The Futureheads are set to return with new album Rant on 2 April, but unlike all their other albums it features no musical instruments whatsoever. That's right Sunderland's finest have made what is possibly the world's first indie a cappella album. So what made the art rockers become the coolest barbershop quartet on the planet? The band's Ross Millard explains why they've left their guitars and drums at home... I overlooked a cappella music for a long time. My introduction to what I thought was a cappella came in the form of pop music cassette singles where the b-sides were usually vocal-only versions of the a-sides. (I'm talking early 90s here).
A cappella's were for club DJs, I thought, people who were used to splicing and sampling, bastardising and pirating. A world that was a million miles away from my record collection of Devo, Oingo Boingo, Big Black and Dinosaur Jr. A cappella wasn't cool. It was practically embarrassing.
Then we toured the US. I got interested in the Smithsonian archives. Alan Lomax. Field recordings. Heritage music. Chain-gang songs. Sea shanties. Stagger Lee. The original murder ballad. If you don't know these people or this music, then check it out. It's essential.
All four of us grew to love the idea of self-expression without having to pick up a guitar or a bass to say something. Four-part harmony had always been a huge part of the DNA of The Futureheads - that everyone should have a mic and speak their mind during the show. Scream, even. The vocal arrangements were kooky and messy in the beginning. A real scattershot idea that watching us on-stage should be like watching a table-tennis match; eyes backwards and forwards. No centre point.
Before long we got obsessed with polyrhythm. Harmony arrangements. Counterpoint. Minimalism. Steve Reich, Philip Glass, John Adams. This was an exciting world because their technical music suddenly became expressive, rather than vulgar and wanky. We started to sing without our guitars, arranging harmonies as we imagined composers would try and arrange orchestras. We plugged the guitars back in and matched the two elements together.
It wasn't until we were forced into covering something from the Top 40 for Jo Whiley's Live Lounge in 2010 that we truly thought the a cappella thing could work for us, though. We plumped for the Kelis track, Acapella, and obviously a vocal-only version sprang to mind. It felt so vital and energetic to sing without accompaniment on the radio.
We enjoyed it, and the response was good, so we started thinking about recording a few more tracks in this way. Suddenly, the Alan Lomax recordings sprang back into mind. We revisited a lot of old folk recordings and picked out some that felt special to us (primarily because they were North-Eastern 'standards'). Rant was born.
When we sing a cappella it feels ancient and modern at the same time. People enjoy it when we perform this stuff because they can get involved, feel part of something, sing along. We love it because we can now make music anywhere we go. Ross Millard
For more, including live dates (what are their guitar techs going to do?), head to Fhefutureheads.co.uk