Before I can get half a sentence out, Cole Furlow’s ears perk up, his hand raised like a stop sign.
“Do you know this song?”
I look at my friend, politely smiling, and back at Furlow, knowing that all day I’ve struggled to prove my salt, yet here I am again, coming up with nothing.
“Come on! You guys don’t know it? Come on!”
He’s indignant, bemused. While we wait for the big reveal, he breaks it down like a mathematician, rather than a historian. Rattling off names like equations—A inspired B, B birthed C, C added D, E, and F—all spoken in a calculated, complicated theorem that Furlow seems to have brewed himself. It’s hard to keep up, especially when my understanding of deep Southern blues is so limited, but his enthusiasm is engrossing. By the end of his rant, my friend, who had only begrudgingly joined us, is asking Furlow for music recommendations.
We're in Greenpoint, a few weeks before Furlow’s Dead Gaze releases its debut LP, Brain Holiday, and drinking an incalculable number of beers and vodka tonics. Over the past few months, Furlow and I emailed and texted occasionally, following a positive review I’d written of Dead Gaze's self-titled compilation. He said I might be Dead Gaze’s “only fan,” my first insight into Furlow’s twitchy, defensive outlook on his music. It wouldn’t be the last. When we meet at the bar, he seems more subdued than our first conversation. He bemoans the public relations industry, his key argument being, in short, “Let the music speak for itself, man.”
Furlow talks in “man”s and “dude”s, and his buttery Mississippi accent is familiar, like a So-Cal teen movie star with down-home, backwater charm. He is excitable and will not hesitate to talk over you, but his demeanor is both casual and open. He comes off as the prototypical “good times guy,” but after spending a day with him, it’s clear some of that is a put-on, a defensive front. He cares—a lot, in fact—about the music, the industry, the shows, the fans. His delivery reveals this, while the laid-back affectation in his voice compounds his reflections on bigger issues. “I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t believe in anything,” he tells me, revealing his fidgety passion, but then he lights up a cigarette, making it hard to break through the fog. He spits out admonitions of the music press with caustic fervor; like most musicians growing in this age of disposability, he’s a participant and a critic, yet the same guy who just complained about label flacks is asking me to hold his critique off the record. When I suggest that he might also be as self-centered as the musicians that he criticizes (off the record), Furlow claims that he is “super diplomatic,” which doesn’t exactly answer the question.
Furlow’s current tour is with Dent May, a childhood friend who is part of the same collective in Oxford, Mississippi, Cats Purring, and every night, they’re pulling double duty. Furlow plays bass in Dent May’s band, and when I ask him how he’s managing that, he shakes his mop of curly hair dismissively. “I’m a fucking rag doll, man.” It doesn’t show in his tone of voice or in his manner; he seems poised in that particular stoner way. But he also looks like he might not move from this very spot in my backyard, clutching my guitar like a fragile baby, and I begin to worry I might be late for work.
“I’m making bro music for dudes who are wanting something to get out of funks, you know. TGIF. I feel that way about the bangers. The bangers, when I made them, are for people to say, ‘Fuck off. I’m listening to this and I feel good.’”
I ask him what a typical Dead Gaze fan look like and it amuses him. “At every show, there’ll be this one weirdo kid, this one weirdo boy, and I can always tell that he’s kind of troubled. Just some weird freak kid. And every fucking night, that same dude comes up to me and is like, “‘I love your shit, man.’” That demographic seems more obvious to me than it does to Furlow, who claims his only female fans are “weird girls.”
Furlow has promised to play me a few songs before I shove off to work, since I won’t be able to make it to the 285 Kent show the next night. He looks genuinely upset that I won’t be there—“It’s good to have people there who are really into it”—but he dismisses the issue. He plays a bare version of “A Different Way” and “Glory Days For Sure,” and though the songs aren’t dripping in gauze and haze and effects, they're still affecting, just subtler. They reveal Furlow’s ability to craft direct, economical pop songs, which is the reason I loved the self-titled compilation in the first place. Spending time with Furlow, however, serves to uncover an alternate concern that I hadn’t considered before: despite the shiny, lo-fi, almost Northeastern quality of his music, Furlow is actually a deeply proud Southern boy, defensive of his scene and his city to a fault. As Nashville’s Dead's Ben Todd once said, “Nothing is cooler than your friends or your scene or your city.” Cole Furlow, like a lot of non-New York regional musicians, claims that no one gives a fuck about anything outside of New York, Mississippi even least.
“Music is everything to me,” he tells me in our backyard chat. “It’s everything to me because of family, because of fun stuff. Cultural things. Friendships. But mainly I like it because I like being a good musician from Mississippi and being able to wear that as a badge, and be in New York City and be like, ‘Hey, we’re playing at 285 Kent tomorrow, and we’re from fucking podunk-ass Mississippi.’ I bet we’ll sell out the crowd. It’s like, that kind of shit doesn’t happen very often and we were lucky enough to be the dudes that got elected to do that in some ways.”
Mysterious, still, is the fact that as such a deeply proud and rooted Southerner, Furlow’s music waylays nearly all the things he talks about with me, at least in a direct-to-listener manner. His fervor for Mississippi often comes out in his discussions about race, segregation, and social politics. He comes from a middle-class background, but toed the line between two communities—his dad, a music teacher at a prep school, was able to get Furlow a spot at the school, and this duplicity clearly bleeds out in his defensiveness of his city, Jackson.
“We grew up on that side of the city and we kind of had these blockers. We lived in a bubble, almost. A lot of that comes out in my music still now. For instance, on this new record I have a song called ‘Yuppies Are Flowers.’ That’s what that song is about. It’s about those people seeing who I am now after I’ve . . . bloomed.” He laughs here, noting the forced metaphor. “I feel that yuppies are beautiful people. They’re fun to look at, you know? They’re interesting. They’re all hustle and bustle, drinking their coffees, BlueTooths. They’re all just really kind of fascinating in some way. But they wither so fast. You can’t live that life without some heart behind what you’re doing.”
Usually, I point out, this edition of bleeding-heart artistic martyrdom comes from somewhere. It’s inherited.
“My grandfather was this old school—in the '50s and '60s—superintendent of this county in Mississippi when segregation was going on. His county was the first county to desegregate schools and start busing. And when they did that, my father remembers when he was a little kid having fucking Klu Klux Klan members burning crosses in his yard. I came from the kind of family that was progressive, even from the '30s on, my family has been a classic Southern Democrat liberal family. And we take a whole fuck-ton of pride in that. That’s another reason why I’m so prideful of Mississippi in some ways. Because there are heroes that live in that state. Heroes.”
It’s getting late in Greenpoint and Furlow and I are closing down the bar. We sit on a bench outside of the place, and I start to think about some of his more poignant reflections. Despite the occasionally solipsistic nature of his ramblings, his passion does catch up to him. He had begun to convert even me, a Northeast native and stalwart, into considering a move to Mississippi.
“It’s the home of William Faulkner. It’s this beautiful oasis in the middle of nowhere. In our town, we bike everywhere, we walk everywhere, all of our bars are within walking distance. They call it the Velvet Ditch—you get caught in it. You’re there because it’s so comfortable and it’s so nice, but really it’s a fucking ditch. You’re just in this one area. It’s very hard to get around that.”
His geographic pride might seem stale or irrelevant or obvious—lots of musicians shout-out their hometowns as a natural qualifier, something to latch onto. Coming from somewhere, and being backed by that somewhere, is, after all, what gives us all purpose. But with Furlow, it begins to feel divisive. It occurs to me that on the first record, I had no inclination that his accent was so strong, and on the second, it begins to come through—the occasional slow jammer, Furlow’s voice completely free of effects. Does Dead Gaze exist as a vehicle for Furlow? Or Does Furlow exist as a vehicle for Mississippi? Through future records, Mississippi will likely become a bigger talking point, and his lyrics will certainly reflect that.
At the end of the night, I make a painful admission—I can’t even visualize Mississippi. I ask him to draw out a particular city for me, and he does, shaking his head. He says it will be educational, but his drawings are so bad that I pick up a real map later. But when he draws, pointing out the little towns and places in Mississippi that are undiscovered and beautiful, complicated and real, I get wanderlust by osmosis. It really does sound nice, and confused, and brimming with possibility. It’s no wonder this place birthed someone like Furlow.