One of our best-received MIMO interviews from the past year was the one Jeff McQ did back in August with Justin Furstenfeld of Blue October. On the eve of the band’s new album release Sway, Furstenfeld seemed notably enthusiastic and hopeful as he talked about the dynamics of “going independent” with Blue October, and about his own newfound sobriety. We thought this interview was definitely worth revisiting. Enjoy. –Ed.
For over a decade and a half, Texas-based alternative rock act Blue October have been steadily building a solid fan base and a reputation for making great music. Their first big foray into the spotlight came in 2006 with their Platinum-selling album Foiled and their first Top-40 single “Hate Me.” Even after going independent from Universal a few years ago, their albums have seen greater and greater chart success, with 2011’s Any Man In America (released on their own label Up/Down) peaking at Number8 on the Billboard 200 and Number 1 on the Billboard Rock chart.
With their seventh studio album Sway slated for an August 20 release date, Blue October is set to reconnect with their audience via an extensive fall tour. Frontman and band founder Justin Furstenfeld recently chatted with MIMO about the making of Sway, the creative process, the upcoming tour, and his own new lease on life.
MIMO: Let’s talk about the upcoming album Sway. What particular meaning do you feel like this record carries for you? Is there a particular theme to look for, for example?
Justin: It’s basically about finding peace, it’s about confidence, it’s about surrounding yourself with positive things in life, and recognizing miracles every day. It’s about living life to the fullest. It’s about love, all the amazing things that we have in this life that I used to take for granted. I think on past albums I’ve been really focused mainly on the dark, you know, and now, this past year I’ve had a lot of things happen in my life where everything’s kind of fallen into place, and shown me that you can handle this life and it’s really not that difficult, and that you can enjoy it. So that’s what I would have to say is the main difference in this album.
MIMO: The creative process is different for everyone, and different artists find fulfillment in different aspects of what they do. Where do you think you find the most fulfillment as an artist? Do you find it in the song writing process, do you find it in the studio, or do you find it on the stage?
Justin: Oh man, that’s a good question. I would have to say the most fulfillment I find is when I finish recording the song and it actually turns out how it sounded in my head, or better. When you write a song in your head you have high hopes for it, and you’re like, “Oh my gosh, let me go down the avenue of showing it to the band.” And you [play it] with the band, and they contribute, and those parts that they’re playing are being represented right with what’s up in your head. Then the band might show you something you never even thought about before, which makes it even better. Then you get to the studio and you might be working with a producer who wants to change everything. And then you got to argue, it’s a long drawn out process that is so stressful for me because these songs are like my babies. And by the end of it sometimes there’s fights about the song because I’m just so particular. And then at the end of it when you finally get it right, and you listen back for the first time in your car when you’re driving, that’s probably the most rewarding part for me. Just hearing it complete and going, whew. Every album I say, that’s the album that almost killed me. Every album I say that at the end of recording it, and I’m’ just like, oh my God, you know? I would have to say that that’s the most fulfilling. The most rewarding is when I play it live and it comes out right, because then you see it actually gets to touch people, you know?
MIMO: Are you pretty hands on in the studio? You mentioned you sometimes get in an argument with the producer; do you lean a lot on your producer as far as advice and how the song is playing in the studio, or do you find yourself to be more of a really particular hands-on person?
Justin: I’m a particular hands-on person, like 100% hands-on. But I’m also the kind of person that is knowledgeable enough to know that you need another person looking through the window that you can’t look through, that you trust. And I trust Tim Palmer. I do like to have another person in the studio that knows me and knows what I want, [who] might be able to pull something else out of it that I didn’t see before. A hundred percent hands-on, that’s definitely me, but I need another dude there that’s also a hundred percent hands-on that is also like, “Well, just think about it this way. You’ve had your eye on that ball for a year and a half now, let’s take you away from it for a second.” Sometimes you can get what’s called demo-itis, where you don’t want to change it and then when you hear it change it you’re like, “No. No!” It’s just like, give it a chance. So yeah, I like to have other opinions–people that I respect, though.
MIMO: Yeah, I can understand that. So Tim Palmer produced the record?
Justin: Myself, Dave Castell, and Tim Palmer.
MIMO: You guys have been independent for a few years now. We’ve talked to a lot of bands that have been label artists who have gone indie. Sway is being released on your own label Up/Down Records. Can you tell us a little bit about what life has been like for Blue October since parting with Universal, and what, in your view, are the advantages or disadvantages of being independent?
Justin: The advantages are that–basically what a major label is today, everybody’s downsized. When people stopped buying albums, everybody downsized. So even if I was with Universal today, yes, they’re still there and they’re still great and they have their team–I’m not dogging them, I love them for what they did–but when we were with them, they had a whole team of people. But then you know they had to let people go, just like everybody else did. So the amount of work that they put into it didn’t really accumulate the percentage that they wanted. If you’re making only 15% from a major label, you expect, I guess [it’s] the best you could possibly get. And you don’t own the masters either.
Going independent is basically, you believe in yourself, you take the money you might’ve made from selling a million records at one point, you put it into an album, and then you say “I’m’ going to hire independent radio around the country.” People you trust, people that you might’ve worked with in Universal that believed in your band, and then they go shop it to radio. But the best part about being independent is I own my masters. Mega Force out of New York and Sony Red distribute me and work at the radio, but they trust in me and believe in everything that I do. So they’re there for help also. And it’s basically just gather all the people around you that you trust, and that believe in you, and you go sell to your core fans that you’ve built in this ecosystem of the music business. And you have your safe net of people as long as you keep putting out good stuff, amazing stuff that you can always rely on albums to be sold. And you try to keep your in house recording studios, you don’t let the label put you in a two million dollar studio. That was something that blew my mind. “Oh, we need to make an album, let’s spend millions of dollars on making it.” Why? Build a studio in your house and record it there. So now we keep costs down when we’re making it, we put all the effort into the song writing and into the mixing, and really just work hard. My management company is also partners with [Up/Down Records] so they know exactly who they need to talk to and who they need to show things to. But it’s basically the freedom, I own my masters. As long as I’m ready to do all the work that the major label did, which is a lot of work, but I love it. I trust myself and my managers and Sony Red and Mega Force to help me work this a lot more than I would trust anybody else. As long as you believe that you have a core following, and you believe in your material, if you have a hard work ethic and proactivity in your bones, there should be no reason to go to a major label whatsoever.
MIMO: You have announced a tour in support of the album. Anything special planned for the tour that fans ought to know?
Justin: Well first of all, we have our original guitarist back, which is amazing. The original members are all back together which is great, and we’re going to be playing all the new songs off the new album. Plus all the old ones, we’re going to be playing forever every single night. The main thing is that with this new place that we’re all in right now, the shows are going to be so pumped full of confidence and positivity. I want people to leave out of the shows thinking, wow, I feel so damn good. Not, oh God I feel so sorry for him, oh poor guy. I want them to leave feeling like they’re on top of the world.
MIMO: It seems like there’s such a switch between your previous material and this album, and you brought it up again, talking about what’s going to happen on the tour and where everybody’s at. Do you want to elaborate a little bit on what has happened with you in the past year and what has changed your outlook?
Justin: I got sober. I grew up looking at Idols like Kurt Cobain and Ian Curtis and, you know, Jean-Michel Basquiat. You know, they were all my idols, and they all died from overdoses or suicide. So I only knew that really, yeah I had depression my whole life as a kid but who didn’t? I just masked it with drugs and alcohol my whole life and thought I could handle it, I guess. But during the last album, Any Man in America, some personal things were going on and I hit my rock bottom. I hit it hard, and I could handle it anymore. Straight up, I mean, the band, my wife and the people that I still had left in my life sat me down in this room and basically said, “You need some help. If you don’t get some help, [some] peace, we don’t want nothing to do with you.” It got that bad. So now, a year and close to three months sober…honestly I don’t know why I didn’t do this a long time ago, because life is so freaking precious, and life is so amazing. I enjoy every second of it. And yeah, life still hits me across the face but I don’t have to act like a whiny bitch anymore. I can actually stand up and go, “I can handle this.” And people can rely on me.