In just over eleven years, Barry (lead vocals, guitar), his brother Dave (drums, vocals), Ross Millard (guitar, vocals) and Jaff (bass, vocals) have established themselves as one of Britain’s most thrilling and durable guitar bands. They’ve made four albums – the explosive, barbed The Futureheads (2004); the elegantly miserable News And Tributes (2006); the re-energised, celebratory This Is Not The World (2008) and the expansive, troubled The Chaos (2010) – that make for a varied but unified back catalogue.
They’ve played hundreds of shows where their taut energy and barely-controlled fury blends with the natural audience rapport of Good Men, and makes sweaty, pogoing punters into FFF’s (Futureheads Fans Forever, of course). They’ve released the two most recent of their albums on their own Nul label, proving that DIY can and will make a band bigger, as well as reviving the true spirit of something called ‘indie’, something that used to actually mean something. And they’ve even, along with friends and neighbours Field Music and Frankie & The Heartstrings, established the Sunderland accent as a fresh and vital component in the DNA of the pop vocal.
So The Futureheads have earned the right to do anything they like. As long as they don’t, you know, throw out all their instruments. Make a record with, like, no instruments at all. Can you imagine? That would be stupid.
The Futureheads have made a record with no instruments at all. It is called Rant, and it is strictly a cappella.
‘If we were gonna carry on making music,’ Ross Millard explains, ‘we needed to change it up. Making another Futureheads record as per usual wasn’t something that appealed to us. We’ve always been a four-part harmony group; it’s been a massive part of the genetics of this band.’
The eureka moment came straight after a radio show, as Barry explains. ‘A couple of years ago we did an a cappella version of a Kelis song called Acapella for the Radio 1 Live Lounge. And it was such a buzz to perform live on the radio just with four voices. There’s nothing to hide behind.’
Having made the decision to gamble, The ‘Heads had no intention of chucking Rant together hastily. Research was necessary. ‘We didn’t sit down and say, “the record will be great if we do these particular songs”’, Ross explains. ‘It’s been a gradual, protracted process. We were in and out of the studio throughout the whole of 2011… although it was a small amount of studio time in terms of hours. In that time we educated ourselves on a cappella.’
The crucial research materials were a selection of Alan Lomax, Smithsonian Institute archive recordings (sea shanties a particular favourite) picked up while touring America, and more locally sourced inspirations brought to them by a Sunderland folk club veteran called Keith Gregson. Hence the presence on Rant of folk standards Sumer Is Icumen In, The Keeper, The Old Dun Cow and Hanging Johnny.
Rant also contains a cappella arrangements of four classics from the Futureheads’ back catalogue. Barry explains the choices. ‘We did Thursday because it immediately came to mind. It’s quite an orchestral, symphonic song so I knew it would work a cappella. And I think the lament side of Thursday is quite lovely. Robot is one of our classic songs and the arrangement creates this beautiful, polyphonic, constantly moving piece of music. Man Ray we chose because it’s one of our most berserk songs. The human voice is so expressive and you can create some amazing chords and rhythms. We chose songs that lent themselves to that.’
And then there’s the three stunning versions of pop classics. The Kelis tune picked itself after the Live Lounge performance. But the Black Eyed Peas and Sparks covers stem from the band’s surprising obsessions.
‘We did The Black-Eyed Peas one,’ says Ross, ‘because Barry wouldn’t stop talking about it and singing that particular melody throughout the whole of the The Chaos tour. I’m really proud of that one because its got more chops to it than a lot of the other ones. To me, it’s like dubstep without the beats. As for Sparks, I first heard that song in Barry and Dave’s parents’ kitchen just as we were starting The Futureheads. It’s stuck with us for quite a long time because, in the early days of the band, Jaff said, in an interview with The NME: “Sparks’ No. 1 Song In Heaven always gets me in the mood to go out clubbing.” This sounded so sad that we’ve never let him forget it.’
But why all covers and rearrangements? Why no new songs, written especially for the ‘Heads choir? ‘We wanted to give ourselves a break from writing,’ Barry reveals. ‘This album is an experiment in arrangement from a band not feeling the need to write another album of originals. Learning other people’s songs and re-arranging your own is a great exercise and has freed me up to write a bunch of songs for our next album.’
But what kind of music is Rant? We usually think of a cappella as either doo wop, or barbershop quartet, or finger-in-the-ear folk. But Rant sounds nothing like any of those. Ross points to all four’s love of minimalist composers Steve Reich and Philip Glass, and you can definitely hear a hint of ‘systems music’ in the way the four arrange their voices to provide staccato rhythms. But Barry’s willing to have a cautious stab at a generic definition. ‘I don’t want to use the term neo-classical, right, because it makes you think of Yngwie Malmsteen guitar-wanking in tight spandex. But I would describe it as modern symphonic folk music. Maybe.’
Ross Millard admits that Rant is a gamble. ‘Our fanbase are gonna find this record quite bizarre. It might split our fans. A lot of them might not accept songs like The Old Dun Cow and The Keeper, and dismiss them as old-time and medieval. But I’d like them to hear it with different ears and appreciate that we’re doing a modernist version.’
Barry Hyde is even more bullish about Rant. He knows his band have made both a magnificent record and the kind of genuinely unpredictable flipping of the musical script that rock ‘n’ roll groups just don’t have the balls to contemplate in the increasingly stratified and financially paranoid world of 21st century pop. The boy can barely contain his excitement at touring Rant live, nor his defiance about the risks The Futureheads take. There’s only one fitting way to end this biog. And that’s with a Rant. Take it away, Mr Hyde.
“A Futureheads fan who doesn’t get Rant is not a Futureheads fan. This version of The Futureheads has always been there. We’re bringing to the fore what we’re really about: a unification, a gang mentality, which is in the balance between our voices and our personalities. And on Rant we’re pushing that right into your face. We’ve stumbled across tricks as we’ve made Rant which are so powerful and which no one has ever done before. Just because this is an a cappella album doesn’t mean to say that the songs are slow or passive. They’re still in-your-face, slightly mad, aggressive. They’re still The Futureheads.’
2 Meet Me Halfway
6 Sumer Is Icumen In
7 The Keeper
8 The No. 1 Song in Heaven
9 The Old Dun Cow
11 Man Ray
12/secret track Hanging Johnny
Bonus track: Heartbeat Song
3rd April – Colston Hall, Bristol
4th April – Union Chapel, London
5th April – Wardrobe, Leeds
6th April – Georgian Theatre, Stockton
8th April – Sage, Gateshead
9th April – Oran Mor, Glasgow
10th April – Glee Club, Birmingham
12th April – Glee Club, Nottingham
13th April – RNCM Theatre, Manchester