… y'know - good music always comes out in the end, no matter what. I just think sometimes people chase this dream too much.
Indeed. Do you guys listen to much of what's going around you in the music business? Are you influenced by trends?
I think a lot of bands can make a really great record and nobody hears it 'cos it's not in keeping with what's popular right now. For us, we live in quite a small bubble in the North East, we're out of the 'rat race' but there's a healthy scene here and I think it influences us.
We're inspired a little by people that we meet up here, and gigs that we go to on the local circuit. To be honest I think we're on our own trajectory now, because as a band we know what we're capable of and what we're not - and we know what'd be interesting for us to do next. This acapella thing wasn't trendy, its was interesting. In fact the album's kinda risky in a lot of respects, but it's a record we needed to make for ourselves.
And what's it like for you when you finally release something new?
You never know what someone's response to a record is going to be. Once it's done and out there, it doesn't really belong to you. Its out for everybody to pass judgement on, but I do think if you make an album with other people in mind, or the radio in mind, or for the press, or even with what you think your fans would like, you'll make mistakes. Then you aren't really making your music anymore; it becomes something else.
We had a bit of a bad episode on our second record, we went made exactly the record that we wanted to make, we felt it was a great album, but it wasn't very well received, critically or commercially. It was problematic for us because it took a long time for us to have some confidence again. So we made a couple of albums in between, which have been part of the process of building up the confidence to do things like Rant. You need to be in a more powerful position if you do something like this, otherwise it's hard to pull it off.
I think also it's important to learn that nobody is invincible. Everybody has bad episodes, but it shouldn't interfere with the creative process. You can't control what people say, think or write about you, which can be painful, or excellent. I suppose you take the rough with the smooth.
Ok, last question... as a guitarist, who is your greatest inspiration?
I feel like the greatest guitarist ever would be Jimmy Page from Led Zeppelin. All the Futureheads are big Zeppelin fans. That's one of the bands that brought us together in the beginning. But my personal favourite - or the one who's inspired me most, is a guy from an American indie rock band called Built to Spill, called Doug Marsh. He's a bit of a cult hero, the band's not very well known in Britain, but are pretty big in the States. They're kinda a psychedelic rock outfit for people who don't smoke pot! I just think he's a great player, really melodic, really interesting style. Definitely worth checking out.
Interview: Jack Oughton
Catch The Futureheads live and unplugged on the following dates in April:
10th: BIRMINGHAM, Glee Club
12th: NOTTINGHAM, Glee Club
13th: MANCHESTER, Royal Northern College of Music