“Tell me sobriety, positivity and healthy living doesn’t work out,” Justin Furstenfeld was exulting, as he traveled into Dallas for a film festival last week.
Furstenfeld is the singer/songwriter/guitarist for the rock band Blue October, which is in the midst of “The King Tour,” which touches down at The House of Blues in Boston on Saturday night.
But the lengthy national tour had a couple days break last week, which coincided with the Dallas International Film Festival where a new documentary “Get Back Up—The Blue October Documentary” was making its debut. For a band that has had its ups and downs through a two decade career, it is not just a compelling history, but also a tribute to the power of their tenacity and brotherhood.
“This documentary has been six years in the making and all I’ve seen so far is a rough draft of it,” said Furstenfeld. “We want to get people to watch it and see how it works before they tweak it for a final version. But we’re pretty excited to see it.”
Blue October formed in the Houston area in 1995, with the brothers Justin Furstenfeld as frontman and Jeremy Furstenfeld on drums. The current lineup also includes Matt Noveskey on bass, Will Knaak on lead guitar, and Ryan Delahoussaye on keyboards, violin, and viola. The quintet released its debut album “The Answers” in 1998, and by the next year had been signed to the major label Universal Records. But when their next CD “Consent to Treatment” tanked, the label dropped them, making for a rather stunning detour to what had been a Cinderella story. The group’s third album, “History for Sale” was largely a response to their having been dropped, but there was something authentic and gripping in their personal songs, and Universal re-signed them in 2003.
Blue October’s 2006 album “Foiled” was when they really hit the charts, and their expansive, dramatic arrangements welded hard rock and grunge elements into more mainstream melodies to great success. That’s when they made the rounds of all the late night network TV shows, and the single “Hate Me” reached the number two spot on the Modern Rock charts, where it stayed among the top-five tunes for an astounding 20 weeks. It’s an intriguing and utterly original song, wherein the singer admits to a lost love that he really deserves the blame for their relationship’s failure. There is a note or two of regret and wanting to have her back, but he still sums it all up in the cathartic chorus “Hate me today, Hate me tomorrow, Hate me for all the things I should’ve done for you…”
If that song’s lyrics didn’t get your attention, the second single from that album was “Into the Ocean” where Justin Furstenfeld’s lyrics cleverly depict modern life as so confusing and frustrating that he feels like he’s adrift and about to go under, and maybe prefers that. But the metaphor is so strong and striking, a natural reaction to hearing the song, with all its hazy, swirling, melodic atmospherics, is to wonder if the protagonist is actually in fact suicidal.
But however disturbing some parts of those two singles, and their primal scream therapy facets, were, they struck a chord with fans, and pushed that album to platinum status by 2007. Blue October has kept up a steady stream of releases since then, albeit not quite achieving that level of success again. In August of 2018 they released their ninth studio album, “I Hope You’re Happy” on their own label. It comes after a few years away from the studio, but more to the point, it presents a new style of songwriting for Furstenfeld. Songs like “Daylight” are downright exuberant, and “How to Dance In Time” and its video are unabashedly upbeat and romantic. Even the title cut, with all its wistful look and sense of moving on from something, portrays an optimistic and generous perspective.
“The documentary actually turned out to be a completely different project than we had originally envisioned,” said Justin Furstenfeld. “The main reason is that seven years ago, we almost stopped being a band completely, due to issues with my sobriety. We began returning to the documentary when we got back together, after trying sobriety. We wanted to see if living a good and honest lifestyle really works. It turned out that it did, and things just kept getting better. After six years away, we all had our kids, and our relationships with our mates were in the best place they could be, and our relationships with each other were too. We wanted to have the documentary end on a positive note, and now seemed like the best time.
“We’re proud of the journey we’ve been on, and director Norry Niven has told our story honestly,” said Furstenfeld. “It is brutal and hard to watch, for me especially, in some places. It is raw, but I guarantee it is honest. There were some incidents from the earlier days where I watched it and couldn’t believe what I saw in myself. I just said ‘Wow.’ I’m glad the director had creative control and could do something this raw – I’m not sure I’d have been brave enough to do so, because it is brutal. But some of the best things I’ve ever seen in movies are that way.”
If the new film shows Furstenfeld and Blue October emerging from some darker days, it is also obvious in the new music.
“Oh, the changes are definitely reflected in our music,” said Furstenfeld. “I had such great people in the band and around us when times were dark. They believed in me, even when the roof caved in. They peeled off for awhile until we got things straightened out, but never stopped believing in me. Does the music seem happier now? Of course it does, and there’s less drama, less situations where you wonder what’s wrong with me. That’s where you see the biggest difference in our music now, I think. I know that we’re meant to be on earth to be happy, and we should be, and we’re the only ones who can complicate it. Now we’re just enjoying life and living and trying to be as honest as we can be.”
An obvious question is, given this new outlook, it is difficult to sing “Hate Me” these days? It is the band’s biggest hit, yet such an emotional song, sung so dramatically, it must drain the singer and bring up all those old painful feelings.
“I don’t feel I have to relive it, no,” said Furstenfeld. “A song is like a story you’re telling. I grew up with some theater, so it is like that in a way. It means different things to me now. My goal has been reached, that I don’t have to live that way. There’s a statement early in this record where I admit how hard it was to keep up this mask of pain. I’m actually a pretty funny guy. I don’t have to sing it like I did back then, but with a happy feeling in my heart now, that I can rejoice in getting past that.”
Furstenfeld noted that he writes all the lyrics for the band and has a pretty solid idea in his head of how he wants a tune to sound, before bringing new material to the band. And having their own label frees him to essentially have a hand in producing the records.
“I bring them a complete picture, very polished demos,” said Furstenfeld. “And then the band adds their own touches and makes it better. We’ve worked with some of the best producers in the world, but it was also time to take the training wheels off and see if I can do it. I can also send (previous producer) Tim Palmer a mix and ask him what he thinks about it. But songcraft and production are things I take very seriously.”
Blue October loves having its own label, but Furstenfeld won’t criticize Universal or major labels.
“Our album had sold just 15,000 units when Universal dropped us – I would’ve too,” Furstenfeld said. “Then they re-signed us and we sold millions together. All the people we met in radio, management, all our fans and the respect we have, came out of that label deal. Major labels invest their time and money in you and I always felt the best thing to do is sit back, listen and learn. Without Universal we wouldn’t be where we are today or have the platform we have had, so I love and respect them.”
Blue October has played a few different venues in Boston but the House of Blues is an old favorite.
“We haven’t played the House of Blues in years but I hear tickets sales are already over 2,000, which is fantastic,” said Furstenfeld. “Those fans never would’ve heard the new music without radio also being so supportive. We’re bigger in Boston than we’ve ever been – we’ve cracked the code in that town. We need to show our gratitude to all the music fans in the Boston area, because we do not take this response lightly.”