Like so many younger siblings, Jonah Furman latched onto his big brother Ezra when Ezra received a gift that made him instantly cool: a brand-new acoustic guitar for his bar mitzvah.
“I was nine, and suddenly I had this guitar in the house I could fuck around with,” Jonah recalls over the phone. Ezra joins him. “Do you remember the time I was trying to tune the guitar, and one of the strings broke, and we both started crying?”
Fast-forward to Passover weekend, 2014, over a decade later but still at their childhood home in Evanston, Illinois. Jonah once again found himself verklempt over guitar strings, but this time it was more serious. The singer/bassist of the cult-status punk band Krill showed his siblings his bank account. The balance read $12. “This is when Krill was actually doing well,” clarifies Jonah. “That was my 2009 to 2010,” adds Ezra, by that time also a working musician. “I was living in Brooklyn and I knew the pizza place that sold four garlic knots for $1 and five garlic knots for $1.” They both laugh.
The Furman siblings, each two years apart in age, have long turned to one another for commiseration, because their parents can’t really relate to their artistic lives: Their father is a stock trader and their mother a technical writer. Noah, the eldest and now a visual artist, had a record collection — the White Stripes, Smog, the Grateful Dead — that informed his younger brothers’ tastes. “I remember sharing a room with [Noah] when I was eleven. We’d go to sleep listening to Nine Inch Nails and I was just lying in bed terrified the entire night,” Ezra says with a chuckle.
Ezra broke into music first. He was a dispassionate English major at Tufts University until Minty Fresh Records — whose roster has included Veruca Salt and Liz Phair — signed his pop-rock college band, Ezra Furman and the Harpoons. Unlike the niche DIY network that would eventually support Jonah, Ezra’s career involved mainstream industry adults who were both a blessing and a curse, offering resources and propelling a false hope that the struggle would eventually amount to something.
Now, Ezra’s striking onstage persona with new band the Boyfriends channels a young boy trying on his mother’s clothes: black tights, bedazzled shades, smeared red lipstick. He identifies as gender fluid and draws parallels to avant-garde frontmen of the Seventies like Jonathan Richman and David Johansen. He jokingly describes his performances as “like Bruce Springsteen, but insane,” embracing his twin loves of classic rock and inventive arrangements. Playing to a packed Bowery Ballroom in February, the Boyfriends, blazed through a manic hour and a half, playing emotionally charged takes on Fifties doo-wop and classics like the Violent Femmes. Ezra growled about Boston (“Ordinary Life”) and breakfast foods (“Haunted Head”), later covering Nirvana’s “In Bloom.”
Jonah’s band could hardly be more different. Krill, which broke up last year, was all neurotic guitars and winding character narratives, told through postmodern prose and inside jokes. They were finally making it, too: Album sales picked up and Rolling Stone profiled them. To keep up with the growing attention, Jonah moved from Boston to Bushwick to be closer to his bandmates. The band broke up two weeks later. At a loss for what to do, Jonah enrolled as a graduate student at the City University of New York to study labor, something he gained an interest in when living on a near-negative budget as a musician.
“[At my day job] I’d sit in a windowless room, where no one cared if I was there, and got paid,” said Jonah. “Then I’d go out on tour where people go crazy and tell us how much the band means to them, and be paid nothing. So everyone cares about this thing you can’t get money for and you get money for the things no one cares about. It’s wild. And it was happening while Krill was getting all of this praise and —”
“Validation,” Ezra says pointedly.
“I went through a confusing time. I still am,” Jonah continues. “It’s like graduating college, but instead I’ve graduated my whole identity.”
Following the brief flash of his brother’s success with Krill, Ezra released a solo album, Perpetual Motion People (Bella Union), which made him a breakout artist, too: The record was named one of the Guardian‘s top 25 albums of 2015, in the company of Kendrick Lamar and Grimes. Björk dropped in on his soundcheck before a London show. The success amuses him, if only because this time last year he was determined to quit.
“You can hear how badly I wanted it in the title of my first solo album, Day of the Dog — I really thought this was going to be it,” says Ezra. But unlike Perpetual Motion, Day of the Dog went unnoticed, and things got worse from there. Lou Reed, a hero of Ezra’s, passed away while Ezra was on tour, and he took the news as a bad omen. It proved true at a show in Boise, Idaho, far from Ezra’s home in Oakland, CA. “There were eight people there,” he remembers. “I was just like ‘I’m 27. This is not my life.’ I didn’t tell anyone at the time, but I was 100 percent done.”
Except he wasn’t. Within weeks of that decision, a five-star review from the Guardian for Day of the Dog gave him a change of heart. His label told him a BBC radio DJ was stoking a U.K. audience for him. His band nudged him to tour Europe. So he went, but the experience of coming so close to the end loosened his artistic approach. Quitting — even just in spirit — taught him to sacrifice less. “I don’t say yes to everything anymore,” he says. “And I observe Shabbat on tour, which I didn’t think was possible for any band.”
“I loved that moment in Boise,” says Jonah to his brother, “because you do not experience brutality like that in a lot of other work. [Other] people experience having no future and there’s bleakness to that for sure. But there’s nothing like coming out blazing for a show and nobody is there.”
But it wasn’t that kind of night at the Bowery Ballroom, where Ezra was surrounded by friends, relatives, soul-baring fans, and his two brothers. Outside the exit, Noah scooped Ezra up by the torso and kissed his scruffy brown hair. Jonah pulled him in for a hug. The makeup Ezra wore at the beginning of the show was long ago sweated off.
“I saw the full arc of my musical career with Krill,” said Jonah. Two weeks into graduate school, he was sporting a shorter haircut, buttoned-down shirt, and a pocket pen at his brother’s show. But he appeared more willful and content than he had at any point in the last four years. “It’s like a branching task,” Jonah said. “My band broke up and stopped; Ezra’s band broke up and kept going.”
Jonah Furman performs at Shea Stadium tonight.