What if Dinosaur Jr. frontman J Mascis had grown up in Georgia rather than Massachusetts, exposed to a steady diet of Allman Brothers, Bill Monroe, and the Band? We expect he might've led a band like the Futurebirds, whose ambling Southern roots are soaked in reverb, enriched by four-part harmonies, and occasionally swallowed in swells of distortion.
This Athens-based sextet employs traditional country instrumentation — banjo, mandolin, and, most importantly, pedal steel — along with loud guitars to fashion a haunting, psych-tinged country-rock roar that's part Neil Young, part Flying Burrito Brothers. Their psychedelic/country edge recalls fellow Athens act Dead Confederate. While Futurebirds aren't as droning, both share a love of twang and over-driven guitars, which have helped them develop a close bond with the much buzzed-about band.
"All of us in both bands grew up in Georgia and migrated to Athens," says guitarist Thomas Johnson. "We're looking at the world from a similar perspective. I think that comes out in our interpretations of that world. Those guys in Dead Confederate are great. They've given us tons of great advice, and having them on tour with us on our first West Coast tour was pretty sweet."
That tour followed the release of their debut LP Hampton's Lullaby. Although the songs come swathed in guitar distortion and lonesome peals of pedal steel, their core is a simple, insistent country-folk melody. Futurebirds make great of use of dynamics, backing vocals, and varying sonic textures to evoke an eerie, gothic beauty obscured by waves of guitar like road haze.
"That's part of what we're going for," confirms Johnson. "Making it very heavy and yet able to go very sparse with the little subtleties of it."
They spent six months last year working on Hampton's Lullaby, honing and paring more than 20 songs down to 11 tracks. It's an impressive collection ranging from the sunny ringing melody and big harmonies of "Yur Not Dead," which suggest the Jesus and Mary Chain, to the tribal drum circle throb of "Happy Animals" amidst a wash of guitars spiraling and receding like a plasma lamp. The C&W-tinged indie country of "Apo" reminds one of the Drive-By Truckers.
The latter's not a very surprising comparison, given that the DBTs also hail from the Athens area.
"Obviously, there's a great music scene there and tons of people. It's one of those places where the size of the music scene is disproportionate to the size of the town," he says. "There's lots of great bands, and it's cool because it can be a small town, but you can still have that exposure. It's like you kind of get viewed in a different light sometimes for being from Athens."
Futurebirds have proven to be a pretty prolific crew. Earlier this year, they released the four-song EP Via Flamina, featuring not only a couple fine originals, but a sultry, sun-baked countrified version of Chris Isaak's "Wicked Game" and a vibrant banjo and piano version of Stevie Nicks' "Wild Heart," driven by big vocal harmonies.
They've already demoed another batch of songs and recorded nine of them. They're hoping to return to the studio after tour to cut more tracks, some of which will go for a split EP with Athens band Eddie the Wheel. The rest will likely go onto another disc early next year, followed by a full-length sometime around summer 2012.
"We're going to try and keep putting stuff out at regular intervals," Johnson says. "At first, we were all about releasing albums ourselves, and I still think that'd be really cool, but we're not dead set on it. There are advantages to both. We're figuring all the logistics out. That's now a crazy part of the business."
Fortunately for us, it doesn't take the Futurebirds much focus to blast some pretty cosmic southern-fried country rock. That's something that just comes natural.