I’m inside Tony’s studio by way of Zoom. I ask questions while he works in clay. I have studio envy.
My first question: “Is that…what is that behind you?” It’s ceramic chain mail. The wall hanging looks to be about 4ft. square; Tony says each link is about an inch and a half wide.
TF: I had this time I was doing a lot of those, small ones, too…this is my favorite here…
He holds up a bracelet-style probably 4” across and a couple feet long. “I just call it the snake chain.” He holds up the “snake chain” – it’s thicker than his wrist.
me: I want to talk about the sculpting process, as…
TF: I’m doing it now; I’m planning to make a small version of an elephant sculpture that I can make a mold of…I have requests for small critters that aren’t so pricey.
Tony shows me the clay elephant he’s modeling.
me: (talking about price vs. inventory) They’re two different demographics and there’s no reason you can’t provide for both.
TF: If you can find the time to deal with both worlds, then sure. My interest is in making bigger, or more elaborate, or more put-your-heart-and-soul-into-one-thing. But I see the value in…like when I’m playing gigs, having my tiles laid out. And the skull mugs, too. I hate dealing with glazes.
Interesting. Tony Furtado hates dealing with glazes. Also, a note: the skull mugs were so popular that they featured in an episode of the TV show Bones.
I’d watched Tony on a live stream spread across 5 different online platforms. The feel there is intimate: we’re all in our living rooms, friends having a conversation.
During that live stream, Tony talked about his song “Boat’s Up The River.”
“Boat’s Up the River was one of the most amazing recording music experiences I’ve ever had in my life. 8.5 minute song, completely improvised, 1 take only. We (the musicians) all kind of trickled in…there was a point in the song I felt I was being guided. “I don’t think I can play a wrong note” sort of rising and falling, and by the end of the song it rises up, comes down…it was thick, thin, high, down low, and then it peters out. I asked Cookie (Marenco) if she caught that. ‘You’re goddamn right I did!’ she said!”
“You’re talking about sculpting,” I typed into the chat. “Yeah, I am,” Tony said to us all.
During this interview I realize: Tony and I are each in our separate workspaces, looking at each other like it’s normal. This is normal.
He’s rolling a piece of clay in his hands while he thinks. I’m still envious.
TF: When I started writing songs with words, I started thinking about the words as sculpting, started thinking about the songs as sculpting, the way that I approach sculpting. I think I’ve always approached music and art in similar ways. Like there’s different ways I sculpt, different types of sculptures I approach. There’s the biological renders: this is how this animal looks. I’ll look up what exactly I want to make; find a way I want it to pose, make sure it looks the way it’s supposed to and study all the details…it’s pretty cut-and-dried, you know. But then there’s the more dreamy thing, where I might start with something…here I’ll show you. I’ll give you an example…”
…and Tony takes his phone across the room, shuffling things on shelves, climbing onto furniture.
TF: These strange boxes I was making for a while…I’ve got one right here.” He holds an intricate latticework – a box within a box – up to the camera. “These things. It’s all ceramic. But it started as bamboo skewers. After I made the bamboo skewer form, I dipped them in slip that had paper-clay in it. And then I fire those, and the bamboo skewers burn out. One box that I made like that – either I broke it on purpose or it dropped – but I had a ton of funny little sticks all broken and shattered.
So I decided to reshape them and form something else. I took my time with it, listening to music, putting these little pieces together, until eventually I realized I was making a fish from all those broken pieces. So I had this fish skeleton. I took cheesecloth dipped in that (paper-clay) slip, draped it over to start forming the skin of the strange fish I was making. Fired that, and started seeing something else that should happen…I started creating these funny little houses or buildings out of the bamboo skewers…I kind of created this little (blowing dust off something) – I’m blowing dust off.
I started creating a funny little inhabited area that is almost like humans are the virus of this fish that is dying.
Balanced on something in his studio, Tony holds his phone up over the fish. You can see better pictures here or on his website.
me: Whoa. (Click each picture for an enlarged view.)
me: and it’s all ceramic?
TF: It’s all ceramic; it’s got some glaze that I developed and some of that metal coating* I use on the funny little houses…there’s a whole world of those. This rabbit is done in a similar fashion as the fish…it’s got the viral people-world on it; this rhino was done in the same fashion.
*it’s not metal plating, it’s just a gypsum/polymer/acrylic/metal dust coating that’s essentially painted on and cured. I oxidize the metal that is in the coating. – TF
The way I make those (beasts) is the way I write a lot of instrumental songs, where I…you know, just kinda try to be dreamy with it. It might start one day, and you might find yourself repurposing a chunk of another song, and using words as colors or shapes. Just kind of piecing them together to see what forms when you try to access your subconscious with it. You just go with it. A lot of my songs are written that way, where there’s plenty left for interpretation by the listener.
There are plenty of songwriters that I love that are storytellers, like Jason Isbell. You listen to his song; you pretty much know what he’s talking about. It sounds very personal, and you’re placed right in there, tearing up in the middle of the song. Maybe a few of my songs have been written from that perspective where it’s kind of like I’m force-feeding…but man. That’s just now how I work. I wish I could. I like to create songs more from that dreaming aspect.
me: The abstract.
TF: Yeah. The abstract. Sometimes, going right at it with the most plain language is the best thing. Sometimes you can take a simple message but put it in a more complex melody or complex arrangement, or vice versa.
me: Do you usually start with the melody or the music?
TF: Best case scenario is they come at the same time. So much easier, more natural. Used to be I’d start with a melody and write to that melody.
One time I was crossing country; I’d flown the band ahead of me to DC and I remember I was driving the van and trailer (this is back in the days when I had a van and trailer!) I remember I was going through Kansas or Nebraska. I looked out the window and I saw this swayback horse. I’d never actually seen a swayback horse. Growing up in Pleasanton, I’d only seen race horses. I was like, “OMG they actually exist!”
Then he started galloping. I thought “Oh, shit, how can he run with that sway back?” Suddenly, I started to formulate a story in rhymes. While I was driving, I just tried to jot down this story about an old plough horse that at night time dreams he’s a race horse, beating Man-O-War. I got back east to start the tour, backstage I just started farting around with the melody for it. I remember the struggle of trying to fit the words and the melody, to really marry it. You gotta trim words; you gotta find different words that say the same thing.
Our conversation meanders, like the best ones do. I learn that Tony Furtado likes smelt (it’s a fish.) As a Michigan native, I find this so weird.
TF: My dad used to cook smelt for us in California in the 70s and 80s, and I loved it. There was a time it just disappeared. ‘What ever happened to smelt?”
Me: So you go to Michigan and get excited about smelt…people probably don’t know what to think.
TF: One time I played in Traverse (City) – these fans of mine had a house concert. The next day they said, “we’re gonna take you to an all-you-can-eat Smelt place.” I was like “HOLY SHIT! Really??” I cancelled the last gigs in Michigan because of low ticket sales. I had to – I didn’t want to have such a bad show that it’d leave a bad taste in their (fans’) mouths. And I didn’t want to be away from home for those extra few days if I’m not playing to anyone. The folk scene is still recovering.
Me: have you given any thought to Punk Banjo?
TF: no. I’ve heard that before, but to me that would be like…I don’t know. When I play banjo, I tend to – and this is my problem, especially when I’m singing – be a little too elaborate, getting all the notes right, playing too many notes. That’s why I don’t sing and play banjo very much. It distracts from what I’m singing. I’ll pick up the cello-banjo and sing, though, because that I can strip away a lot and treat it more like a bassy instrument and it’s easy to roll with a simple pattern.
I grew up playing banjo – that was my first instrument – I studied jazz on it, I studied classical theory on it, I did everything I could to make my banjo playing as contemporary as possible. It’s kind of the opposite of punk. Punk is great because punk is all feel and all intensity, and all-in, which I love. I don’t know if that makes sense.
me: It does make sense. I’m just watching you sculpt the elephant.
also me: I hope you can find a venue to show the whole Beast series.
TF: That’s kind of where my heart is at a lot of times. Some people might find them weird enough to buy, but to me they’re coming from a place of human impact on the earth.
me: I worked with Steve Gillette on creating a love song to climate change. SG feels people aren’t connecting emotionally, and I believe this, too. I see a lot of mini-festivals, so to speak, but I’d like to see them coalesce – if we could bring all this together into something that apprehensive people will get behind.*
(*I’m paraphrasing myself here.)
Me: That’s the thing. It’s always there, and nobody’s still taking it seriously, and it’s frustrating and it’s gonna kill us.
TF: maybe the planet needs to slough her skin. I mean that’s why I’ve got on the fish and the rabbit, and there’s a turtle up there, too, a turtle-monster: us as a virus, pretty much.
Follow Tony Furtado in all the usual places: Facebook, Twitter @tonyfurtado, Instagram @TonyFurtado5, Twitch. See what he’s making (music and art) at TonyFurtado.com. Read Tony’s thoughts on live-streaming, music genre, and punk banjo here: Looking for the Crossroads Number 12 – Tony Furtado
Tony Furtado: We Are the Beasts
How This Sculptor of Clay and Sound Gets It All Out of His Heart