Futurebirds, who hail from Georgia and Tennessee, left the nest just in time to escape East Coast storms and are headed to San Francisco to share songs from their latest LP, Hotel Parties. The album, released last September 25th, features a bit more of a stripped down approach, which effectively showcases the band’s impressive musical and vocal abilities. Prior releases, like 2013’s Baba Yaga, were known for their tripped out psych-country vibe. Either way it’s a win; both styles sound true to Futurebirds’ much loved music. Hotel Parties feels like the natural progression of a band that continues to challenge itself musically, while lyrically reflecting upon the road that has led them to their current success. The album has won universal praise from both press and fans of Futurebirds, who are so dedicated that they have their own website.
Thomas Johnson took a moment to talk about Futurebirds’ Winter Tour and Hotel Parties somewhere between Austin and LA.
Wendy Oakes: You’ve just begun Winter Tour 2016, heading west from the East Coast just as some pretty major storms were coming in. Has the trip been smooth sailing for you so far?
Thomas Johnson: We got out of town at the perfect time. It snowed about four hours while we were playing our set in Little Rock, and we had to drive through a little snow the next day. The band we’re touring with, Susto, had to push their van seven miles in the snow after Little Rock though, so we consider ourselves pretty lucky thus far.
WO: On this tour you’ve got a few dates in California, with your biggest gap in shows happening after the last one in Santa Cruz. Do you just love Cali or do you have plans for your visit here?
TJ: We definitely love California, and always try to work in a few days off to get into some shenanigans and explorations. This time we actually are playing a private show in Reno and then making our way back up [to] Oregon.
WO: Of course you’re touring on Hotel Parties, released last September. That album has a beautiful resonant sound to it; it’s not as reverb infused as your last few releases. Was that choice based on the character of the songs or a change in artistic direction for the band?
TJ: A little of both. We wanted to leave a little more room on this record for the individual parts to breathe. A lot of our earlier work is really layered, and we focused on writing really great parts and leaving the songs more sparsely arranged in general. Of course that philosophy only works if the songs lend themselves to that kind of production, and we felt like there was a lot of personal revelation and emotion that sounds great stripped back and cleared up a bit. Vocally we’ve become much more confident and comfortable with our singing voices and were much more willing to let the vocals stand out than we have been in the past.
WO: Futurebirds’ last full-length came out in 2013, and some of the songs for Hotel Parties were written back when you were on the road with Baba Yaga. Did the space of time between the two reflect time spent on the songs themselves or other creative decisions, like where you would record and who you would work with?
TJ: For us, recording has always been a function of having the time and money to get in and make the record we want to make. We’ve had to shop labels before each of our last two releases, which in our case didn’t happen until we had basically finished mastering the songs. We’re hoping to narrow the gap between releases considerably next time around, and we already have a bunch of material for the next record worked out.
WO: How was working with Brian Paulson? How did you come to work with him?
TJ: I make other folks’ records at Chase Park Transduction, a studio in Athens, Georgia, when I have the time during tour breaks. When I was first working there seven or eight years ago, I was an assistant engineer on a session Brian was doing at CPT. Spent a lot of time with him during that session and really loved his style and vibe. After we finally finished tracking the record we decided with our co-producer Drew Vandenberg that we needed a fresh pair of ears on the mix. Brian was my first thought, as I knew how he worked and his history speaks for itself. Luckily he was available and he did an amazing job bringing the songs to life.
WO: You just did a great cover of Ray Charles’ “Midnight.” What drew you to that song in particular?
TJ: Oxford American actually asked us if we were into doing that track. They wanted to have Ray Charles song on the album, and they also wanted a Futurebirds song on the album. Turns out the Charles estate is frozen in limbo right now and they weren’t able to have any original songs of his on there. This was a way to still have a piece of Ray, and Futurebirds. “Midnight” was also written by two Georgia natives, Chet Atkins and Boudleaux Bryant, and is one of my favorite Ray Charles tracks. Worked out pretty well for everyone and we’re very proud of our version.
WO: What happens after Winter Tour? Any plans so far?
TJ: We are playing a handful of festivals and mixing some club shows in to the routing as well. We’re also getting together to start the process of recording a new album, so we’ll be busy through the end of the year.
Futurebirds play The Independent on Thursday, January 28th. Susto supports. Surf Bored opens. Show is at 8.