A friend of mine who knows you well suggested that life on the road has made you an expert in the fast food scene. Can you provide a quick field report?
We try our best these days to hit local spots if we have the time, but you really just can’t escape the fast food when you’re on the road as much as we are. Yelp is a truly amazing resource for sniffing out the good local spots - it really improves the batting average on great meals. The reviews are also sometimes amazing nuggets of literary genius too, whether intended or not. On the fast food circuit, a real treat for the band these days is whenever we are able to get to a Culver’s. It’s a chain out of Wisconsin that's slowly creeping south. Their Butter Burgers are just that - straight butttah.
Futurebirds just wrapped up an East Coast tour. How did it go? Did you hit up old haunts or focus on making stops in towns you haven’t played before?
It was an amazing New England run. We hit a mix of old haunts and new spots with new friends. That's the way we like to do it if possible - old friends and new adventures.
Maine took the MVP award for this tour. We played for the first time in Portland, which was an amazing show. Then we had a few days off, which we spent with a buddy camping at his ‘magic cabin’ up in the woods. There was the most mind-blowing swimming hole nearby. Our resident grill-master/bass wizard, B-miles grilled up some of the most delicious steaks under the stars. Maine is truly impressive - anywhere you look could be a postcard.
Did the guys from the University of Georgia marching band play any shows with you?
We had the Hornybirds out with us playing brass for a good chunk of this run but a few of them are still in school so we had to get them back to Athens before they were expelled.
You and Daniel Womack will be bringing your living room set to Tabor and playing as a duo. How long have you been doing that? How has that experience been different from playing with the full band?
We’ve been tinkering with this living room duo thing off-and-on for about a year now, but we’ve been playing acoustic Futurebirds sets since the early days of the band. We really love doing the living room sets. It's a great way to stay busy when the band is off the road, and it's also just a total different set of muscles to exercise on the live-show front. When it's just two dudes and two guitars playing for an intimate crowd, there is really nowhere to hide, and no chance of phoning it in - you have to be present. In the right setting, it just becomes a hang amongst friends and everyone is a participant in the set. It's a special thing.
Some songwriters write lyrics that are mysterious and it’s impossible to discern the true inspiration or subject matter of the song. My experience with Futurebirds songs has been more direct. I hear lyrics like “Wipe the hand stamp off your face and wrist” or “God damn I miss my friends” and wonder what specific experiences in your lives inspired those words. And I assume one of you really did get stoned and go out to the Olive Garden with a gift certificate your sister gave you. When you set out to write, is it a conscious decision to be direct, or is there a more ambiguous side to your songwriting that I’m not acknowledging here? Do you always write from personal experience, or is there something more universal that you’re channeling?
You gotta write what you know. Without getting too lofty about it, we’ve found that it's in that specificity of detail that you can more universally relate to folks. It works that way with other people’s songs that I’ve felt a deep connection to. Songs written by people with completely different backgrounds from my own, from completely different places and times. Certain things are just part of the human experience, I guess. So you take the details out of your own life and maybe you are putting them towards some other point you are getting at, or you are combining stories and characters in your actual life to paint a larger picture. But yea, everyone gets hungry, most folks fall in love, so, let's go to the Olive Garden across from the Target on a Wednesday night and have a ball.
Your approach to cover songs is intriguing. You typically don’t play songs by the Southern rock or country artists that one might expect. Instead, you choose tunes that are spacious, ethereal, atmospheric. I’m thinking about “Wild Heart” (Stevie Nicks), “Wicked Game” (Chris Isaak), “From Me to You” (The Beatles). What is your thought process behind choosing covers? Do you just go with numbers the band thinks it can play well, or is there something deeper at work?
We like to cover songs that really move us, obviously, but mostly we go for tunes that we believe we can bring something of our own to, and make our own in return. We’ve taken stabs at a handful of tunes that are fun to play, and maybe fun for a crowd in the live setting, but when we really analyze it, we know that we are just doing a less-talented rendition of the same version of a great song. So the ones that actually make it to record, those are the ones that we feel we can take to the next level of ownership, if that makes sense. That's probably why the ones we’ve recorded come from a slew of different genres that you wouldn’t necessarily lump in with Futurebirds.
Futurebirds’ roots are in Athens and the band members currently live in Nashville or various parts of Georgia. How important is the South to your identity as a band? It seems like the West Coast tickles your collective fancies. Ever thought about moving to LA? What about New York?
The South is a huge part of who we are as a band. There's really no escaping that because it's the only reality we know, and we’d have it no other way. It’s a vastly rich part of the world, culturally, historically, and artistically. To be such a true melting pot of cultures and still have an identity all its own is a very special thing, especially this day and age. I know people like to paint it as a backwards place, but we’ve found there are assholes and rednecks everywhere. That is not something just specific to the South by any means. We’ve also found there are great, kind people everywhere, so that's who we keep our antennae up for. No plans to move as of now, but even if we moved to Timbuktu, we’d still have our roots and hearts here.
Athens has a rich history of great bands. Looking back, who do you think is the best to come out of that town? (This is not a trick question and you don’t have to say Widespread Panic.)
I think it goes without saying that R.E.M. has done the most for the town of Athens as an artistic destination, so while I won’t pick personal favorites, I will say that without the influence of R.E.M. coming out of Athens, we’d have far less Athens bands from which to pick favorites.
Last question is about Panic: do you have a good Panic show story you can share?
Man. December 30, 1999, Phillips Arena - my first show ever. Not just Panic show, but first real show period. I was freshly thirteen, my dad took me as a Christmas present and we sat in the nosebleed seats. My mind was just leaking out of my ears the whole time. I was totally blown away. When we had the opportunity to open for them in Atlanta at Verizon Wireless Amphitheater, a little over a decade later, it was some serious full-circle shit that was definitely not lost on me. Thirteen year-old me was totally losing it.