“I found my higher power in a wasp can,” declares Justin Furstenfeld with complete seriousness.
While in rehab for drug addiction, the Blue October singer was desperately asking for a “simple” sign from above one day when he noticed a lone wasp trying desperately to make its way into a can that had the words “Wasp Killer” written in bold white letters on it. “Why the hell would you want to get into that wasp can when you’ve seen millions of your homies die from that s–t?” asked Furstenfeld. It was that simple. He, too, kept returning to the one thing that was destroying him and everyone around him: drugs.
Deep depression in his teens segued into a heavy drug addiction, which escalated in tandem with Blue October’s success and swept up everything in his path, including his band and family. This is all part of the story in the band’s upcoming documentary, Get Back Up, out May 15 (distribution TBA).
Directed by Norry Niven (Ray Donovan, Dexter, American Idol), who also helmed the band’s videos for “Fear,” “Home,” and “Bleed Out,” the film moves through Furstenfeld’s early life; his first band, The Last Wish; Blue October’s formation in 1995; his dependency on drugs, and how he managed to survive it all with the support of his wife, bandmates and family. Initially, he wanted the cameras rolling to document his sobriety, but years into the project, it became apparent that the story was more about everyone impacted by his addiction.
“It turned out not to be about me at all,” says Furstenfeld. “It was about the people that my addiction affected: the band, their families, their children, our bassist [Matt Noveskey], who had a son with Down syndrome in the middle of it all, about marriages that were put back together, relationships that were put back together.”
Lyrically, Furstenfeld is never one to shy away from expressing himself. Even in his teens, his more dismal lyrics were at times a rollercoaster due to a recent breakup or other heartbreak. Instead of mysticism or abstract messages, he always has been transparent about his struggle with mental illness, specifically bipolar disorder, and thoughts of suicide.
2006’s Foiled, Blue October’s fourth studio album, changed everything. It was RIAA-certified platinum, driven by breakthrough singles “Hate Me” and “Into the Ocean,” a melodic track set to Furstenfeld’s dark narrative of suicide. This was finally the act’s big break: they appeared on Late Night With Conan O’Brien and The Tonight Show With Jay Leno, opened for the Rolling Stones and performed for thousands on more extensive tours. Everything was grander — including Furstenfeld’s drug use. For him, drugs were a means of functioning. His first marriage was crumbling, and an unexpected injury (Furstenfeld broke his leg while the band was goofing around on the field at a stadium show) led the band to cancel its biggest tour at that point in its career, which only made him slide deeper into a quagmire.
Blue October was literally falling apart, but Furstenfeld managed to keep his addiction a secret from most of the band and management. Former guitarist C.B. Hudson, who is interviewed in the film, tearfully remembers the day he had to part ways with the band, while drummer Jeremy Furstenfeld recalls when his parents asked him to check on his brother, who they believed was dead. The major turning point for the younger Furstenfeld was when his wife, Sarah, became pregnant with their first child (he already was a father to Blue Reed, named for late producer Blue Miller, from a previous marriage) and laid it on the line for him.
“She gave me an ultimatum, pulled everyone together and made me see what I was doing,” shares Furstenfeld. “I’ve never had anyone tell me no before. She’s the strongest and most beautiful woman I’ve ever met, and she scares me a little bit and I think that’s pretty hot.” He finally entered rehab following the intervention.
Ultimately, Get Back Up dives deep into mental illness, but finishes off with a message of encouragement and hopefulness that a support system can truly help anyone tear through and reach the other side of depression and addiction.
“This band was falling apart and discovered what it is to love life again and be with each other,” says Furstenfeld, who created a soundtrack for the film with friend and musician Eric Holtz. “The success story is just living with each other and loving each other again. It’s the most beautiful piece of work that I’ve ever been a part of.”
Everything has shifted again for Blue October, and Furstenfeld says the band is in a much better place. Last year, Will Knaak, who is a fixture on the Austin scene, stepped in as previous guitarist Matthew Ostrander stepped down. Multi-instrumentalist Ryan Delahoussaye is getting more of a moment in the live spotlight, providing a lush violin solo detour during sets. “It’s something that I just started doing because I need to hold him up more,” says Furstenfeld, who has been friends with Delahoussaye since they were 14 and attended Houston’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. “He’s such a beautiful piece of energy.”
Now that the I Hope You’re Happy tour supporting Blue October’s ninth studio album of the same name is complete, the band is jumping back into the studio for its tenth record, which Furstenfeld says will likely be titled This Is What I Live For. Once recorded, he hopes to pull in mixers Dave Friedman, who has worked with the Flaming Lips, Weezer and Interpol, and Mark Needham (Stevie Nicks, Elton John, The Killers) to add some final touches. The act already has woven new track “I Will Follow You,” which it recorded at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Records while on tour in England, into live sets. Strikingly familiar to U2’s Boy-era “I Will Follow,” the track even captures some twangy Edge guitar. Produced by Furstenfeld at his home-based Up/Down Studios in San Marcos, Texas, the new album is more “romantic, art rock,” he says, and should be finished by the end of January with a first single hitting in February or March.
“The thing I love about this album is that we did get to dig into some of the issues, like even though you’re in a really good place, you still have dark thoughts,” says Furstenfeld. “You still have dark things that happen in your life, and you embrace that with a sense of accomplishment. It embraces a lot of the darkness, but in such a heavy, romantic way.”
He admits that for anyone struggling with mental illness and addiction, some days are still difficult. Personally, he’s in love with his life right now. He’s in a better place — mentally, spiritually and musically — and hopes the film and the music continue to help others in their struggle.
“I used to be in love with despair,” Furstenfeld told a sold-out crowd during a Nov. 15 show at New York’s Webster Hall. “I used to love the romance of despair — until I saw the light.”