Ezra Furman, the perfect pop maker for these trans times, on his newly published 33 & 1/3 book about Lou Reed and the Transformer album
Ezra Furman is young, but he ain’t no kid. Having run his post-teen troubles course through his latter-2000s band the Harpoons, he is four albums deep into an impressive solo career that has set him as a direct descendent of the transmogrification lineage of Lou Reed, David Bowie, and Prince. In a different era, he’d be more well known, cast about in the underrated/overrated debates, or at the very least a cover story in Spin.
Ezra’s last album, Perpetual Motion People (Bella Union, 2015), was an ingratiating modern pop classic; and then his latest, Transangelic Exodus (Bella Union), is more nervous and jittery, clanking around a kind of concept album featuring passenger seat angels, murderous back alleys, rainy roads, sunbeams on some distant horizon, and lyrics of drinking blood, lost innocence, and people ripping tracking devices out of themselves.
The official video for Ezra Furman’s “Lousy Connection”, from the Perpetual Motion People album:
Maybe that detail stuck out particularly, as Ezra Furman preternaturally lays himself out there as a true mystery man, someone not only tough to track down for an interview, but inherently averse to anyone or anything nailing him down to a prescribed definition. So maybe there aren’t magazines left who put challenging guitar artists on their covers anymore. Or, you know, magazines. But other things have changed too, culturally, and for that, Ezra Furman is a perfect pop music maker for our trans times.
I did eventually catch up with him, on the eve of the release of his new “33 &1/3” series book about Lou Reed’s Transformer. So we delved into that, his general Lou obsession, and the darker times that led to his new, darker album.
PKM: So, I remember I was trying to set up an interview with you during the CMJ Music Marathon in 2015 while I was Managing Editor there, and I was to meet you at the bar at the Dream Hotel. While waiting and looking around, it dawned on me that I didn’t really know what you might look like, as you are not one to marinate in the same exact look for long. And sure enough we did not meet, and I was told later that you were there in the bar. You had dyed your hair blonde, I didn’t notice you. And therein set my idea of Ezra Furman’s art: exploratory, searching, and funny at odd times. Any of this ring a bell?
Ezra Furman: Yes, I remember that. I think my hair was blue, though.
PKM: How’s this for a sequitur? Can I assume that the very idea of transforming is central to you? And if so, when did you first feel that was what attracted to you to favorite musical artists in your early music-discovering days?
Ezra Furman: You can’t assume anything about me.
PKM: Was Lou Reed’s Transformer an early favorite, or did the album come into your life later?
Ezra Furman: I heard it when I was nineteen. It’s a little odd that I didn’t hear it earlier since the Velvet Underground were a band I adored since I was fifteen. But there were a lot of albums to discover. Transformer was never exactly a favorite of mine, it was just a good album by a guy who had made better albums. I liked it, and I still like it. But I also became intellectually fascinated by it.
PKM: Why did you pick Transformer to pitch for your “33 & 1/3” book?
Ezra Furman: My obsession with Lou Reed went beyond the music. Somehow I got obsessed with the man himself. I got it in my head that the details of his life somehow held the key to me figuring out who I was. Transformer is a very teasing, try-and-figure-me-out kind of album. In those songs, he keeps revealing and concealing, revealing and concealing. It’s like he’s daring his audience to try to understand him, musically and emotionally and sexually – and then sneering at us when we get him wrong. There’s something I relate to quite deeply in that. As I started to become more of a public figure and display my queerness more loudly, questions of celebrity and male femininity and authenticity became more and more urgent. Listening to and writing about Transformer was a way to explore possible answers to those questions about myself, and what I wanted to do as an artist.
PKM: Can you give us the gist of your angle on Transformer for the book, or do you want to surprise us? In general, that series is either personal stories about how an album fit into the writer’s life, or are extended histories of the making of. Where does yours fit in?
Ezra Furman: The book is me trying to understand my past, present, and future by learning everything I can about a record. So mine is both of the things you described, triangulated with some analysis of what it is to be queer, what it is to be punk, what it is to be famous, and whether or not David Bowie is full of shit.
PKM: How much research did you do into the album for the book? Did you get to talk to Lou before he passed, or Laurie Anderson, or his musical cohorts, his management, or what have you?
Ezra Furman: I didn’t talk to anyone. My goal was to talk to David Bowie. Then, a couple months after my book proposal was accepted, he died. I did meet Lou Reed in 2008, and I talked to him for about thirty seconds, which I obsess much about in the book. Maybe I should have interviewed some people. But the book is rather an insular creation. A listening-to-music-in-my-room-and-rarely-coming-out type of affair. I did a lot of private research.
My obsession with Lou Reed went beyond the music. Somehow I got obsessed with the man himself. I got it in my head that the details of his life somehow held the key to me figuring out who I was.
PKM: Do you think if Transformer came out today, Lou might be accused of “cultural appropriation?” There were some grumblings back then – if memory of Creem magazine articles read long ago serves – that Lou was glomming onto an underbelly scene in a kind of opportunist way, mainly led there by Bowie and management. Not that I think this, since Lou had been ears-deep in just about any underbelly scene in the Big Apple region since he was 16…
Ezra Furman: Lou Reed’s sins are many, but appropriating an underbelly scene is not one of them. It was his scene and his whole vibe that David Bowie had appropriated and transfigured into glam rock, which Bowie admits and should not be ashamed of — although it is a little embarrassing that he told the press he was gay. He wasn’t, but it was a cool and attention-getting thing to pretend to be. Lou acted opportunistically once he saw his culture being re-sold as pop music. He saw others cashing in on acting as queer and aggressive and urban and druggy as he had been for years, so he decided to cash in as well. It was a good move. We might not have ever heard of him if he hadn’t.
I do think he would be rightly accused of cultural appropriation for the “colored girls” bit in “Walk in the Wild Side.” What an asshole. And the girls singing on that song are white.
PKM: What do you think of the idea of cultural appropriation in general? Isn’t the history of American art one long lava-like river, dragging in fire and sediment along the way? Like, are you appropriating British culture because you like Bowie? Was Hedwig appropriating Cole Porter? You get my drift. I think we’re all figuring this out as we go along…
Ezra Furman: It only bothers me when it’s done with disrespect, which it often is. I try to honor those from whom I steal.
PKM: Speaking of which, to me your last album, PerpetualMotionPeople, was a kind of bruised, modern-day Ziggy Stardust-era update of sorts; and the latest, TransangelicExodus, might be the move to Berlin, and going down some darker alleys. Would that be an apt comparison?
Ezra Furman: I noticed, after the fact, a certain parallel move from Transformer to Berlin and PerpetualMotionPeople to TransangelicExodus. Both up the production value, get literary and dramatic and a little epic. A step forward. Though I don’t think PerpetualMotionPeople much resembles ZiggyStardust. I think people have way overstated the Bowie comparison with me because I wear makeup and dresses. It’s a little lazy, no offense. He’s not a very big influence on me.
(PKM: I was thinking of Bowie’s move to the city of Berlin, though Lou’s Berlin is a nice miscommunication connection there. And I was talking musically as far as Ziggy comparisons, and since Ziggy never wore dresses anyway. But that’s an email interview for ya…)
PKM: The title of your new one, is that a vague reference to Transformer? Were you working on the book at the same time you were putting together the new album? How deep did you find yourself diving into Transformer?
Ezra Furman: I didn’t consciously mean it as a reference. I was working on the book and the record at the same time though, and they reference each other some, thematically and emotionally. Not so much musically. There are little things in the book that echo lyrics on the record, which was a natural process. The two things have a lot of the same concerns. Siege mentality, queerness, rage.
Lou Reed’s sins are many, but appropriating an underbelly scene is not one of them. It was his scene and his whole vibe that David Bowie had appropriated and transfigured into glam rock, which Bowie admits and should not be ashamed of — although it is a little embarrassing that he told the press he was gay.
PKM: Now despite your keen ability to work at and morph your sound, I do not feel like you’re someone who just switches shit up to look edgy. To me, you seem almost a throwback to when musical artists developed their art and themselves over time, rather than instantly switch sounds or have three different side projects, etc. Did it take ending the Harpoons and going solo to really focus on your own ideas?
Ezra Furman: I’m sure if the Harpoons had kept going we would have found a way to bring the best out of my songs. Those guys were great assets to me, and I still miss the things we could do together. But I was starting to feel a little stuck in rock-band mode. Changing personnel helped me to realize how much is possible when there’re no rules or fixed roles in a band.
PKM: I saw an interview where you said you aren’t afraid of the term “pretentious” because it often means ambitious. I agree to a point, as I think the indie world at least is so obsessed with “authenticity,” they somehow equate ambition as non-authentic. How/when that happened, I have no idea. A leftover from the “slacker” era maybe?
Ezra Furman: Maybe. There are different kinds of ambition. Some kinds of ambition do lead to inauthenticity. I support artistic ambition. I saw an indie-folk duo basically do a Corona beer ad on live radio when nobody asked them to. They were just proud to have had a song in a beer commercial, and it was all they wanted to talk about. That’s a kind of ambition that I want no part of. It makes me ache for a return of punk values.
PKM: There’s a clanky, kind of insidious industrial clatter in parts of Transangelic Exodus. What were some other influences on it, musically?
The official video for “Driving Down to L.A.”, from the Transangelic Exodus album:
Ezra Furman: Tune-Yards, Kendrick Lamar, the Mountain Goats, Fiona Apple, Vampire Weekend, Beck, Kanye West, Bruce Springsteen, the Beatles, the Beach Boys, the Flaming Lips, Tom Waits, Talking Heads, Pixies, Angel Olsen, Devo, Sparklehorse, Nick Cave, Spoon. Some others.
PKM: Culturally, it seems that a darker turn on this album from the last is due to the obvious fascist bullshit going on in our government. Do you see a light at the end of this tunnel, or do you find yourself becoming fatalistic?
Ezra Furman: This record aims to sensitize us to the trouble people are in right now, people who our government refuses to help or actively threatens. One reason I wanted to make a record like that is to remind myself and my audience to care and to use our power to show solidarity with one another and with people more vulnerable than us. I’m anti-fatalism when it comes to politics. In America, most of us have the opportunity to participate. If you opt out because “there’s no hope,” that shows that you don’t actually care what happens because you don’t think it will really affect you and your friends. That’s not fair. Some people live under dictatorship where they can’t really vote and they can’t really say what they’re thinking. We have the opportunity to have an effect on our culture and government, and we have to take that opportunity. It matters. Vote.
PKM: You also said you edited a lot of stuff out to have the album make more sense. So what did you edit out, and are there whole songs that were cut that might come out later?
Ezra Furman: I actually edited stuff out so that it would make less sense. I wrote stuff that explained the transangelicism stuff more, explained the situation. And some of it was good, but it made the plot too clear. The plot doesn’t matter, there is no plot. I wanted to give little glimpses of the situation described on the album, like a dream or a movie trailer. To me that is more effective and resonant. And there are also songs that were cut mostly because I didn’t want to make an eighty-minute record. We’ll see what happens to those songs.
I’m anti-fatalism when it comes to politics. In America, most of us have the opportunity to participate. If you opt out because “there’s no hope,” that shows that you don’t actually care what happens because you don’t think it will really affect you and your friends. That’s not fair.
PKM: Was the editing process of the Transformer “33 & 1/3” book a hard process for you, harder than chopping down an album? What were some other similarities, or glaring differences you noticed between making an album and writing a book?
Ezra Furman: You write the book alone. You make the album with other people. That’s the biggest difference to me. The processes had some things in common. With both of them I got to a point where I was knee deep in it and wondering, what the hell is this? How could this mess come together into something coherent? And at the same time, I knew it could, it just took work and energy. And editing. I find it hard to leave things out that I worked hard on, but it’s worth it.
PKM: The initial press release for the Transformer book mentions that you explore the “unstable identities and secrets” of the album. Sounds like what you do with your albums.
Ezra Furman: I have my tendencies.
PKM: What would you say to those who say Lou Reed’s solo career didn’t live up to early expectations. I don’t agree, like I love StreetHassle, LegendaryHearts, and songs right up ‘til the end…
Ezra Furman: Nothing could live up to the Velvet Underground. They’re probably the best rock ‘n’ roll band that has existed. Still though, Lou Reed has some embarrassing moments in his solo career. To me, it’s very rewarding to dig through his catalog for the great moments, despite the mediocre moments.
PKM: How do you think your solo catalog is holding up?
Ezra Furman: Better than Sting.
PKM: What are your plans for the rest of the year – tours, etc.?
Ezra Furman: Touring, yes. We’ve got many live dates listed on EzraFurman.com. Other than that, you’ll find out when my labors bear their fruits.