Ezra Furman is an enigmatic soul. Initially active from 2006, with his indie rock band Ezra Furman & the Harpoons, Furman has tickled the public’s curiosity for all of those 13 years, and yet it feels like he’s still pretty much a mystery.
Both his appearance and conversational manner remind one slightly of Silicon Valley actor Thomas Middleditch — a kind of charming awkwardness that can’t disguise the deep thoughtfulness — with added glamor. On stage, that translates into a manic energy, by design. Furman looks like a ball of raw emotions, and he lets a few escape into his art as it suits him.
Musically, he’s equally difficult to pin down. He often has the flimsy tag “art rock” flung at him, because that’s a bit of a catch-all for anyone who refuses to be stuffed into a conventional genre box (think Frank Zappa, Sonic Youth). But in essence, he’s a singer-songwriter with a gift for blending flamboyant visuals with a sparse, stripped-down sound. His lyrics are deeply personal but littered with literary references.
There’s a clear punk-rock influence, though, which helps him stand out. It raises its head spiritually, in the sense that Furman isn’t one to compromise, but also sonically. There’s a kind of schizophrenic unpredictability about his live performances, which can see him go from meek singer to raging wailer in a blink. This sense of wandering into the unknown is a thrill.
Furman’s most recent full-length, Transangelic Exodus, was released in February 2018. Post-Harpoons, he was calling his band The Boy-Friends for a few years, but he changed it to The Visions for this record. As it turns out, the reasoning behind that is quite arbitrary.
“I just don’t care that much about the band name,” Furman says. “I’m not so precious about it. The Harpoons were different people, but The Boy-Friends were and are the same people as The Visions. I changed it to The Visions when we made Transangelic Exodus because I guess we didn’t feel so friendly and boyish anymore.”
The band might have stayed the same (while changing names), but Furman has naturally evolved as a songwriter over the past few years, particularly between 2015’s Perpetual Motion People and Transangelic Exodus. The artist believes that he’s getting better at translating his feelings.
“I see a skill developing of writing about not just feelings that I’m feeling, but things that I deeply care about as well,” Furman says. “My focus is matters of the heart and matters of the spirit, emotion and passion and stuff like that. But I think I’ve been getting better at being more specific about what it is I care about. Such as the welfare of refugees and solidarity between threatened populations. That kind of stuff, as well as things about myself that I think are worth talking about such as being queer and gender non-conforming, and being a spiritual person who’s into Judaism. But I’m only slowly making it clear in songs that this is what I’m talking about. I also never want to be too explicitly confessional, but reach for something more universal in song lyrics.”
It goes without saying that a queer, gender non-conforming, Jewish person is going to be affected by the actions and attitudes of the current American administration.
“Before 2016, the rich were still trying to kill the poor and succeeding,” Furman says. “People were still killing women and gays. Disastrous emergencies were going on all over the place before our president became president. But everything is getting scarier and worse since this guy has been president. We’re feeling the fear and anger, and it’s coming out in our art. I’m hoping there’s a time of awakening for what needs to be done.”
On a similar note, Transangelic Exodus depicts an angel on the run from an oppressive government. That’s gotta be at least semi-autobiographical.
“It’s honestly rather loose which I prefer,” Furman says. “It’s not really a rock opera and it doesn’t really tell a story, but it has a story in it. It gives you little scenes of that world, where people are turning into the angels and the government is after us. Me and my angel companion are driving around hoping not to be caught on the run. I thought about making it a lot more like [The Who’s] Tommy where a story is told and I was working on that — but then I slowly realized that I didn’t really want to tell a story but just give you flashes, like a long movie trailer.”
Furman describes his current sound as “inventive rock ’n’ roll with a heavy lyrical focus and a lot of very frantic, nervous energy a lot of the time,” and that’s on-the-nose.
“We take a lot of inspiration from punk rock and early rock ’n’ roll from the ’50s and early ’60s,” Furman says. “Some of that kind of manic insurgent music. We use a bunch of instruments. Guitar is the most often employed, but we’ve got a lot of saxophone, cello, and keys. It’s not like The Rolling Stones.”
No, it’s not like The Rolling Stones at all (although old Mick has been known to dabble in gender nonconformity himself). Meanwhile, Furman is looking forward to playing a show in San Francisco, partly because it’s easy for him to get here.
“I live in Berkeley and it’s just a quick trip across the Bay,” he says. “It’s been my home off and on for seven years. Berkeley and San Francisco. But I keep moving back to Chicago and then back here again, because that’s what I’m like.”
When it comes to this forthcoming set at Slim’s, Furman doesn’t want to give too much away, though he is noticeably excited, and a bit pissed.
“I’ve been very fired up lately writing some angry songs,” he says. “I don’t want to wait until they come out — we just want to play some of them. I might scream at you a little bit. It’s gonna be good. I strongly suspect we’re quite a good band. It’s usually a bit cathartic, honestly.”
Ezra Furman, with Pancho Morris, Sunday, May 5, 8 p.m., at Slim’s, 333 11th St. $18-$20, slimspresents.com