Blue October are one of the most intriguing bands in modern rock music. The group are able to fuse dark lyrics, uplifting melody and furious rock instrumentation to create music that appeals to both the world’s alternative underground and the mainstream masses alike. We speak with vocalist Justin Furstenfeld about his influences, the band’s latest album and their upcoming UK tour…
“I will not censor myself now, and I never will”
S] You are touring the UK again soon; can you tell us what you are most looking forward to about returning to the UK?
J] It’s crazy cool for me because I grew up on bands that were based overseas like Peter Gabriel, The Stone Roses, The Smiths and The Cure. Whenever we go overseas it makes me feel so passionate and great. It really humbles me as well because some people have had our albums for around ten years now and we’re only just starting to break in over there so when we play for crowds in the UK they give us so much passion and so much love. It’s not like playing in America, in the UK we get people saying, ‘I really identify with your lyrics because of something that has happened in my life, and let me tell you a story.’ It’s really heartfelt and I am so excited to be coming over there.
S] Obviously you are creative, and creatives tend to dabble in many different things and find it difficult to focus, was it a clear journey for you into music from theatre and what did both things communicate to you?
J] It was always very clear to me, like I said I grew up on artists like Peter Gabriel and so I would see this man in a fox outfit with a dress on and yet, he is breaking my heart when he sings. It was like, ‘Wow, this mixes theatre and music.’ So, when I grew up in theatre people would tell me to play a role, and I would identify with it but I was a writer the whole time, and I would be compose short stories and songs on my weekends when I would also be playing gigs. All of a sudden people started showing up that were really into what I was talking about, things like personal experiences that I was trying to just get off my chest. At the time I was seeing all this crazy reality TV taking over from theatre and so the actors weren’t getting any work and so I thought why can’t I incorporate reality into lyrics and incorporate that into music.
In America, we don’t get press because people think that we are over dramatic and it’s so hard to get any work because people make an assumption and it’s like, ‘Oh, it’s that really dark guy who talks about killing himself and we don’t need that.’ To me, it’s really frustrating and now I am at the point where I just have to stay true to what I am talking about and not let those people get under my skin. These critics go to a show and they say that we are too dramatic but to the people that our music actually affects and those have a hard time getting out of bed in the morning and looking in the mirror – those are the people that I like to communicate with. So, theatre was very opening to me as a performer and it helped me learn to get out on stage but as far as writing and connecting with people, I wanted to make music that would communicate to me what The Smiths did when they would make me feel better. I mean, they were one of the most depressing bands in the world but man, Morrissey’s lyrics hit me and I just didn’t feel so alone.
S] Can you tell us the inspiration behind two of your earlier songs that are extremely different from one another – the first is the uplifting, ‘You Make Me Smile’ from ‘Foiled’ and the second is the dark and sinister, ‘Drilled A Wire Through My Cheek’ from the SAW III soundtrack?
J] Yeah, that’s just how my head works. I mean it goes back to looking at the people when they wake up in the morning and they are having a hard time just getting through the day. It maybe because of the weight on their shoulders in everyday life, or because of depression or being bi-polar or whatever you want to call it – it’s a big weight. So, when I was doing ‘Drilled A Wire Through My Cheek’ that was me battling with myself. It’s the contrast between that guy that wants to go out and do harmful things and the good guy that is able to stop himself. That was me getting sick of locking myself away in hotel rooms for three days and having these huge drug parties. I was basically at a point that I didn’t want to be when I wrote that back in 2001. The other track, ‘You Make Me Smile’ was that same person getting inspired by meeting someone who can make him a better human being and them thinking, ‘Why would this person even want to be near me?’ So that was a very beauty and the beast kind of idea that makes you think about the fact that when you, touch the edge of her skin’ it then inspires you not to do these bad things.
S] You are an incredibly open lyricist and you have been hailed for this, what would you advise to other people, musicians who have a desire to write from the heart but feel that they must write to a certain style and format to fit into a certain genre and please a certain audience?
J] Well it’s a fine line, seriously. I mean it is a business when you get into these major corporate labels and they want you to sell and for us, when I came along with a background of listening to the Cocteau Twins and Elliot Smith – I don’t think it was necessarily about the record sales for me. There came a point where I had to be so guarded with what I am about which is being as honest as I possibly can. I have been through a lot before because of it, to the point where I have been sued. I have to be that honest because the last people that I thought had the same qualities were and are geniuses lyrically and while I can’t put myself in the same category as Eminem, Peter Gabriel or Morrissey, like them, I will not censor myself and I never will and if that means I get dropped then f*ck it because this is what I do. I mean, I have a little daughter now and I want to show her that you don’t have to conform to a certain style. Of course, you might bend and shake a little bit but you don’t break your house down because someone says that a bigger house is better than the one you are happy in. I will always be honest to the point where it hurts but I will now always think of my daughter first so, if it hurts her I won’t do it.
S] If you could sit down to dinner and listen to the last record, ‘Approaching Normal’ who would it be and why?
J] That’s a great question, I think I’d want to have dinner with Eminem and Peter Gabriel, because Eminem is someone that completely doesn’t give a f*ck now and someone who really didn’t give a f*ck then. Peter Gabriel still continues to blow me away but I respect lyrically where Eminem has always gone, despite his making fun of other people, I like his serious stuff too. I think the reason that I like Eminem so much is because he can get across what I can’t about being away from his daughter and he can get that emotion out. I really haven’t figured out a way to talk about my child yet, publicly and about how I really feel. That’s a very dangerous situation for a lyricist like myself who talks about what he loves and what hurts him. Of course the main thing that I love is her, and being away from her is what hurts me the most. So, I haven’t figured that out yet so I’d want him there for that to just show me the way to talk about raising a child on the road and also about his views on censorship. Then, I would want to talk to Peter Gabriel a little bit about how he comes up with his music and how he creates these beautiful metaphors in his work. So, I’d want to talk to Eminem about his diversity and censorship and I’d want to talk to Peter Gabriel about his work and how he gets that inner beauty across with so much emotion like some kind of pain. If I could have that man, then I could rule this world.
S] You’re pretty close to your family and friends, so outside of your brother, do your family have a song from the new album that’s a favourite and that they can relate to and really enjoy?
J] My family, and especially my brother – he’s been the one that says, ‘I don’t know how you get up there and say all that stuff, but you do, and I respect you for it.’ If my brother wasn’t around, man I do not know where I would be, he’s always there telling me that I can be who I want to be and that I shouldn’t let anybody change me, and that I should keep going when we’re out on the road. And my Mum and Dad, they are that to me, times 100 and they tell me to say what I want to say. But then, my Mum will check me sometimes, for example there’s a song called ‘The End’ on the new album and it’s a fictitious story about a man who goes crazy and wants his ex-wife back. He goes to get her and finds her having sex with this new man as he stands there watching through the window, and then he ends up breaking into the house and killing them. That’s a song that just came out of me, I am not sure where it came from and when my Mum first heard that she was like, ‘How are you going to explain that to your daughter?’ In response I will raise the question, ‘How does Steven King write a book and then explain it?’ There should be no cut-off between styles of art and I think that’s why we don’t get a lot of critics because we either have to sound like Nickelback or The Killers – I mean, I respect both of those bands but that’s just not my style all of the time. My parents and my family adore the songs, they live with the songs and they are a huge part of the songs because half of the tracks include them. They support the music 100 per cent.
S] How do you think ‘Approaching Normal’ represents the growth of yourself as an artist?
J] Basically the new album was written after my wife and I had our daughter who is named Blue. A lot of it was written during that time and it looks at the trials and tribulations of having a relationship with our daughter when you are on the road and having to deal with people along the way like friends of mine that weren’t being loved the right way and I saw this and really, the whole album touches on issues including self confidence, an example of this is the song ‘Dirt Room’. That song is basically about when I got sued by my former manager that I had when I was maybe 17-or-18-years-old who claimed that I had written ‘Hate Me’ during that time and he wanted a piece of that pie. Well, the pie wasn’t all that big, I mean, I am not rich. He slapped this huge lawsuit on me of God knows how much money and it’s in the American justice system that if someone sues you, then you have to defend yourself. So, this guy could have won by lying and it could have left me completely bankrupt and then there would be no more college fund for my daughter and no more food on my family’s plate and so I literally wanted to jump out of my skin and choke the guy but I couldn’t, and so ‘boom’ there you go. The lawsuit went through and he lied during the whole thing, so it all came to light. But that song really brought out this more confidence side of me and not the, ‘Oh hate me because I am bad’ side – I don’t do drugs anymore and I don’t f*ck with that stuff, I have a daughter now so if anybody wants to take food off of her plate then they are going to have to come straight through me whether it be verbally, and I hope not physically because I try to teach self-expression instead of physical violence! You know?
S] What about the growth in the rest of the band – how have your relationships developed over the time you have toured together?
J] It’s really tough to say but as much as we all want to be with our significant others, our wives or our children, honestly as much time as we spend as a band, it feels to us like we are immediate family. If there’s a problem on the tour bus, because we’re so tight and we’ve been together for around 13 years now so for me it’s like, that’s longer than I have ever been with a girl! We really love each other so much, of course we get into our fights but the whole rule in Blue October is if you have an issue then you have to say it then and there because if you bring it up next week then I’m just going to say, ‘Whatever, that was last week.’
The difference between this album and the last was huge though. When we put ‘Foiled’ out that involved me going up to LA and writing the whole album and then saying to the guys, ‘Okay, now put your drums over that and you put your bass over this.’ It really was a completely different way of producing. When I do the production I tend to be really anal and I never leave the control room or the engineer’s side. With this album Steve Lillywhite was producing and from the first week I was able to sit down and finally be an artist and see the band really shine. My brother just became this amazing drummer and our violinist transformed into this 32-piece orchestra right before my eyes. Also, our guitarist was able to come up with the most beautiful and intricate parts for these songs instead of just hitting power chords because that’s how the rock radio wants it while our bassist just created this whole new tone for us. So, I got to sit and watch the band go crazy and all I had to worry about was my melody and singing along with a couple of production ideas. The band are so proud of themselves and so they should be – we are definitely a tighter band as a unit and I thank Steve Lillywhite for that because he took us up a level. He would even challenge me, he was like, ‘Okay, we’ve got a day left go and write me another song; you call yourself a songwriter so go and write me another song.’ As a result I went to write this really sad song called, ‘I Should Be Loved’ and he was like, ‘That’s great now let’s just soup it up 120 BPM and put a phat beat behind it.’ Now, that’s our next single that’s coming out in America, so Steve Lillywhite is a genius for pulling the best out of people. Honestly, the first day he saw me he was like, ‘You’re a fat lead singer and you need to lose some weight’, and the next thing I know I’d lost 52 pounds. So, I definitely owe Steve a lot both personally and professionally.
S] You’ve said before that this album offers up a kind of light at the end of the tunnel for you, in what ways do you think that theme comes across to your audience who perhaps have never been through the experiences you have with drugs and depression, but they still listen to your music to combat a variety of problems?
J] The ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ for me I have to say is to be able to express myself, and I would say that self-expression is the best key to unlocking any rage or anger that you have in you. My personal ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ would be to have my wife and child and to know what I have learned about what is good and what is bad while being able to move forward without any regrets and to take every single bad thing that has happened to me and make it a positive. In America they say, ‘Oh, I wonder how many drugs he’s done’ – it’s not about how many drugs I’ve done, it’s just that they weren’t good for me and they put me in a worse headspace than I was before. I’m not saying I’m Sid Vicious or anything, I am just saying that I’ve done some s*it that I’m not proud of just like everybody else in the whole world. So, I would say that the ‘light’ is to be honest and true to yourself and just be able to know that you are a good person in every decision that you make and also, that you process and think about every decision before you make it. It sounds hard but really it’s easy.
S] You write for films and your tracks are carefully selected for film scores so can you tell us ideally, what film would you rip the soundtrack from and replace with Blue October’s music?
J] I would have to say that it would be made up of pieces from ‘Basquiat’, the movie with David Bowie as Andy Warhol about the painter Jean-Michelle Basquiat – that was the first movie where I was like, ‘Oh my God, I could make art for a living and live like this guy just minus the dying.’ Then there would be pieces of ‘Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind’ with Jim Carrey and some of ‘Rain Over Me’ with Adam Sandler along with a little bit of ‘Spinal Tap’!
S] What are your most exciting plans following the tour’s conclusion in October and into the next year?
J] Yes, I am going to spend some time with my daughter and then we will be out on the road again in the States and then hopefully we will be back over there with you guys next year. I think the one thing that we most look forward to is being able to come back overseas because it’s totally different over there than it is over here right now. I mean, the music here is just so processed and then every time I come over to the UK I hear this music I hear some music on the radio that I just think is beautiful. I love it. We really can’t wait.
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Blue October will tour the UK in September and October. Buy tickets here.
* Special thanks to Anna at AMpublicity for setting this up.