Hopes You’re Happy
by Jay S. Jacobs
It surprises Blue October singer/songwriter Justin Furstenfeld as much as everyone else, but he’s hit a point in his life when he is blissfully satisfied. Over 20 years into a music career that continues to flourish, he is happily married, a proud dad, and clean and sober.
This general upbeat vibe has even spread to his art. The man who once topped the charts with dark and disturbing songs like “Hate Me” has now released an optimistic album called I Hope You’re Happy.
We caught up with him – driving his kids to school, no less – about a week before his US tour touches down in Philadelphia at Union Transfer on April 18.
It’s interesting that your latest album was called I Hope You’re Happy, because your last couple of albums have seemed significantly more upbeat than earlier albums like Foiled or History for Sale. Was that something you were looking to do musically and lyrically, or is it just a statement of where your life is now?
Musically, yeah. I’ve been doing this for a long time now. All of my work before six and a half years ago was pretty sad and depressing. Me just trying to figure out who I was, with depression and all this stuff that every single person in the world goes through. But for some reason I thought I was special. So, here I am crying on every album – aughhhh! (laughs, and then says in a funny voice) “Look at me, poor me, oh God! I’m so sad.” No, I was not The Cure.
How do you feel that you’ve changed musically?
These new albums give me a chance to write about some things completely away from negativity; confidence, grace, spirituality, colors that I see everywhere, hope. It’s so amazing, man. I’m so excited. I haven’t even touched on so much. There is so much to write about out there. I’ve been writing about myself this whole time. I only [just] saw what everyone else has been seeing in the world, and I can’t wait to write about it.
Do you feel your sobriety is partially responsible for this more optimistic frame of mind?
Oh, it’s a direct result of being sober. Me. For me. I don’t know what else anybody [experiences], but for me it is a direct result of being sober. If I wouldn’t be sober, I wouldn’t be this person today. I don’t even recognize who I am today, but I love who I am today. I look in the mirror and go, “You are awesome, bro. Don’t kill today.” (laughs) Then the pass over is just gone. (fake cries) It’s so sad. It’s hilarious sometimes.
What about the fractured, divided state of the world – does that make you feel the need to try to put less negativity out there?
I have learned so much about my life personally, and how to treat negativity. Through the things I’ve learned through recovery, and through just bettering myself, and inspiring people in my life. I don’t feel a need to shine a spotlight on the negativity. I’ll still sing about negative things, but I’ll bring a solution with it. I won’t say, “Look at how ugly this is. Let’s focus on how ugly it is. Look how dark and ugly it is.” I’ll be like, “God, if only you could see the light that I see in here.” You know, that kind of thing.
“Your Love is Like a Car Crash” is one of the more offbeat descriptions of romance, and yet I can get what you were saying with it. Have you ever felt that out of control in relationships?
Oh yeah. Definitely yeah. The good thing about that song is that I know that I’ve felt that before in relationships, where your love is like a car crash and you’re just so obsessed with them. You think it is love, but it’s just really obsession. It’s not received back in the way that you want it to be. I was reminded of that by one of my good friends who was going through that same situation the last two years with a girl.
Yeah, I get it.
Most of the songs on I Hope You’re Happy are about other people. Their stories, and me just sitting back and trying to be a good friend to them and listen. So “Your Love is Like a Car Crash” was inspired by my buddy and seeing him go through that pain for the first time in his life. And me going, “Oh lord. Oh God. I remember when I was there. You’ll get through this, bro. You’ll get through this.”
“How to Dance in Time” is also just lovely – don’t take this the wrong way, but the intro almost reminded me of an old Whitney Houston song, though eventually it had much more of a new wave feeling. What inspired that song?
My wife. My wife. She’s responsible for a lot of the man who I am today. I was the horse and she led me to water. I decided to drink it. (laughs) That’s more a song about some of the things that I did wrong as a man that I shouldn’t have. I should have stepped up to the plate and treated her more like the person she deserved. That’s me recognizing that and putting that in front of her.
I also wrote that song with the late and great Mr. Blue Miller, who was a huge inspiration in my life. He passed away probably about six months ago – and writing with him was just so awesome. Especially about somebody so poignant and amazing in my life, like Sarah. So that one and “All That We Are” are pretty gut wrenching for me. (laughs) But they are still positive. There is still light in them. There is hope in them. They make you want to kiss and dance and stuff.
“Remission in CMaj” is beautiful…
Oh, thank you.
It’s a very different sound for you, particularly coming off perhaps the hardest rocking song on the album “Colors Collide.” Were you looking to experiment in styles and be able to have an album in which an old-fashioned piano instrumental would fit right in with other genres? It’s terrific, but it shouldn’t fit in the middle of that album.
Right. That’s my personality, 100%. I was going to do a song as dark as “Colors Collide,” for me personally, and for the listener, to where the message I wanted to convey is that it’s okay to get angry, if you take a breath afterwards. That’s what that is, that breath.
This year was a pretty rough year. My father found out that he had cancer and was going through a lot of chemo. We as a family rallied around him. It was a pretty weird emotion to go through. It was a smack in the face. My first feeling that we’re not all invincible. The people that we love – like I lost Blue Miller this year, and then my dad was diagnosed with cancer – it was one of those years where you are like: wow. This is real.
Yes, it is.
When they all told us that life is going to end one day, we should really listen and enjoy our lives. I knew that my say at the time of the album was going through a lot of these treatment appointments and a lot of chemo. I wanted to give him something relaxing to listen to when he was in there. So, I wrote that piece called “Remission in CMaj.” just for him to be able to pop on that song and listen to that. And he does love that song “Colors Collide.” He loves rock and roll. My dad is a rocker. He’s a country guy and he loves my rock songs the most. So, putting “Remission in CMaj” right after the heaviest song on the album, he was probably like, “Yeah!” (laughs)
In “King,” you sing “follow your dreams wherever they go.” Do you feel that is how you have lived your life?
Yeah. Follow your dreams wherever you go. I think if there is one line on the album that I had to put on a button and give to people, (laughs) I think it would be “I hope you’re happy” and “follow your dreams wherever they go.” That’s the truth.
How did the band originally come together, and when you formed could you have imagined that almost 25 years later, you’d still be able to perform your music as a career?
No. I grew up on bands like the Cocteau Twins, the Red House Painters, and Idaho, and the Smiths, and the Cure. Bands that had some success – I mean the Cure and the Smiths had huge success – but I never saw it as me being this huge. Actually making a change or getting successful or anything and selling millions of records. I always thought it was if I have a backpack of songs and I had a house and a wife that loves me one day, and maybe some kids, then there’s my life. I thought I’d always be a nomad and go wherever.
That’s a nice way to look at it.
I am still in awe about how the craft of songwriting and the craft of music can become such a good business and such an enjoyable business. Then starting my own record label was probably one of the most… the hardest thing to do, but after you notice that where you put your work ethic and where spend your money is investing in your own self, then it’s probably one of the most fun things I’ve ever gotten to do. I can control my destiny.
What parts of the indie experience are better for you, and what were some of the pros for the old studio system?
I’ll tell you what I miss about the old major labels is the huge amount of money that you have to play with. Not to go spend on stupid stuff, but the amount of tour support. $200,000 video treatments. Publicity campaigns that are up to $400,000. So, this money that you get to play with, to invest in a business, is insane. It helps you catapult these songs everywhere. The best thing about being an independent is I am 100% responsible for my fate. As long as I’ve got a good song, I can walk into any office and play it for them and know that they are going to listen with 100% of their attention. It’s all about the craft and it’s all about the song then.
It all comes down to that.
We have such a good following that we can bring something to the table just like major labels do. Except we have to be a little more creative and keep our budgets around ten grand. (laughs) But it’s all about leg work with us. We put out the music. I have my own studio. That’s one of the best things. I don’t have to pay massive amounts of money on studio time anymore. Or lodging for the band, it’s come over to my house, let’s finish the album. Steer it. Let’s write. I’m always writing. Then we get on the road. The fans are really what make Blue October who they are. They are always there.
You guys had been together for more than a decade when suddenly “Hate Me” became a huge hit. How surreal was it when after all that time paying your dues, suddenly you were getting played all over radio and on TV and in festivals and stuff?
I wish I could tell you, “Oh it was awesome,” but I was in the throes of addiction and bad relationships and depression. I was in that whole “Oh, woe is me, oh poor Justin” stage of my life. I was so dark that I didn’t ever take the time to go, “Wow! This is what success feels like on a high level.” I never did that. That’s one regret that I have. Stop and smell the roses while it was going on. I didn’t ever do that. I always took life way too seriously. Now, I regret that.
Are you sort of making up for that now?
The best thing about it today is our crowds are bigger than they ever were back then. Our songs are better than they ever were back then. Our love for music is back. Our passion for making art is back. Back then it was, “Oh my God, we better write something good or Universal is going to drop us. Oh my God!”
You and your brother have been working together for years. You always hear stories about great rock and roll brother feuds – the Davies, the Gallaghers, The Everlys, The Fogertys, The Robinsons, The Reids and so many more. How do you two keep things chill while working and touring together?
We’ve already been through our hell. My brother was a part of the team. My wife, my brother and the rest of the guys, and my management were directly responsible for getting me sober. I treated them really bad, so we’ve already gone through that phase where we’ve done the “here comes Justin lead singer” ego. Oh lord. We’ve already done that. Now it’s all about… I have nieces that are his children. He has nieces that are my children. It’s all about growing this record label and this company and this music and art outlet that people just seem to love. We’re so grateful, so we live in a world of gratitude and don’t go above that. That’s what really does it.
Beyond your music, you are also an artist. Do you feel working on your art informs your music, and vice versa?
It plays off each other. Yeah, you’re correct. Film, visual art, media art, any type of self-expression always fuels the other. It’s one of the most beautiful things in the world when I feel that uncomfortable feeling and I know that it’s time to write or draw or make art about something. That’s when I know something good is going to follow.
You also worked on a documentary last year called I Want It. What did you learn about yourself in making that film?
We haven’t released it. It’s now changed into a documentary called Get Back Up. We had to let go of that director because he was taking too long. We figured we’d finish the documentary ourselves. It just got released at the Dallas Film Festival this past weekend. We’re very proud of it. The director of it is Norry Niven.
The music business has changed so much over the years, even just within your career – with the collapse of the studio system, streaming and piracy and so many factors. Do you think it would be harder for Blue October as a new group to get attention in the current crowded marketplace?
The thing about when you say a band like Blue October, I’m not really sure what Blue October is. Blue October is just a group of guys who never… I never wanted to be just one style of music. It’s always going to be different styles, different…
Bands these days, like today, man, if you’ve got good material you should be able to get out there and make a good career out of what you are doing. If you’ve got good material and good songs, there’s no time for (whining) “I just want to get on a record label and get signed and hopefully one day I’ll…” No! You get out there and you play music. You tour. It’s all about touring.
Yeah, that’s a big part of the change.
That’s really the only place any musician makes their money anymore. Touring, merchandise and publishing. So, I would say [don’t rely on] streaming and Apple music and Spotify and album sales. People still buy vinyl. People still invest in your music other ways than just streaming. Be creative. Get out there, write yourself an eight-song album and go tour on it, if you believe in it.
As a musician, do you prefer touring or working in the studio?
I would call it different ballgames. My favorite thing to do is to sit in the studio and finally put what has been in my head onto tracks. Then, when I can listen to it later that night, I’m just like, “Yeah! Ooh, wow.” Then this “whole babies are born” of all these songs and then I get to show them to the world on tour. They all co-exist.
Copyright ©2019 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: April 15, 2019.
Photos © 2019 Nick Bergmann. All rights reserved.