Athens, GA-based Futurebirds is the South's answer to California dream pop. This five-piece has found its sweet spot with its second release, Baba Yaga. While the album is cohesive, each of its 13 songs conveys the personality of the band member who brought it into the world. Baba Yaga was released in April 2013, but took some time to come together -- the band has been touring pretty much non-stop for the last couple of years, sharing the bill with Drive-By Truckers, Alabama Shakes and Widespread Panic and playing Outside Lands, Bonnaroo and appearing on Austin City Limits. Futurebirds is back on the road and playing The Independent in San Francisco this Thursday, July 18, 2013. I caught up with the guys in the band on the tail end of their drive to Eugene, OR.
Futurebirds' sound is seasoned with -- in my opinion -- the perfect amount of twang. So, naturally, I assumed the music's roots came from being in the South, and I wasn't far off. Multi-instramentalist (guitar, banjo, drums and voice) Carter King said, "Yea, one thousand percent! For the most part we're all from Georgia, and we met in Athens. The music community and everything that's going on there is a huge part of why we came up with the band and the music that we play, without question."
Relying on a rock backbone that creates a space for long instrumental intervals, Futurebirds' sound lands somewhere between atmospheric and transportive. The terrain of the songs is laid down by the vocals and hazy choruses. During Futurebirds' live set it's easy to get carried away. Airy guitars and swelling melodies are reminiscent of the California sound referred to earlier, but Futurebirds bring a sweaty Southern heat to the mix -- something thick and sticky anchoring the band's dreamy wash. Though, truthfully, it might also be the band's use of pedal steel guitar, which adds that familiar C/W twang to the tracks.
It's hard to pick stand-outs from Baba Yaga since the songs are so self-contained, but "Felix Helix" sheds some insight into the album's overall feel. Carter passed the phone over to Daniel Womack (acoustic guitar, banjo, voice) the man behind "Felix Helix," and I asked him what sparked the mood for this song. The inspiration came from a crazy night in Alabama, he said. "After [a] show, we decided we wanted to stay up late and howl at the moon and stuff... I just wanted to come up with something that made as little sense as what was happening that night, like lyrically, and something that was just really fun and exciting melodically." For the song's 3 minutes and 50 seconds we are lost in the woods with Futurebirds.
The record's title, Baba Yaga, comes from Slavic folklore and refers to a mischievous witch who resides in the woods and may or may not eat children. There is a mood throughout that is not necessarily dark, but feels as though the whole record was recorded late at night, perhaps in a hidden treehouse saloon. The lyrics deal with sometimes introspective issues, personal worries, friendships and band explorations, but the album remains raucous and playful, propelled forward by an underlying narrative arc.
Thomas Johnson's (guitar, mandolin, banjo and vocals) "American Cowboy" is not a song about roping cattle or riding the range, but uses the potent symbol to express honor and bravery in the face of obstacles, which in Johnson's case are encountered within the modern-day music industry. He says, "There are a lot of people who don't have your best interests at heart, there's a few people who do... you need to look out for yourself. You know you gotta try to keep that separate from the creative."
Brannen Miles (bass) rounded out the interview with another songwriting style. He wrote "The Light" in the studio while hanging out with another band, "I just did it all within like two or three hours. I just kinda weighed things by myself. When we were recording the actual album, I brought that to the table and everyone gave their own take on certain parts."
If there's one song to listen to, it's "Virginia Slims," which has a careful build, sweet vocals, and shimmering guitar chords. This opener to Baba Yaga ironically sounds like a lullaby even though the lyrics are about resisting sleep. The overall consensus I got from the band is that they are laid back and supportive of one another, but serious about making good music and that comes through -- even with five very different writing styles present. Through touring, writing, and recording, there's no question the band is taking its own advice and not sleeping life away.
For a deeper look into Futurebirds' writing style, stories from the road, and California quests read the full interview at placeswedontknow.tumblr.com.
Futurebirds plays The Independent on Thursday, July 18, 2013 with Nashville-based Diarrhea Planet. For tickets and information, visit theindependentsf.com.