Interview - The Futureheads: ‘We were never supposed to be as big as The Killers of Kings of Leon’

Andrew Trendell caught up with Ross Millard from The Futureheads
Andrew Trendell caught up with Ross Millard from The Futureheads

AFTER exploding onto the scene at the height of angular British garage rock, The Futureheads became renowned as one of the hardest-working guitar bands on the scene. Reporter Andrew Trendell talks to guitarist Ross Millard about success, failure and ditching their guitars...

The Futureheads’ back catalogue is packed with indie anthems of vocal tomfoolery and undeniably infectious spiky guitar chops. Now, the band have made the daring move of stripping everything down and making a completely a cappella album (Rant) and are taking it on the road.

One of the first major tours the band did was the NME Awards Tour in 2005 with the likes of Bloc Party, Kaiser Chiefs and The Killers.

Andrew Trendell catches up with guitarist Ross Millard to discuss dropping their guitars, the state of rock music, and how they compare with their peers.

What made you decide to make an all a cappella record after your last album The Chaos?

By the time we’d finished touring that record, we were ready for something new. Normally a band has a cycle where they make an album, tour it, have a couple of weeks off then start back at work on another one. We’d done that for four albums and after The Chaos, we were at a point where we didn’t really want to do that again. We’d been together for over ten years and it was clear that we needed a change. This a capella idea got discussed and we decided to just go for it. We know it’s not necessarily our proper fifth album – it’s more of a detour or whatever. But it’s been really good for us because we’re looking at our own music from a completely different point of view. People have a very stuffy view of what a cappella means – usually folky woolly jumpers and that. But we’ve tried to approach it like modern and minimalist classical music, almost. We’ve tried to arrange everything in a way which isn’t just steeped in the past and heritage.

How have you found the world’s reaction to Rant so far?

Honestly, I think we’ve been pretty surprised. We made the album knowing that it wouldn’t be for everyone and that it would even be fairly divisive among our own fans. We don’t expect everyone who loves The Futureheads to go off and love this record because it’s very different – in a lot of respects it almost feels like a different band. The tour isn’t like that – it’s very clear that it’s still The Futureheads when we perform the songs.

Is this going back to the folk tradition of songs passed on through the voice alone?

The folk music of our time is rap music or anything with that kind of social commentary. It hasn’t necessarily gone away, but it just isn’t performed in the same way that it once was. The folk songs we’ve chosen to cover on Rant just have a sense of fun about them, and if you make a record that’s lacking in fun then no one enjoys it. I think the combination of fun and mainstream music is missing from a lot of music because it’s quite a hard balance to strike. In hard times, people find it difficult to pass comment on what’s going on while keeping a smile on your face. If you were singing folk songs about today’s political climate or the idea of this Big Society then you probably won’t end up with a very light-hearted record. I think that The Chaos was quite heavy, so this album is a nice antidote to that in a lot of ways.

It’s really bizarre that you’ve been able to strip away all of the music and it still sounds quintessentially like the Futureheads. There are very few bands that could pull that off. Would you say that’s fair and what would you say it is about you guys that makes this approach work so well?

I do agree with what you’re saying. I think it’s all about the rhythms, accents and harmony arrangements that all work together to form what The Futureheads are all about. I think that we’ve been lucky that the four of us have these vocal ranges where we all fit so comfortably together. Maybe you’ll only notice it subliminally on a normal record or show but on the a capella album and tour, that makes up the DNA of the band and is the core thing of the group. I suppose this a capella record is the essence of The Futureheads really. The guitars become supplementary in a lot of ways.

Has stripping everything away down to the bare essence of the band made you consider making another album without guitars and bringing in new elements? Maybe The Futureheads could make their Kid A?

As this tour has progressed, we’ve got ideas about how we can evolve. We’ve got some different instruments on this tour like banjos, mandolins and cellos, to break the set up, but it’s made us more aware of how we could involve other elements and keep this sparse stuff going out. We’ve set out on a new path and I think you can get boxed in by making short, sharp power-pop or punk rock – which people would normally refer to The Futureheads as being. We got annoyed that it became easy for people to write us off as being a little bit typical and dismissing us.

In light of that, I’d like to add that I think The Chaos was sorely missed from a lot of ‘best of’ lists at the end of that year.

(Laughs) Thanks for saying so. We’ve got to a stage with our music now where I think that we’ve had every sort of experience that a band can have. We’ve been on all sorts of record labels, we’ve done it ourselves, we’ve had the press and we haven’t had the press – it’s not like a bone of contention or anything and it’s not upsetting but we don’t just care about being in the band; we also care about getting better at what we do.

So are you comfortable with your own size and status in comparison to a lot of peers when you first came out? Do you think you were ever meant to a band the size of The Killers of the Kings of Leon?

No, because when you get to that stage, you end up becoming reliant on your success. You end up in a situation where if the next record doesn’t do as well as the last then it’s almost insurmountable to come back from that. That’s OK if you are a product or a brand, but it’s not OK if what you consider to do for a living is be creative. For us it would be a struggle. When our second record (News and Tributes) didn’t do that well commercially, it hit us really hard because I think we felt invincible up until then. Some bands like Arctic Monkeys or Coldplay will gain this momentum from album to album that just allows them to feel more and more invincible, but as soon as you get a knock it just takes all that away.

I think that’s important in the creative process as well because you learn a lot through losing. I’d say it’s good to support a football team who teach you how to lose well. It’s been good for us because it’s a long road and you never know where it’s going to take you.

- The Futureheads’ new album Rant is out now

- The Futureheads play Glee Club in Nottingham on Thursday 12th April. For tickets call 0871 472 0400