Photo Credit: Jason Thrasher
The idea of a band “maturing” is as tired as it is often inaccurate. But for the Athens-bred band Futurebirds, perhaps the notion is fitting. Over the past few years, folks paying attention from inside the Loop have witnessed the group constantly pushing itself to new levels and, for lack of a better phrase, “growing up.”
Since the start, Futurebirds has consistently found itself near the top of the local-music hierarchy. The heavy reverb found on the band’s early releases inspired analogies to groups like My Morning Jacket and Band of Horses. It was a pleasant sound, if not a wholly unique one.
Thomas Johnson, the band’s banjo and guitar player and vocalist, says those early records were a result of the band not trusting its instincts.
“[The reverb-soaked sound] wasn’t something we set out to do," he says. "When you’re younger and left to your own devices, you just don’t trust your instincts as much as you should. When you have four guys getting drunk and singing harmonies, reverb sounds pretty good."
The band’s latest release, Baba Yaga (released this past April through Mississippi's Fat Possum Records), saw the band in a place where it didn't have to rely on studio manipulations to sound slick. Although the record retained the country-fried rock ethos that the band spent the past several years developing, the album was considered by most to be a giant leap forward.
But despite the positive reception that Baba Yaga received pretty much across the board (a 7.5 rating from Pitchfork was one of the album's more notable reviews), the band doesn't feel like the record was as coherent as it should have been.
“We didn’t have a lot of direction [when we were recording Baba Yaga]—we didn’t have a label or anyone telling us what to do," says Johnson. While this freedom was nice, Johnson notes that the recording sessions were unnecessarily lengthy. "Even when we did" have a label involved, he says, "we didn’t have much oversight or feedback."
This dissatisfaction has already led Futurebirds to start looking forward. While the band hasn’t yet produced any material since Baba Yaga (other than a new Jittery Joe’s coffee blend inspired by their latest album, aptly called "Baba Java"), plans are in the works for a follow-up LP.
“We’d like to pick a location [to record] and stay somewhere—book 10 days and record the whole thing all at once. We want a finite amount of time, so that we don’t start writing extra songs,” Johnson says, half-jokingly referring to Baba Yaga's considerable running time.
Maturity can take other forms. While Futurebirds' show at the Georgia Theatre this weekend is certainly not its first at the venue, Johnson says there is more and more at stake each time the band plays in town. “I think in some ways it can fool you a little bit. You can get a big head in a place like [Athens],” he says, regarding the difficulty of staying relevant in a college town where the scene is constantly shifting.
And, though having filled venues like the Theatre in the past is an impressive feat, it doesn’t necessarily translate to success outside the region. “A lot of bands that have had success like us—and beyond—have probably had similar problems,” says Johnson, discussing the difficulty of making a mark on out-of-town crowds. After years of touring and playing shows, the band has developed a sense of realistic optimism about what to expect from audiences on the road.
"You have to be creative, and not take that for granted," Johnson says. "You can’t be like, ‘Oh, our name sells itself."
Watching other local bands “navigate the waters” of touring life has helped Futurebirds stay motivated. “You have to play a lot of shows, and they have to be good," Johnson says in regard to attaining cultural relevance outside the Southeast. "You can’t disappoint."
Although the band is now scattered across the Southeast (with members now calling Atlanta and Nashville, among other places, home), Futurebirds still very much considers itself an Athens band. Still, "[the separation] definitely presents a whole new set of challenges,” says Johnson, explaining that band members' decisions to leave town stemmed from various motivators: relationships, work, changes of scenery.
“I don’t think anyone was like ‘I hate Athens, I gotta get out of here'," he says. "It just sort of happened that we all wound up leaving."
But the challenges created by being in a long-distance band certainly aren’t insurmountable, and the group shows little sign of slowing down. Johnson views the predicaments resulting from distance as another reason not to “half-ass” things like touring and recording, even if it means that coordinating rehearsals may be a bit of problem in the future.
Indeed, there is much on the horizon for Futurebirds. But, in yet another sign of what might be called maturity, Johnson hints that the band’s decisions will be made in a more focused way from here on out.
"When you get older, there’s a business aspect to this," he says. "And you don’t want to make things any harder for yourself."
WHO: Futurebirds, Diarrhea Planet, Tia Madre
WHERE: Georgia Theatre
WHEN: Friday, Oct. 4, 8 p.m.
HOW MUCH: $15