Blue October Frontman Justin Furstenfeld on Control, Gratitude and Independence
Music . Editorial Content . 14 Minutes . Ryan Swearingen
Blue October came to widespread acclaim with its 2016 Foiled album, which spawned the platinum-selling singles, “Hate Me” and “Into the Ocean”. The band was formed in 1995 in Houston by singer/songwriter Justin Furstenfeld, his brother, drummer Jeremy Furstenfeld, and multi-instrumentalist Ryan Delahoussaye. While the band’s lineup has changed over the years—now consisting of the brothers Furstenfeld, Delahoussaye, bassist Matt Noveskey, and guitarist Will Knaak—Blue October’s music has always been intensely raw and personal, serving as a musical diary of Justin’s own life, including struggles with substance abuse, divorce, parental rights, and eventual recovery. Justin openly shares the stories behind the music in his Blue October and solo Open Book performances. This intimacy has struck a chord with a dedicated fanbase, who regularly sell out shows and support the now-independent band’s recording through crowdfunding campaigns.
We spoke with Justin by phone during a morning walk with his two-year-old son in Venice Beach, California, where he was wrapping up a successful five-show residency at LA’s Hotel Café. A video of the show will eventually follow, and Blue October’s ninth studio album, I Hope You’re Happy, lands August 17. The band will also perform in the iHeart Radio AT&T THANKS Sound Studio series later this fall. On the phone, Justin was upbeat and effusive in discussing his work, inspirations, and his gratitude for a career that’s continued to find an audience for over 20 years despite a changing and crowded music marketplace.
DIRECTV: I've been a fan for about ten years now, having been hooked by the Foiled album and "Into the Ocean”, which sent me down a rabbit hole into the whole Blue October catalog. And I know I'm not alone. What do you think makes your music unique and has led to such a passionate and long-lasting fan base?
Justin Furstenfeld: I would have to base it off the touring, mainly. Touring and mainly the fact that we've always kind of been uncomfortably honest with our music to the point of where, sometimes, you either love us or hate us, you know? In my old days, I would've probably hated my music, too. Just because it was so dramatic, you know what I'm saying? But coming from me…the Foiled album…I love that album. It's such a good album. I love that. I was in such an honest place. Every album after that, like Any Man in America and Approaching Normal, was so honest but in such a wrong way. It was so…I mean, like, you can almost feel the uncomfortability…the uncomfortableness when you listen to it. While Any Man in America is one of my favorite albums I ever made, I'm just blown away that I didn't get sued. You know? Just cuz there's some things you don't say, you know?
And now I live in this grateful life. I live in this space where everything is just another piece to the puzzle of this beautiful thing we call life. I look back, and I go, "Oh my God, I'm so grateful to everybody that's supported us through the thick and thin.” Because I think the one thing that's separated us between all the other bands is that we never really said, "Let's do this to be millionaires." We said, "Let's do this because we got something to say, and we love each other. And, no matter what it is—negative or positive—we're gonna sing about it." You know? And because we tour like crazy.
DTV: That brings me to the new album, I Hope You're Happy. You touched on how your music is so personal, and you can kind of follow the journey of your psyche through your career from dark to light, more recently. The Home album, I know you’ve said was much more coming from a place of gratitude and finding peace in your life. Where would you say the new album finds you?
JF: Oh, I'm definitely in that extension of where I was at Home. It's just, now I'm at that point in my life where, man, life's not about Justin any more. It's so bigger than that now. It's about the people that have been my friends for 25 years through all this. And, let me sit down and talk to them about what's going on in their lives and write a song about it. Look around at the people that I know in my life who are going through stuff and maybe write a song about it.
Like, "Your Love is Like a Car Crash." One of the songs on the album—one of my favorite songs. I wrote it about my bud Lee who just really…he just giggled at one girl that just tears your heart. And you're like, "How does she have that much control over me? Holy shit." You know? Like, I saw that in his eyes. And I was like, oh God, I remember those days…
And so I really sat down and talked to him and was just was a good friend to him for a while and helped him through it. And then I just wrote a song about it. So, I would have to say that this album is really a reflection of where I should've been this whole time. Just gratitude, wishing everybody the best, and hoping that even my biggest of enemies will end up happy. Because what's the point in anybody living a negative, you know…sad life. There's no point to it, so...
This album came from out of the box… It’s just insane. I love this album so much because I got to produce it, and I got to make the drums how I've always wanted to make them. I've gotten to mix my love for urban music in with alternative. It feels like I finally got to be Peter Gabriel, you know? And do all the weird shit I've always wanted to do.
DTV: Yeah. That's a lot on your shoulders. Was it a very different experience, having that control? And what did you kind of find most challenging about that?
JF: Most challenging would be to convince people that I would know what I was doing. You know, because when you don't…when you're in an alternative band—or that's what people call you—I've always seen us as just musicians. I grew up on The Smiths and The Cure, and what the hell would you call them, you know? I guess I'd call it romantic art rock. You know?
But the most difficult thing in producing a record is to make sure that everyone trusts you. And to get past that first wave of, "What?! We're not going to set up in a room and jam like a rock band does and record it all?" No. I wanna do it completely different because we've done that before.
While there's some songs that we could do that with, I wanted to do this one like, if we want the kick drum to sound a certain way, I just want you to hit that kick drum like 30 times until we move the mic around the room. Until we get that…there's that kick drum, now hit it as hard as you can. Now hit it as soft as you can. Now hit it as hard as you can. Now hit it as soft as you can. Now we're gonna place it wherever I want it, and then I want you to play on top of it with a jazz kit. You know? And we're just gonna room-mic that jazz kit so it gets that old Dave Brubeck feel, you know? Instead of like these modern, punchy, sampled rock drums. I don't want that.
It was really cool because everybody in this band is so talented. And I'm so grateful to play with all of them because there's nothing that they can't do if they just put their heart into it. And once you could see that they were hearing the final products coming to life, they were like, "Oh, okay. Yeah. I get this. It's not how I would have done it, but I get it." You know?
I'm so babbling, I had a lot of coffee this morning. I'm sorry.
DTV: No, it makes perfect sense. What do you think might surprise us that we don't see coming with this album?
JF: It is so far away from rock, you know? It's so far away from…there's not one power chord on it. I'd have to say it's the most eclectic damn album I've ever done. If you were to mix the Cocteau Twins with Peter Gabriel and The Cure, you might have where I wanted this album to go. You know?
And one thing is, there's not one sad song about how depressed Justin is, which is so awesome. You know what I'm saying?
DTV: Yeah, that's interesting. You mentioned how a lot of the songs were inspired by things happening with people around you. Did you write from their perspective?
JF: Yeah, I wrote from their perspective because I love doing that, you know? I love…The song called "Come Back Home", where I talked to a few veterans that have actually gone and fought overseas and how they felt when they came back home. And the things that they had to do that they just can't talk about over a beer. You know what I'm saying? And now they’ve gotta come back and be normal. And then I related that also with people who've done really horrible things in their marriage, and where do you begin? Those kind of things. You know, it's such an eye-opening experience. It's so rewarding to write from that place. Because it's not about you, and you can sit there and study up as much as you want.
DTV: Right, that's interesting, it's just a different angle on storytelling—since it's usually so autobiographical—to take on those other roles.
JF: Yeah, somebody told me…like, one of the writers that I work with on this album… That's another thing. I've wanted to write with some of the people that I've always wanted to write with, you know? And before I got sober I thought Justin Furstenfeld wrote everything because he is the man. But what the fuck is that shit? You know, like, learn. Educate yourself. Write with as many people that you can.
My new favorite writer that I'm writing with is this guy named Dwight Baker, who helped me produce Any Man in America, but he and I butted heads during Any Man in America. That may have been because I was high, but second of all, because he's the one who told me straight. Like, “Hey, you know what? You're fucked up right now, I don't wanna write with you.” You know? And then now, being straight and actually spending time with him, man, he has taught me so much about how he writes. And one thing he told me was that a song is basically finding a room…a room that you've always wanted to live in or a room that makes you uncomfortable to live in, and then the lyrics are just putting furniture around that room. And what do you want that room to look like? So, I was just like, when he said that, it just blew my mind. I was just like, holy shit, I want this room to look antique. I want this room to look modern and crisp. I want this room to be dirty as fuck. You know?
It's really cool, the way he put that.
So now, I just go in the box and play like crazy. I just act crazy in the box, and then I dress up my room, you know?
DTV: That's a great analogy. You touched on the personal struggles you've faced and how that has played so clearly into your work. Obviously, Any Man in America, and the Open Book shows. Have you ever found that it's a challenge, or do you find a need to separate yourself from your work?
JF: You know, it's fun to separate myself from the work. It's really easy to separate that depressed one, you know?
Of course, I deal with depression, still. Of course I take my medicine every morning for depression. But I'm just proactive about it now. I go out and work out, and I stay on top of it. I don't let that shit bring me down. Fuck that. You know? But, now when I get offstage, I can turn it off and be funny Justin. And be the guy with the really dark, bad sense of humor that my wife goes, "Oh my God," to every time I freaking tell a joke. You know? I'm that guy that, you know, will be sitting with his daughter having fart competitions, you know?
And that's who I am and I freaking love that. But then I can go into the office and completely turn into Stephen King. And that's what I love about this life is that I get to do that for a living. But one thing I love about the Open Book show is that I get to cross paths with that funny guy. And I get to be as funny as I want for these people. And they get to sit there and go, "Wait, aren't you the guy that wrote about killing yourself?" But then I'm laughing at the same time because that was years ago and there's recovery now. And there's spiritual healing now. It's all awesome.
DTV: That brings such a different depth to that work now, a different perspective.
JF: It does. It does. It does because you can tell that people have grown along. You know, everybody grows up one day. People only wanna watch you circle a drain for so long. You know?
DTV: Totally. So, aside from the actual material, how do you find performing solo and the Open Book shows are different from your work with Blue October and the full band?
JF: It's a night and day difference. I literally play probably seven songs, and then the rest is monologue and performance art. It's a challenge. And there's no lights. There's no crew. There's no, you know, smoke and mirrors, it’s all just honesty. And it's mainly about making people laugh. That’s my main goal at the Open Book show, is to make people laugh. And then having the gut with drama for a second, and then bring it right back to laughing again. To remind them that, man, we can hurt, but the healing part is so fun. The healing part is so fucking fun. You know?
DTV: Speaking of side projects, you've got this Harvard of the South project. I'm curious about how that came about and what we can expect to hear from that band.
JF: You know, that's my brother's band [Blue October drummer Jeremy Furstenfeld] that he started with the guitarist and singer of Longwave, which is a freaking legend. And they asked me if I wanted to sing and do some vocals, and I said, "Sure." And I own a studio, so we recorded it there, and I wrote the lyrics with Steve [Schiltz]. That's my brother's baby, you know? Blue October is my baby, and I'm 100, I'll do anything for my brother, so when he said, "I want you to come in and join this thing." You know, I did it. Plus, getting to work with my brother and Steve Schiltz, it's quite cool because it's a whole different monster.
But as far that goes, I stay out of the business of that one and I just show up when they need me. I feel like I control so much of Blue October, that at least I can give my brother his side project. You know what I'm saying? The least thing I can do is let him do his art with this…"Shut up, Justin. Do what he asks you and leave him the fuck alone."
DTV: Right. Well, I imagine it can be a bit liberating for you, too, right? Because then you can participate without having to be responsible for the whole thing.
JF: Dude, I can seriously walk onstage, sing, and walk offstage. It's awesome, I love it.
DTV: Nice. So, speaking of control, obviously Blue October has been independent for quite some time now. You're on your own label and often crowdfunding your work with your fans. How do you find that ownership of the whole artistic and commercial process? How does that impact your work?
JF: It's amazing because I don't have to ask anybody for permission. Like, I own a house with a 1,500 square foot studio attached to it. So, I literally go, I think I'm going to go make a freaking Christmas album right now. Or, I don't know, two big budget videos. Okay, let's do that. It took me a freaking week of my life. My wife comes out, gives me a kiss at lunch. Maybe brings me, like, a sandwich or something. And then I rub her feet that night after I'm done. Life's freaking good, bro. I don't have to talk to anybody and go, "Can I maybe…? And how much are you gonna take off the…?" I’ve got the people that know how to run it, I can put out these Open Book CDs… That's the reason I do Open Book, is so I can fund bigger things for Blue October without having to take out loans. You know?
A lot of people don't realize that major labels are big advances towards your career. And like a bank. And so, if I don't have to go anywhere else, and I can get it by selling good product, then it's just a win-win and I can just keep investing in ourselves and investing in our touring business. It's quite an amazing journey. It's really fun. I'm super grateful to have literally the best radio guy and partner, Mr. Paul Nugent. He is the best guy in the whole business, and he works with me. So, I'm like, holy shit. Pretty amazing.
DTV: He's definitely singing your praises, so it sounds like the feeling is pretty mutual.
JF: Oh, man. Both of our wives are just like, "Why don't you two just go get married?" And we're like, "Well, maybe we will!"
DTV: How long have you guys been working together?
JF: 16 years? Yeah, we've been through ups and downs, so we know how to push each other's buttons, and we know how to yell. And we know how to apologize. And we know how to get through anything, really. That's a really good thing about a relationship, when you can yell and argue, and then look at each other and go, "Dude, what's the solution here?" And nobody's butt got hurt, you know? You're just speaking truth.
DTV: Awesome. If you had to sum up your body of work thus far, what would you want your audience to take away, if you were to spell out, "This is my legacy. This is what I was trying to say"?
JF: I would say…I would hope people would say, "Man, he was a good artist." Or, "Man, he put out good content. Like, I could always sink my teeth into that content and find something new out of it." And, man, I also always wanted people to be, like, on romantic dates and listen to my stuff, you know? [laughs]
DTV: Right, right. Obviously, there's so much variety in the work, but if you had to say, "Okay, this is kind of the unifying theme as I look back at my body of work," either songs or the entire breadth of the catalog—if you had to look back and say, "Oh, you know what? This is what I was about." What would it be?
JF: I would have to say that the song "Fear"... when that song came out and we shot that video at the ocean. That was probably the pinnacle of my life, when I looked at myself in the mirror and said, "You can really do this. Without drugs, without anything. You have a craft, and you should really get rid of your ego altogether and enjoy this ride now. And see where it takes you. And because of that song, and because of the people I worked with on that song and the people that taught how to become spiritually healed, I will always be grateful to that. And the guy I wrote the song with, Blue Miller, I named my daughter after him. You know? I'd have to say, when "Fear" came out and shooting that video out on the Malibu beach at 5:30 in the morning and then seeing it, going, "This is…okay. I get it. This is what I'm supposed to do. Right there. Keep going. Let's just keep going with that."
DTV: What are you listening to these days, yourself? Is there anything that's caught you by surprise, that you didn't see coming?
JF: Dude. I'll tell you what I'm listening to and I can't get enough of it. Cigarettes After Sex. That band, oh my God. Cigarettes After Sex. Slowdive. You know, I'm pretty fascinated with Post Malone, just because he's, I mean, the guy's a rock star. I don't sit around and listen to his stuff, but, I mean, you gotta give it up for the man. You know?
My main thing right now is Cigarettes After Sex. And a lot of old jazz. A lot of Ella Fitzgerald. A lot of Dave Brubeck. And, you know, I'm really in this chopping up samples mode right now. I love finding hooks, chopping them up, and then making fat beats to it. And I'm also always writing, so I'm working on all these types of projects. I'm working on the next Open Book album. I'm working on another project with my friend Eric, and it's gonna be more of a slowcore project, like old Idaho or Red House Painters kind of stuff. I'm always inspired by how great this life is, I just never can stop. I can't stop. I can't stop. My wife has to tell me, "Put the phone down."
DTV: That's a good place to be.
JF: Yeah, it is.
Check out Blue October’s latest album, I Hope You’re Happy, out August 17, and watch for its iHeart Radio AT&T THANKS Sound Studio performance in October.
In the meantime, we’ve put together a Spotify playlist of Blue October favorites, including many of the tracks discussed above.
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