15 Minutes with Thomas Johnson of Futurebirds

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Futurebirds baba vagaFuturebirds with Mick Reiter

Friday, February 6 at 9 pm

Musica$10 [/su_box]

Thomas Johnson, Futurebirds’ sweet-singing, banjo-playing guitarist (and its best-bearded member), sounds like the folks I know back home. He’s smart, thoughtful, has probably spent more than his fair share of time at Waffle House, much of it after midnight, and has just enough of a drawl to know he’s not from here. But being in a band that tours as much as they do—over the next six weeks, they wind from Akron to Brooklyn to New Orleans—he’s a little bit from everywhere and he sounds ready to get back.

“We had a good response from the people who were there. Really good vibe. They liked the energy—the harmony of our songs. And they’re suckers for the pedal steel,” he says, talking about the last trip to northeast Ohio the Futurebirds took from their home in Athens, Georgia.

Thomas Johnson (PHOTO: Nola Live Music Blog)
Thomas Johnson (PHOTO: Nola Live Music Blog)

When these Futurebirds play Musica on Friday, February 6, it’ll be their first official show of 2015, following a month-long break. Thomas didn’t abide the vacation long before finding some solo gigs to “fill the open time and supplement my income.”

Maybe he’s just a little eager to get back to work with his bandmates Dennis Love, Carter King, Brannen Miles, Daniel Womack and Johnny Lundock. Or so it seemed on the phone as he explained what it was like forming Futurebirds from fragments found floating around the shifting Athens music scene in 2008.

“We’d all been in lots of different bands that were fizzling out,” he says. “When we (Futurebirds) played together, it felt a lot better. Had a much different feel. More legitimate. We finished each other’s sentences musically.”

Perhaps that helps explain why they won’t have to rehearse much before hitting the road. Thomas says there just isn’t much rust to knock off.  That’s what you get with a touring schedule that puts you on the bill with the likes of the Drive-By Truckers, Alabama Shakes and Grace Potter & The Nocturnals, and playing festivals like SXSW, Austin City Limits, Hangout, Wakarusa and Bonnaroo.

Thomas says the band’s energy on stage surprises some audiences because it’s hard to capture on their records, even on their latest effort, “Baba Yaga,” which made plenty of notable fans. This despite taking two years to find a label before landing with Fat Possum Records, who also released the Black Keys’ “Thickfreakness” and “Rubber Factory”.

Pitchfork, which gave “Baba Yaga” a 7.5 rating, describes the band’s style as “a loose-limbed tangle of reverbed guitars, hollered harmonies, and driving yet contemplative Southern rock rhythms”, adding that the album “nails the melancholy of trying to chase and pin down something that’s special and fleeting…”

Have a sense of the Futurebirds yet? How’s this: In a four-star review, American Songwriter compared their sound to “a 70s-80s psychedelic dream where Beach Boys harmonies join R.E.M.’s countryish strum with Phil Spector at the controls.”

Lesser bands wouldn’t have made it this far, especially when you consider the album delay hasn’t been their only major obstacle. When co-founder Payton Bradford left to pursue a law degree, the Futurebirds endured almost two years of having “a revolving door at drums” before finding Johnny Lundock. With a year together under their belts, they’re stepping into 2015 ready to bulk up an already impressive resume.

Lucky you, that starts on Friday in Akron.