Like a spy on the wall I take notes in the corner while a tired-looking Futureheads run through their soundcheck. It’s the first night of their short Italian tour, and things are not sonically as they should be. The band haven’t toured much this year, after their acrimonious split with their label, Warners. They’re taking the opportunity to play occasional gigs in Europe – somewhere their record label was loathe to send them previously – while writing their third album.
On stage, lead singer (all the band sing – confusing the sound issues further) Barry Hyde struggles with getting his guitar sound right. This should be the cue for Spinal Tap tantrums, but instead he quietly goes about changing amps, and sorting out the problem. Once everything sounds right, the band troop off and make a point of thanking the Italian sound engineers, who look dumbfounded. One gets the feeling that they don’t generally get handshakes from visiting NME stars – or perhaps it’s that the ‘thanks a lot – it sounds great’ is said with a Sunderland accent…
And there we have it, within the space of two paragraphs we’ve hit on two standard Futureheads interview themes – Record label disputes and their accents. Brothers Barry and Dave Hyde are, politely, tired of both. “People ask too many questions about labels. It’s not about labels. It’s about the bands. I know it’s understandable but…” says Dave ( a rarity, a drummer who responds to interview questions!). “I don’t know fuck all about any labels, it’s not in my mind. I think about bands not labels.” As for the accents, in truth they’re not that strong. The only reason they’re commented on at all is the fact that the band sing using them – something which should more reasonably prompt questions for the vast majority of artists who don’t, surely? Sitting on a park bench outside the venue, as the evening brings a welcome cool breeze, the Hydes have plenty of other interesting things to talk about.
Barry, who looks like a walking definition of taut, while visibly tired scarcely misses a beat when thrown the broad sweeping question ‘what makes the difference between a good and a great song?’. “Well, if we’re talking about purely song, when you take away recording. A song that can be perfomed by an individual with an instrument and vocals, probably a balance between simplicity and … beauty? I don’t know. I think there should be honesty in a great song, but then again some great songs are just ridiculously daft [laughs all round]. I suppose the difference between a good song and a great song is opinion.”
Beauty is a good starting point for talking about the band’s second album News and Tributes. In a sense the difference between it and their ground-breaking debut (The Futurheads), is that on News and Tributes they consciously gave the songs the space for beauty to slip in. For example, the title track – originally called Munich, a tribute to Busby’s Babes who died in 1958. “Ross brought in that song, and it was a fairly uptempo song, and I thought it was a beautiful and sentimental (in a good sense) song, and I thought if we slowed it down it would bring the melody out more.”
Swimming against the tide (one of the most haunting songs on the album, for my money is Back to the Sea)at a time when single downloads make up the bulk of music sales, the band created an album, in the truest sense of the word. ” It’s a definite body of work, all contain a certain feel, and certain sounds that stand out,” Barry agrees. It would, perhaps, be fair to say that the predominant feel is one of melancholy.”It was where we were,” nods Dave. “We did it on a farm in Yorkshire, in the middle of the countryside. It was weird, but brilliant. We all had our own rooms in this big barn. There’s a sadness there, and it seeped into the songs”. “We were ready as well”, Barry chimes in “because most of the songs on our first album were so up-beat. We just wanted to try something different. We’d never gone there, so we decided to go and live there for a bit and make an album in that frame of mind. Ultimately our next album will be a bit of a blend of the two. We now know how to do that, how to write those songs. We know how to add those traditional elements, without it being cheesy. We also still know how to really rock hard, so combining the two might be a really nice thing to do.”
Whether it’s the first or second album, one of the things that distinguishes the Futureheads from other bands plying their wares is a fascination with structure. In a way it’s obvious, as the band use four vocals meshing together arrangement is important to avoid a disaster. At the same time, though, it’s much more than that. “A lot of bands think of structure as a standard thing. So they start, for a single, with an introduction that’s not too long, that gives DJ’s a chance to talk over it if they choose to,” Barry says, scarcely hiding his distaste, “You don’t want to have it too long, and then you want to have a double chorus at the end so that people can sing along. I think every song should be treated differently, and structured differently”
That desire to structure songs differently, at the start led to songs like Bausch, which was at most 45 seconds long. “The reason why our songs, when we first formed the band, were so short was because we couldn’t write,” Barry laughs. “Initially, I was very against repeating ideas in a song, so once you’d put down each idea we’d just stop! Then we developed to realising that it was fun to play different bits again – that it was more enjoyable. It’s kind of selfish in a way.You should start off writing short things, like a riff. Write two riffs then and put them together, and you’re on your way. Eventually you learn to write a piece of music up to five minutes. Three minutes long is a great length for a pop song, but a terrible length for a symphony”.
You get the feeling that, after both albums, length is not something that bothers the Futureheads. It’s enough that the song feels right. Barry does, though, give an oblique warning about the general shrinking of what is considered the ideal length for a song. In the sixties it became, famously, three minutes – which has its own merits, apart from fitting into radio formatting it’s long enough to establish an idea firmly, and yet brief enough not to outstay it’s welcome. Nowdays, from an industry perspective, the ideal song is closer to a length that can float between dialogue for a movie soundtrack, or an adspot. “Eventually they’ll just be slogans!” he laughs, with just a hint in his voice that he’d like to take on the challenge of writing the perfect slogan song…
It’s a strange time for the band, but one they seem to be relishing. In effect, after parting company with Warners, News and Tributes is no longer their concern. “Warners own that record. It’s nothing to do with us anymore. To be honest with you, I’d prefer people to download it, because we’re not going to make any money from it, and Warners don’t deserve to,” Barry says in one of the few moments where the bitterness breaks through. “I’m personally very angry when I think about what happened to the second album, because we did put in a huge amount of effort. That doesn’t mean it’s going to sell, though. People can’t hear the effort [laughs].”
But, I suggest, you can hear the effort. Play a song like Burnt, and it’s hard not to hear a band truly committed. “I just don’t know if many people can hear effort,” he contradicts, “because they certainly, in many cases, can’t hear a lack of effort. There are bands who throw an album together because they have a couple of good singles, and the rest is dirge, filler, and people lap it up, so I don’t know.”