The album, Powers, is available here:
30th August, 2019
I have quite a bit to cover now…
but I will get to The Futureheads’ track, Good Night Out, in a minute. Their new album, Powers, is their first since 2012 and it has been picking up some big reviews. I want to talk about great bands that we need right now and keeping them focused; independent venues and why we need to keep them alive; music from the North East and why we need to have people look beyond London; records like Powers and the honesty behind them; I will talk a little about The Futureheads and where they might step next. I am going to quote from a few interviews as I go along – and will do so in a bit – but, when thinking about bands we need in our midst at the moment, The Futureheads come to mind. I have been following them for a few years but their debut, The Futureheads, arrived in 2004 and is, to me, one of the best albums from that decade. Not only did that album introduce us to their version of Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love – always risky when someone covers Kate Bush but they succeeded -, but there were so many gems. Since then, they have forged a career that has seen them inspire other artists and release simply amazing music. Maybe their earlier albums were more angular and complex: subsequent released have been more primed towards fun, big choruses and something a little more free. Things have not always been smooth in The Futureheads’ camp and getting them together for their sixth album has been a challenge. I want to bring in an interview they have with NE Volume where they discussed their latest record and how hard it has been to get everyone together:
“You’ve been tucked away recording your sixth album. How has it felt to be back in the studio doing what you do best?
Recording our sixth album has been an invigorating experience. Making every album has been different: the challenges for this record have been getting everyone together in the same room for more than ninety seconds which has been quite the feat. But the energy when we are all together has been quite something and we can’t wait for people to hear the fruits of our labour.
PHOTO CREDIT: Andrew Benge
Can you tell me a little bit about the creative process behind the record?
Barry came to this album with a lot of instrumentals sketched out in demo form: guitar parts, riffs and drum beats. With Ross, I traduced his riffs and tunes a little later. The rest was thrashed out over a period of four or five months in First Avenue Studios in Heaton. Once the instrumentals were down, we set about writing lyrics and harmonies. We’ve not really done it like that before where we have 12 fully-recorded instruments before any vocal ideas are down.
There are some great bands on the scene right now – including Metronomy, Foals; IDLES and Stealing Sheep but, if you think about the best albums released this year, the majority are from solo artists. I am not sure – as I have said many times – whether this imbalance is because of trends or the fact solo artists can achieve more and create more diverse sounds. Whatever the reason, bands have taken a bit of a back seat the past few years. I feel one of the problems is the fact bands were sort of sounding the same and the music was not resonating the same way as it did from solo artists. The Futureheads have always stood separate and done things differently; a gang who can whip up unusual and brilliant songs that are both cool and geeky, fun and serious – every song from the band is packed with original thought and life. Bands are in resurgence and I think, at a time when the world is split and strained, we do need the beauty and colours only The Futureheads can provide. Their invisible touch is potent and I hope the guys continue to make music for many years to come. It has been a fight getting them together and focusing for the new album – I will talk about this more soon – but it seems like The Futureheads are entering a new phase; there are gigs coming up and I hope to catch them if they come down to my local venue (Alexandra Palace).
I will return to that interview I just quoted because there was another point/question that caught my eye: that regarding the decline of independent venues and the effect that has on artists. I am one of these people who feels like there should be more attention paid to venues. So many artists are plugging and playing these spaces and are not getting spotted. They might only get noticed when they have progressed to radio stations or are being signed. I think there is so much music happening in venues and, when they close, it can cut short the run of a great artist. I do think we are less social and, if we go out, we are not necessarily going to gigs. Venues are the lifeblood of towns and cities and, if we do not support them, not only will they close but it means so many promising artists have to call it quits – or try to find an audience online and other methods. The Futureheads talked about ways we can stop the decline of industries – they also mentioned a venue in the North East that they particularly love:
What do you think we can do to stop the decline in independent music venues?
If people want to see shows, they need to get out and support bands – it’s as simple as that. Don’t wait until bands are playing Academies before you show an interest.
Do you have a favourite North East venue you enjoy playing the most or that’s shown the band particular support over the years?
Well, The Cluny has always been a good one for us but I’m not sure we will ever top the days of playing the function room upstairs in the royalty in Sunderland – it was DIY fun at its best.
Bigger spaces can remain open because of the capacity and the fact they can attract huge artists to come and play. Even a space like Alexandra Palace, one feels, would feel threatened were it in Central London and was subject to higher rent prices and faced a lot of competition from surrounding bars.
I think a lot of successful venues flourish because of where they are located. Living in London, I know how many fantastic musicians are playing and primed for future success. Even though we have streaming platforms, people need to see them perform because that is how you get noticed. Artists cannot solely survive on the Internet and they need to cut their teeth at venues – that is how they get good and ensure their material is decent. I think many have this romantic vision of bands playing in garages and playing down a local bar; being spotted by a scout or label and then playing venues around the world. Maybe that has happened for a few but the reality of making it in the industry is far more pragmatic and tough. Artists have it harder now than they ever did and we need to ensure that venues are subsidised and protected. If we allow them to fall victim to unreasonable rent prices, noise complaints or a lack of interest then that has a hugely detrimental effect on the future of music. Bands such as The Futureheads would have honed their craft in places around the North East. The Sunderland-raised band have come a long way but would not be where they are now were it not for venues. I am not sure whether there are more or fewer live venues in Sunderland now compared to a couple of decades back but, with venues like The Cluny and Independent, there are great venues there or nearby. Sunderland is a cultural hub and an area seeing improvement and resurgence all of the time. I do wonder how artists there are faring and whether they are looking at a success story like The Futureheads and wondering if they can make it as big. I think, with some great artists coming from the North East, we need to make sure there are adequate venues for them to play – save them having to play in the North West or come down to London.
Cities like Sunderland have given us bands such as The Futureheads, Kenickie and Field Music and, from Newcastle, The Animals and Maximo Park. I know we tend to focus more on areas like London when it comes to new artists but one cannot ignore the brilliance and promise of artists from the North. The Futureheads succeeded because of their hard graft, fantastic sound and wonderful live performances but, as I mentioned, are artists coming through now able to succeed – or will the closing of venues mean we will see gradual growth rather than explosion? I think there is something different in the North that you do not get in great areas like London and Brighton. Maybe it is the culture and people but there is something more thrilling, illuminating and nuanced, I think. Maybe that is a generalisation but I have always found myself drawn to music from northern artists. Whereas the North is not as subject to exorbitant rent prices and so many bijou, snotty wine bars replacing them, they do have to fight harder for media attention. We still look too closely at London and, as most of the biggest radio stations and venues are based down here, it means the North has an unfair disadvantage. That said, there are some terrific stations in the North championing the best new acts coming through. I know for a fact there are artists inspired by The Futureheads and following in their footsteps. It would be good to see more features appearing in the press and online that shines a light on northern acts and venues. As it stands, so many artists are moving to London because they feel they are being ignored where they are. It is a sad state of affairs and I do hope things change in years to come. I shall move on to another topic because, with The Futureheads back in force, it is worth looking back at the last few years.
Rant arrived in 2012 and, whilst there have been bits and bobs since then, Powers is the first thing we have heard from the band in terms of albums. The band sort of called it quits back in 2013 but, unlike other bands, there was no carnival and fuss: the band sort of just slipped away and that was it. They have been reborn and revived, luckily, but they have had to face obstacles and personal problems. When speaking with DIY, the band spoke about the period between 2013 and now and what has been happening:
“Nowadays, when bands decide to call it a day, the decision comes loaded with a fresh schedule: farewell shows, final festival performances, just that one last chance for fans to catch a glimpse before they disappear (for a while, at least). But when Sunderland’s finest The Futureheads threw in the towel back in 2013, the quartet did so quietly, with no real final hurrah.
The Futureheads in 2019 is a different prospect to where they left off. “I think we’ve got the best of both worlds at this point,” Barry ponders. “Sometimes I wonder what it would’ve been like if, during our career as The Futureheads, we had maintained some kind of foot in the door of reality. Actually, I find I’m far better at writing songs when I’m a genuine part of society, rather than a bohemian think freak, who’s playing jazz guitar late at night.
And those five years have thrown up all sorts of inspiration. From the challenges of dealing with mental illness – a struggle Barry himself has been very open about – to the quiet contentment of beginning a family, ‘Powers’ is a record which seers with personal honesty. It’s via the charged march of ‘Across The Border’, though, that the North Eastern band find themselves facing politics square in the eye, with the issue of their town’s relationship with Brexit becoming the main focus. “I know that very little is understood about what Brexit really is,” Barry sighs. “You can’t ignore it,” adds Ross. “It’s no longer an elephant in the room and for us, the fact that Sunderland became this sort of flagship city that seems to embody ignorance, it’s really disappointing, because it’s just not the reality”.
It is interesting picking up on a few points raised in the interview. The fact that Sunderland’s residents will have a different view regarding Brexit and our Government varies to, say, somewhere like London. When it comes to artists from the North such as The Futureheads and Sam Fender, they share common threads with others but, in terms of politics and local observations, their perspective differs. Every artist is aware of Brexit and the ongoing chaos but, in an area like Sunderland, Brexit is affecting people differently. I am not sure whether the looming departure will affect the prosperity of the cultural scene in Sunderland and how it will affect jobs. Although Sunderland is a little more homogenised than it was years ago, there are still a lot of residents working in manufacturing and other industries like that. You can check out a breakdown of the employment figures and realise that, when it comes to leaving the E.U., Sunderland voters had their reasons for wanting to leave. Maybe some of that was based out of fear and media propaganda but, if people feel like they would be richer and more stable out of the E.U., it is small wonder they would vote to leave – where a more cosmopolitan and wealthier city like London would want to remain and keep its economic structure. The Futureheads have reflected politics and changing Britain in Powers but, more than that, they have been looking at their personal lives and situation. In fact, on one song, they do deliver this thought: “Wouldn’t it be nice to go on holiday somewhere in Italy/How about a beer in Germany?”. It is clear Brexit is keen on their radar but I like the fact The Futureheads have mixed modern politics with emotional honesty and talk about mental-health – something that is becoming far more common and discussed in music. It is great to have The Futureheads back with us and, judging by the reviews that have come in for Powers, they are on stunning form. Maybe it is the electricity in the air and the chat in Sunderland; perhaps they are rejuvenated and have a renewed bond. Whatever the reason, the band are entering phase 2.0 and looking to the future. I have selected a song from Powers to review but, before I come to that, it is worth returning to that point about The Futureheads’ sound and how it stands out.
A lot of bands are original but, when it comes to sticking out and staying in the head, there is nobody like Sunderland’s The Futureheads. Again, it might be because of a natural northern intuition but I have always loved what the band put out. They are accessible and memorable but they do not follow the herd and replicate what is already out there. Sometimes they go a bit bonkers but it just sounds wonderful. I will move on in a bit but, right now, I want to bring in a snippet of an interview they gave with Louder than War, where the nature of their sound was discussed:
“There was always something wonderfully off-kilter about The Futureheads. In a period where guitar bands were ubiquitous, the Mackem four-piece belied their post-punk bluster with songs replete with four-part harmonies, manic segues and inspired covers (‘Hounds of Love’ remains a staple of every Saturday night indie dancefloor). Their demise was just as different – last seen around 2016, the band were used in an advert promoting Bupa healthcare.
“We got a fair bit of stick for that,” laugh The Futureheads today, fittingly looking in good health and in even better spirits. “But I dare anyone who feels inclined to make criticisms to try and survive, for just one month, as a professional artist and see if they can turn work down.” Indeed, in The Futureheads’ fallow years, two of the band have drifted into education (bassist Jaff Craig is “the tallest primary school teacher in the North East”), guitarist Ross Millard does graphic design and drummer Dave Hyde tinkers with plastering.
Formed in 2000, The Futureheads became part of the burgeoning scene that boasted the floor-filling indie of Franz Ferdinand, Kaiser Chiefs and Razorlight. Choppy, irresistible but cerebral, the likes of Decent Days and Nights, Meantime and Area showed their considerable songwriting chops. Skip to the End, The Beginning of the Twist and Heartbeat Song were later entries to a strong canon, but after Rant, the group went their separate ways, singer Barry Hyde allegedly retreating to the desert and becoming some sort of new age savant”.
Like the very best Futureheads tunes, Good Night Out wastes no time with flirtation and teasing: it rips off the clothing, jumps on top of you and breaks you in half. That vivid (and rather explicit) description might suggest the band is throwing volume and rawness into the mix but, rather, it is sheer energy and strut that opens the song. The band paint beautiful images as they talk about the summertime and the people on the street. Maybe the visions are not as romantic as you’d get from a Lana Del Rey song – the vistas and streets of Sunderland are, perhaps, less glamorous than that of L.A. or Malibu – but you get this physicality and beauty. The realness and honesty of the song has its own charms but The Futureheads manage to make something potentially humdrum and ordinary sound utterly beguiling. Visions of older gentlemen letting their guts dangle on the beach – you need to see the video to get what I mean – and dogs making hay whilst the sun shines might not seem gleeful and perfect but, when it comes to this band, they are making it sound so. If the opening verse sounds like a representation of the beaches, streets and alleys of the local scene, Good Night Out is more a tale of modern mores and politics. The band mention pay and, if you earn less, perhaps, then you are not included. I get the sense the band is drawing a line between their community in Sunderland and Westminster; the fact there are privately-educated politicians making decisions that benefit them and not working-class areas like Sunderland. In a wider sense, the band knows that politicians are thinking about themselves. When the chorus talks of swapping all of this for a good night out, I wonder whether the group are talking about how going on the lash is escapism from the pain and division around us or whether they had other ideas. It is an intriguing line of thought and, as you’d expect, there is little room for gloom and minor keys. The band ensure the song remains vibrant and fulsome.
PHOTO CREDIT: Andrew Benge
As the song goes along, the video gets more colourful and interesting – cigarette butts in the sand and baked potatoes on weighing scales seems to be more about political commentary and symbolism than it does for comic effect – and you start to get more involved in the song. The band discuss boys looking like zombies; they are dazed and in a dream (whether fatigued by the rush around them or self-destructing) and are “caught selling off our history in a black-market pact”. You get a sense of the divisions that are not only happening in Sunderland and the North East but all around the U.K. Voters are making decisions that seem right to them but will have huge consequences. There seems to be a divide between age groups and generations; between those in working-class jobs and the more well-off; between those who have a voice and those who do not. A lot food can be found in the video for Good Night Out – including ice-creams and tomato sauce being drizzled on a piece of fish – and it sort of reminds me of the videos of the past. I think there is a dependence on fast cuts and soulless visions, especially in mainstream videos. In a way, The Futureheads are throwing it back to the past and have released a visual that is very eye-catching and curious – maybe that was the intention: talking about a pre-divided Britain and what we are all facing in 2019. The chorus is one of the most evocative and uplifting of this year and, whilst the lyrics are pretty serious and political, you cannot help sing along and get involved. I wonder whether the line “Talk to the river at the end of a good night out” relates to someone vomiting after a pretty heavy night or, sadly, taking their own life – maybe there is something more spiritual and less literal but one cannot resist imagining. Not only are The Futureheads discussing the changing landscape and how Britain is shifting but there is this need for escapism. To get away from the endless Brexit talk and stress, maybe a good night out is the best remedy. That said, one gets a sense that the band might be talking to the less affected and politically-motivated young. Perhaps they are more concerned with getting buzzed than making their cross on the ballot paper felt. Perhaps there is apathy and less vocal outrage from the young compared to the older, more political voters. It is interesting to see and, the more you play Good Night Out, the more you discover. It is a triumphant song from The Futureheads and a triumphant jewel in the crown that is Powers.
The Futureheads are at Rough Trade Nottingham today before heading to HMV Manchester tomorrow. You can keep on top of their gig plans - and I will try and catch them when they are down in London at Electric Ballroom on 6th December. The Sunderland natives play the city’s Bonded Warehouse on 4th September and it will a homecoming of sorts, I guess. It is wonderful to have the band back and, with Powers out and striking all the right chords, doubtless there will be other demands and gigs coming. Make sure you follow The Futureheads on social media (links are at the bottom of this review) and check out what they are doing. They are such a captivating and real band who can mix politics and something serious with sheer giddiness and fun. That is a hard balance to strike and, even though they have seen a lot of division in their local community, the band have not abandoned their whimsy, quirkiness and thrills. Instead, we have a modern record that documents what we are living through and subjects like mental-health but they make us feel uplifted and better whilst doing so – something a lot of overly-serious artists can learn from. The band are getting a lot of love right now and seem to enjoy being back on the road. I have been listening back to The Futureheads’ earliest material and marveling. They are this terrific force of nature who have been responsible for some of the best songs of the past couple of decades. I do hope they remain strong and together for the foreseeable future as it would be a shame to see them call it quits. I shall leave things here but, if you have not grabbed a copy of Powers, make sure you do that right now. I wanted to concentrate on the Good Night Out single because it is my favourite song from Powers – and it has a pretty cool video! The canny Mackem band is our Marra (I’ll stop trying to use Sunderland terminology) and they have won their way into the nation’s hearts. I hope they have many more golden years and release more material. Here’s to The Futureheads and a potent musical force that are continuing to inspire and amazing. Let’s hope these guys keep on playing and amazing for years to come because we all…
PHOTO CREDIT: Paul Alexander Knox
LOVE them dearly.
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PHOTO CREDIT: Paradigm Talent Agency
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