Ezra Furman would rather be drinking High Life. Instead, he's sipping on an Allagash White at Rainbo Club, a neighborhood bar in his hometown of Chicago. "It’s uncharacteristic of me. I overthought it. I was like, 'We’re going to talk about the thing I drink.' I didn’t want to seem low class."
Furman grants that the witbier is refreshing after a hot day in the rehearsal room. He's currently touring North American and Europe in support of his latest album Twelve Nudes. Classified by Furman as "our punk record," Twelve Nudes is a blistering response to contemporary social and political turmoil. While the album is filled with Furman’s cathartic screams set to shredding guitars, here—sipping a beer in a red leather booth—he's soft-spoken and contemplative.
I talked with Ezra about drinking Old Style tallboys to cure homesickness and the evolving role of today’s musicians.
So High Life is your go-to beer?
It is. I would have got it, but I was looking at the draft list. Somehow, it became my family’s favorite beer. It’s just always at our house. I’m into the cheap stuff, you know?
The craft beers I like are dark. I like a heavy oyster stout or black lagers and porters. Most of the people around me are disgusted when I say I’m going to have a peanut butter, chocolate milkshakey porter.
Do you remember your first drink?
Yeah, I was still 21. I was super straight edge. I didn’t drink or do drugs. It was a good first drink. My friend had gone to Madagascar and she came back with this bootleg rum. I took a big swig and she said, ‘Oh, that’s a lot!’ I was like, ‘Oh shit. I just had my first drink, I’m gonna go nuts.’ Then I started doing shots of like, peppermint schnapps with chocolate sauce. Your first night of drinking is like a genre, and I wanted to fully inhabit it.
I don’t have a lot of beer opinions, but the best beer is the second beer after you skip dinner and, like, ‘Today’ by the Smashing Pumpkins is playing.”
You just moved back to Boston from the Bay Area. Do you see any difference in beer preferences between different regions of the country?
It’s easier to find a cheap beer not on the West Coast. It’s all more expensive. It seems like they tend toward the craft beers. There’s Anchor Steam and Trumer Pils, but can I find a Miller High Life on draft in the Bay Area? Only once in a while.
I feel like the East Coast has more regional cheap beers like Narragansett and Natty Boh. I guess the West Coast has Mexican lagers. In Chicago, we have Old Style.
I’m a big fan of Old Style. I should have gotten that. Oh my god, when I first moved from Chicago to San Francisco I was like, ‘Why am I here? It’s so weird. It’s not Chicago.’ The corner store down the street from my house accidentally ordered a big crate of Old Style. It was destiny. I asked the person at the store, ‘Did you order this from Chicago because you wanted Old Style?’ They didn’t. They ordered something else, and this big shipment of Old Style just showed up. I felt like I was getting an Old Style tall boy every day to soothe my transition.
I don’t have a lot of beer opinions, but the best beer is the second beer after you skip dinner and, like, ‘Today’ by the Smashing Pumpkins is playing. I feel like listening to music is a big part of my enjoyment of beer. It’s made to enjoy music a little bit more.
How does beer fit into your life as a musician?
Well, there’s always a little too much of it around. The whole band decided not to drink at all for about a year and a half. We knew we were all drinking too much. We’d perform drunk and would be worse. We’ve eased up on that ban, but we don’t get drunk before the show. A beer or two is OK.
I just wish it wasn’t always a constant at every show. You have to live in bars to be a musician and you have to be careful about it. It’s harder for some people than it is for me. I’m sensitive to that for our sober fans.
Mostly when you’re really fucking working hard there’s something psychological about having a beer that’s like, ‘And now I’m relaxing.’ That is a part of my working life. Especially if you just drove eight and a half hours. ‘When we get there, I’m going to have a beer and enjoy the hell out of it.’
We did make one record without ever drinking until the end of recording. That ban is now lifted. Making the last record, I feel like we were often a bit tipsy. It can loosen you up in a good way sometimes. Other times it just makes you tired. It’s a roll of the dice. I will say that we drank a lot of Coors Banquet making the latest record. I don’t know why I’m against light beers.
It feels like a Coors record. Like, let’s get loud, pound some Coors and scream a little.
It’s a cheap beer record for sure. We were really into that first FIDLAR record. ‘I drink cheap beer. So what? Fuck you.’ That was a great album. Coors is a bit corporate though.
I love the new album. It feels like the themes are similar to the last record, but the Transangelic Exodus was artfully rendered and conceptual. This one is more urgent. What shifted your approach?
We spent something like eight months on the last record. That’s what I wanted to do. We made whole versions of it and got rid of them. Everything we intuitively played on that record we said, ‘Don’t do that. Do something that you wouldn’t think of.’ That was the goal, to make something that didn’t sound like something you heard before and maximize every moment of it in terms of interestingness.
The whole time there was this other thing that I know how to do, which is just play to your instinct. Plug and place. Dirty, simple stuff. Loud. I think it was doing a carefully composed record that made me want to do a garage-y album.
There was also a kind of shift in my feelings about citizenship. I felt like Transangelic Exodus was responding to emergencies and fear. The response was, ‘This is bad, but we’re going to get through it together and it’s going to be OK.’ Then, over time. it was worse than that. It’s not going to be OK for everybody. Maybe not OK for me. Maybe not OK for the human race.
I think the most representative social issue is climate change, because that was something I was afraid to even think about for too long. It was too frightening and bleak to really keep in my brain, but I also felt the same way about the global rise of white supremacy and stuff like that. Then, I suddenly realized that I felt better looking at it honestly and brutally and admitting how bad it feels. It feels worse to have something in the corner of your eye but you’re afraid to look at it. Then it keeps growing in power. Just look at it and recognize it’s horrible and feel how bad it is. Then you’re like, ‘OK, I’m past that block and I can respond to this.’
I feel like punk rock does that with the human spirit. It’s like, ‘Really feel how bad this is. Don’t console yourself. Say it out loud, something’s wrong.’ I’ve always appreciated people who are willing to do that, so I tried to join their ranks.
What do you hope people feel when they listen to this record or see you play it live?
I hope they’re energized. I think certain art that I’ve loved has turned me into a person who is ready to stand up for what I care about. You almost can’t be a fan of a band like the Clash without become a kind of political person. I’m so grateful for those bands. They showed me a culture where you talk about what you care about and take seriously the fact that you can do something to make the world better. Even if it’s just talking about it. That’s one of the most important things.
I thought it took generations for the world to change, but I saw the world change in five years—a lot. It’s because of what people talk about, care about, spend their money on, and spend their time on. That’s the biggest thing that changes it. There’s also politicians and billionaires doing shit behind the scenes that we can’t stop them from doing, but the power of the people is the strongest influence on the world.
Being in a band and encouraging a culture among your fans is a very small thing to do, but it’s a real thing that does something. Or so I like to think.