I had never been to Athens, Georgia before the night that I snuck into the 40 Watt Club on Washington Street, circa August 2010. It was there and then that I discovered one of the pioneers of southern psychedelic country rock - Futurebirds.
Photo by David McClister
The band's sound features a steel guitar that melts the twang of the vocals with the chords from multiple guitars on stage at any given time. Songs that begin slow and melodic take a sharp yet welcome turn as the band wails on their instruments in a team solo - a moment guaranteed to be followed by a crowd member failing to resist the urge to bang his/her head and jump along with those on stage.
Futurebirds have released numerous music compilations since cutting their first studio album, Hampton's Lullaby, in 2010. The band has recorded three subsequent full-length albums in addition to numerous EPs and short-form projects, including the recent Portico II and single "My Broken Arm". Although the band still maintains it's legacy following from the Athens days, the fan base has only grown with the group's growing music library and seemingly never-ending tour schedule. While Hotel Parties features a number of studio hits, including "Twentyseven" and the album's title track, Portico II is a Baptist church-recorded project featuring lyrics that range from love & death to romantic propositions, such as “girl, let’s get stoned, and go out to the Olive Garden.”
"Ski Chalet" - Stage on Sixth, SXSW 2011
Last summer, I was able to catch up with Thomas Johnson (strings/vocals) on heels of the Portico vinyl release.
JW: Who writes the songs? And how has songwriting/recording changed from early days as students to now?
TJ: Everyone in the band essentially writes. Carter (King, vocals/strings), Daniel (Womack, vocals/strings), and I write the majority of the songs, but our old drummer Payton (Bradford) wrote several and our bassist "B Miles" (Brannen) has a couple tunes on Baba Yaga - and we’re working on some of his ideas now also. A good bit of our early material is a collection of songs we wrote before we were a band, so while the songwriting process hasn’t changed that much, we collaborate and write together a lot nowadays. This is especially the case on the record we’re working on now, even if the main song ideas typically originate from one of us individually.
As for recording, we’ve been trying out a lot of new spaces these days. We’ve made and continue to mix/record the majority of our stuff at Chase Park Transduction in Athens, but we’ve been tracking all over the place (Charleston, Water Valley, Richmond). Recently, we’ve been spending a lot of time at The Portico in High Shoals, GA. It’s an old church that we essentially bring the studio to, which has been super refreshing.
JW: Would you rather play for a sold out crowd of 30,000 people or 15 musical legends hand picked by you?
TJ: I’d rather play in front of 30,000 people I don’t know than anyone I do know, much less musical legends. I’d rather watch 15 musical legends...that’d be sweet.
JW: Who would a few of those musical legends be?
TJ: Tom Petty, Bowie, Floyd, Jerr, Radiohead, Brian Eno, Keef Waylon/Willie, Paycheck...there are so many great bands that are legends in my mind but are criminally unknown.
"Virginia Slims" - Baba Yaga (2013)
JW: How do Futurebirds measure success as a band?
TJ: Success is an illusion really, but our goal is to push our boundaries musically and as people, to play great shows, and to record awesome music. As long as we believe that’s happening, we’re in a good place.
JW: Give us a look at the future Futurebirds. What's next?
TJ: We’re currently in Water Valley finishing the last tracks for our new record. We’re working with about 14 songs now, and we’ll probably put approximately 10 on the record...although I’m sure all of the songs will come out eventually. Meanwhile, we’ll be touring in support of the Portico release on vinyl. It’s the 2 EP’s we released last year (Portico I & II) on sides A & B and up for sale now.
Despite recently wrapping up a Howler Brothers-sponsored summer tour this year, Futurebirds continue to hit the add new dates here.