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Interview: Future Elevators present a diverse & loving ‘Modern World’

Scanning across the tattered and storied landscape of New Orleans, Future Elevators shine a light on diversity in their DIY-style visual for “Modern World,” in which pairs of eyes become interchangeable and interconnected. “I want to live in a modern world / Oh, I want to take you to the part / I only want to live like there’s no tomorrow,” lead singer Michael Shackelford surmises over a blanket of achingly shape-shifting pop-rock, ghostly and imposing. The combustible and infectious cut is found on the band’s 2016 self-titled debut album, which seems both prophetic and eerily relevant. Thus, the latest music video feels crucial to America’s tragic narrative: social commentary that demonstrates we all are human beings capable of a wellspring of empathy. Directed by Chris Lawson ⎯⎯ with Chris Hilleke handling cinematography and editing ⎯⎯ the sequence features a wide swath of the southern population inhabiting a safe space only music can create and exchanging perspectives: boldly, profoundly stating the need to walk in one another’s shoes.

“There’s nothing you and me can do in this modern world,” Shackelford later alerts, the twinkling of synths and piano fueling the production. “And if I didn’t know…what I have learned…yea, we all still go…around the sun.”

The band ⎯⎯ also containing Ramy Noureddini, Robert Wason and John-Mark Dorough ⎯⎯ alights on urgent storytelling, as found on such essential songs as “Losing Sleep,” “Just Another Day” and “It Is What It Is,” in which Shackelford acknowledges: “I won’t pretend everything is alright.” From the raw intensity of the lyric to the tightly-wound arrangements, the record reads as much as a manifesto on their personal journeys as it does wider culture, down to the gritty details. “I suppose one could say time changes all perspectives. Inherently, one could also say that if you’re performing songs you’ve played many times over through different phases in your life, at some point…feelings connected to the music may change as a result of the environment and your experiences,” Shackelford tells B-Sides & Badlands, reminiscing on how the album’s emotional weight has changed over the past year.

“It’s not a bad thing. I’m 33 now but I’m still keeping an open mind to what the future may hold…anticipating my potential obstacles the best I can. The core intended meaning of the material is always in mind whether or not I feel exactly the same way about certain elements,” he says. “The way things are currently with our ‘civilization,’ we should all question what we can do to better ourselves to adapt to survive as harmoniously as possible and learning (not dwelling) from the past. We all have our lines in the sand but that’s just it…sand can be wiped or washed away by a number of causes, for better or worse. We all must be careful how we communicate because the slightest misinterpretation can and will be dangerous in the wrong setting.”

Silence can be even deadlier ⎯⎯ and given the tragic, white supremacist actions over the weekend in Charlottesville, even artists don’t get to sit on the sidelines. But Futures Elevators expose their vulnerability through sharp, sometimes moving, accounts of humanity. “We’re closing in the blink of an eye,” Shackelford whispers on “Narcosis,” a guitar- and piano-welded, smoldering alt-rock tune. “Never going to make up your mind, waiting for another day. Looking for a second chance, always going to be a mistake. We’re frozen in the end of time. We’re chosen. We won’t make it alive…”

Below, Shackelford muses on lessons learned, ambient music, the past and what’s next. Dig into our exclusive Q&A session below.

Released over a year ago, do you feel as strongly about the record as you did upon its release?

Honestly, when the record came out I had no expectations about what other people were going to think of it other than knowing that people would either like or dislike it. It was my best effort possible at the time it was made. It felt and still feels relevant to me at least. Though personal and artistic growth are always a goal, I feel like the record holds up today as a good representation and documentation of what I was shooting for, musically. There’s a nice balance of hopefulness yet concern for potential dangers that lie ahead on whatever level, tonally/lyrically. Some of them turned out to be more like accidental prophesies and others reflections of the past. Everything is open to be interpreted and misinterpreted and that’s part of the beauty of putting yourself out there.  To answer your question…yes I do feel as strongly and proudly about the music as I did on its release…in fact it’s possible I feel better about it now than I did before due to its positive feedback. Still…it’s not best to linger in the past too long because there are songs yet to be written and places to go.

What things did you learn through making this album that stay with you?

There was a lot of experimenting with instrumentation and styles on the first album. That continues with the album that is currently being recorded, as well. That type of diversity is either well received or disruptive to a listener, I’ve found. With that in mind…a level of cohesiveness has come into play as a big part of the approach for #2. Trusting my instincts has usually aided my decision-making process but more confidence and humbling have taken place for me for sure. Some tones work really well and others evolve or fade away.  The aim is for balance. Some secrets are best kept confidential. The point is to never stop learning about who we are as people and artists.

I’m still trying to be the best version of myself I can possibly be as a writer, person, and as a father. Pretending to know everything about everything and everyone would be foolish.Choose your battles wisely when it comes to passionate debates about musical direction. Peaceful transcendence through music is still attempted by me on a daily basis. If you push hard enough…you’ll move things. If one sits back and reflects before reacting..one can avoid many obstacles. Loyalty is rewarded for involved parties in friendships, relationships, business, and collaborators. Unnecessary/prideful/spiteful opposition has no ground to stand on. Our band is in communication nearly everyday regardless of whether it’s showtime, rehearsal, studio time, or even vacations. That is something I’ve never experienced before this project. Not peacefully anyway. We’re all family at this point and we’re a better band because of it.

Why did you end the album on an instrumental (“Aphrodite”)?

I happen to enjoy ambient music occasionally so I wanted to incorporate that type of spacious departure from the other songs. It makes me feel like I’m in an Ancient Greek bathhouse floating amidst the cosmos far away from people or love yet bound to the pains from the downsides of both. It was intended to be a lullabye to soothe a headache, help one relax, process emotion and cleanse one from bad energy by triggering the most grateful, beautiful chords I could find at the time. It was sort of like a mantra for reflection (at least for me). The song floats far from the everyday musical structures one might here in most popular music. I liked it because it felt like a blanket for the album to rest under.

“Just Another Day” is a plucky, shimmering standout. How did that song come together?

It’s actually an older song of mine that was written when one of my older bands, The Rewinds, was touring more days a year than staying home. We literally slept on floors, the ground outside, at total strangers’ houses, campgrounds, and all the while losing our minds in bars across the country. You live and you learn….hopefully remembering and forgetting the right things along the way. We all were so disconnected from folks back home it was like experiencing life in a totally new way that was equally as tough on us as it was fun. “Conditioning…conditioning” we all would say. We hit an all time low when we were out of money with nowhere to go and barely enough gas to get to the next show which was 3 days away. We couldn’t go home and drive all the way back to Tulsa, Oklahoma. It wouldn’t have made sense, monetarily.

So, we camped at a KOA site and scraped up enough change for burgers and a bottle of Jack Daniels Whiskey. When the tornado and hail came through, our drummer, Brookes, was sleeping outside on the ground with his head up against the tire because there was not enough room for us all to sleep comfortably inside the van. Between that and the flies that wouldn’t leave us alone…we were a site to behold for the school bus filled with 1st and 2nd graders that later arrived with rightfully concerned chaperones. It was one of the lowest points in my life but somehow I glorify it in my mind as hilariously important to remember. I also remember some stray dog that kept trying to steal our bassist’s phone. It succeeded and took off running in the field like Lassie to the well….only the well is being represented by any direction opposite the owner of that phone. I laughed until I cried and then I laughed again. I’d say those were the good ol’ days but….I’d be kidding myself to say that wasn’t a rough patch. Maybe this gives you an idea of where I was at mentally when I originally wrote it (that is if anybody is still reading at this point).

How did you or your songwriting change through this album’s creation?

I got better at it…I guess. I had more freedom to do what I wanted, and I was content with the results of experimentation. There’s always a conscious effort to be open to new approaches and try new things. Taking time to make sure all the tones sounded right when played together was important and always has been. The sound of the instrument can often inform the direction of where a song can go when in the studio. One song can sound an infinite number of ways. The only thing that really changed for me about the writing process was that instead of playing several instruments on a record like in previous releases such as The Grenadines and Rewinds, is that the Future Elevators album was a chance to completely arrange and perform 99 percent of the music on the tracks.

Overall…I wouldn’t say much has changed other than focusing more on being self sufficient in the process of making a record. I’ve always recorded demos with many overdubs including drums, keyboards, guitars, bass, vocals and field audio samples. I just kept doing the same thing I’ve always done but overtime…I must’ve accidentally gotten better at it (gauging by the record’s positive reception). At the same time, one could say that the approach is constantly changing because I never want to write the same song or album over and over again.

At 33, what have been the most important lessons you’ve learned in life, and how do they feed into your music?

Be your own person. Think for yourself. Work your ass off and never expect anyone else to do it for you. Get some tough skin but don’t forget your manners. Know all angles of the music industry because if you don’t, you are setting yourself up to get ripped off. Also…think before speaking. It’s a shame when people aren’t self aware of how they communicate their message. Everything you say and do has an effect on the people around you, as well as the environment. Value time over money. What good is money if you have no time to enjoy life.

What is next for you? Have you been working on the next record?

Yes. So far I’ve got 90 minutes of material I’m trying to narrow down to fit on a record. It keeps morphing and changing. Every time I think I have all the songs I want for the album…a new one starts knocking in my head that ends up taking the place of another. Each one better than the last. I’m gonna keep the channels open and the faucet of creativity running at the moment and see where that takes me. If you liked the first one…just wait. You’re in store for a treat.

Other than that, I’m teaching music lessons, producing/engineering some up and coming artists, and chasing a toddler around. My daughter keeps me on my toes. I’m not sure where she’s getting all that energy. I’m guessing it’s the mac ‘n cheese.

What things do you want to challenge yourself with going forward?

I’d like to take things to new heights, travel to new places and meet new people. You know…what life is all about…my life that is.

Spin Future Elevators’ latest album below:

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Jason Scott

Editor-in-Chief of the Badlands, spinning those B-Sides. Love Parks & Rec. Addicted to high-priced coffee drinks, alt-country and synth-pop, and never know when to quit. Got a cat named Jake--and she doesn't like you very much.