Singer-guitarist Barry Hyde was at a cafe in Detroit when he found out his band's latest single, a cover of Kate Bush's "Hounds of Love," cracked the top 10 charts in his native England. For most new bands, it's a revelatory moment, a chance for back-patting and celebration. But not for the Futureheads.
"We're happy about it, but we're not partying or anything because we're focusing on the gig tonight in Detroit in front of 200 people. Tiny, tiny gig, somewhere we've never played before," Hyde says. "But we can't let the focus slip, or we'll let ourselves down, you know?"
In fact, Hyde counters nearly every one of his band's recent accomplishments with a reality check. International sell-out concerts with fellow Britons and post-punk sound-alikes Franz Ferdinand? Well, nonstop touring since September 2004 has worn the guys down. An amazing self-titled debut album? The record was actually a near-disaster. That top 10 single? Meaningless on this side of the Atlantic, as American airplay is still scarce. Fortunately, success isn't totally lost on the Futureheads; it's just that Hyde would rather let industry types promote "Hounds of Love" in his stead.
That's been the mind-set for the foursome since forming in their hometown of Sunderland, a small town in northeast England known for unemployment, drugs, crime and suicide. Hyde formed the band (along with his brother on drums) with friends he met working at Sunderland City Detached Youth Project, a state-funded program that helps kids stay out of trouble by forming bands.
Though Hyde isn't fond of the Sunderland stigma London music rags attach to the band, his distance from the affluence of southern England did help form the Futureheads' distinct sound.
"I don't think we're typically British," Hyde says. "The fact that we were so far removed from the music industry, we were blissfully unaware of any trends. It allowed us to make our music more pure. And it just so happens that now in England, it's cool to make very jagged guitar music. But we've been doing that for five years."
The band's most obvious influences include '80s pop-punk Brits Gang of Four, XTC and The Jam, but unlike other bands in the recent British rock revival like Franz Ferdinand and Bloc Party, the Futureheads aren't much for funk or disco. Rather, Hyde points to a strange trifecta--classic melodies by the Beatles and Beach Boys, abrasive guitars by Les Savy Fav and Shellac, and, most intriguing, four-part vocal harmonies inspired by the varying tones of minimalist composers. Kind of like pop-rock meets Philip Glass.
"You put them all together and you get very energetic, eccentric pop music," Hyde says. "Avant-garde pop music, but we love writing hooks in songs and things that people are going to remember."
Tireless touring honed the act into what Hyde calls "the most energetic show you'll see in a long time," packed with vocal harmonies, jokes between band members and near-required crowd participation. As its live reputation grew, the band met Gang of Four guitarist Andy Gill, who recorded the group's first EPs in 2003. He's also advertised as the producer of their debut full-length. Turns out that's not quite the case. Though Gill's career was a major influence on the Futureheads, as a producer he nearly ruined the album.
"We scrapped pretty much all we'd recorded with Andy, and we lost a lot of confidence and momentum," Hyde says. "We were under a lot of pressure at the time. From our first tiny release, we started getting a lot of press in the UK. We got a bit scared by it all. We lost a little bit of faith in Andy's ideas. Andy would do basically 9 to 5, and it became a little bit sterile, like going to work. We didn't really enjoy the process of making [the album], so when we listened back to it, we found it was just generally loveless, dull music. We were so disappointed by it. We knew we could make a good album."
Despite pressure to release the Gill-produced album, the Futureheads persuaded their label, 679, to pony up for one more session, and they took a gamble with producing newcomer Paul Epworth, who had worked as a live sound engineer for dance-punk acts like The Rapture and LCD Soundsystem. Liner notes credit Epworth for two-thirds of the album's production, but as far as the band's concerned, he's the reason the album succeeds.
"Paul restored our belief in ourselves as a band," Hyde says. "His energy and his abilities put us back on the track that we wanted to be on, and he has an absolute abundance of passion and enthusiasm for music. He's still hungry."
Since the session was their last chance, the foursome entered a fit of desperation in which they wrote their most memorable songs yet, including the skank-worthy"Decent Days and Nights" and the shout-along "Meantime." Once Hyde brought band members into the songwriting process, the group reached a turning point.
Hyde points to "He Knows," surely the most frenetic song on the album, to illustrate this interplay. Dozens of catchy sections, ranging from harmony vocal breakdowns to all-out rock onslaughts, were written separately, but in the final product they come together in perfectly poppy fashion.
"At gigs, that's one of the songs that goes down real well, because it's so... errrurggh! It's all over the place, but it's not messy," Hyde says. "It's tight. And when the calm part hits, people just shout that back at us."
As 2005 wears on, more Franz-alikes are coming, including Kaiser Chiefs and the Epworth-produced debut by Bloc Party. But none of that is much concern to Hyde, who admits that the band knows only "short-term goals," and he sees no reason to deviate from the formula that won over Sunderlandians five years ago. The Futureheads have a busy year of international festivals ahead of them, including an appearance at SXSW, and they'll continue to downplay whatever success might come their way. The Futureheads have shows to play, after all.
"It'll take a year or so to see who's left, whose second album gets as much attention as the first album. It depends on trends and things that are out of every band's hands. We just have to enjoy our shows, put energy into that and hope that people will appreciate that. If they don't, then I'll go work at the supermarket again. I don't care; I quite enjoyed it."
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