Justin Furstenfeld, singer and songwriter for Blue October, has been living in a world of hurt. He recently suffered the pain of divorce and has been in a battle with his ex-wife that invaded every corner of his life.
On Blue October's new album titled Any Man In America, Furstenfeld writes and sings about his experiences against a backdrop of swirling guitars, ambient textures, and big rock rhythm grooves as provided by his brother Jeremy on drums and bassist Matt Noveskey. David Bowie and U2 producer Tim Palmer was there to put it all in order and the result is an album filled with dark passion.
The Texas-born singer does not mince words and here he talks about his long battle with depression, the nightmarish experience of trying to gain custody of his daughter, Blue, and how he has written about these things in his life over the course of seven albums.
UG: Going all the way back to Blue October's first album, The Answers, you've been working with multi-instrumentalist Ryan Delahoussaye. Did you know your music was going to use these different textures like violin from the beginning?
Justin: Oh, yeah. I've been doing this for about 22 years now and I've had bands since I was 14. In high school I had all these bands and I kinda got played out of the whole, I wanna be in a rock band. I always found myself writing dark stuff and then when I met Ryan at the High School For Performing and Visual Arts [in Texas], we were both little punks and we'd both cheat off of each other's papers. But we were great at what we did; we were the best at what we did in theater. I was good at theater and he was good at violin. I just liked to write songs and poetry and stuff. When I met him, I knew he'd be this huge asset to a band and we just started a thing called Harvest where it was just me and him. Acoustic guitar and him being the ribbon to my present; he was like the bow that ties it. We've always maintained a very awkwardly cool bi-polar art rock feel by doing what we do.
Is that how you describe it?
It's not Dave Matthews and we love that but it doesn't sound like Dave Matthews. But we love violin and if we didn't have Ryan it wouldn't be so much fun.
You talk about writing these dark songs from the outset. On one of your very early songs, Colorado 5591, one of the lines reads: A simple love song/A simple love gone wrong. You've been writing about broken hearts for a long time.
It's not necessarily the darker things that I've been experiencing in my life; it was mainly that's how I saw life. I remember in my high school band, I think part of the reason that we broke up is because of all the parents having a parents' meeting. We're in high school remember and we're all living with our parents and we were all playing gigs by then and we just started touring. And they're all going, Well it would be great if Justin wasn't singing about a kid blowing his head off there. I remember just having to be very cautious with those guys of how they didn't understand where I was coming from; it was very awkward. In high school, I was already put out as the guy, Oh, what is he talkin' about? Is he insane? I was depressed and that's just how I see the world and I really want to help people who feel this way. I remember I played a song called Black Orchid back in high school and it was the first time I ever really played what I wanted to say. It was a song about suicide; it was a song about a kid giving up on his life and killing himself. And it was a very, very monumental point in my life because then that was where I decided, Wow, I do have freedom of speech and I can say anything I want up here. It can be a positive thing or I could really fuck up a lot of people. You know what I'm saying? That was like, This is not a good power to have; if somebody had this power who was negative. So I decided to use it positively and just be as honest as I possibly could about my depression and about the meds that I have to take and things that have happened to me in my life; just being honest in the music. And even if I screwed up, mention that, because I like it just to be all there out in front. Like, Hey, that's who I am: love me or leave me alone. I think I just answered your question way too far.
No, that was cool. On the second Blue October record, Consent to Treatment, bassist Liz Mullaly, has gone and you've been signed and dropped by Universal Records.
Yeah, that was a really weird point in our life because saw the stuff going on in my life as a publicity stunt so they really tried to market it as like [in exaggerated radio announcer's voice], This crazy guy is coming out with some sensitive art rock in the time of Korn and Limp Bizkit. It didn't work; they didn't know what they were doing. We sold 15,000 units and it was a really beautiful album. We got dropped and it was the beginning of the downward spiral of drugs then. So then I just really fell off the deep end with drugs and being a real selfish prick until Paul Nugent and Rainmaker Artists found me in the gutter of life. They reincarnated me; resuscitated me.
On the next album, History For Sale, you have a pretty big hit with Calling You. Was that sort of the jumping off point for you in terms of your writing and some of the songs that appear on Any Man in America?
They all do because they connect to things that have happened or things that I've seen happen. I think that when we got dropped I was really upset and stuff. Calling You was just a birthday present that I wrote for somebody because I was broke at the time and I didn't know what else to do and it turned into a good song. And I was like, Wow, cool; this rocks. Kill two birds with one stone. It was really cool and just to feel again with something I wrote going through the worst time in my life ever; being separated from my daughter. I went through a divorce where the legal matters begin to turn into stuff that tells you how to love and what you should love and what you shouldn't love and what you get financially out of love. It was really an awkward time in my life and I basically secluded myself in my studio for about two years unless I was on the road and every time I came home I just went in there and I wrote. I remember writing that song when my daughter was behind me sleepin' when she was probably about two years old. I wrote that song while she was sleepin' and I remember driving to the airport and her going, Daddy, this song is pretty. It's probably one of my favorite songs I've ever written because my daughter was laying there sleeping behind me while I was doing it. So when I hear it, it's kind of like the sound of her sleepin', you know.
You bring in C.B. Hudson on lead guitar on the History For Sale album. You wanted a second guitar player? The music was expanding?
Actually I was just not wantin' to hold the guitar on stage anymore; they're so heavy and I kept breakin' strings and I'd play with five strings. I love playing the guitar; I love it. But it's just like when I'm jumping around I'm always afraid I'm gonna just sprrooonk [makes the noise of something breaking] and There goes the neck of that one. I jump around so much that my guitar goes out of tune; I'm just like a madman onstage. So I needed somebody that knew how to play guitar and knew what they were doing and knew exactly if I said I need this [imitates guitar lick], he can go [re-sings the same guitar lick]. Right there. I love playing the guitar; I like to turn it up to 11 and have some feedback and delay on it and the next thing you know you've got Pink Floyd's The Wall sound.
Did you listen to other guitar players? Did you want to be the rock star?
Not the rock guy; I let C.B. be the rock guy. I wanted to be like The Edge or I wanted to be Johnny Marr from the Smiths or the best guitarist ever: Jeff Martin from Idaho. It's a band called Idaho where he doesn't really play solos; he lets the feedback just take over his solo. Oh, god, it's so god; it's like a shot of heroin. I'm serious. That's what it makes you feel like. He describes his guitar sound as a drug-induced narcotics run at a brand new time where you might get busted at any second; that's how he describes his guitar sound. I'm like, Wow; dangerous. I love the feedback shit.
Did Jimi Hendrix interest you?
I would have to say back that far it would have to be the jazz and blues; B.B. King and Chet Atkins. More of the Big Band and the blues for me; I was never really into Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan. I guess they're the baddest and the first and the best at what they do but I like the idea of less is more.
By the time of Foiled, the fourth album, you're writing songs like Hate Me. Are you becoming a better writer?
That was the first and only album where I was left alone; the only one. And that's what still bugs me today: that was the only album they let me do by myself. There was no producer there and the producer we did use, Patrick Leonard, we didn't use his tracks; the label didn't like em. So we used all the ones I did. We had an engineer, Jose Alcantar and Chick Reed and I said what I wanted and nobody said, Oh, you can't do that or What do you want to do that for? because I'm easily swayed. Somebody that I look up to tells me, Why would you want to do that? then I'd go, Oh, I'm sorry. Foiled was the album where I was in LA by myself when they had three months of torrential downpours and the house was falling down everywhere and it was very depressing and it was awesomely beautiful at night and day. I'd sit by myself and just work. If I had an idea, Jose would get up and run to the studio and we'd be there for 18 hours at a time. It was the album that almost killed me because I was so much into it physically and mentally. That's my favorite album.
You started working with producer Steve Lillywhite on Approaching Normal. You were a big Peter Gabriel fan and Steve had produced Gabriel before.
He made the band sound the best I've ever heard em sound. He brought the band out in Blue October and he made us sound like a million-dollar band. Jeremy [Furstenfeld; Justin's brother on drums], Ryan [Delahoussaye] and Matt [Noveskey; bass] wanted to please him and it was awesome. They wanted to see Steve Lillywhite say, Good job and I did too so I let Steve Lillywhite run the show. He did his thing and every now and then I'd say, Hey, we need more guitars for it to rock and not necessarily the 38 tracks of strings you just put down. I love the 38 tracks of strings; they're in there if they need to be in there.
Say It from the Approaching Normal record had a great lyric line: You'll know when you're fine/'Cause you'll talk like a mime. Are you searching to say things in new ways? Looking for new rhymes?
I'll never repeat something somebody else has said. It's like, Why did you say the same thing you've heard before? I worked with Glen Ballard where he said, Why did you just drive past the money? Why didn't you stop and pick it up? Which I agree with sometimes because the simpler the better but I always like to be the one that's like, Oh, I never heard it said that way. Ooh, neat.
The last album, Ugly Side: An Acoustic Evening With Blue October was interesting because you could really hear the songs on these various albums stripped down. As you were working up the arrangements, could you sense how the songs connected with each other? The progression of them from the earlier to the more recent albums?
Yeah, actually it was quite cool because you could always tell the ones you could play without the band and without any kind of tracks or samples and it still sounded really amazing; we could turn them around and change them up. Like playing the song The End, the hardest song we've ever written about murder and betrayal, playing that song acoustically was so neat because it was like telling a ghost story. Doing the song Coming Closer acoustic was so cool because we could switch it up and do it even more hip-hop than it was on the album and I really liked doing that because I think they all have their acoustic form and they all have their electric form. Some of em sounded better than the other ones; I almost wanted to go rerecord em.
"Calling You was just a birthday present that I wrote for somebody because I was broke at the time and I didn't know what else to do and it turned into a good song."
You touched on the hip-hop element, which is there on the song Any Man in America, the title song of the new album. Where did that come from?
I've been on the rock scene for quite a while and I love the rock scene but I just don't like all the rock bands. I love Nickelback but you've got to write a new song, bro; I've heard the same one 50 times. If you wanna be a rich band and that's what you want out of life that's cool; I'm in it for the art. I don't need to be rich; I just need to put diapers on my baby and make sure my girlfriend's cool and I'm straight. I was lookin' for something to believe in in the art field and it just led me right down the street to hip-hop. Those guys had the simplest lines in their heads at a time when I needed it the most; when I was doing through a divorce and throwing it against the wall with emotions. They were just telling me, No, fuck that, just get up and be confident. Everyday I'd just wake up and put that shit on and it would make me feel confident again. When I turned on the rock stations, what did I hear? [in a mock rock singing voice] Oh, I was so scared of myself. Shut up! I just wrote a song that made me famous called Hate Me? What a whiny guy is this? I had to change that; I'm a dad now, I'm a father now and I've got to step up to the plate. I can't do that anymore; I can sing it and still feel what it meant back then but I can't be that fake ass guy anymore.
The hip-hop artist Ray C guests on the Any Man in America track and some of his lyrics include Kiss my nuts, bitch and 'Cause daddy's always on the road/But you're the one fuckin' like a groupie at show. Your daughter will listen to this record one day and hear those lyrics is that what you want her hearing about her mother?
How do you know it's about her? What would give you that notion that part was about her? It's not me singing it, is it?
That's a good point but it's in the context of a song on your album.
Couldn't it be from his life? Maybe he needed to get some shit off his shoulders; maybe he lost his kids. What I'm saying to you is you have no idea about anything that has happened so far in my life and why I've lost my child. My income is the only income she has that will put my daughter through school and make sure she's OK; if she falls and breaks her skull open from skateboarding one day, she's gonna have health insurance because daddy's making it happen. Whatever I've got to do and tell the truth about things, I will. Because I want her to be a big girl one day and say, My daddy did not give up on me. I'm not trying to call anybody names; I won't do that. But if he wants to call his woman whatever and tell his story, I'm not gonna censor him. It's automatic that you sit there and thought right then that I was saying that about her and that's what's funny about it cause everybody's gonna see it that way and it's cool with me.
I'm sorry for misinterpreting that. Anyone else in your situation would have probably gone after her with a shotgun.
You can't do that cause that's not a role model thing to do. Free speech is a big, big thing in this country and it's the one thing that keeps her things paid for. I'll let you in on a little bitthat last little record, Approaching Normal, that everybody thinks we did so great on sold about 100,000 CDs because today everybody steals CD. The last song on there was The End, which I wrote in 2002 or 2003, way before I was involved with her but she was able to put it in an affidavit and show a protection clause on that. So it's like if that can happen just to keep me away from my daughter, I'm not gonna be worried about what I say. She can do what she wants to but I can't be worried about what I say about that kind of thing; it's not my story, it's Ray C's story.
What was it like working with producer Tim Palmer on the Any Man in America CD?
Tim Palmer was the bomb; he's a lot more open and receptive to ideas than Steve Lillywhite. Steve was a very, how do you say, confident man and when I walked in he said [in English accent], You're a fat lead singer; lose a few pounds, sir. And I did and now I'm gaining it back because we're off the road. I said to Tim, Man, you're gonna be the hip-hop and I'm gonna be the rock and make sure the hip-hop comes out right and I'll make sure the rock comes out right. We did a really good job at finding a median between em both and not shoving one style down too many people's throats.
On Any Man in America you were trying to shed a light on what you'd been through with your divorce and losing custody of your child?
Yeah; Tim has gone through the same things I've gone through. He has kids and cares about his kids and doesn't see a lot of them. When we were doing the album, it was like two men really trying to stick our necks out for our cause. There were a lot of things going on in my life and nobody cares; not even the legal system. There are a lot of illegal things going on and nobody wants to look at it. And we're trying to shed a light on it. We're not trying to go, Ooh, look at how bad Justin's been treated. No, we're trying to say that everybody look at how much Blue's life, my daughter's life, can be more fulfilling if you just follow the law. So we just tried to be honest about it and the great thing about Tim was he let me.
"We're trying to say that everybody look at how much Blue's life, my daughter's life, can be more fulfilling if you just follow the law."
There's a lyric in For the Love where you sing: I do it for the audience who understands the need/Standing on the stage, cut the shit and let it bleed. You're talking about being very open and honest but there is a point where it can get maudlin or simply too sentimental?
Yeah, I listen to a lot of bands like that like Counting Crows; I'm sick of hearing him whine so I stopped buying the albums. Radiohead got pretty close and then they stopped. Did Any Man in America sound whiny at all?
Not at all.
Exactly. There were points in that album where Tim had to go, Dude, c'mon, you're gonna be that much of a baby? We had to look at it like that.
The Chills is the first single and has some cool guitar sounds. Do you check out new guitar sounds in the studio?
Oh, yeah, I love it because I'm more of a sound guy than, like I said, a professional guitarist. I'm the guy who's gonna be making those weird sounds onstage. Julian Mandrake, our guitarist now, is the one who's gonna be playing the parts perfectly. I don't have to concentrate on the parts perfectly; I can just sit there and play the right note.
On the Any Man in America album, the guitarist was Steve Schiltz.
Oh, yeah, man, that guy was the bomb. Tim Palmer played most of the guitar on the album, which was another amazing thing; Tim Palmer was actually our guitarist on the album. He played like Johnny Marr would so I was freakin' out the whole time; I grew up on that kind of stuff. He's been in bands his whole life and he played as if he was Johnny Marr. And then when Steve Schiltz came in, have gave it like that indie feel that was just so good. I played a little bit, my feedback and stuff like that, and it was really nice. A lot of it we kept from my demos and just went straight through a POD. That darn POD, when you're writing there's some stuff you end up keeping if you mess with it a little bit; it's really good, you know.
The Follow Through is the last song on the album and it's meant to convey hope for the future?
Of course it has to be there; there's a baby involved. It's basically, Look, let's lay down our bullshit and move on. We've got to move on and be stronger. Let's stop fighting. Please. That's all I want out of this whole thing and I will praise the day of how great a mother she is if she just let me see my child. There you go.
You are not allowed to see your daughter?
Man, when I want to see her, it's like finding God on the other side of the earth and going through all the money and the bs it takes to fly to Nebraska to get her and come back. To maybe have her stand me up because she might not stand me up? She will stand me up? It's harassment; it's bad but I'm not gonna stop.
Is your daughter a fan of Blue October?
She doesn't even know what I do for a living and that's what's so sad. She doesn't even know I'm in a band; I'm not whining or anything, I'm strong, but that's got to change. That's just wrong.
What are your plans now?
I'm going straight into the studio and finish up my work and start working on the third chapter of my book that I'm putting out. And I'll have a bunch of new songs because I'm always writing.
Photo credits: Contactmusic.com
Interview by Steven Rosen
"I was lookin' for something to believe in in the art field and it just led me right down the street to hip-hop."