Ezra Furman: the Chicago rocker talks Chuck Berry, Nazis and next album ‘Transangelic Exodus’

Chicagoan rocker Ezra Furman is passionate, deeply talented and unafraid to speak out. The 31-year-old talks to Alex Flood about Nazis, human beings who grow wings and trying to create “the greatest record ever made”

Ezra Furman is a gender-fluid rocker from Chicago with a knack for writing bratty pop-punk tunes that sound a bit like the Ramones. Born to strict Jewish parents in the ’80s, he struggled with his identity for years before discovering music as an outlet. Now 31, he’s flourishing in his own skin. His sexually subversive appearance – think silk dresses and bright lipstick – evokes images of a bygone era. There’s more than a hint of the New York Dolls about him, and he has the gentle charisma of a young David Bowie. His music blends diverse genres like rockabilly and glam into new and exciting combinations, and his raw lyrics give the songs an honest feel that’s hard to come by. This week, he releases his eighth album, ‘Transangelic Exodus’. But despite enjoying a decade-long career already, he feels like he’s on the edge of a breakthrough.

You described your last EP as “the end of a chapter musically”. What makes these new songs so different?

“Ezra Furman And The Boy-Friends was a band with a specific mission – to be a really good rock’n’roll band. And we achieved it. We were really f**king good at it. There were moments of bleary-eyed transcendence, pure enthusiasm, manic energy and rage. That’s what rock’n’roll means to me.”

Chuck Berry was one of your heroes. How did you react when he died last year?

“Chuck Berry invented rock’n’roll. He was one of the best songwriters of the 20th century. But, as with a lot of heroes, you gotta reckon with their disastrous ethical violations too. Chuck had his fair share of those. It sort of makes you want to stop praising him so much. But the fact is he’s dead, and the people whose shows I will pay to get into are hopefully not gonna be sexual predators.”

You’re referring to his 1960 sexual assault conviction. Do you think the music industry does enough to combat things like that?

“Probably not. Sometimes you see a good response to it and sometimes not. I’m glad that people are talking about sexual assault though. It is a scourge on humanity. Some people think, ‘Well, it happens, it’s not the best but what can you do?’ I’ll tell you what you can do – you can replace all of those people, just get them out! Stop going to their movies and stop buying their records.”

As a gender-fluid musician in America, has it been harder since Trump took power?

“So far, he hasn’t enacted any significant legislation, thank goodness. Only the fear has really touched my actual life. The most significant thing is the way he’s influenced the conversation about immigrants.”

In the video for your recent track ‘Driving Down To LA’, you’re in a car chase with some Nazis and your guardian angel. How was that to shoot?

“It was a really weird experience. The day before I flew out to Virginia to film it, the Charlottesville ‘Unite The Right’ rally turned deadly violent. The set was only a few towns away and anyone who drove by us was like, ‘You’re not from around here, are ya?’ We thought, ‘Are they gonna kill us?’ We were there filming what was supposed to be a paranoid fantasy but it felt so real. It was such a strange coincidence of timing.”

At Coachella 2017, you ended your set by yelling, “F**k AEG”. Why did you do that?

“AEG is the Anschutz Exploration Group, which owns Goldenvoice, which puts on Coachella. By going to Coachella you’re helping to line the pockets of billionaires like AEG owner Philip Anschutz [who has funded various anti-LGBTQ organisations]. You have a say in whether that person stays rich. I would never pay to go to that event and I don’t think that people should.”

You took the money though?

“I did take the money. I got paid. Where does that leave me? It leaves me able to pay the rent and keep playing music.”

What do you hope to achieve with new album ‘Transangelic Exodus’?

“I want to make the greatest record ever made. It’s the only thing I can think about.”

Have you managed it?

“No. I’m on to something though. This record feels alive to me, more alive than anything I’ve made in the past.”

What does the title mean?

“Well, there is a condition, as I’m sure you’ve heard, called transangelicism. It involves a human being growing wings and turning into an angel. Naturally these people are distrusted. It’s thought to be a disease or some kind of threat to the integrity of the human race. People want to quarantine them, even though it’s not a contagious thing. It’s actually not a threat to anyone.”

Can you relate to that?

“People get stigmatised for their bodies and for their differences. Then those people become very vulnerable. I sometimes feel caught in the middle – between two warring factions that I’m not on either side of.”