The Futureheads: Playing fast and loose

Only one of The Futureheads' songs lasts longer than three minutes. Chris Mugan meets the Sunderland speed merchants
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

For fans of visceral guitar pop, the past year and a half have emerged as a period of exceptional vibrancy. If The Libertines' louche charisma failed to appeal, then it would have been the sharp dress and sharper riffs of Franz Ferdinand. In different ways, both groups have demonstrated that guitars still have a vital role to play in music.

Now another band is proving to be just as essential. Over a handful of almost impenetrable singles, The Futureheads have set themselves apart as the band for whom patience is not a virtue. They pack a tumult of ideas into every song, and as arrangements and timings change with neurotic speed, each instrument contributes its own jagged edge, and every member of the four-piece provides vocals. Indeed, one song on their debut, self-titled, album has them turning off clocks "and trying not to think about time". Strange for a bunch of lads the oldest of whom is 23.

At a west-London working men's club, the band are in dark shirts, lined up in front of a tinsel backdrop, while pillared art-nouveau walls clash with a municipal suspended ceiling. It is an odd venue for them and their fan-base - young dandies in blazers and angular haircuts, and punks sporting dozens of button badges that pledge allegiance to obscure acts. Then again, it is no stranger than where many bands play these days, from Franz's early warehouse parties in Glasgow, through The Others' guerrilla attacks taking over such public spaces as London Tube trains and the foyer of Radio 1, or The Libertines' gigs in their own flats. Each band has been reinventing or rediscovering what it means to be a band. For The Futureheads, this has meant a national tour of working men's clubs.

The day after the gig, one of the band's two songwriters, Barry Hyde, explains they fancied something different. "We wanted to play cities without going to the same places we'd been before. We wanted to give our fans a change," he says, laid-back and dry in humour. Hyde and his co-writer, Ross Millard, are proud of finding a new venue in their native North-east. "Newcastle's terrible for venues, but the club we played had 500 people in, and it's been brought to light now that people can use it," Millard explains earnestly.

The band's home town of Sunderland is also notoriously short of venues. The Futureheads' first gig was at a local cricket club, closely followed by a stint in an illegal drinking den. Hyde contemplates the untapped resource that is working men's clubs. "Why aren't the clubs used more? Sunderland doesn't have a venue, yet there's 20 working men's clubs," he complains.

"Who's going to them these days?" Millard asks. "Except the usual people that have been going there for years."

Despite being exhausted from the night before, Millard and Hyde are keen to chat. Hyde still has glitter on his face from sleeping on a wristband that allowed access to an after-show party. There was no time to clean up as today involves a whirl of radio, press and in-store appearances.

The bassist, Jaff Craig, and drummer, Dave Hyde, Barry's brother, are not here, but Millard and Hyde say each member would be just as happy to talk about the album, a record that has taken one and a half years to complete. The band began working with Andy Gill, formerly of the post-punk band Gang of Four and an obvious influence on the young tyros' own dense music. But the results were not as expected, Millard admits. "Our energy and power were missing. We pride ourselves on being abrasive. It's quite a celebratory performance and to get that physical presence across is so difficult," he says.

The band had to scrap many of the recordings and start from scratch on them, a potentially soul-destroying act. Eventually they found someone almost as young and enthusiastic as themselves in Paul Epworth. "Now we can be positive about it," Hyde says. "There was a period where there was a lot of negativity in us and that goes against what we are. But we had to be realistic to finish the album properly."

In the same way that they choose different venues so gigs never become mundane, The Futureheads insist their album had to be the best they could accomplish. Hyde explains: "We were against boring bands we saw in Sunderland. There was a little venue in a pub. It was a very cliquey scene with all these Britpop leftovers and we just found it really boring for lots of reasons. We didn't set out to sound like anything in particular. We just didn't want to sound like those bands."

Instead, The Futureheads devised a manifesto that would prevent them becoming complacent: "no guitar solos", and "no effects pedals" were top of the list. Hyde explains: "We make sure each instrument is as important as any other. Instead of one person getting all the attention, we want everyone to be doing something interesting, so you don't know where to look or what to listen to. A lot of bands kind of fit to certain rules, which is another reason it was difficult to get people who could record our music, because they're used to following a certain formula."

Their distinctive four-way harmonies developed as the band coalesced in his garage. "We didn't have a PA or anything and to make to as much noise as possible we would all try to shout or sing," Millard reminisces. "It was also really cold," Hyde adds. "That's why the songs are so fast. We could only play guitar one at a time, so instead of people standing around doing nothing, you just start putting in little harmonies."

"It makes it like there are no limitations on the band," Millard continues. "We get lumped in with being a post-punk revival band, but none of those bands have four-part harmonies or the arrangements we have. We do reference that material, but the limitations aren't there."

This made their early gigs into bizarre experiences. "The idea in the beginning was that the songs would be between one and two and a half minutes long," he explains. "Some of them were 30 seconds long," Hyde remembers. "Our first gig was seven minutes long. Four songs."

"There were no stops between songs," says his co-writer. "If we had to tune up, we had to do it as fast as possible, so there was no time for silence or banter."

Judging from the previous night's performance, Millard and co have mellowed. Only one song lasts longer than three minutes, but the band chat with the crowd between songs. Most of what they say is indecipherable, due in part to their thick accents and a PA that would have been better suited to a wedding reception.

The gig is a two-way celebration, rather than a confrontation, with the audience joining in on the harmonies for the band's terse cover of Kate Bush's "Hounds of Love". "She's a favourite of ours, but then we all grew up on her. Kate Bush was played in every house," Hyde says.

"We're more confident and know that we have to put on a show for people to connect with," Millard admits. "It's great seeing people singing back at us on songs that haven't even been released as singles." He goes on to call the band's rules "academic", but points out that the songs are not. "There's a need for honesty these days. There's that many bands out there and it's so easy to hear whatever you want that you need to be forthright to stake your own claim."

This honesty comes across as brutal on the album. On "Meantime", the band decry tedious small talk, while the current single, "Decent Days and Nights", testily tells the "confused" protagonist to "say what you see". "Stupid and Shallow" is pretty much self-explanatory, though Hyde suggests the songs are not all so clear-cut.

"Most of the criticisms on that album are directed toward me. "Meantime" is about me calling myself a moron. If you are singing about yourself, or if people think you're singing about yourself, then you can sound a bit self-indulgent. If you direct it out, though, you force people to think in the same way I do. "A lot of people have those same worries about being boring, or the anxieties that you have when you're low, like about wondering who you can phone up without sounding stupid."

Nevertheless, he agrees miscomprehension is a running theme through the album. "Communication is a fact - small talk and not being understood. Without making too much of an issue about it, we are from Sunderland. It is very far away from the centre of the music industry, which has been helpful, but it means that when we were written about we were called freaks or oddballs."

Millard adds, "Yeah, we were the cheeky little Mackem [Sunderland] kids, the cast of Auf Wiedersehen Pet with guitars. But we don't see why it's strange to sing in your own accent."

All this leaves The Futureheads sounding stern and humourless, especially if you have only heard them on record. This is something Millard is keen to dismiss, pointing out the influence of Devo, the original Seventies electro-punks, a band obsessed with the dehumanising effects of technology and boiler suits.

"They did all manner of stupid, silly stuff with a straight face. And when you do that, it takes on a sinister form. That's what a lot of our album is about, little sinister things delivered with a straight face so you don't know how to take them."

Hyde adds, "We have a total laugh when we're rehearsing - after all, we are four very close mates. You have to have a sense of humour about yourself and we laugh about things that go wrong and how anal we are."

If they lose their humour at any point, it is at the mention of Franz Ferdinand. A couple of years ago, both bands were playing similar venues, both with smart shirts and edgy guitar riffs. Then, the Glaswegian group sprinted out with an album that went on to massive sales and a Mercury nomination, while The Futureheads disappeared from the scene as they grappled with their own sound. Now the comparisons between the two are getting tiresome, Hyde complains. "People keep saying, 'They'll never be as big as Franz Ferdinand', but we're not interested in that at all."

Having finally completed their own album, Millard and Hyde are seeking more subtlety on new material. Before they have a chance to put anything on tape, though, there is the small matter of their first US tour, in support of who else but Franz Ferdinand, something that fails to faze the band, says Hyde. "It'll highlight to people how different we really are."

"This tour will be a challenge," Millard adds. "Healthy competition; we don't think they're any better than us."

And nor should you. What The Futureheads lack in art-school glamour, they make up for in forthright intelligence. Having made it this far, you would not want to underestimate them.

'The Futureheads' is out now on 679. 'Decent Days and Nights' is out now