Within seconds of your meeting Blue October's singer-songwriter-guitarist Justin Furstenfeld, he acts as if he's known you forever. Anyone familiar with his music will tell you he's an open book, or as some, including Furstenfeld, would say: an open wound.
At Cafe Brasil over granitas ("liquid crack rock," Furstenfeld calls them), the singer tells the story of how his band's fast train to national stardom has temporarily derailed. (Appropriately enough for an interview with the leader of a band named Blue October, Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" is playing in the background.)
It was the classic tale. Band meets label, Universal in this case. Band loses label. Whether or not this band will get a label again is very much up in the air.
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"We got dropped," the 26 year-old Furstenfeld says matter-of-factly. "I laugh about it. We put our album out, worked our asses off on it. I don't think Universal knew what we were all about."
To be fair to Universal, what do you do with a band like Blue October? It's hard to find the right fit in today's corporate radio wasteland for a rock-based band with lyrics that redefine angst and a violin as the lead instrument. Universal thought the solution was to dumb it down.
"Universal decided to put 'Breakfast After Ten' out as a single, and I was like, 'What? That's like the worst song I've ever written,' " recounts Furstenfeld. "They said, 'Everyone loves it.' I said, 'Why, dude? I hate singing it.' Every night I'm making the set list and our road manager comes up to me and says, 'You have "Breakfast After Ten" on there, right?' I would say no. He says, 'You better put it on there.' Arrrrgh! What's the point of doing art if you can't do it the way you want to do it?"
Universal also wanted the band to tone down the drama and length of its concerts. Then of course there was the problem of the band's inimitability. "They said, 'You're a Texas band. You can't have a violin in a Texas band.' " Furstenfeld literally snarls his response: "Then why'd you fucking sign me? That's our lead instrument!"
Disappointed by the band's subplatinum sales, the label muckety-mucks decided they had made a mistake. The band they'd been praising to the heavens a few months before suddenly became, as Furstenfeld characterizes the criticism, "overdramatic and way too me-me-me." At the time, he was willing to listen, but not anymore. "I said, 'That's so true, I'm being overdramatic.' But then I get home and open stacks of letters from people that say, 'I'm so glad you're open and honest about that stuff, because it really has done something for me to know that even though you're in a band, it's okay to say you're not the most confident person in the world ' So then I stop and think: Universal's about money, not about art."
Furstenfeld loves fan feedback, to a point, usually determined by whether or not he has his meds. The singer suffers from depressive and social anxiety disorders and describes his unmedicated self as "Brian Wilson on crack." On a recent tour, disaster loomed when he lost his prescribed Paxil and other drugs. "We leave for our tour, and I'm so happy because I've got my beautiful soul mate at home, and I've got my dog, and I'm so happy, and I get on the van, and we're traveling."
Two shows in, the pills are gone. "Next show's a little bit stranger," he says, getting more and more agitated remembering the disaster. "Show after that's real fuckin' strange. Towards the middle of the tour, I'm just freakin' out. I don't want to go on stage. I've got the worst stage fright. I'm coming straight off the stage to the van, hiding in the back, going to the hotel, sleeping, locking my doors, checking out the windows for people that are knocking and going, 'Let me tell you a story about my life.' I was freaking out and getting so frustrated that I can't just do or be without these little bitty pills. Towards the end of the tour I was seeing things, hearing things. I finally get home and my girlfriend opens the door and she can totally tell and she just says, 'Come in, come in.' And as soon as she shuts that door, I don't go outside for another week."
The singer says he doesn't understand this part of himself. "I can only write about it," he says. "I can't talk about it. It's so hard it's so frustrating to be so together getting on the bus and then one day to be like, 'What the fuck is going on here?' And then dealing with that, and having these people come up to you going, 'Man, your music is wonderful, your music is wonderful,' and it's just faces coming at you and you're thinking, 'God, I really hate myself right now; how can you tell me I'm wonderful?' I just want to explode. It's insane. It gets so insane. The only comfort is coming home and having your girlfriend just go, 'Here, come in.' It's just so frustrating. But that's what Blue October's about. I've just got to stop and know that the downs are okay. Go to your down spot, but just write about it."
Furstenfeld realizes that he's fair game for fans who are as damaged as he is. He knows that writing personal songs about his agony can have repercussions in other people far beyond his control. But all the same, he says he has a real hard time taking compliments. "I had this one lady come up to me the other night and she said, 'Your music touches me so much.' I say thanks. And then she says, 'I'm thinking of blowing my brains out.' I didn't know what to say. I told her to see somebody. She said she didn't have health insurance. I said, 'Well, then you need to save up and see somebody.' Then she says, 'I don't believe in medication,' like I was supposed to give her some answers. What do you tell somebody like that? But then I can't really blame 'em, because I sit here and put out this material that says the same thing, and I love talking to people about that, but it's like
"I don't know how to take care of myself," he says finally. "And I've got people asking me for advice. It's the blind leading the blind."
While Furstenfeld may still be in the dark personally, he can see rays of light streaming through the rubble of the Universal cave-in. After some initial vertigo, the band is reveling in its newly restored artistic freedom. It has just completed a five-song EP, bluntly titled A Demo, that it plans to shop to labels. The band is forgoing the usual hype (bios, critics' blurbs, session info) and hoping the music will speak for itself. "Forget the whole trying to get them to know about you," says Furstenfeld. "Just put it out with a 52-font Demo on the cover. If they like it, they like it, and if they don't, you're just barking up the wrong tree. Whether we pick up a label with it or not, I don't care because I know it's some of the best material that I could put my name on."
So Furstenfeld isn't playing the "we don't need a label" game. He's just looking for one that will dance to his self-described "bipolar rock" tunes. There will be no more compromises, he says. Not to the cocaine problem he battled in his teens and early twenties, nor to anything or anyone else.
"Nothing can be your first priority except your goals," he says.
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