Tony Furtado Crunches The Numbers
It seems wholly appropriate that when I interview Tony Furtado, he's on the road. Furtado's frequently changed his location, eliminating the status quo as a means to personal and professional growth. Raised on the East Bay of San Francisco, he developed an interest in the banjo after making a rough version of one for a school project. This led the aspiring sculptor to enter the Grand National Banjo Championship, which he won twice, in 1987 and 1991. Years later I watched him playing slide guitar at his then home of Boulder, Colorado. And later still, besides shining on more stringed instruments, he added singer/songwriter to his list of accomplishments. This occurred while he was living in Los Angeles.
As he conducts this interview Furtado is at the end of a drive that brings him from his current home of Portland, Oregon to the first date of the next leg of a touring cycle that begins in Santa Cruz. As usual, he seems not content to allow his creativity to settle down into one dimension. While Thirteen continues the lyrics-driven material that began on 2004’s These Chains, Furtado is already contemplating a future that will combine the various sides of his musical personality. It sounds as if it's been part of his plan from the very beginning, more than 20 years ago.
John Patrick Gatta: The last time we spoke was during your solo stint opening for Gregg Allman. Now you’re on the road with a band. Are you using any of the musicians that appear on Thirteen?
Tony Furtado: No, I didn't get any of the people. Three of them are older producer guys, have been around for years and years and wouldn't even really consider roadwork.
JPG: How did you end up working with the musicians on Thirteen?
TF: It was my manager's idea. A couple of these guys were people that he's worked with a bunch. He brought up the idea that maybe we'd get Jim Dickinson, who I'd met before and he'd come to one of my shows before and I sure like his work and, I guess, he kinda dug what I'd done. And that totally made sense. Then, Sean Slade, I had never met before, but he was interested in coming and working on it cause it was something different for him. Dusty Wakeman, of course, we worked together before. Winston Watson lives in Tucson and L.A. He's worked with all of those guys before.
So, it fell into place. It was all happening when they were going to be down there anyway for the big Tape Op Convention that happens in Tucson. Tape Op’s an indie magazine that focuses on studio engineering, especially studios that use analog tapes.
(At this point Furtado’s cell phone isn’t transmitting so well, which elicits a comment on technology being our friend and enemy.)
JPG: Of course, for someone like you, you can avoid all that and just play acoustic.
TF: When I do play electric I don't use a lot of crazy stuff. It's because I don't think my brain's built that way. (slight laugh) I usually have a maximum of three pedals in front of me for my electric guitar cause I just don't think I could handle any more. I'll get a tone that works for me and that's pretty much it. And then with the acoustic guitar I do the same. Get a tone that works for me and volume up, volume down.
JPG: I read you opened up for Eric Johnson. I’d imagine he had a fairly elaborate set up.
TF: Oh yeah. He's definitely got elaborate stuff. Definitely very elaborate. I think it's cool. It worked for him. It's definitely great for his sound. I think the guy that I saw that had the most pedals was Trey Anastasio. He was almost surrounded by pedals. Literally. He had like a horseshoe of pedals all around him. It was like, Oh, I can't even imagine that.’
JPG: The album deals with certain themes, serious stuff, sometimes not such happy situations. I’m just wondering how was your frame of mind while writing this?
TF: I wrote it pretty much over the course of about a year-and-a-half. There were a lot of songs that I wrote over that time. I think that was probably about a quarter of what I had written. There was definitely a fair amount of introspection. I intended for that to happen, as well as just input into myself, into my brain with doing a lot of reading, a lot of listening to other music. I used it as a learning period.
I took a year-and-a-half or so off the road, well not technically, cause I went out a couple times here and there to make some dough. I had a couple weekly gigs and I'd try out some of the new songs and try out some new covers and just have fun with it. I didn't want to force anything. I felt like I grew a lot. I did some co-writing with different people. By doing that I think the whole songwriting thing, which was pretty new to me, the lyric songwriting thing, it became more of a vital form of expression. The more I did it, the more necessary it became to actually do it, and the more easy it became to actually express true emotion rather than do something where it's, 'Hey! Look! I can rhyme to music!' This is what I'm feeling, and if it rhymes it rhymes and if it doesn't, whatever. It's a song.
JPG: Were there certain things you were listening to that gave you the idea, Hey, you know that song by so and so didn’t rhyme. I don’t have to rhyme either.’
TF: That was the realization that I had in me from playing so much music over the years. When I was actually trying to write songs, the first thing you go for is doing the rhyme, especially coming from a folk music background. Listening to guys like Elliott Smith and Tom Waits, where sometimes the lyrics get abstract and not necessarily rhyme perfectly all the time, but the feeling is definitely there. That definitely influenced a couple of things on the album.
JPG: Now, the album’s themes of “good luck/bad luck/no luck”...
TF: That’s something I came up with. I mean, you can apply to that to just about every song in the world, but for me when I was thinking about the album and I needed to come up with a title, I started thinking about all the songs, and I had a song “Thirteen Below” about the miners and “Thirteen” about the number 13 and whether it’s lucky or unlucky. And some of them do have to do with luck and no luck, and I also started thinking that this was my 13th album. I’m counting a couple albums of bands that I started, and there were other thirteens popping up in my life. The whole “Fortunate Son” popped up in there. Fortunate. Oh, luck. That works in there.’ There’s another song where I mention providence
JPG: I see you have a Portuguese/Italian background. For myself, with an all-Italian background, did you grow up with certain superstitions about the number 13 or other things?
TF: No, nothing really. I can’t say there’s anything I remember from childhood or family.
JPG: So, you’re left untainted…
TF: (laughs) except for the guilt. (laughs)
JPG: Speaking of your background, many people are familiar with you taking up the banjo and winning contests. And then moving on to slide guitar. But what about your family, was it a musical one? Were they encouraging?
TF: Getting into music, my parents were just very open-minded about it all. I told you last time about making the instrument. [As a fifth grader, a requirement of his music class was to do a report on and make an orchestral instrument. He didn’t hear orchestral’ and focused on the banjo. The history of it led to an interest that resulted in his parents presenting him with one on his 12th birthday.]
The only musician in the family was someone I didn’t know, my grandmother told me about later after I really got into playing banjo and slide guitar. It was my grandmother’s brother, Joseph Anthony Buemi but they called him Tony, and he played banjo and slide guitar. And this was back at the turn of last century. He died when he was 20. I never knew about him. I always thought that was kind of odd. There’s also some other spooky parallels there too. It’s like, Am I the reincarnation of?’
JPG: And your parents continue to support what you do?
TF: My folks are just happy with what I do. They never had big plans for me to be a doctor or lawyer. They always wanted me to finish college, which I never did. I left college early to go tour with bands.
JPG: Speaking of the mixture of art and music, I read that you were painting
TF: I never really did paint. I sculpted years ago. I was a fine arts major when I was in college. I was going to be a sculptor. When I moved back to Portland I bought bunch of clay and watercolors, just started having fun with it. Nothing serious. Just kinda helps things along.
JPG: Doing that, does that help the musical side of you? Freeing your mind to think?
TF: Yeah. That’s my guess. It was a good diversion when I was bogged down trying to write a line.
JPG: Lyrically, the album deals with the politics of life personal, cultural and government. Again, are these things that fell into place?
TF: It wasn’t conscious at all. The political songs are the covers (The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son”). It was suggested to me to put some covers on the album. Not three, maybe one or two, but it ended up being three. In my search I whittled it down to 15 covers. Then, we cut six or seven, and then the three that sounded the best were those three, which happened to be “Fortunate Son” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” (plus “Take Me to the Pilot”). The more I thought about it, the more perfect it is for the time and the climate right now. It falls right in with my personal beliefs.
Then, there’s another song on there, “Used,” that’s kind of abstract and blurs between the personal and the political.
JPG: Since you brought up the covers. I reviewed the album in January’s Jambands and my least favorite numbers on “Thirteen,” and it’s a compliment to your original material, were the covers.
TF: (laughs) Thank you. I would agree with you.
JPG: For me “Take Me to the Pilot” was okay. “Fortunate Son,” a little so, but “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” maybe it’s me being such a huge Who fanbut when I was listening to it just before I called you I started to dig it and noticed that it started to have its own sense about it more resigned than the original’s cynicism.
TF: I’ll tell what, Won’t Get Fooled Again” is my favorite to perform. That’s the only one of em that we perform. It’s a lot easier for me to do that now that I’ve done it a bunch. [On the album] that was my first time singing it. I had a hard time finding a voice for it. But now that we’re doing it live, it’s much easier to rock it and have a good time with it. Give it some extra strength that it needs. Cause I agree, it needs that punch. So, that’s the one on the album, it’s kinda the folky version. Some people love it, some people don’t, and that’s cool.
My least favorite is “Take Me to the Pilot” because I never thought in my life I’d end up “nah-nahing” on an album. (slight laugh) And if I was to pick an Elton John song, it would probably have been a different one, but it wasn’t only my decision. Sometimes it is. But it came out fine. People dig it, especially those who’ve heard the original.
JPG: Back to the other two, what I didn’t like so much was that they missed the anger.
TF: Totally different direction. Just my way is my take. That’s the way I sing it. Now, “Fortunate Son,” I had a hard time with too. I don’t know if it was going to make it on the album. Then when Craig went in and remixed it and put it in such an odd light, I was like, Excellent. Now, I really dig this.’ He built in such a cool way that musically it works and it’s such a different take on that song.
JPG: Doing covers of material that have been so ingrained as part of rock history, was it difficult for you to make it your own, for example, especially since you’re relatively new at singing lead.
TF: If I’m going to cover a song, I want it to be different than the original. I don’t want to try and copy what the original was. I see no reason for me to do that. Maybe other people like doing that. That doesn’t work for me. I did a cover of Tom Petty song (“Running Down a Dream”) on another album. It was just me and fast finger picking on my guitar. It was a totally different thing. Comes at you from left field. It’s the way I play. It’s the way I feel comfortable with it. That’s what I did. When I hear someone covering someone else’s song, when you’re caught a little off guard at first , Oh yeah. Nice.’ Makes you.maybe hear the lyrics in a different light.
JPG: Speaking of Petty, “Used” has that Petty kind of feel to it. Is that conscious or?
TF: It’s probably from listening to a lot of Tom Petty. Also, I think when I brought the song to the players and the producer it made sense for that song to go for that vibe. Not necessarily say, Hey, let’s play this like Tom Petty.’ I think collectively we all just went for that sound.
JPG: With “California Flood” and “Long Journey Home,” those reminded me of the production work by Jon Brion (Aimee Mann, Fiona Apple).
TF: I know that I wrote “California Flood” right around the time I was really listening to a lot of Elliott Smith. It’s one of those things where I wrote down bunches of verses like having thoughts about my childhood and dealing with different family problems as well as having it wrapped up in weekends on the California Delta. And the “California Flood” is definitely a metaphor for all kinds of different emotions, having it be abstract, but also a little bit melodic.
JPG: “Sevens” is an instrumental. For someone trying to establish himself as a singer/songwriter was it just a matter that no lyrics quite fit there?
TF: I wanted to have two or three instrumentals on the album just because that’s what I’m used to. My old albums were all instrumental. That’s one of my strengths. And that one seemed to fit because it’s not a lot of jamming. It’s more about melody and the vibe of that tune. It seemed to fit well to me. We put it in the place where it kind of breaks things up a little bit.
JPG: You talk about the melody when discussing the song. Do you have that inherent ability to be concise when you’re writing and recording, and then allow it to go where it goes onstage?
TF: I like doing that. I like when I’m making an album to keep it concise. There are a lot of albums I like to listen to where if I want to hear more of a jammed out version of the song, I’ll check out a live version of it. That’s what I like to see live. I like to have the freedom to either do it jammed out and riffing with people taking solos or concise, depending on what we’re feeling at the time.
JPG: You did a lot of opening spots. Eric Johnson, Susan Tedeschi, Gregg Allman. Has that yielded a new group of people getting into your music?
TF: It definitely has. They definitely were good things to do because all those openers were just me solo going out there, which was totally different, especially Gregg Allman. I’d go out and do my little thing. I’d have to figure out how to liven up an audience, 2,000 people that were waiting to hear some old Allman Brothers songs. It was good for me to learn how to do that and to get some new fans. Have to win them over with the slide stuff.
JPG: That’s good to hear. Right now you’re tour around the country. What else is in store for you in 2007?
TF: I’m sure at some point I’ll have some time off the road to do some writing and recording. I definitely would like to write some more instrumentals cause I’ve been dying to get back into that again as well as continuing to write vocal songs.
JPG: Writing both styles, do you think you might confuse people who are now getting used to the instrumentalist becoming a singer/songwriter?
TF: I don’t think it’ll confuse people. I’m not going to put out an all-instrumental album. I think just to get going with that again like some of my heroes, guys like Ry Cooder who when he makes an album he’ll have some instrumentals, some vocals. Same with Taj Mahal. Some of my favorite albums that I’ve done are a mixture of vocal and instrumental, but these last couple albums felt really good to me to really delve into the actual singer/songwriter world.