For listeners of a certain bent, the Futureheads present a genuine enigma. The British group's self-titled 2004 CD is thoroughly enjoyable, yet it's also extremely reminiscent of memorable new-wave platters from the late '70s and early '80s. So is The Futureheads good because it's good? Or because it sounds like other good records?
This riddle might be easier to solve if cohorts Ross Millard, Barry Hyde, Dave Hyde and Jaff -- who are in their twenties and hail from the thoroughly unfashionable town of Sunderland -- had arrived at their musical style independently, without following quarter-century-old blueprints. The truth, however, is considerably more complicated, and it leads to plenty of contradictions. For example, the charmingly eager Millard admits that "it can be a little bit frustrating when you read articles that name-check the same stable of punk bands. If I read about the Gang of Four one more time, I'll probably kill myself." But when he's reminded that the lads practically guaranteed such references by cutting several Futureheads tracks with Gang leader Andy Gill, he concedes the point. "We haven't done ourselves any favors by working with the Gillster," he notes with a laugh.
There's no shortage of subtext to this comment. Since Gill is managed by the same company that handles the Futureheads' business, he was a popular choice to produce the combo's inaugural full-length. Unfortunately, the sessions didn't jell creatively. Millard and company envisioned an updated take on the brittle, corrosive sound initially favored by the Gang, but Gill headed in a glossier direction. These days, "he's a very slick producer," Millard says. "He'd just made that last Killing Joke record, which has, like, fifty guitars overdubbed and so many vocal takes, and we weren't really up for that. We wanted to make something powerful but sort of minimalist in a sense -- quite stripped back."
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This disagreement explains why only five of The Futureheads' fifteen numbers sport Gill's credit. The rest were remade with the assistance of Paul Epworth, an engineer turned hot property who went on to helm Bloc Party's Silent Alarm, and he brings out the best in the boys. "Le Garage" is jittery, hyperactive and over in less than two minutes; "Robot" rumbles in a suitably mechanical manner; "Stupid and Shallow" celebrates the title themes with infectious enthusiasm; and a cover of Kate Bush's "Hounds of Love" yips and yaps as if it's in heat. In Millard's view, these numbers are enormous improvements over their first incarnations, but he still has kind words for Gill. "He's a lovely guy, and we're on very good terms with him," he says.
Respect for their elders comes naturally to the Futureheads, whose musical education began at home. Millard reports that "Barry and Dave got into XTC because of their parents," and he was turned on to other alternative fodder in much the same way. At age eight, for his first-ever album purchase, he picked up R.E.M.'s Eponymous, a compilation featuring "The One I Love," owing to the fact that "my dad really liked that song. When you're young, if you like something and your dad likes something, you sort of hang onto that, because it brings you a little bit closer together. So after I got some Christmas money, I went and bought it, thinking, 'I'll listen to it, and my dad will listen to it, and it'll be cool.' And it was. We totally got off on it."
A few years later, Millard became a regular participant in the Sunderland City Detached Youth Project, a government-funded music program. Guitarist Barry Hyde and bassist Jaff, who served as instructors, eventually joined forces with guitarist Millard and drummer Dave Hyde, Barry's younger brother, and together they fleshed out a sound shaped equally by their influences and their modest circumstances. "We didn't use any effects pedals, and we used quite cheap equipment, and we shouted a lot because we didn't have a P.A. that could handle anything other than us belting the vocals," Millard maintains. "I suppose that's the way punk music was being made back in the '70s, with very little in terms of facilities." All four took turns singing, which immediately set the Futureheads apart from their contemporaries, as well as from most veteran performers. "In my mind," he says, "the only ones who had the four-part-harmony thing going on were the Raincoats" -- a rare vintage band to which the Futureheads are seldom compared.
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Their timing was propitious. The players' debut single arrived in 2002, just as the latest throwback fad was gathering momentum. The U.K. press christened this trend "the angular movement," a ridiculous tag that doesn't wow Millard. "Post-punk music is very much in vogue at the moment," he allows. "A lot of bands brought that kind of sound to the mainstream: clean guitars with danceable elements, whilst being quite acute, if you see what I mean. So it's a way for people to condense all this music into one little box and make it a little bit more palatable for people. But 'angular' -- I don't even know if that's the right word for it, to be honest. To me, 'angular' is a way of saying something's awkward and a little bit too complicated, perhaps. So we try and steer clear of all that stuff. It would be nice in two or three records' time to transcend what's happening now and still have a large fan base, even if angular music, or post-punk music, is gone with regard to what's in and what's out."
Until then, the foursome is taking advantage of the association. They've signed a deal with 679 Recordings that guarantees them global distribution through the gigantic Warner Bros. operation, and on their first U.S. tour last year, they opened for angular poster boys Franz Ferdinand. The Futureheads have worn out the road since then, and instead of introducing fresh tunes, they're staying on message by mainly delivering already-released fare. "We'd be playing new material if we were able to take the time off to work on it or if we'd had the sort of career whereby we had massive hype and we'd gone huge straight away," Millard says. "But as it is, we've had to play very, very small shows and build it up and build it up, and if you do that, you don't have any time in your life to do anything else. I find it difficult when I get back home to pay my own bills, never mind sorting out a rehearsal or anything like that."
Millard expects some musical shifts down the line: "I think we're getting tired of the Telecasters a little bit. Everything can get a little too thin and too bright and too trebly at times, you know?" In his opinion, such developments are necessary as the 'Heads move into the future. "There's no intention by any of us to make a record that could have sat well in 1979," he says. "There's absolutely no point to that. You might as well be a tribute band and cover some of those classic singles from that period."
The enigma deepens.