For Justin Furstenfeld, getting away was the only solution. Plummeting into drug addiction and other varieties of self-destruction, the singer/guitarist had seen his options evaporate in the waning months of 1996.
Barely out of high school, Furstenfeld had abandoned Last Wish, the band he'd helped bring to local prominence, because of creative differences, and leaving the group seemed to set his personal life adrift as well. His coke habit grew serious.
For good reason, the Hill Country college hamlet of San Marcos seemed to hold, if not a solution to Furstenfeld's problems, then at least a respite from them. His older brother, Jeremy, was there, as was the solitude and small-town simplicity Furstenfeld was craving. There, Justin could both stay close to the Austin music scene and hunker down in quiet to write music and sort out his post-teen neuroses.
"Everything that I write about is the truth," says Furstenfeld. "I can't write about anything that hasn't happened to me."
It was in San Marcos that Furstenfeld penned most of the tunes on The Answers, the debut release by his latest project, Blue October. No, the 13-track effort -- which was released on the group's own Ro-Dan label -- does not presume to offer all the answers to life's nagging questions. But it certainly raises disturbing issues, many regarding Furstenfeld's own well-being.
"There's Zoloft, Wellbutrine, there's Paxil that's proven, no side effects / But the rest left unnamed because they'd work like a charm on me," Furstenfeld snarls on "The Answer," his tone somewhere between a punch-drunk Peter Gabriel and Bryan Ferry on the verge of a breakdown.
The Answers is abrasively raw and riddled with religious undertones; Furstenfeld manages to be needy without seeming too desperate. That's mainly because Furstenfeld demonstrates a sense of metaphor and understated poetics well beyond his 22 years. "If what you're seeing is an open book / That's great because I'm an open book / But I'm real shy," he sings, confessing a little later, "I'm an automatic steeple for depressed and lonely people."
The disc's obvious thematic reference point, "The Answer" is also the most vivid encapsulation of the band's sound -- which is convenient, seeing as it's The Answers' leadoff track. The tune is quietly ushered in by Furstenfeld's hollow, semi-amped guitar and echo-enhanced moans. As bass and drums kick in with a rudimentary rock rhythm, a maudlin violin suddenly cuts through the predictability with a bracing counter-melody, leading the song on an engrossing search-and-destroy mission through a wounded psyche. Indeed, throughout much of The Answers, the violin assumes the role normally reserved for lead guitar, dragging the rest of the instrumentation behind it.
Disturbing but thoroughly captivating, frighteningly vulnerable yet undoubtedly in control, The Answers is the first great Texas release of 1998. All the better that this gorgeous monster is of Houston origin.
Justin Furstenfeld founded Blue October with classically trained violinist Ryan Delahoussaye, a classmate at the Houston High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. In December '96, Delahoussaye opted to move to San Marcos with his friend.
"I'd done classical for most of my life," says Delahoussaye. "Getting into other music just kind of happened from listening to Justin in [Last Wish]."
Evidently, Furstenfeld's departure from Last Wish was not a pretty process. The band had grown quite successful in Houston, recording three releases -- including the still-available full-length CD First of February -- and playing for packed houses at Fitzgerald's, McGonigel's Mucky Duck and the Urban Art Bar. Back then, Furstenfeld (still at HSPVA) shared songwriting privileges with other members of Last Wish, a situation that increasingly frustrated him.
"It was going real serious, but I was having to collaborate writing ideas with other people," he recalls. "I wanted to start clean and fresh. They got pretty pissed, because we were in the middle of making our next CD, so I had to take four songs off the CD that were important to me that I had written. They sent out a postcard dogging me for leaving the band. I think it said, 'Justin has left the band to pursue his rock-star career.' It made me look really bad."
Furstenfeld broke with Last Wish in 1995 and began laying the groundwork for Blue October, gathering up Delahoussaye and his 24-year-old brother, Jeremy, a novice drummer on hiatus from Southwest Texas State. Delahoussaye met bassist Liz Mullally at Auntie Pasto's restaurant, where he was working. She came in for dinner one evening and struck up a conversation; the chat quickly turned into an offer to join the group. At 27, Mullally -- who continues to live in Houston -- is the oldest member of Blue October. An extra room in her 290-area house served as the band's first practice space.
"I was living at home at the time, and I sat in on one of their rehearsals," Jeremy says of the haphazard way in which he fell into his drum duties for Blue October. "I just got back there and started playing."
Adds Justin, "We had a week until our first show, and we needed a drummer, so we made him play the drums."
Just like that, Jeremy became the band's largely unflappable timekeeper. Justin, on the other hand, was having trouble staying on course personally. A six-year relationship with his girlfriend was coming unwound, and his drug use wasn't helping matters.
"The thing that was bringing me down was the coke," he says bluntly. "I wanted to get out of the drug scene in Houston, because all my friends were kind of fading away from that stuff."
Furstenfeld and Delahoussaye originally contemplated moving to Austin, but Jeremy's bucolic existence in San Marcos convinced them to follow suit. Once there, Furstenfeld got down to the business of writing music for himself. He and Delahoussaye found day jobs and even played local gigs as a duo wherever they could. All three, meanwhile, were shuttling between San Marcos and Houston for Blue October rehearsals with Mullally, as well as the occasional live gig.
Last fall, Blue October came to Houston to record The Answers at Sound Arts with producer Brian Baker. Richly textured and immaculately recorded, the CD is hardly a low-budget, amateur-hour affair. To achieve such a professional first outing, the band enlisted the financial help of the Furstenfelds' parents. Their father, Dan, is managing the band at this point and is working to get the band bookings in Dallas and other parts of Texas.
"My mom's side of the family had always been kind of musical," says Justin, who wrote The Answers' track "Sweet and Somber Pigeon Wings" with his grandfather in mind. "He played guitar like B.B. King. So I guess that's why I wound up picking up the guitar. But my dad taught me my first chords."
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Though Justin admits Blue October's back-and-forth lifestyle can get a bit hectic, he likes to look at the band's current situation in rather idealistic terms.
"We're living a life on the river, writing beautiful songs and staying clean," he says.
Of course, it doesn't hurt to have parents with deep pockets to keep the wheels from falling off the dream.
Blue October performs Saturday, February 21, at Fitzgerald's, 2706 White Oak. Doors open at 8 p.m. Cover is $8. Draper and Whipple open. For info, call 862-3838.