Words: Alex Horowitz
LA-based pop act Future Feats touts itself as an “alternative pop outfit…that calls to mind the New Wave classics that are staples of all our record collections.” Outside of being a pop band with New Wave leanings, that doesn’t offer a lot in the way of insights into what Future Feats actually is.
The first real thing I learned about Future Feats on a mild day in late April was that, despite how tight-knit it turned out the band actually is, agreeing to an interview with Future Feats doesn’t mean sitting down with a pop outfit at all; it means spending some time time getting to know one man personally — an early thirty-something year old man named Josh.
So let’s talk about Josh. Let’s start with the fact that Josh is over thirty, if only because it’s just about the only thing about Josh that he seems oddly hesitant to talk about. He hates to talk about himself directly, he says — at least in the sense of, say, writing bios about himself. And yet, conversely, he slips easily these days into songwriting sessions that center on recounting often painfully true stories about what he’s been through, detail by not-always-so-flattering detail.
* * *
For those unfamiliar, Brooklyn Steel is an 1,800 person capacity venue located in the Brooklyn neighborhood of East Williamsburg. Both its name and its appearance feel like an attempted nod to the Williamsburg that once was — industrial and rugged — though the “ruggedness” of Brooklyn Steel is about as real as Brooklyn’s much maligned population of hipsters.
Playing to a capacity crowd of 1,800 is nothing to sneeze at — LCD Soundsystem opened Brooklyn Steel in 2017 with a few nights of sold out rock n’ roll. But if it’s not the local coffee shop open mic, Brooklyn Steel is no Madison Square Garden either, and venues of this size can often play host to acts that are either on the upswing or just past their zenith. For an artist as focused on the future as Josh, the question of which side of that dial Future Feats is currently playing on is an interesting one.
It was a few hours before curtains up on the second night of a double header for Future Feats when I sat down with Josh in the Brooklyn Steel green room. Josh of the easy, affable smile and welcoming demeanor to match his North Carolinian timbre, eyes perhaps a bit worse for wear after a late night out in Brooklyn the night before. The same Josh that, according to his press write-up, once wrestled with substance abuse and came out the other side.
Josh’s band, along with veteran stalwarts Tokyo Police Club, were opening both nights of the double header for the devoutly revered (including by yours truly, as well as by Josh) if somewhat esoteric Matt & Kim. Sound check was scheduled to kick off in less than an hour when I found myself leaning against some hopefully inexpensive piece of equipment and waving my janky little phone mic in Josh’s general direction. He seemed to only occasionally regard my phone with even a glint of good-natured suspicion while we talked. That affable smile, unmistakably sincere even to an occasional cynic like myself, never wavered.
To be sure, Josh barely hesitated when I asked to record our conversation. Truth be told, Josh doesn’t hide from the truth these days, quite the contrary. Still, when I initially brought up the night that serves as the very literal lyrical focus of his band’s most recent single, Same Mistakes, I thought it best to tread lightly. He waved away my concern immediately, almost instinctively; a reaction likely habitualized through diligent practice. “I made a fool of myself,” he readily admits of that hellish and potentially embarrassing night. “I’m over it.”
For a moment perhaps he’s back there again as he pauses almost imperceptibly and adds in a mumbled drawl, “so many years ago…”
On Memorial Day Weekend in 2011, back in his home town of Wilmington, North Carolina, at the tail end of another night blurred by too many drinks and, perhaps on this particular night, the added perceived injury of an unsuccessful courtship, a heavily intoxicated Josh attempted to get behind the wheel of a car that he thought belonged to a friend of his. What came next, in the cold light of hindsight, seems inevitable. A pair of handcuffs. A bloodied head. A quick visit to a local hospital, a cold jail cell, another mom on a regrettably long list of those brave women that have received one of those phone calls that every parent dreads.
But hey, it wasn’t all bad: “(The girl I was interested in) came up to the ambulance and said hi to me,” Josh mentions with a sheepish grin.
It’s true — Josh actually smiles now when he rubs the scar on his forehead from when the cops tossed him to the ground after they pulled him from the car that night. To see things from Josh’s perspective, that night was, in the long view of things, a positive one; a productive step along a path toward the version of Josh that I was meeting, the one that looks relentlessly to the future. And if the scar from that night was indeed instructive, one can only imagine the indelible lessons he must have been forced to glean from the other, perhaps deeper scars to which he occasionally alluded throughout our conversation; the stories he brushed past like foliage lining a thorny path he’s tread countless times before and knows far too well to lose his footing even as the branches scratch at his consciousness.
Josh, who I would have likely believed was in his mid-twenties, is just north of thirty and divorced. We talked more about the divorce than about being over thirty. Reviewing my notes now, I never did quite nail down any specific connection between his references to a history of substance abuse and how he came to become separated from his now former wife. That’s as much Josh’s dogma rubbing off on me as it is shoddy reporting. The divorce, clearly a deep wound, has left behind another scar among the many in and on Josh’s head. He can run his hands over it now and smile, and when he’s ready, let the lessons of its history weave their way into both his erudition and his music. In the meantime, the past is past, and in the dogma of Josh, an uninstructive past is hardly worth laboring over.
“It’s good now,” he assures me. “No one wants to torture themselves but they always do, we all torture ourselves in one way or another but, like I said…I want to be happy now, and playing a show in Brooklyn…this is really the greatest time of my life. (So you) take bad experiences and turn them into something good. You have to be the best you that you possibly can be every day and do what you love and realize someone someone does have it worse, and you need to go help that person.”
“The divorce was the lowest I’ve ever been,” he admits. “It took a year or two to just really recover from that. (But) there was a day when I woke up…the album was done…it was right before were gonna leave (on tour) and it was like, ‘wow…I’m really doing it, it’s all happening.’ Once you realize that you kinda just stop worrying and you can’t not have a good attitude because you’re just having fun.”
“I feel like I’m always looking forward,” he concludes. “I’m always looking at the next thing.”
The Dogma of Josh in a nutshell.
* * *
I asked Josh if he thought he could ever slip back into the skin of that man he used to be — the Josh of the excessive hard drinking, the self-described asshole behind all those Same Mistakes. Not that he’s teetotal now, as he will readily admit and his vaguely fatigued eyes might have already hinted, but one supposes there can be a difference between a self-destructive drunk and an otherwise peaceful man having a drink. Josh certainly seems to think so. “I have…an obsessive behavior,” he says of his current drinking habits, “and whatever it is I’m doing…I do it all. So it’s just about…finding that balance and growing up.”
Still, I press: Couldn’t one long night, one bad mood, one too many drinks, tempt him toward becoming that man again, the one that found himself in a jail cell with a head wound? It’s not a particularly gentle question, but he welcomes it with what has become by this point predictable hospitality. He doesn’t hesitate, the answer seems to him all too obvious. “I would be foolish if I were to be that guy again. And I’m not that guy – that guy doesn’t exist anymore. I’m a new guy every day. (That was) just a younger, inexperienced dude that…you know, made a lot of mistakes.”
“Everyone does that,” he says of making mistakes, “I just chose to write a song about it.”
So no, Josh would not let himself become that inexperienced old Josh again. That would be foolish. Josh is nobody’s fool.
Nobody’s fool indeed. To wit: As our conversation meanders a bit, I get around to asking Josh an old classic: Who would you open for in your dream concert?
As all fellow music lovers tend to be whenever I ask that question, initially he seemed overwhelmed by the possibilities. Then, almost like a vision, perhaps the only answer he ever could have given revealed itself to him:
“Hands down my favorite songwriter of all time — Stevie Wonder.”
“My favorite genre of music is Rn’B funk and soul,” he admits before adding, “I like (rock) too…I definitely want (Future Feats) to be a rock band.”
“I know it might not make sense musically right now, but I feel like it will at a later time.”
That’s because right now, Josh says he’s writing for “the hit.”
“For this record, I wanted it to be a balance of something that you can ‘get a hit, I just need a hit, everyone needs a hit,’” he laughs, before adding more seriously, “I also wanted to maintain a certain level of artistic credibility, so it needed to have that balance of, ‘this is real, but it’s also real catchy.’”
Josh is no fool after all, and he knows the game well. One big hit can unlock a lot of doors. That one big hit can encourage fans to follow an artist into new musical territory. But first you have to meet them on their turf, in a safe space where they’re already listening.
“Hopefully,” he reflects, “if we achieve what I’m hoping, then I’ll get to write six, seven minute songs and try to be the Beatles.”
Whether or not you consider “writing for hits” to be somehow creatively limiting — personally, I don’t — it bears mentioning the lengths Josh went to to stress the love and care he puts into his music in ways he knows that even his biggest fans will never realize. As Josh puts it, “you can…salt and pepper different genres in there and people will find out later.”
Josh isn’t kidding when he says he puts a lot of care into every track he writes. “We did thirteen different versions of (Same Mistakes),” he proclaims excitedly. “We did one that sounded more rock and more guitars…had tempo changes…it really took thirteen times (to get it right.)”
This music may not be his life’s magnum opus musically speaking, but Josh loves and cares for it like it was.
“There’s a lot of (lyrical) heaviness to it,” he says, “but it all sounds nice and catchy and big and it’s what I want to be, which is happy — happy sounding music, big sounding music that can affect other people.”
And when the world is ready for him to open up the repertoire a bit, he’ll be more than ready to oblige. “Dude…I have so many songs that I can’t wait to share with everyone,” he tells me excitedly. But for now, Josh is content to work for those elusive hits and take it from there.
This sort of pragmatism coming from an artistic type would already be impressive, but sitting there in that green room with Josh I found it almost disorienting. The bio the Future Feats team supplied directly to Spotify, the one that’s still up there at the time of publication, touches on Josh’s ascension from a troubled past to a more pragmatic present, but it also refers to Josh as both “manic” and “deranged.” To say that Josh did not appear to me as the “manic,” let alone “deranged” artist I’d steeled myself to meet that early evening in late April would be a high-caliber understatement. The word “professional” comes to mind as I recall Josh now, friendly for sure, but suffice it to say that the mania was fairly lacking from our conversation.
So I ask Josh about the marketing schtick, and he chuckles. Manic wasn’t his word, he says — he never was much for writing his own bios, after all. Still, he liked the word choice when he read it. “I am manic, absolutely,” he says, and explains that he thinks of “manic” as meaning he’s obsessive in his focus.
“You have to tap in (to that obsessive side) and let yourself go there,” he continues, “because that’s where all the creativeness happens.”
Of course, “hard worker” is not exactly what comes to mind when you think of a “manic” former substance abuser with a rap sheet, at least not in the context of rock and roll. So why all the ostentatious references to some kind of harsher edge that the Josh I met didn’t seem to possess?
Perhaps the mania is there, just expertly hidden from some rock journalist with a crappy phone-mic sniffing around for a story. Or perhaps the ostentatious verbiage is a form of fear on the part of those that are charged with promoting Josh at all costs. Because the truth is, Josh is a lot more relatable than you’d think by reading his bio too quickly. It’s almost like he’s so well adjusted that someone on his team is afraid he’s not really a rockstar.
Having worked music marketing gigs myself, the temptation to lean on the flashiest-sounding narrative available when you’re pushing a product you believe in to a market that’s largely unacquainted is very real. People’s attention spans are shorter than ever these days, or so the music industry frets, and certainly their tastes are as discerning as they’ve ever been. The music-listening population has the world’s supply of music from throughout all of human history at their fingertips. In that context, getting someone to press play on something new is a steep challenge, and sometimes a steep challenge calls for drastic measures. So Josh plays his part, diligently writing pop tunes rather than Beatles ballads, and his press people handle the rest.
Still, the implication that Josh has to be manic to prove his rockstar bona fides might just be selling Josh, and perhaps all of rock n’ roll, a bit short. When the fire of youth cools just enough that you can finally live with yourself in peace, for many it’s a blessing. For plenty of artistic types, it’s the death rattle of the mania that once drove youthful creativity, art having been the beautiful, destructive, necessary side effect of the painful process of growing up. But it doesn’t have to be like that.
You often hear older music fans talk about a great song having soul. I suppose it takes a soul to know one, let alone to write one into a song. Perhaps it’s true what some say about a soul being something you have to earn through trial, rather than something you’re born with. Perhaps that Josh has earned his, that he can tap into manic creativity without letting his internal fire burn to the point of self destruction, is at least as legitimizing as being deranged. Perhaps that’s enough.
* * *
I ask Josh if he can imagine himself doing anything else someday, if a life of rock n’ roll were ever to fall short of his expectations. No hesitation: “I’m gonna do this forever, man. Whether I make money at it forever, that’s a different question, but I’m gonna do it forever.”
His actions back up his words so far. He’s a thirty one year old still diligently (sorry, manically) dedicated to engineering pop hits, still hitting the road, still slinging merch after his set. His music is undeniably catchy, and the satisfaction of hearing it performed live is assuredly worth the price of admission to all those inclined toward the kind of music he’s making. His particular brand of pop music, new wave or not, to my ear doesn’t sound particularly modern, and this is likely by choice. “I keep up with pop music,” he tells me, “but…I don’t know, I don’t like what’s going on out there right now.”
“I love Kanye,” he clarifies. It’s today’s pop charts, he insists, that lose him.
Spoken like a true grown-up. Take it from a fellow recently-minted tricenarian: The grace of growing up is finally feeling over all the bullshit. Finally not missing it much, either. Still a little nervous, perhaps, about getting older — that telltale brief hesitation before verbally admitting to being over thirty that we both were guilty of — and perhaps just starting to notice that modern trends make less sense to you than they used to. But who would trade the emotional calm and sense of optimism that can come from having outlived all those rough years and difficult experiences — those Same Mistakes — if it meant having to live through more wounds like the ones that left behind all those bloody scars? I’ve come to believe that Josh really wouldn’t trade the peace he’s made with himself for anything. After all, he’s no man’s fool.
“One of the biggest things I had to learn was stop trying to be so cool and just be yourself,” Josh tells me at one point. “I’m not the coolest person I know, and I know that, but just be you.”
Dogma of Josh, total grown-up.
* * *
A few hours after our interview, Josh dives exuberance-first into the hook of Same Mistakes in front of a packed crowd that largely came for Matt and Kim but seemed quickly won over by Josh’s pop hooks and charisma. His press contact marvels to me from about four rows back of the stage about the apparent chemistry he has with the rest of Future Feats. She’s right, and it’s infectious. Pure joy in a four-piece — the kind of childlike bliss on stage that few rockers can fake, and Josh clearly isn’t.
“This whole year has been a dream come true,” he’d told me earlier. “Who gets to tour ever. These guys in the band…they’re my best friends, so it’s just been a fun road trip.”
Looking up at that stage, I really did believe that I was witnessing a person fully realized — a man that grew up to do what he loves on a stage with his best friends, mistakes along the way be damned. It doesn’t hurt that the single is catchy as hell. And listening to it in that moment, blasting through Brooklyn Steel’s top-shelf sound system, I found myself feeling as if it’s also, for a story about an arrest, oddly relatable.
I think that’s because the story of Josh isn’t some worn out trope of a manic former boozer trying to stay straight one anguished lullaby to his demons at a time; it’s the good guy come the hard way playing the game fair and square with the kind of optimistic attitude you teach your kids about and the life lessons and physical scars to fortify his perspective. The patron saint of the everyman that’s sinned, survived, grew up, and kept moving, eyes locked manically on some distant point in the future. I don’t know how far he’ll take this tale, but on behalf of all the imperfect hustlers everywhere, here’s to hoping that rock’s got room for the grown-up at the party, and that the band’s greatest feats are yet to come.