As it happens, I got on the phone with Ezra Furman just a few days after watching Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water, the fantastical story of a biology lab custodian in the 1960s and her mission to help a humanoid aquatic creature escape from government agents. Furman, who’s spent the majority of his dozen years in music trading in revivalist rock n' roll, has taken a sharp turn with his new album, a foray into layered, baroque pop melodrama called Transangelic Exodus, which he's described as a “queer outlaw saga.” Its loose narrative: “I’m in love with an angel, and a government is after us, and we have to leave home because angels are illegal, as is harboring angels.”
That a Mexican filmmaker and a punk-minded musician from Chicago might both feel compelled to create work about vilified, vulnerable “others” and efforts to save them from a state hell-bent on their extermination says a lot about the times we’re in. And while the advent of Trump’s America certainly fueled Furman’s creative juices, his alliance with the disenfranchised and the powerless that is woven throughout Transangelic Exodus has many sources and isn’t new. But it’s never been more explicit than on passionately felt new songs like the tense “No Place,” the Moldy Peaches-conjuring anti-folk of “Peel My Orange Every Morning,” the panicked, siege mentality of “Come Here Get Away From Me,” and the rousing, on-the-run opener “Suck the Blood From My Wound,” on which Furman sings what could be the album’s thesis: “To them, you know we’ll always be freaks.”
Furman’s association with the marginalized is personal—he identifies as queer and gender nonconforming, and what he calls the “fraught” experience of shopping is glimpsed in the driving track “Maraschino-Red Dress $8.99 at Goodwill.” His gift for empathy and championing of the struggling recalls two of his greatest songwriting idols: The Mountain Goats’ great storyteller John Darnielle, and Lou Reed, patron saint of the fucked up (and such a personal hero of Furman’s that the musician has written about Reed’s seminal 1972 album Transformer for the 33 1/3 series, a book due out in April).
You’ll hear other musical touchstones on Transangelic Exodus as well. Its xylophones, cellos, horns, pounding toms, hectic, changing tempos and fraught vocals are a long way from the '60s-styled rock that Furman celebrated with his early band Ezra Furman and the Harpoons, and more recently, Ezra Furman and the Boy-Friends. It’s such a rebirth that in the fall, Furman put the word out that his band would henceforth be known as The Visions, and throughout the new record you might experience visions of the spirituality and sweetness of Sufjan Stevens; the arch side-eye of Zac Pennington’s Parenthetical Girls; the eccentrics of Kevin Barnes and Of Montreal; and the mannered angst of Xiu Xiu’s Jamie Stewart or Perfume Genius’ Mike Hadreas. That’s some mighty fine company, and for good reason—this iteration of Ezra Furman is his most compelling yet.
Furman is also an observant, religious Jew—a fact that some of his secular fans might find a head-scratcher, even contradictory to his music and image, though he sees it as anything but. It was one of many subjects touched on in conversation with Billboard -- along with his new musical adventure, the evolution of “queer,” and of course, the fascinating gauntlet-throwing that is Transangelic Exodus.
Ezra, how important is the “angel on the run” concept to the new record? It was right up front when word of the album first came out, but you’ve seemed to downplay the storyline recently.
Well, it’s more of a concept just in me thinking of the album as a road movie or a post-modern novel, and where that could take me. Sometimes I think—like, you don’t really want to hear David Bowie explain Ziggy Stardust and the whole story behind it. What’s good about it should just be the songs. I mean I’ve heard plenty of concept records where it was like, “Man, why didn’t you just write songs?” It’s a whole overarching thing. So it makes me nervous to lean to heavily on it. And also the way it turned out is that originally I wrote more. I wrote explanations. I wrote songs that kind of made the story have a real story and a beginning, middle and an end. But I took a lot of that stuff out because I liked the way that it came into my brain, which is kind of a mystery, like a dream, you know? I found myself writing about this illegal angel and being in a car, and almost all the songs being set in a car, and running from hostile authorities.
“Suck The Blood From My Wound” sets the scene in such a passionate, driving way. With this lyric about breaking the angel out of the hospital, his wings not even healed, was it meant to be an exposition?
It really just drops you right into it. “I woke up bleeding in the crotch of a tree…” it’s like, what’s going on? It’s in medias res as they say. I like that it’s just a feeling of suddenly you’re just in the middle of it. Maybe it’s from being sort of a frantic, disorganized person, but I like to drop you into a story. It’s almost like being dropped into a moving car, or just a movie on fast forward. And I don’t know, I worked to give that song just this headlong, barreling sense of image after image after image, so that within the space of like three or four minutes you’re in the world view of the album.
The band’s name has changed, and if the sound of the record is not 180 degrees different from the past records, it’s quite a change. Do you see this as a sort of rebirth?
It was Sam’s [Sam Durkes, his drummer] idea that we should change the name. And we all pretty quickly realized that that felt right. I think we had a mission with Ezra Furman and the Boy-Friends, which we fulfilled. It had to do with love letters to 20th Century music, and to a bygone time of rock n' roll. And I was sort of very intent on doing that, and playing good shows. And our band just got really good. When we were on, it felt like we were just hitting a ceiling—like we really did that to the hilt. But I had been really suppressing my sort of obsession with records that didn’t really fit in that musical personality: Beck, Portishead, Frank Ocean and stuff. And I just thought, “We have limitless capabilities recording on a computer, and we’re using them to sound like a band that had just four tracks.” And that started to feel a little bit silly.
You’ve got xylophone, strings, it’s much more layered stuff. Is it going to be a challenge to take these songs live when you go out at the end of the month?
It is more challenging. But it’s really exciting! It’s harder work to arrange these ones to be played live. But it’s paying off, as far as I can see. Cello figures into the record, in a big way, which we had never really done before. I didn’t realize that Jorgen [Jorgensen], my band mate, who plays bass, also plays cello—he’s a good cello player. He always downplayed it cause he’s got really high standards about that kind of thing. But to me it was like, “You are transforming this band!”
Do you think there’s been slow and steady discovery of you over the years? Or do you think there’s one record like Day Of the Dog  or a song like “My Zero” or “Lousy Connection” kind of took you to a new level of awareness?
The answer is somewhere in between. I honestly feel like I’ve been mostly toiling in obscurity until a little bit after Day Of the Dog came out. There were some little flashes of like, “Oh people care about our band.” But it felt like a lot of really hard, hard work. And honestly, I was just thinking about this—it felt like the first album with the Boy-Friends was what I wish my first album ever had been. If there wasn’t this whole seven years of the Harpoons first, it would be a kind of fine-paced career, you know? But I was just touring really hard for so many years. Who knows, it may have been better for me to struggle a bit. But it didn’t feel great.
You identify as queer, and you’ve called this project a “queer outlaw saga” and by the way, but I’m just hoping you’ll consider some kind of merch with the words “To Them We’ll Always Be Freaks” on it, cause that line is just so amazing…
[laughs] How about a baseball cap? I’d wear that!
It’s better than “Make America Great Again.”
Oh yeah, we’ll make 'em red!
That would be so genius! But regarding that—I’m old enough to remember when “queer” was a generally a pejorative word….
Yeah, me too.
So like, when you were at Tufts, was that something that, did kids identify as queer and stuff?
I know that I heard the term “queer theory” and “queer studies” and I don’t know if it was a major, but it was a thing. So I think that it was in college that I first heard of it as a non-pejorative thing. I really like it as an umbrella concept.
What do you think about people who say the reason it’s hard for them to get is because of the vagueness of it? Because I don’t know if there’s a consensus on what or who it includes. And also nowadays I think it’s hard for people to negotiate with language. Because I think particularly some queer people—some, not all—can be real hard asses about that stuff. I am willing to learn, and will learn and will use whatever pronoun I am told to use, or I will ask. But I am also not psychic. And I feel like I am walking on eggshells sometimes.
I do too. I mean you don’t know people’s preference and there are definitely people who are just oriented to get mad at straight people. And it’s not a surprising thing that straight people have become this entity for some they are kind of the oppressor or the dominant culture, and it makes sense that some people are on edge about it and they’re gonna jump down your throat. But I don’t know how long that can last. There are different approaches. If you’re trying to deal with being a marginalized person and trying to confront a larger population that isn’t the same as you, you can be friendly about it, and invite everybody in, or you can be angry about it and be hostile and attack the systems that you want to destabilize. Or you can just kind of do your thing and let the chips fall where they may, just be true to yourself. And the first two feel a little bit fraught with problems. Because if you try to hard to be friendly, you’re going to erase some inconvenient stuff about yourself, right? And if you’re too angry and too eager to attack, you’re just hurting yourself, because you’re carrying this anger your whole life. So I guess I am just like, “I am doing my thing, and if you wanna know about it, I’ll tell you about it and if you don’t, I’m not on the attack.”
Did you follow the whole PWR BTTM story last year, and how over allegations of sexual abuse they lost their label, management and tour in the course of a weekend? And that was month before the #MeToo reckoning really got underway.
I was following it as it happened, but I don’t know them, and I don’t doubt that the people that know them made what they thought was the right decision. It’s hard to say. I don’t know, the only thing about that is, with—I’ve noticed that people really, really seem to enjoy condemning sexual assaulters sometimes. Maybe it’s just on the internet. But they’re like, “Oh, it looks like this guy’s a monster too.” And I’m worried that people don’t realize that—they’re not monsters. They’re people that you might want to hang out with and who—you might be one of them if you’re not watching out, if you’re not paying attention to how you treat sex and sexual advances. And if you’re just like, “Well I would never do that!” then you’re vulnerable to that happening to you, you know? Those are nice, smart, educated, politically aware, liberal people. And it happens to people. It’s an interesting question why it happens. I think it has to do with drugs and alcohol, certainly. But it’s really frightening and it should wake you up, it shouldn’t make you turn on the self-righteousness with “monster” and all. That happened because they didn’t care. They didn’t pay attention to what they were doing. Not because they wanted to hurt somebody. Not because they were like, “Oh I’m gonna go out and make somebody have sex with me tonight.” Anyway, it’s something that I’ve been thinking about, but I can’t speak to PWR BTTM in any specific way.
The songs on this record are so evocative of places with characters and detail, and they invite curiosity about just how autobiographical some of it is. I look at a song like “Compulsive Liar” and think, ‘Well how much of this is Ezra actually telling us that he is a compulsive liar?’ Or [in “I Lost My Innocence”] something like “I lost my innocence to a boy named Vincent” and I’m like, “Well is this just creative license?”
Well it’s not a bad thing for people to be curious, and remain curious. Working on the [33 1/3] book about Lou Reed has caused me to learn a lot about him, Lou Reed, and he was with a [trans] woman in the '70s, and I’ve seen articles and people were really mean about it. People would write about his girlfriend and say really horrible things, really transphobic things. And part of my reaction was, “Well that’s what I would expect from people in the '70s, when people didn’t even know what transgender is and it was a very foreign thing to them.” But they were really mean about it. And I guess I’ve started to just feel like I have enough—just being publicly queer, not everybody might realize that it sets you up to really take some beatings from strangers. And sometimes the kind of beatings that make you feel small, and sometimes you can’t even explain why, but it’s sometime you think ‘are you being paranoid?’ And I don’t know, the thing is, I didn’t want to be closeted. But there are some people who, there are a lot of celebrities who sort of refuse to share personal information. I think “I Lost My Innocence” is in a way my favorite one, because it’s like—having a queer experience at a young age kind of gives you an orientation to the world, an outsider or ‘outlaw’ mentality, because from a young age you feel somehow marginalized. But also it has a note of solidarity to it. It gives me a power—the power of the marginalized. The Power Of the Powerless, as Václav Havel would put it! I just read his  essay and I thought, ‘This is my—I just want to print this essay on the back of the album!’
I remember being surprised a while back to learn that you were quite religious, and observant, and wondering how you square that with being a progressive, even radical, forward-thinking person. To me they’re like contradictory because—whatever religion it is—I feel like to be observant is to conform, is to a degree or to comport with rules. Are you not getting more secular over time?
Oh no. I’m getting more religious. I’ll tell you how I see it. For one, being an observant Jew is for me, not a process of conformity because I don’t really hang out with many observant Jews, and so I’m putting myself out there all the time doing these rituals that almost none of my friends share, or understand. And so it takes some defiance, I guess. But maybe what feels to you like the spirit of religion is something that’s become rote and habitual and divorced from its access. But if you read the Bible and if you read like, Jeremiah or Isaiah, those are people who are railing against authorities and rich, complacent people, cause—the core being abuse. They’re outraged at violations of justice and the way that human dignity is being trampled on. And what religion serves—to me the reason the access of religion is about human dignity and it’s—it is depressing that most people think of it as this oppressive universe of conformity. Because to me, it’s a protest against much of the worst in our society—imperialism and nihilism, those are the enemies of at least real Judaism. I’m interested in God. I’m not interested in religion for religion’s sake. Yeah, so I hear ya. Being in a rock n' roll group, or being a musician, it is in conflict in some serious cultural ways with being an observant Jew, but in a conceptual way, for me, they go together real well. Like, spiritually. I’m doing like, passionate recitations of elevated texts in both cases, you know? [laughs] So that’s something that spiritual practice has in common with singing songs. I repeat the same thing every day, John! And it should be in conflict! You’re trying to bring heaven into earth, right? You’re trying to access something that is fundamentally beyond everything an inaccessible, which is God. And it’s a struggle! But it’s fun.
So, not the ‘opiate of the masses,’ as Marx said?
When I look around, I would say opiates are the religion of the masses—that’s how I would put it. It’s hard for me to understand how it could feel like some sort of comforting drug, because it’s so disturbing to me to think that it matters what I do. You know? So, you know as is mentioned on the album [on “Come Here Get Away From Me”], “I believe in God but I don’t believe we’re getting out of this one/ before somebody pays for the things I’ve done.” Look, I know—I have ton of friends who see religion in very different way, who’ve been hurt by it more than anything else. And in some ways I’ve been hurt and demoralized by religion too. Reading the Bible without commentary and without really studying it, you will read it as a book that legislates my death.
So, but that’s why you read the Talmud, man! I could go into it, but it’s like I’ve got a little doorway. Somehow I’ve got to get a doorway to this whole world of Jewish tradition which I guess, all I can say is, there’s a reason that it’s still around.
Ezra Furman’s Transangelic Exodus is out now. He begins a North American tour Feb. 25 in St. Louis.