Ezra Furman reflects on sexuality, buddhism and Lou Reed

“I have learned slowly, over the years, that more people than you think will talk to you about something that’s difficult”

Ezra Furman reflects on sexuality, buddhism and Lou Reed

By Susie Bennett

Ezra Furman is about to release Twelve Nudes. A punk album of ‘pure agitated rage’.

We meet in the wake of his previous album, the queer outlaw saga Transangelic Exodus, and this release of ‘renewed fury’.

I’m here to ask him about how he deals with anxiety during times of personal transformation.

A lot of thoughtful stop-start silence went into Ezra’s answers. It reminded me that the silent gaps resting between assembled words point to the freedom of our consciousness. Those gaps are part of our full, living narrative expression. To become aware of them enables a peaceful space for us to create and process our selfhood; expand, retract or continue on a particular path.

It is that movement and potential of energy that goes some way in making palpable the experience of Ezra Furman’s music and how it felt to meet him on this silent page. It also undermines the pure frenetic joy of listening to his work, and so here I must also urge you to do just that.

While listening to him, it surprised me that he inverted my understanding of him as a punk idol. Although, on reflection, of course he would. This is because he taught me something: it is only from a punk that you can learn the furious labour of self affirmation can eventually become something to let go of and hold lightly. That doing so is probably good for your own heart.

Ezra Furman’s ferocity of queer punk contains a real warmth, generosity and literary intelligence. As with Twelve Nudes he hopes ‘to use visceral negativity like a controlled forest fire to clear a space for the alternate reality we can and must build together’.  And so, out of the burning woods off stage he came flowing towards me with a big smile, in pink and white floral patterns and his trademark pearls. Here’s what he had to say…

TMM: In your book on Lou Reed you describe his album Transformer as being about the process of becoming rather than being. Does the ambiguity of self bring with it anxiety? How do you deal with the anxiety that comes with personal transformation, both as someone with a public profile and within your own social groups? 

That’s all a very large question. Well a question for me is like, how much is this true that ambiguity of personal identity brings you anxiety. I think that it is true. But I fear some suffocation more, the suffocation of a too fixed, overly fixed identity. And I’ve maybe swung too far in the other direction for my own good.

Either I have done it, or it’s just happened to me but my social identities have been destabilised. I don’t know. I’m in the middle of asking myself, would my life be better if my sense of myself was more stable?

It took me a long time to admit to myself or say out loud that me being gender non conforming is a pain in the ass sometimes you know? And it’s just like really ah, a bunch of heartache and trouble that I wish would go away, you know. It’s not a thought that I necessarily fully endorse, but sometimes I’m just like… yeah it took a long time to admit it because I was trying to be very self affirming about it.

I’ve been wondering if I’m in development or if I’m stuck in the middle. Maybe stuck in the middle in a good way, or if I’m headed somewhere in a bunch of ways culturally. I think it spreads to most parts of my life. What I’m doing with gender, and also what I’m doing with religion, what I’m doing with a successful music career. Is it where it is and it’s in a good place that I’m comfortable with – or should it be going somewhere better?

TMM: I think that it’s a process isn’t it? I think everyone has these experiences of ambiguity in their life, and you go through different plateaus with it. I think you’re right – having a fixed idea about yourself is death, basically.

Yeah, it can be yeah, I know. I mean I guess it’s also such a well know story for queer people that, yeah, being closeted and it being a road to death.

So my first thought about it is that ambiguity means freedom.

I guess maybe that’s true. But I guess freedom is maybe a painful thing to live out.

TMM: That’s interesting, why is that?

Well because, I don’t know. It’s like when I left high school and went to university; I couldn’t complain anymore cos I was choosing to go to university, choosing all my classes for myself.

When you take responsibility to make decisions for your life instead of having them imposed on you, then you’re like: ‘Now I have to own it; and perhaps it’s still really hard and bad’. It’s not only that you have to own it but it’s like, a cage is a thing to lean on, it’s stable.

TMM: The world gets smaller when you make a decision basically?

Yeah, yeah, when you feel like you’re free you’re off the grid a little bit. It’s harder to play free jazz than it is to play my favourite things. My favourite things has the correct notes to play that song, and free jazz has no rules, and my life is all free jazz lately.

TMM: When you’re going through major life changes or shifts in identity and you don’t have a hospitable support system, what coping strategies might you have used when you felt alone?

Yeah, that’s often been my situation. Well, I’m slowly learning this ,and I don’t really fully practice it well yet. I have learned slowly, over the years, that more people than you think will talk to you about something that’s difficult to talk about; that makes you vulnerable to say out loud, or you don’t know how to say it. My first thought is:

‘No, I don’t wanna, that’ll be uncomfortable. It’ll be an impossible conversation, or it’ll be too much for my friend to handle hearing me bring up. We don’t have that kind of relationship, we’re just more casual friends’, or something like that.

But most people want to get real. People are waiting for each other to say something vulnerable a lot of the time. That’s been really hard for me. I feel like most of my friends are men, straight cis men, and we have a culture – me and them – of tough guy stuff. You know, being very reluctant to say something true and vulnerable that’s not a joke. It takes a lot of courage to push against that, but I have slowly found that it works.

TMM: Is there a division for you between you feeling more inhibited in those social groups, but then able to be so open with your writing and your music? How does that work?

Well, I guess I have always really liked preparing the exact stuff that I’m going to say. That’s what I get to do on a stage. I get to say something that I’ve prepared. I know it is the way I want to say it and I don’t have to listen to anybody else, they all have to listen to me. That’s much easier than the improvisation of social conversation where you haven’t written what you’re going to say beforehand and you have to react to however the other person is reacting to you, and whatever they have to say. That is much scarier to me.

Although I do get stage fright. I get stage fright more socially. Sometimes I say I started a band so I wouldn’t have to go to parties and talk to people, but just run the whole party. Yeah, it’s a little, uh, it’s harder to talk to some of the people I’m closest with than it is to write songs for strangers. That seems easier to me intuitively.

TMM: Yeah when you write something you can imagine an audience and people responding to it, but there’s a social distance at least to that ritual of speaking to someone directly.

Yeah and after they hear your song, I tend to be like ‘it’s just a song, I dunno’. You don’t have to answer for it really. But then again, I’m finding that I do, and I have to learn some bravery in talking to people.

There are people in my life, who find out about my life from hearing my music, and are looking at interviews with me. It’s not really good if it’s people you’re really close to. It’s not nice. It’s not a good way to get to know somebody if you don’t hear it from me. That’s been a weird thing about exposure.

TMM: Yeah because everything’s always unfolding isn’t it? Again it’s like a fixed thing: something you’ve said has been fixed somewhere it’s not necessarily still the truth is it?

Yeah I also might of said it in a way I didn’t mean to say it. I also get misquoted, like a lot. I hate it. Lots of misquoting and kind of misrepresentation, or kind of a spin on articles stuff like that. There’s a lot of spin. But you kind of have to let go a little bit. I have written sort of angry messages to journalists, and then I’ve been like ‘What was the point of that?’.

TMM: Well sometimes people need to be told don’t they.

Yeah, I don’t know if they can hear.

TMM: Just to pick up on what you said about being the party. How do you stay healthy in an unhealthy industry or environment? Because it is a party isn’t it? How do you stay, or attempt to stay, healthy?

It’s hard. Right now I’m here with lots of jet lag and I’m not sleeping well. Well, I’ve got some different strategies.

I’ve learned that I need to be on tour less than I used to be, and less than the people I work with would probably encourage us to be. I just have to say no to a lot of things as being away a lot – not just in a physical or mental health thing – but in a broader wellness sense, I can’t be away from home that much.

I used to be away from home more than a third of the year, and I don’t know – my personal life at home would just sort of wither. I’d have less and less sense of place or community and never see certain people. It kind of made me sad to always be out of town and missing things, missing weddings.

But then day to day it’s tricky. We as a band have all had to sort of revise our approach to alcohol. For a while we didn’t drink at all until all the work for the whole day and night was done. Which is often like 1am or something after everything is packed up, and then you have a drink.

But we started to ease up the restrictions after a while, a year or two of doing it that way. But still, I don’t know. I used to just get drunk before a show. I mean it’s just bad for me, really bad for me.

I dunno I haven’t thought about what to do about this, but I do notice that the environment of putting on concerts is almost always alcohol based. You’re usually at bars and they’re like: ‘Here’s all the beers we can fit in your room and if you drink them we’ll bring you more’.

Shows don’t happen other places. I think it’s hard for people who are trying to drink less, or not drink at all that they can’t really see a show without going to a bar. I wonder about that. I wonder what different way it’s possible to encourage, or how to normalise sobriety in my audience.

TMM: I think you need an ally if you’re going to go to a party and not drink, so that you don’t feel like the black sheep.

Yeah, I can also forget that I’m working. When everyone else is here to have fun that is when I’m working the hardest. And it’s good to remind ourselves of that and speak in those terms.

That’s what we say in our band: ‘We’re working, we have a lot of stuff to get done’. And also it’s probably a good thing we’re the kind of band where we don’t have somebody doing all of the stuff for us. We carry all of the stuff in and out. In America we usually drive ourselves around. Here we’re a little afraid of the backwards roads.

TMM: How does your spirituality support how you look after yourself? 

One of the main ingredients of feeling sort of exhausted, manic and out of control on tour (which I often do) is that it’s much harder to keep up a spiritual practice of prayer and being prayerful. Which is not hard, well I mean it has its difficulties, but that’s what I do when I’m at home. Then when I’m travelling, I’m so tired and it’s like you’ve got one hour in the morning. It would be nice to meditate but it’s also the only chance to have breakfast and have a shower, and it’s so crammed in.

Everything is so constantly social. You’re always around other people. I dunno, it makes me feel a little out of control sometimes. But in a general way I feel like spiritual practice of some kind keeps people in touch with what they care about the most. And to me that’s the best.

Also it’s an important part of mental health – a very important part of mental health – to feel like you are in touch with what you care about, and you are living in a way you believe in.  Ritual practices and meditation and stuff like that, prayer, it all functions as ways to check in with what’s your deepest concern. It’s the worst feeling when you feel like your deepest concern has been crowded out by other noise.

TMM: For what in your life do you feel most grateful?

There’s a lot. It’s like asking me what is my favourite song of all time. I’ve got about 100 answers. Things that come to my mind are my family.

What really comes to mind very firstly is being able to breath. Not having a headache. I mean I get headaches sometimes, but somebody once pointed out to me that it feels good to not have a headache and it’s something you can feel grateful for anytime you don’t have a headache.

TMM: Yeah, it kind of makes you feel present as well actually, now you say that.

Yeah, I mean it was a Buddhist teacher. I just read it in a book by Thich Nhat Hanh. You know that writer? He’s got a really good book called Peace Is Every Step. It’s mostly like a lot of Zen Buddhism. Very simple things. It feels good to smile or to eat a tangerine. It feels amazing. If you just remember that those things are happening then you can feel grateful for them.

Yeah, but I also feel very grateful for the job I get to do. Somehow I have found a way to have the job of playing music for people. I’m grateful for the way people respond to it, and that they tell other people about it. I am especially grateful that people find it useful. It is very validating to me to see how validating it is to them. It’s like a really great loop of validation.

TMM: Do you think you’ll write more books?

I want to.

TMM: I want you to

Really?

TMM: Yeah

Well I loved writing that book even though it was quite hard and very intimidating too. But I loved writing it and having a thing, a writing project, that I was always working on.

TMM: Do you think you’ll write fiction?

Oh I’ve written fiction. Actually before I wrote songs I wrote a lot of stories and I thought I was going to be an author. I thought that was going to be my thing. But it’s been a while. I’ve written stories. I wrote a whole terrible novel. I think I’m not good at writing fiction. I don’t like very much what I’ve written fiction wise. That’s why I haven’t shown it to people.

But I really like this Transformer book. I feel proud of it. And I’ve been trying to start the next thing. Figure out what I have to say.

TMM: How is the next album you’re about to release is a departure from Transangelic Exodus, and what do you feel has lead the artistic direction from that to Twelve Nudes?

Well, Transangelic Exodus I put a lot of care into, and we spent a long time making it. Months and months and months. I guess in the course of doing that record (which I’m very proud of) I also started to get a musical restlessness. Just the urge for something less considered and more immediate I guess. Not that the last record is not immediate, but I guess the process of just not putting a lot of thought into how to play songs.

I started on music with punk music. That was the first music that I loved. What I thought I was going to do when I first started to play music was be the guitar player in a band. I thought Pete Townsend had a cool role. He was the guitar player who doesn’t sing and he writes most of the songs. So I wanted to write the songs and play guitar and not sing in a punk band. That was my teenage ambition. I didn’t think of myself as uh – well, I was a very bad singer then. I’ve got a little better.

Anyway, I guess there was something in the emotion of Transangelic Exodus. It’s about fear and solidarity and trying to find, even amidst it, a feeling of panic about what’s going to happen to threatened populations as society seems to attack them. And wondering if I’m among those populations. I dunno, I guess that it started to feel like there was an overlooked impulse in me. Which is just to admit how bad it feels. How angry and scared I felt.

I guess I found myself really trying to work as a purveyor of hope and solidarity. Sometimes when you’re trying to find the hope in everything, I dunno I guess there’s something to be said for letting yourself have moments of hopelessness, or just like really fully entering a negative feeling.

I think that’s what the record Twelve Nudes is about doing. It doesn’t contain my whole world view. I think I just need to be here for a moment and then I can be positive later. It’s part of a balanced diet in an upsetting world. I better work on how I phrase these things though because I’m about to do a bunch of interviews on it. I haven’t done many yet.

TMM: Twelve Nudes is out August 30th?

It’s coming out in August yeah.

TMM: You’re so prolific. Where is your favourite place to write?

I don’t have that many places. I just have my bedroom really. Sometimes out in the living room. It’s usually when no one else is home. But most of the stuff happens in the various bedrooms I have occupied. You gotta have somewhere to make a little noise and not feel self conscious.

TMM: You said in your book Transformer about Lou Reed: ‘As if to know him would answer urgent questions about myself’. What have you learned about yourself through your understanding of him?

Wow. I mean I guess Lou Reed is someone who makes things seem possible to me. I remember thinking when I was first listening to The Velvet Underground, and in particular the way that he sings that: ‘Oh I could see how I could be a singer’. How I could sing songs. I think I was especially listening to the song Sweet Jane where he was talking through lots of verses. Suddenly it just seemed like I could see some glimmer of a possible contribution I could make. And I think he was that for a lot of people.

Even then I didn’t know he was bisexual. I didn’t know I was bisexual I dont think really. I hadn’t quite phrased it that way to myself. And it wasn’t about that, there was something just deeply liberatingly queer about Lou Reed even prior to gender or sexuality.

David Byrne talked about how when you hear music it can import with it a whole way of being in the world, and it makes you understand that there’s different ways to be than the way you are, or the way that people that you know are.

Especially when you’re young, it’s very helpful to hear a record in a few minutes, that has a whole worldview and a different way of carrying yourself. When you need it, it can save your life.

TMM: Good mental health for me means…

Doing things on purpose. I think it means there’s a difference. I just sometimes find myself feeling out of control and behaving or doing things that I don’t endorse. I just like to do them because it’s somehow easier than making the effort to be and behave in a way that lines up with the way I want to be.

TMM: Is that to do with being a rock star?

What do you mean?

TMM: Is that the line between who you want to be and the environment you’re in? When you’re discussing having lots of straight male friends and relating to that outwardly, but it isn’t lining up with how you want to satisfy yourself I guess.

It’s sometimes that, yeah, being honest with the people around me and saying what I actually mean. Um yeah, carrying myself and presenting myself in a way that seems to feel kind of right-ish, which sometimes has to do with the clothes that I wear, make up and stuff.

I just feel much healthier when I am able to say – like if everyone’s laughing at a joke and I’m like – ‘that’s not funny because it’s belittling someone who’s vulnerable or something like that’. I feel much healthier when I can say ‘that’s not funny to me’. Things like that, standing up for what I think is right or correct, and then it also applies to what I know is going to make me feel better to eat and drink. It’s like an intentionality, it comes down to intentionality.

TMM: Yeah, it’s not easy is it. Especially if you’ve had people in your life that have been there for a long time, and you’ve changed and they’ve had to witness that and you’ve got these new witnesses who see you in the new way.

Yeah, yeah you feel like you have to answer for ways that you’ve changed.

TMM: It’s a skill as well, to be able to actualise yourself in different environments

Yeah, yeah and you wanna hold it all kind of lightly. Sometimes you need to have a hard rule like you don’t want to drink at all before a show, and sometimes you’re like I will feel better if I eat really healthy. Then sometimes it’s like I can loosen that grip a little bit. Um, I find it really difficult though. I’m bad at improvising stuff and I love rules and instructions.

I follow recipes and memorise things, lyrics. I have a verbal mind in some ways and I enjoy having words committed to memory, it’s helpful. It’s a good line of work to be in I guess. I got a lot of words to remember. It’s good. If you memorise things, you kind of have them with you. I have a lot of poems and prayers, I memorise them. I’m carrying all of this stuff around with me that can put me back in a good frame of mind.

Ezra Furman is on tour here. You can memorise his latest single Calm Down below and take it with you wherever you go. The full album, Twelve Nudes, is released via Bella Union on August 30th 2019.

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