“I don’t know what to do with myself,” Ross Millard mutters, shrugging at his mates as he sets his guitar down at the rear of the small stage at the back of Seattle’s East Street Records and ambles toward his mic stand. No sympathy is forthcoming from his fellow Futureheads, only smirks from drummer Dave Hyde (sans drums), who's perched on a stool to his right, bassist Jaff (sans bass), who's perched to his far left, and Barry Hyde (chief songwriter, Dave’s older brother, and the British quartet’s other guitarist), who's standing mere inches away, with a twisted smile that makes him look even more like a cross between Jon Stewart and Billy Bragg. (He sings a bit like Bragg too.) His isn’t the guitar that’s popped a string — a potential set killer when you’ve brought only two instruments and no roadies to an in-store acoustic performance.
HYPECAST: The Futureheads’ debut was swept along with bands like Franz Ferdinand, Bloc Party, Maximo Park, and Radio 4.
“I guess I’ll be the hype man, like Flavor Flav — 'Everybody scream!',” Millard improvises. Coupled with his bespectacled, slightly nerdy appearance and Sunderland accent, his corresponding b-boy pose elicits laughter instead from the dozens of onlookers leaning against the vinyl and CD racks and angling for prime snaps with their cellphone cameras. Beyond their artful, crackling, dueling-guitar geometrics and layers of cunning rhythms, the Futureheads' most distinguishing and potent weapon is their four-part vocals, with sharp lyrics and refrains like “ooohh ah OH oh oh” and “ba bah BAH” circling around each other, melodies jumping in and pulling out and occasionally coalescing into stirring resonance.
They waste no time deploying those harmonies, with only the elder Hyde’s simple strum as accompaniment, for a stripped-back yet brightly wiggly rendition of “Skip to the End,” from their just-released sophomore full-length, News and Tributes (Vagrant). No doubt the fully electrified versions, as heard on album or at a standard concert, are exhilarating, but with voices like these, they don’t need much else — certainly not any hype man — to get their point across.
Still, it’s hype — specifically the hype that came attached to their 2004 Futureheads debut album — and how that affected the making of the new album that I'm hoping to talk to Barry Hyde about after the set. When that disc arrived, examination of its ample merits — the way the serrated, polyrhythmic, hyperspeedy start/stop buzz compacted a trunkload of XTC, Gang of Four, and Wire LPs into a batch of brief, irresistible herky-jerk songbursts, pushing their influences into fresh sectors with the incorporation of those glorious multi-part vocals — was short-shrifted in favor of celebrating and promoting an emerging trendy new-postpunk scene into which the Futureheads were swept along with Franz Ferdinand, Bloc Party, Maximo Park, Radio 4, et al.
It turns out that the affable Hyde and I are able to exchange only quick pleasantries before store personnel whisk the band to the front counter to sign albums for eager fans waiting in a long queue. No time for chitchat with journalists — it's soundcheck to in-store to quick dinner to venue again for the first show of their two-week US jaunt, already the sixth time they've toured America. (The tour hits the Paradise this Saturday, July 1.)
So it’s a few days later when we get a chance to talk. He's on the phone from his LA hotel room, having just returned from a sports bar where the band drank champagne and watched England's World Cup side draw with Sweden and win their group. (Their footie fanship extends to the new album — the title track is about the Munich air disaster of 1958, in which several members of Manchester United, along with more than a dozen journalists and team officials, were killed when their plane crashed shortly after takeoff during a snowstorm.)
Of the scene hype that engulfed the Futureheads on their previous tours of the States, Hyde laughs. “They almost painted a picture like we all hung out together, like some sort of club. Y’know, ‘Hello? Franz Ferdinand? Would you like to come round my house for some pasta tonight?’ I mean, who wants to be mentioned with five other bands every single time your name is written?
“This time around the media haven’t really grouped us with those bands, which is good, we really wanted that to happen. If it happens, it happens, but a good way to stop that from happening is to make an album that you know for a fact no one else is gonna sound like. Franz have made their second album and it’s a good album, y’know, it’s in a similar vein to their first one and fair enough, they’re a pop band and a great pop band at that. We’ll see what happens with Bloc Party’s album — I think they’re gonna do something similar to us inasmuch as they’re gonna make a different album. I’ve got the feeling they’re gonna be influenced by dance music a little bit more, that’s where I can see them going. They’ve got that danceable quality and we’ve got this odd quality . . . I mean, our new album is sort of danceable too, but it’s quite adventurous.”