ezra furman's new song is the perfect soundtrack for a queer roadtrip
As i-D premieres 'Maraschino-Red Dress $8.99 at Goodwill,' Ezra talks us through his polymathic new album 'Transangelic Exodus.'
Photography Jason Simmons
Transangelic Exodus is Ezra Furman’s newest album and it’s what we need right now, both antidote to our fears and enhancer of them. Transangelic Exodus is a literal title: the album is an almost-narrative about a wounded searcher and an escapee angel on a dangerous queer road trip together. The album has a scrappy, focused anger. Howling yawps and urgent rhythms pull through, as Ezra insists: “The future’s breathing down the neck of the past.” The album is like a weapon hand-made from whatever might be available on the run, a slingshot sprung over the shoulder.
Ezra Furman, a Chicago-born musician, is in his 11th recording year, most recently with the band Ezra Furman & the Boy-Friends. His music has a polymathic, conversant quality. It swings around genres, from the goody-goody irony of 1950s rock and roll, to early New York punk scene’s simple rhythm and confident enunciation. His voice has an persistent cadence that pushes you into the lyrics. There, the music holds down its steady mood: twitchy fun wordplay and vital themes.
Transangelic Exodus is a move into the longer game of storytelling. As a road trip title, it’s concerned with motion. And, while it’s anxiously looking back in the rearview mirror, it’s far more concerned with flinging itself into the future. It hurtles towards liberation, but it won’t tell you if we get there. The joy is hard-won; the buoyancy is precious and rare. These can be the most glimmering parts of the album. With most fights worth having, there’s a place for fun. It’s impossible not to move shoulders to “Maraschino-Red Dress $8.99 at Goodwill,” for example, which i-D is premiering.
Below, Ezra talks about fear, exile, and power.
This album has interplay between narrative structure and loose themes. Did the story lines emerge or did it start as a plan?
I certainly didn’t plan to have this whole narrative thread and angels thing. The earliest songs weren’t about angels or authoritarianism. And then one day I just found the first song on the record, “Suck the Blood from My Wound.” I just found it in my head. Just like digging through the debris of the unconscious, I had about half of that song. It just arrived in a 10-minute span, just writing it down. It didn’t fit. It was a mysterious vision that I found. Then I wrote a lot more trying to explain it, Why am I in this car with an angel? What’s the deal with the government? How are there angels? How do they exist?
Most of that stuff I didn’t keep, because ultimately it’s better if it’s this mysterious thing. Making it into a rock opera — something that had a real beginning, middle, and end — was something I was trying to do for a bit. I scrapped a lot, but remnants remain. It’s better to get your logical ego brain out of the way and let these mysterious images and emotional situations shine through in their strangeness.
Angels have so much going on! They’re these mythic-religious-human-hybrid figures. What was attractive about them to you as a theme?
I’m thinking of so many people I know who are vulnerable, basically because of their bodies... whether it be for racial reasons or trans people. Trans people have this problem, where their body is a problem for some people. And it’s a problem for them. The problematic body: that’s what the illegal angel is. One other thing is about angels is God’s will and being messengers of God. What an angel does is a mission for God. There’s something there for me.
Your music has strong imagery, but I sense that you’re hesitant about visuals as a musician. Are you interested in that part of making music?
I’m more interested than I used to be. It doesn’t come easy to me. I’ve always found it painful thinking about how to visually present myself. That goes for album covers, videos, and just getting dressed some days. That takes some more effort. I do it kicking and screaming a lot of the theme.
I idolize a lot of really beautiful people. I wish I could look like them. But I don’t know... I can’t spend all this money on all this stuff, makeup, and fancy clothes. I just don’t have it. I have instincts to be like. I get all my shit for cheap. You don’t have to have a lot of money to have a good sense of style. That has been a barrier for me. You gotta have taste. That has been hard won for me.
Do you feel that your visual taste is developing and changing?
I think so. The thing is, it’s constantly under fire, under psychological fire, from myself, from my own self-doubt, and all the self-doubt that has been implanted in me. I get resistance. People question your every decision. Trans-feminine people get a lot of unsolicited advice and criticism. And forget the people who are like, Don’t wear that and you’re a freak. People who are trying to be nice say, You should do... Just like telling me what do, what to wear.
It’s very fraught for me. Sometimes it’s quite emotional. Sometimes it’s totally not. Sometimes it’s totally fine and not fraught and easy. I’m just a mess embracer. I’ve learned through the years it’s okay to be a bit of a messy person. Sometimes you have to wear that process of figuring something out, on the outside.
Along with this threatening authoritative specter, there’s also this theme of the home being made suspicious. Tell me if I’m just going for the too obvious thread, but was this — the song like “No Place” — a post-election creation?
I’d written most of it before the election.
Oh, never mind!
There’s been a growing realization slowly over a few years that really grew in 2016 that like I don’t care about the teams. I’m not like, I hope my team wins. I’m like, What happens to vulnerable people? Who is going to really get hurt? Politically, how do we make choices that protect the most vulnerable people? I have an orientation towards that. That’s not the only thing that matters, those aren’t the only people that matter, but you know the stakes really high for some people. It’s this empathetic nightmare.
Empathy nightmare, phew. That sums up a lot of my anxieties for the past year.
Looking at the most vulnerable people and thinking, We need to stop and hurt them, getting so much legitimacy from far right groups and white supremacists and becoming more institutionalized, it aggravates some of my deepest fears.
I am trying to at all of our American shows have voter registration booths at the show. I want to start this in 2018 that every band does that. I wish every band could do voter registration at their shows. I wish I could find the organization, I’m working on it. Let’s see how U.S. shows in February and March go with that. It’s surprisingly difficult to find someone who is gung-ho to help me do it, but we’ll see.
A lot of this album is about being in exile, running from a hostile authority or a hostile majority. Is the position of being an outsider something you can gain power from?
It’s very weird, the word "outsider." Most people, almost everybody can find a way to pain themselves as an outsider or an underdog. Trump was born a millionaire and he somehow cast himself as an outsider underdog. He’s entrenched in Wall Street and he’s somehow called himself a champion of anti-elitism. It’s a dangerous thing to want the title of outsider.
There’s a lot of loneliness to being closeted, or being queer and not closeted, and a lot of pain to it. So feeling that, it’s just a method of finding solidarity: we’re the queers, we're the outsiders, we’re the freaks, and it’s good. I wanted to find a way to turn powerlessness into power. That’s what marginalized people do sometimes. And it’s very inspiring to me. And that is something that’s going on with this record.
Transangelic Exodus is out February 9, 2018.