When The Futureheads decided to call time on the band back in 2013, they did so in a quiet yet dignified fashion.
Having first emerged at the start of the ’00s amidst a burgeoning swarm of guitar bands, the Sunderland quartet, with their proud regional accents and spiky, playful sensibilities, stuck out from the off. Over the following decade, meanwhile, the band – comprised of vocalists and guitarists Barry Hyde and Ross Millard, vocalist and bassist David ‘Jaff’ Craig and vocalist and drummer Dave Hyde – amassed five critically-acclaimed albums, headlined countless tours and earned an NME Single of the Year accolade for their iconic cover of Kate Bush’s ‘Hounds of Love’. However, their final movements were more understated: a couple of cancelled shows. No big announcement. No elaborate goodbyes.
It was, they now explain, the only way it could have really gone. In the years running up to the split, Barry had been increasingly suffering with prolonged periods of mental illness; by 2013, life in the band was unsustainable. “My third stay in hospital was when I called them in and said, ‘I can’t think about this anymore and I can’t do this’,” he recalls. “I was extremely intense, and I was filled with some kind of hypocritical spiritual arrogance because I thought I’d had an experience of enlightenment and suddenly everything in existence made sense to me. So I think, to some degree, there would have probably been some relief when we decided to call it a day. But I just didn’t want to be a revolving door mental health patient, and I could see that becoming a permanent fixture in my life if I didn’t make some changes.”
“We’ve got enough love for each other that when we went for a coffee and Barry said that, there was no moment’s hesitation. We’d spent the last two and a half years thinking it was really tough and couldn’t go on as it was, and we’d finished touring [a capella fifth album] ‘Rant’ and realized it was untenable,” Ross explains. “At the time, if you’d have told me that in five or six years he’d be in good nick again, I might not have believed you. He was really that ill.”
Despite the obvious necessity of the decision, the end of the band was still a difficult reality for the rest of its members to face. Having started as teens, the quartet had spent the whole of their adult lives in the bubble; now, it had popped. “I think I speak for everyone at that point that our entire identities were wrapped up in being in that band; we lived and breathed it, all day every day,” Ross continues. “To suddenly, no matter what the context was, decide we weren’t gonna do that anymore…” he tails off. “It wasn’t until after a few months off when I really started to think, well what is my life gonna be now?”
In the interim years, however, all four went on to establish healthy and successful careers both in and out of music. Jaff trained as a primary school teacher. Dave has released two albums as one half of Hyde & Beast, alongside training as a tiler. Ross joined fellow Mackem lads Frankie & the Heartstrings, as well as working in theatre and qualifying as an arts leader. Barry, meanwhile, has had a colorful half-decade, initially training as a chef, before becoming a music teacher (“Six or seven months after coming out of a psychiatric hospital, I was teaching hundreds of kids how to sing hymns,” he laughs), getting an MA and releasing his own solo record ‘Malody’.
There was, by all accounts, no grand plan to get the old gang back together until, near the end of 2017, a couple of chance events would plant the seeds of the idea. Barry had been offered a gig in London, playing Futureheads songs for the first time since the band had parted ways; with a child on the way and a family to care for, he said yes. Then, a local Sunderland promoter put on a special playback night, spinning the band’s self-titled debut album in full at record shop Pop Recs. The four members – still friends but, at that point, on a purely social level – were all in attendance. “I went through a period where I really didn’t feel like a Futurehead,” Barry remembers of conversations around that time. “But Ross never gave up the ghost. He told me he woke up every day and felt like a Futurehead, and that never stopped for him.” “We didn’t fall out, the only reason we stopped was because Barry wasn’t well enough to do it,” Ross continues, “and then after we did [Pop Recs] and went out for a beer, [the idea of starting again] became a conversation between the four of us.”
The caveat, insisted on by Jaff, however was that if they were to do anything as a band again, they’d have to do something new. And so, at the end of 2017, the four found themselves together in a rehearsal room for the first time in several years. “We counted in ‘Decent Days and Nights’, played it and it sounded class. It was so ingrained, and it wasn’t only sounding good but it felt good,” Barry grins. “I was looking at these musicians that I’d immensely admired for so many years and I thought, OK, this might not be as much of a task as we might have initially thought.” “We just ran through a few old songs once and then started working on new ideas straight away; it was like that five year period was fully erased,” Ross nods. “There’s a chemistry and a way of working with each other that hadn’t disappeared.”
Temporarily putting a pin in things while finishing various personal commitments, work for what would become The Futureheads’ unexpected sixth album began properly at Sunderland’s Miners’ Hall Studios in July 2018. Barry, by this point, had spent several years studying music theory and had become obsessed with the technical tricks of the trade he could employ; Ross, conversely, had gone back to his DIY roots, playing not only with the Heartstrings but various other small punk bands in rooms where “what you need is power and ferocity and something interesting to say”. “We weren’t necessarily on the same page, but in a way that suited the new stuff,” he nods. And if the magic of The Futureheads always lay in these contrasting elements – their best, most beloved songs at once intricate and smart, full of vocal interplay and unexpected time signatures, yet immediate and raw with the rough edges left unsmoothed – then the activities they’d spent their time on while away only served to heighten this innate, exciting duality.
The result, recorded and self-produced at Newcastle’s First Avenue Studio, is ‘Powers’: a record that looks “at the balance of power in a personal, political and relational sense” and puts it to some of the most vital, invigorated material the band have made since their first steps. Crucially, the aim here is one of forward motion not nostalgia; though the quartet could probably rely on the successes of old to push them through the next couple of festival seasons, that isn’t – and hasn’t ever – been the point. “I think what we would like to do is to get an audience that either thought we weren’t for them, or thought this band had lost its way somehow, or hadn’t heard us in the first place,” Ross says. “Obviously it’s an absolute privilege to come back and still have fans and that’s something to cherish, but I also think we’ve got a bit of a job to do about letting people know that there’s more to this band than you might have thought.”
It’s a risky statement, but one that’s confirmed immediately once you press play. Across the album, the band push further, melodically and lyrically, than ever before; there’s no safety net here, but a band putting everything out there and driving it to the wire again. “I love the thing Bowie said about how an artist should be slightly out of their depth because that’s when you get the good stuff,” Barry affirms. “Or as David Lynch says, ‘If you want to catch the big fish, you’ve got to go deep.’”
The frantic rattle of ‘Headcase’ and its emotional flipside ‘Animus’ – one rooted in mania, the other depression – find the singer dredging down to the problems that put a stopper on the band in the first place. “My main thing was about accepting how my mind works and then trying to love that. The danger of mental illness is becoming trapped in something like depression; you can’t stay manic for too long, you end up sectioned or probably dead because you become so uncaring about your own safety,” he explains. “I’m not a victim of my own mind anymore; I take responsibility for my mind and my actions, and those two songs speak to that.” Conversely, the elegiac ‘7 Hours, 4 Minutes’ is a love song to his partner and young daughter that’s more literal and sentimental than anything they’ve ever penned: “We had a home birth, she had a paracetamol and that was it. At midnight her waters broke, and then Nico my daughter came at four minutes past seven. That song’s a little monument to my first born.”
The album’s propulsive, scattershot lead single ‘Jekyll’ comes laden with a self-professed “monstrous riff for monstrous, preposterous times”, but it’s perhaps the stream-of-consciousness, spoken word diatribe of ‘Across the Border’ that lands the biggest hammer-blow in terms of unapologetic, outraged social commentary. “As a band, we were always interested in personal politics and behavior, but we never spoke about the state of the nation or big picture politics,” Ross begins, “but in the meantime the world’s changed so much and there are things to really kick against. We live in a region that’s somehow or other been tagged as the poster boy for Brexit, and the misinformation and aggression that this referendum has brought out in people has become a really terrifying thing that I haven’t seen in my lifetime. It’s a defining moment in British politics that’s impossible to ignore if you’re making art.”
Elsewhere across the record, the quartet veer from the wonky stomp of ‘Listen Little Man’ – named after a book by controversial therapist Wilhelm Reich – to the hedonistic white flag of ‘Good Night Out’ via countless other, typically atypical topics. Cumulatively, it’s a record that kicks harder and more intensely than you might have ever understandably predicted. “The record we’ve made is a little off kilter and maybe a little more out of step than you might expect from four lads in their 30s. I think it might surprise people,” smiles Ross.
But if you were ever a fan of The Futureheads, or – just as importantly – if you were never a fan of The Futureheads, you should get the same thing from ‘Powers’: a record that sounds invigorated, with something important to say and an idiosyncratic, exciting way of saying it, made by four people here for all the right reasons. “There’s power and sophistication and simplicity, and it’s bloody hard to play, which I think will keep the shows interesting because we’re on the edge of our abilities with this,” grins Barry. “It’s musical audacity: that’s what this album’s about.”