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Ross Millard - The Futureheads PDF Print E-mail
Written by James Hunt   
01 05 2012
ImageThe Futureheads are from Sunderland and proud of it. In just over ten years, they've gone from playing small gigs in Sunderland, to supporting the Red Hot Chili Peppers at the Stadium of Light. Earlier this year they released a brilliant a capella album so we got James Hunt to sit in a van with Ross Millard to chat about playing with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, a-capella music and Sunderland's Split Festival.

FS: As a kid, you grew up going to Roker Park, but now you're going to get a chance to run around the Stadium of Light when you support the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Was that a bit of a no-brainer when you got offered that gig?
Ross: Yeah, particularly because it's at Sunderland's ground you know. If it had been somewhere else we might have had a bit of a discussion about it but because it was here it was a literal no brainer, you know. The opportunity to play at the stadium with anybody is too good to turn down really. I mean I know we've played in the centre circle before the game that one time but at least this time it's like a proper stage, at a proper gig. I'm really interested to see the RHCP as well, you know, I had a phase around my mid-teens where I had Californiacation and One Hot Minute and stuff, but I'm not massively familiar with their back catalogue, I don't know a lot of their stuff, so I'm interested to see what the show is all about. They're a massive rock band and I always like to see bands play to that many people to see what they're like on stage. It's kind of like an art form to pull off a gig to that many people. They're almost in sort of rock mythology, they've been around so long and they've got a lot of things about them that are like a quintessential rock band. So, I'm looking forward to it principally cause it's in Sunderland and principally cause it's at the stadium and secondly because I'm really interested to see what they do with their show as well.

FS: How did it feel when Sunderland started running out to your song, The Beginning Of The Twist?
Ross: That's one of the best things to ever happen to the band, undoubtedly. It's been two seasons now that they've been running out to it and I think the first game they used it we were at a festival and I had about 50 texts in half hour or something. I couldn't believe it. That's what's good for us about being from Sunderland. It's like we're a band of the city really, we've been taken to its heart. It's like a one team city, and I'm not saying it's a one band city at all because there are other great bands, but there's like a regional pride or attachment that I think Sunderland people have to us which we really enjoying having and it's what we love about being from here.


FS: In a way, you've become the flag bearers for Sunderland. A lot of people from round here all seem to be a bit down about the town, whereas you've always been proud of your roots. Has that always been the case?

Ross: Yeah we've sort of always been like that you know, I think when we started the band we started it with some rules and one of the main rules was that you would always sing in your own accent, in your own voice. Now that doesn't seem like such an unusual idea, but back in 2000, when we started, there wasn't an Arctic Monkeys or a Zutons, you know these bands who sing in their own accents relative to where they're from. So for us I think people thought of it as being quite refreshing that we sang in our own voices .It was almost like a punk rock thing, like we were being honest about who we are and where we're from and weren't dressing it up as being something that it wasn't.

Saying we are from Sunderland is a huge part of it. When you go down to London for a gig you're on a mission, you go in there with a purpose. It's like when NASA goes to the moon or something. You go there, you plant your flag in the ground and it's like we've been here, we've done it and being from Sunderland is a huge part of that. I think it's interesting because over the years we've had more and more opportunities to do things outside of the band in the city that we wouldn't necessarily had the chance to do if it hadn't have been for the band, but again it's just about trying to make most of the city and trying to get the best out if it from our perspective and hopefully encourage some people to change their attitudes about the town as well you know.

ImageFS: You mentioned doing more in and around the city of Sunderland. You're heavily involved in Split Festival. Can you tell us a bit about your role in that?
Ross: The thing about Split is there's a core group of us that's kind of fell into certain positions. I think it's quite a magical thing really. There's like 7 of us that have sort of all got different experiences and different point of views that have all come together to make the festival happen and we've fell into these roles, like some of the lads in the band are doing things that I don't think they never dreamt of doing. I mean Jaff is practically production managing the festival, I think that's great and he seems to really love that role. Barry and Martyn (McFadden) are working on the food and the other entertainment elements and, obviously, they do a lot more than that as well with the programme itself.

But my buzz is helping to book the bands and putting the bill together with Richard (Amundsen). It's hard though, last year we did quite well in terms of getting a lot of bands in from out of town and building the profile of the festival and boosting it up. This year I think it's tricky because you want to make room for people and genres that didn't necessarily get something out of last year, like there wasn't much electronic music represented last time and there wasn't many other types of music there and it's just about learning every year how to balance things out a bit better and trying to bring different things in to suite different people.


I think festivals like Latitude or Kendal Calling are good reference points because they're about more than the music. There's a strong food element to the Split Festival that people really love and I think the other entertainment so we could look at doing something with that. We're looking at ways to make the fringe tent look a bit more sort of enigmatic and exciting, you know maybe getting street dance crews or performers, stuff like that involved. I think Dave from the band has loads of ideas about visuals about how to make it go from looking like a regular festival, which for inner city Sunderland is amazing in itself, but to turn it into something a bit more magical than that. I think every year we'll improve that, like we had the Alison in Wonderland element last year, and I think this year's about trying to constantly build on it but baring in mind the audience and baring in mind the location you know. The film thing on a Friday will be exciting this year.

FS: Do you feel a bit of pressure when you go and see any local bands and people know that you're the music programme?
Ross: Yeah, we've a lot of bands emailing submissions, I mean last year we had hundreds and this year there's already been hundreds and it's still months away, but sadly, there's not room for everyone. It's hard because you don't want to dampen peoples spirits and especially not in the North East. You want to encourage every artist and tell them to keep plugging away and some people understand, some are naive and a bit young and they think if they don't get through in the first year of trying that it's not for them or the world is against them or whatever.

FS: I suppose it's difficult as a band gets bigger. Take Frankie & The Heartstrings for example. They played Split one year and at that time were not actually that big but were good and just starting off. So the following year you feel as if you can't book them again, when they're a bigger draw, but you're kind of cutting off your nose to spite your face but then you can't book the same bands every year so you have to balance it.

Ross: It is a balance. That's a good point you've got there. You have to celebrate certain people's popularity as much as you've got to use the festival as a spring board for unknown artists or beginners. It is a balancing act because it seems stupid to have Frankie and the Heartstrings play 2007 Split and not have them play in 2010 when they've got their album out and they're real sort of positive ambassadors for Sunderland. You've got to use common sense about it. I wish there was more slots, I was there were more tents, I wish there was more punters, I wish there was more of everything, but, ultimately, if we keep doing it right over the years, there will be and it'll only get better. Until that point you've got to just play it cool and balance it nicely. I think it says a lot about the North East that there are more exciting artists than there is room for but I guess that's where other local promoters come in, we work quite closely with other promoters for the Split Parade.

ImageFS: Going back to the accent thing, obviously with this new a capella album you can hear your accents a lot more clearly because the vocals are the main focus. It's quite an unusual, but brave step. How did it come about? And were you ever worried it might not work?
Ross: Yeah we were. I think we made that album because we were at this position where we didn't really think we could or didn't even want to go in and make another rock album. We didn't want to do that. It just didn't feel right. In a way it was kind of either make this record or don't make one at all and I don't think we wanted to do that because we're still best mates the four of us and we still wanted to make music. It's just we get into a little bit of a rut sometimes and you need a new experience to take you out of it. We had talked about doing a few other things, like Barry has got this idea of doing a musical but we were adamant that it wouldn't be released as the Futureheads, I'm well up for him doing that on his own like. This a capella thing just sort of fell in to our laps because we did that session with Jo Whiley, and that went well and we got a bit of a buzz out of doing it. The response was good and we've always sang together so it seemed like something we'd like to try a bit more, and it just got big quick, it just snowballed and all of a sudden we had 15 songs. If wed sat down at the end of making this record and said okay there's 15 more songs we want to try, then we would've done them and then maybe the album would've been totally different, but as it was we just sort of made this record, recorded these 15 songs, then ran out of time and just decided to release it as it was. There was no big plan, we didn't really talk about it properly at any stage it just all started to happen and before you know you've made a full album.

FS: There's a mix of your own songs and a few covers. Did you record your original stuff or the covers first?
Ross:  We did the traditional folk ones first and we did Beeswing quite early on, that was sort of the first none traditional cover we did. I suppose there the ones on the album that give the best idea of what we were going for.

FS: and that was your idea to do that song? How about the cover of Number One Song In Heaven by Sparks?
Ross: Yeah just because when we started doing it we started talking about what we might end up doing with it, what would be good reference points. Richard Thompson was a really obvious place to start going through his records. Not all the lads were really that familiar with his stuff, and I mean he's got that many records and I'm not like an anorak about his work but I love that song. Number One Song In Heaven was right at the end of the session, and I'm really glad that we did it because it's just the right side of silly, like the second half is ridiculous really. Trying to sing like synthesizes when we did it live was mad. It's just got that sense of fun it tries to fit in with what the rest of the show is about, you know.

FS: Yeah, that's what I was thinking when I saw yous at the Sage in Gateshead, when you were joined by the Longbenton Community Choir, I was thinking this is going to be crazy.  
Ross: It's good because I think someone said about the a capella album that if you haven't heard it you might get the wrong idea about it. I think all along we've had to fight a bit of a battle about trying to show people that it's not really pretentious or dead serious or dead stuffy and old, and that there's fun things you can do and still hopefully make an interesting record without it being really unfashionable or sad. We're constantly trying to change people's perception of it but I like that challenge because it's something we haven't had to do in a long time and it's been really good to take on the road. It's been totally refreshing and it's sort of kept us together really.


FS: Were you shocked/surprised/delighted at the reaction at the gigs? I've been to a few and there's been a lot of crowd participation, not just in terms of clapping but also the banter and the feedback, with people laughing and clearly enjoying themselves. That must give you loads of confidence about what you're doing.  

Ross: It's been buzzing, hasn't it? I think we've said a few times over the years, we've had a lot of different experiences that maybe some other band might not have had like with major labels, independent labels, our own label and no label. We've done all sorts really and it's funny because these gigs we've been doing on this record remind us of the gigs we were doing at the height of the first album.

ImageWhen we went in to make that second record I think that was the last time we really felt invincible, we'd never had any knocks, everything we'd done had always went up and up and up, it always got better, things had always sold more and more and we were always gaining more and more fans. You kind of feel like at that point you can't do anything wrong you can't make any mistakes. I wouldn't attribute that to anything other than the buzz surrounding it, like constantly having bigger gigs and more and more sales but then the second album didn't really work out for us. I'm really grateful that we did have that because it's kind of like supporting a football team, it teaches you how to lose, but that's all part of it. You're not constantly creating stuff simply to sell more and more. It's expressive art, you can't mean the world to people constantly without churning out rubbish or doing it by numbers and I think for us, when we had that dip, our self confidence got destroyed and we didn't know we could do it anymore and whether people wanted to hear us.

It's been really important in the long run because now when it comes to making an album like this you can take it on the road and really enjoy it for what it is and I think when people see us they say we look really close and like we're having a real good time, and that's because we are. It's true. There's nothing false about it. We've endured some pretty shit times, they could have been a lot worse, but they haven't been terrible, in the grand scheme of things. It was hard to take the dip in our fortunes but moments like this make you realise how worthwhile it all is, the joy that you get out of it when people are right in to it is much better because of it.

The Futureheads a capella album Rant is out now on the band's own Nul Records label. For more information, check their website here. For more information on Sunderland's Split Festival check the website here.
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