“I don’t know what to do with myself,” Ross Millard mutters, shrugging at his mates as he sets his guitar down at the rear of the small stage at the back of Seattle’s East Street Records and ambles toward his mic stand. No sympathy is forthcoming from his fellow Futureheads, only smirks from drummer Dave Hyde (sans drums), who's perched on a stool to his right, bassist Jaff (sans bass), who's perched to his far left, and Barry Hyde (chief songwriter, Dave’s older brother, and the British quartet’s other guitarist), who's standing mere inches away, with a twisted smile that makes him look even more like a cross between Jon Stewart and Billy Bragg. (He sings a bit like Bragg too.) His isn’t the guitar that’s popped a string — a potential set killer when you’ve brought only two instruments and no roadies to an in-store acoustic performance.
HYPECAST: The Futureheads’ debut was swept along with bands like Franz Ferdinand, Bloc Party, Maximo Park, and Radio 4.
“I guess I’ll be the hype man, like Flavor Flav — 'Everybody scream!',” Millard improvises. Coupled with his bespectacled, slightly nerdy appearance and Sunderland accent, his corresponding b-boy pose elicits laughter instead from the dozens of onlookers leaning against the vinyl and CD racks and angling for prime snaps with their cellphone cameras. Beyond their artful, crackling, dueling-guitar geometrics and layers of cunning rhythms, the Futureheads' most distinguishing and potent weapon is their four-part vocals, with sharp lyrics and refrains like “ooohh ah OH oh oh” and “ba bah BAH” circling around each other, melodies jumping in and pulling out and occasionally coalescing into stirring resonance.
They waste no time deploying those harmonies, with only the elder Hyde’s simple strum as accompaniment, for a stripped-back yet brightly wiggly rendition of “Skip to the End,” from their just-released sophomore full-length, News and Tributes (Vagrant). No doubt the fully electrified versions, as heard on album or at a standard concert, are exhilarating, but with voices like these, they don’t need much else — certainly not any hype man — to get their point across.
Still, it’s hype — specifically the hype that came attached to their 2004 Futureheads debut album — and how that affected the making of the new album that I'm hoping to talk to Barry Hyde about after the set. When that disc arrived, examination of its ample merits — the way the serrated, polyrhythmic, hyperspeedy start/stop buzz compacted a trunkload of XTC, Gang of Four, and Wire LPs into a batch of brief, irresistible herky-jerk songbursts, pushing their influences into fresh sectors with the incorporation of those glorious multi-part vocals — was short-shrifted in favor of celebrating and promoting an emerging trendy new-postpunk scene into which the Futureheads were swept along with Franz Ferdinand, Bloc Party, Maximo Park, Radio 4, et al.
It turns out that the affable Hyde and I are able to exchange only quick pleasantries before store personnel whisk the band to the front counter to sign albums for eager fans waiting in a long queue. No time for chitchat with journalists — it's soundcheck to in-store to quick dinner to venue again for the first show of their two-week US jaunt, already the sixth time they've toured America. (The tour hits the Paradise this Saturday, July 1.)