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April 13, 2022 | Theatre,

Travis Alabanza in Conversation with Ezra Furman

Travis Alabanza is an award-winning theater maker, writer and performer. Their show Burgerz has toured internationally to Sao Paulo, Southbank Centre, Bristol Old Vic, Smock Alley Dublin, HAU Berlin and Edinburgh Festival Fringe, where it won the Total Theatre Award. Recently in The Sunday Times Style’s Bernadine Evaristo called Alabanza a “trailblazer of the future.” 

Travis Alabanza in Burgerz and Ezra Furman

Travis Alabanza in Burgerz and Ezra Furman

Ezra Furman is an internationally touring, critically lauded singer, songwriter, and guitarist. In 2018, she published a book for the 33 1/3 series on Lou Reed’s Transformer, and her latest album, Twelve Nudes, was released in 2019 by the Bella Union label. Most recently, she provided the soundtrack for the hit Netflix show, Sex Education. 

On the occasion of Travis’s arrival in Boston to present Burgerz—which takes a real-life transphobic attack Travis experienced and transforms it via the show every performance—we asked them to virtually sit down with Ezra, one of Boston’s best songwriters, to talk about being an artist in 2022, how their art has changed over the course of their careers, and where Ezra will be bringing Travis for dinner while they’re here.  

The conversation is available in full in the video or as a transcript here. Burgerz runs NOW – APR 24 at the Paramount. Ezra Furman’s music and tour dates can be found here. 

Watch the Conversation:

 


 

Full Transcript:

Travis Alabanza:
Yes, I’m Travis Alabanza. I’m a UK based artist, and I imagine that we’re talking because you live in Boston, and I’m bringing my show, Burgerz, to Boston in April. Yeah.

Ezra Furman:
Yeah. And it’s maybe the impulse… At a party when it’s like, “Oh, my other friend is gay too.” And then they push you together and you’re like, “Oh.”

Travis Alabanza:
Yes. Yes. I think that’s happening too.

Ezra Furman:
Yeah. And I’m Ezra Furman. And I live in Somerville, which is part of the Boston area. It’s Boston. I make music, and I’ve started to put out some new music recently and you awaken that part the public facing self. It’s stressing me out a lot, to be honest.

Travis Alabanza:
Do you do it independently or do you have a group of people supporting you to help you out?

Ezra Furman:
I have a record label. In fact, now I have two record labels, one in Europe and one everywhere else. I can’t remember how it’s divided. And I have a manager, a booking agent, this little team. Me and my band are our best pals, and we’re always convening about what we should do. So it’s such a chaotic job, this one. I’m running this little business. And I get the impression you’re… I don’t know. Do you have a world of people who are working on your stuff with you?

Travis Alabanza:
As soon as I get asked it, I was like, “We’re never really in Silas, are we?” But I have a world of people, but it still always feels like sometimes you are holding it or more when you’re out there pushing it through. When you said, “[inaudible 00:02:09] core.” I was thinking… I do it year on, year off, so this is my year of doing the releasing stuff. And I’m halfway through and I’m already looking forward to hibernation. Again, I’m like, “Wow, I can’t wait to not be seen or perceived by anyone for a while.”

Ezra Furman:
Oh yeah. It’s a lot to handle.

Travis Alabanza:
But I was listening to your stuff today. How long have you been doing this for? Because you have quite a catalog of stuff.

Ezra Furman:
Yeah. Yeah. I guess I first put out a record when I was 20 or even 19.

Travis Alabanza:
And now at the age of 21, judging by your skin, being fresh in the music scene?

Ezra Furman:
No, I’m an ancient, I’m a wretched old crown. I’m 35 years old in fact. And so I’ve been doing this for a long time and yeah, I must like it. I must like it because I keep going, but you and I maybe… I don’t know. I was slowly and fearfully coming out as queer throughout my being a performer. And I’m interested in the difference between… I feel like you’ve been known to be queer as long as you’ve been performing, and as long as you’ve been facing the public. And sometimes I wonder, I don’t know if the question is, is it harder to be a queer artist from the jump or… I don’t know, maybe the question’s not harder, but what are the differences between my slow, sloppy coming out in public and…

Travis Alabanza:
We love slow and sloppy.

Ezra Furman:
Yeah.

Travis Alabanza:
We want more slow and sloppy. Everything-

Ezra Furman:
That’s how I do everything.

Travis Alabanza:
Yeah. Everything is far too quick and dry. It wasn’t that it was… I don’t know anything else. I think that I was really young as well when I started working at a scale that maybe I was too young to be working at. And I think that if I had the tools I had now and the knowledge I have now, and maybe also the confidence in my craft that I have now, I would’ve maybe relied more on my craft rather than the talking points around my identity. And so I think I’m at this weird stage where I’m eight years in to making work as my job, whatever that means. Not that builds value to it, but eight years of only just doing this. And I feel like only now am I starting to having to… Someone will go at one of my shows and be like, “Oh, you’re actually good.”

Travis Alabanza:
Oh. And I’ll be like, “Yeah, I just didn’t realize. I thought you were like a talking soap box.” And so I feel like I’m at that stage in my career now where I’m having to not undo, but be really thankful for the ways that my queerness has brought me an audience and support. And I had to do it DIY at the beginning, because none of those places wanted to hire me. But now I feel like I’m having to maybe undo some of those preconceptions about what it means to be out as gender nonconforming person from the get go with an opinion. Because-

Ezra Furman:
Yeah.

Travis Alabanza:
Yeah. Because I feel like now it’s about how do you get these places to trust that you can write about something else. I’ve been toying Burgerz for… It’s weird, because obviously I’m in Boston to do a show that has existed since 2018 and I’m making loads of other work that’s coming out in the UK in Europe. And it’s been hard to get people to want to commission me to write about things that they don’t necessarily see as overtly queer or trans. I obviously see it as deeply connected to queerness and transness, but unless it’s got it in the copy, they are there like, “That must be something straight. Travis is writing for people.” But that’s what I plan to do in 10 years when I’m going to do a slowly sloppy transition to straight and cisness. That’s my [crosstalk 00:06:46]. Yeah, yeah. Yeah. That’s my master plan. [crosstalk 00:06:50] Yeah. But I’m interested in how did you find that your process of making music shifted when your identity was shifted too? Or did it?

Ezra Furman:
Oh my god. I was just so slowed down by being closeted. I was spending a lot more energy on being nervous about what I could say or how I could say it or what it meant. It just was a distraction that I was afraid to be found out, I guess, slow me down. Now, queerphobia is what slows me down, and worrying about that.

Ezra Furman:
I guess for me making art, it’s about being in touch with my soul, what actually concerns me on the deepest level. And I think that as soon as I started to be out and more in touch with myself in general, I became more in touch with what are those deep urgent concerns and interests. And I just got way better at writing and performing, I think. There’s also just the study. I was so amateur when I started and was very disdained being in tune.

Travis Alabanza:
What do you miss about the amateur days?

Ezra Furman:
Oh my god. Almost nothing.

Travis Alabanza:
Okay. Okay. You have my [crosstalk 00:09:15] goodness.

Ezra Furman:
So much better now than it was 10 years ago or so. I’m just happier and better at what I do, I guess. Sometimes the extremely low standards for what I would do… I would just literally play any show anywhere, do anything for anyone who would listen to me at all. I was like, “You don’t need to pay me. Why would I need to get paid?” And that sucked, but also I guess sometimes if I can recover something that I’m a little nostalgic about, sometimes that would just afford you such a strange, cool experience in somebody’s basement or just some intimate, zero stakes kind of shows where it felt more like anything could happen because nobody’s watching. But I don’t know.

Travis Alabanza:
You’ll take the trade off. You prefer it, now you’ll take the trade off.

Ezra Furman:
Yeah. And also, I just think I find other ways to recover that, you’re it. It’s still all raw and a little bit out of control for me, which I like. Yeah. Do you feel like a process of professionalization… There’s this creeping tied sometimes, I think particularly with trans people. Maybe we’re getting more and more presentable or something. And I fear it. I fear the creeping tendency to respectability or something. But do you think you’re in that process going one way or the other with that in the last eight years?

Travis Alabanza:
Well, I definitely missed… I used to like get cis people up on stage in clubs and throw up on them. And I definitely can’t do that anymore because-

Ezra Furman:
Throw up on them?

Travis Alabanza:
Yeah, consensually for the record, consensually.

Ezra Furman:
On purpose?

Travis Alabanza:
Yeah. I used to do this piece… Because I started in the clubs, and I guess that’s different in the… You’ve been to Europe in UK, right?

Ezra Furman:
Oh yeah.

Travis Alabanza:
Yeah. Yeah. Because I looked and every single UK queer person I know follows you. I texted a few of my friends, I was like, “Hey, I see that you follow them online.” And they were like, “Oh my god, yeah.” The UK fucks with you, which you don’t need me to tell you’re like, “Yeah, bitch. I know.”

Travis Alabanza:
But in the UK queer clubs, which I’m learning is different to the US, most of our clubs also have quite an active live performance scene behind it. You’ll go and see weird performance art at the same time as then going to a club art thing a lot of the time in our bars. In my opinion, less so now, I think drag race has shifted that in our clubs a bit, but you still get a lot of lip syncs, but before it used to be weird shit happening all the time. And so that’s how I started. I didn’t start in playwriting or theater. I didn’t think I was going to be a playwright or whatever.

Travis Alabanza:
So I used to do loads of weird shit in clubs. I’m lactose intolerant and I used to invite cisgender people up on stage and ask them questions about their gender and then drink milk every time they bored me with the answer. And eventually that would equal throwing up onto their feet and asking them if that was their desired response and calling them a monstrosity and then asking them to sit down. So I miss doing that a lot. I could now, but I don’t. Someone else, I’m sure, is doing that.

Ezra Furman:
I don’t know.

Travis Alabanza:
But I think nowadays we’re all making huge judgements about people just from that online thing. And where for me, online, I present this thing and in my shows and my art, it’s where I can still challenge and say, “Fuck this. I’m not here to be respectable. I’m not here for us.”

Travis Alabanza:
It was interesting, you said for you, you use art to find your inner soul stuff. And in some ways I do, but that art, I actually don’t normally put out on stage. I would say the stuff that ends up on stage are the things that I feel too afraid to challenge in my day-to-day conversations and too afraid to challenge in others and myself on the internet or like at a dinner table.

Travis Alabanza:
And so I find that my theater shows are still the place where we can be messy and dangerous. And it’s interesting with Burgerz because I think it’s why I’m so glad that it’s had a bit of a life because it’s meant that now there’s trans reviewers of it, whereas originally it was just cis theater critics. Everyone would use the word inspirational for it, which I think was the biggest insult I could possibly have towards it, and brain and all those cliche things. And then it wasn’t until I read a trans person’s review of it that said, “This was really hard for me. I disagree with a lot of it.” And I was like, “Yes, thank god.” And they were like, “It was really refreshing to watch a piece of art that felt like it was bad, not in terms of its quality, but in terms of what it believed.”

Travis Alabanza:
And they were this white, 55 year old trans woman. And we are from a different time and a different world. And they were like, “This challenged me and I disagree with it.” And I was like, “Thank fuck.” Because we were all getting to this point where with transness… And I get it because it’s being-

Ezra Furman:
Yeah.

Travis Alabanza:
We want to make ourselves feel more understandable. But I think I go to art to be like, “I don’t think understanding is the goal. I don’t think that understanding is a prerequisite for care.” Yeah. I’ve started calling myself a cross dresser again now, instead of trans really. And I still feel trans between my friends, but I think the reason is because I’m just like, “Oh, I need you to still know that this thing isn’t for you, that we still can’t package this.” And so I’m really enjoying the retro feeling of calling myself a cross dresser.

Ezra Furman:
Yeah. I know. It’s hard to know what this art stuff is for when the noise of oppression and death is so loud. I feel like everyone feels the impulse to be like, “I should be allowed to live.” And then that’s what we’re all end up saying as artists. And that’s very boring, that’s obvious. To anyone with any moral sense, it’s obvious. Trans lives should be better and we shouldn’t have so much young death, and we should be getting under the hood a little bit. And I appreciate… Yeah.

Ezra Furman:
I don’t know. It’s funny because it took a long time for me to just say some level one normal stuff about being trans. It just took me a long time to be out. And also, I didn’t want to… I don’t know. I guess I had learned over the years, the more you tell anyone about your life, the more it was going to be a waterfall of judgment and negativity on you.

Ezra Furman:
I was calling myself trans in private long before I was saying it in front of the internet and such. But yeah, I guess I don’t care about legibility either. I guess I started out illegible and I was like, “I’m not calling myself anything. I’m not in a category that I understand yet and I’m not going to help you understand. I’m just going to look like this and be like this.” And you have to let me. And also, my band and my songs are going to be so good that you’re going to have to just deal with me if you want the goods. That’s cocky.

Travis Alabanza:
This is quite a pivot, so you can be like, “Fuck off. We’ve only just met on Zoom. Don’t ask me this.” And they can edit the fuck off. They could even edit it so they could replay it loads and loads of time so that the whole interview is you just saying, “Fuck off.” Talking about legible, but you said the art was about finding your inner truth for you with your new releases, what truths do you think you’re speaking to?

Ezra Furman:
Well, I noticed that I’m… We just met.

Travis Alabanza:
That’s why I said you can say, “Fuck off.” And we go to the next question.

Ezra Furman:
My first thought, which I know is true, is I noticed I’m writing a lot less in the first person, which I used to pretty much only write first person singular kind of lyrics, pretty much. Well, it’s still first person, but it’s first person plural. And it’s a lot of we stuff, it’s a lot of us stuff. As I mature, I’m feeling a strong pull away from the lone genius, lone wolf model I was sold, I’m not calling myself a genius at all. It’s sort of marketed to fans of art and practitioners of art that, that’s what you should be. You should go off alone and hone your vision.

Ezra Furman:
Maybe that’s culturally and economically and a bunch of ways pushed on us also. And I’m just like, “I want my community. I want my friends and my chosen family, my communities, my ancestral traditions, Judaism, continually remade.” I’m just into plurality, community and interdependence, rather than independence. And that’s a lot of what I’ve been writing about lately. And I guess also, I’m more and more focused on… I think I want to be of service more than I want to express myself.

Ezra Furman:
He used to be more about… I’ve got these big feelings, they’ve got to be told, which that’s thrust, it will always be there, I think. And that’s always a useful thing to do. But I guess I’m just seeing a potential for communality and giving art as a public weapon, a communal weapon, to be used by whoever needs it. Or if not, weapon, maybe it’s a bit of medicine or just a public good, a way of caring for and protecting the people I feel deeply connected to whether I know them or not.

Travis Alabanza:
No, that was beautiful. I’m glad I asked the question and I’m glad that you didn’t tell me to fuck off.

Ezra Furman:
Well, somebody else might. But no, I guess I’m curious to fire back at you in retaliation about… I don’t know. First of all, I’m fascinated by your year on year off model. I don’t know. I don’t know. I’m not sure what I want to say about that yet, but let me fire the question back at you. You framed it differently, not as soul exploration, but messing with things and… I don’t know, that’s how I heard it anyway.

Travis Alabanza:
Yeah.

Ezra Furman:
So what are you messing with recently, or leaning forward towards? I don’t know if you’re writing right now.

Travis Alabanza:
Yeah, well, it’s hard because I’m here to do Burgerz, but I wrote that in 2017. I still think it’s really present and it clearly is still working, because we’re seeing it. I’m not messing with the same things that I was messing with in Burgerz. Burgerz was about messing with who gets to be seen as a victim and also messing with how far we can push and audience. In my early work, it was all about how far we can push each other and how far strangers can go together. And that is definitely what Burgerz is about. It’s the exploration of, is this okay for us as strangers to go here? By go here, we only just cook a burger, that is the only thing that happens.

Ezra Furman:
Yeah. And it involves a different person on stage with you every night, like an audience member, right?

Travis Alabanza:
Yeah, every night I cook a burger with a volunteer from the audience that doesn’t know that they’re volunteering until they do, and it’s not predecided. Yeah. And it’s wild, it goes to a lot of different places and I still have fun because of that bit, but I would say that the politics around it, my language would be very different now, but I like that because every time I go on stage and do it, I’m like, “Wow, I was thinking this at this time. And now I would’ve communicated like that.”

Travis Alabanza:
I’m far more interested now in less talking outwards and how can I use my… Because when I’ve made Burgerz, I had a platform, but I didn’t have access to the art. Burgerz was rejected by eight theaters before we found its home. And it was only because it did really well and now people want to be like, “Hey, we want to make work.” And I’m really sitting with that difference of having to knock down doors and having doors opened for you. And so now I’m less interested in messing around with what other people, the audience, the people in power think, and more in how do I mess with the idea of a job offer?

Travis Alabanza:
So a good example of that is recently I just got offered a commission, a really big posh theater, it’s on the west end in London and they’re called the Royal Court, so they got Royal in their name. And they’re like, “We just want you to do a play, pitch us your idea.” And I was like, “Okay, but I don’t want any actors in it. I only want to hire people from the clubs.” And they were like, “What? I said, “Well the whole play in the main space has to be full of people from the clubs. I don’t want any professional actors. I don’t want anyone that’s been on a stage before. I don’t want anyone from drama school. I want every single person that’s cast and behind the scenes to be from the queer London club scene because they have had the last two years destroy all their incomes.” And for me, that is messing with who we see as worthy of going on what stages and who we see worthy as higher art and lower art.

Travis Alabanza:
And in England theater is such a respected tradition that you can’t mess with. And so now what I’m messing with the form of theater itself. It feels like how do we take these respectable stages and change who we give respect to? And for me, that’s exciting because I think I also have changed, four years ago, the landscape of art. Even in four years, the landscape of trans art has changed in the UK. I feel like five years ago, because we weren’t really on as many stages, everything we did was about confessional. Burgerz is a confessional piece. Here I am on stage, I’m going to confess to you everything. But now I’m not really interested in being like, “Here’s these trans people, trans, trans trans.” Well, you take people from the club world, of course most of them are going to be trans and gender nonconforming because we run the club scene.

Travis Alabanza:
So I’m about to hire probably the most trans people that theater has ever had on their stage, well we just officially hired them. We signed the contracts last week. And the story has nothing to do with trans in the copy, it has nothing to do with any of that. But you’re just going to have to sit there and watch them on that stage. And you’re going to, instead of paying three pound and a stamp to maybe tip them because you’ve decided to go to a Hindu or an engagement party and you want to taste queer things, you’ve had to pay the ticket price that you pay to see Shakespeare there next month. But you’re seeing, for me, the best performers in the world, these confessions. So yeah, that’s why I mess-

Ezra Furman:
Yeah. Well, no, it sounds like also a shifting from, “Hmm, let’s hear from an individual trans person about being trans.” To, “Let’s just take a sample of our actual culture and the multiplicity of us and bring it to a place that’s not its own little like ghetto, we only see each other there.” As always, there’s some people in my life who don’t get what’s going on with me. I can tell you more about me, of course, and let’s talk about that. There’s also, you just need more exposure to my culture. And actually, what I’m trying to share with you is not only stuff about me or what I need my gender to be for this or that reason is actually the culture, this mode of being, this community, is such a big part of what it has been setting me free about being queer. And yeah, so that might also be part of my wanting the shift from individual focus to community focus.

Travis Alabanza:
Yeah. Yeah.

Ezra Furman:
It’s probably also pandemic [crosstalk 00:31:12].

Travis Alabanza:
We’re out of time. And I have one question I want to ask before we go.

Ezra Furman:
Oh, sure.

Travis Alabanza:
I wanted to ask what live shows you’re looking forward to doing that coming up. I saw that you’re coming to Scotland.

Ezra Furman:
Yeah. That was just announced today, I think.

Travis Alabanza:
I’m going to be in Scotland at the same time, so I’m going to come. Yeah. Yeah. And I’m not there for the whole time, but I’m there for some of it and it’s when I’m there. Are you doing any other Europe stuff? What’s the tea? Where are you going? What are you excited about doing?

Ezra Furman:
Some stuff’s not yet announced, but there’s going to be a bunch of stuff, but yeah, I’m playing at the Green Man Festival, which is-

Travis Alabanza:
Oh, I’m there too.

Ezra Furman:
Oh, you are?

Travis Alabanza:
It looks like we’re just following each other around. I’m going to be at Green Man… Ah.

Ezra Furman:
I love it.

Travis Alabanza:
Are you staying for the whole weekend or are you just in and out?

Ezra Furman:
I might be in and out. I think I’m playing on Sunday, but in and out.

Travis Alabanza:
Okay. I’m going to come. I’ll come find you.

Ezra Furman:
Yes. There’s always some downtime.

Travis Alabanza:
Right.

Ezra Furman:
In spurts. And then yeah, I’m excited about that. I’m playing at Standing Calling also, it’s in London and yeah, mostly… I made a bunch of new music and I’m excited to be sharing it.

Travis Alabanza:
What song are you most excited to see live, see the response to live?

Ezra Furman:
Whoa, I don’t know.

Travis Alabanza:
Fuck off, Travis.

Ezra Furman:
Yeah, I guess I would say I’m just excited to be in places with a bunch of people. We’ve played a few shows, we played eight or 10 shows in March and it was the first shows we did for over or two years. And it was ecstatic. I forgot my love and need for that. You must be feeling that too. I’m really excited to come see you for the first time. I’ve known of you and heard of about Burgerz and heard about you for a couple of years now and I lept at the opportunity to have this little conversation and come see you perform.

Travis Alabanza:
Yeah. As much as I said Burgerz is old work, it’s new every night because of what happens and I’m proud of it. And I’m also proud of how it’s new for everyone else when they see it, even if it’s old for me. And It’s a show that did change my trajectory in my life. So I always feel quite proud. And also, I’ve never done a theater show in the US, which feels wild because every other country said yes. And it’s been really hard to get my theater stuff over here, so I’m just excited. I spent two summers in Boston working at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School in… Yeah. And that’s why-

Ezra Furman:
That’s like three blocks away from where I am right now.

Travis Alabanza:
Yeah. I know Somerville well, I’m think I’m going to bump into some old flames in Somerville, because it was quite close to Tufts University. I spent a lot of time there.

Ezra Furman:
That’s where I went to school, actually.

Travis Alabanza:
That’s where you went school? Oh, okay. Real. Yeah. So I used to want to be a teacher and so I did a teaching program at Cambridge in Latin because I didn’t want to do in the UK. So it’s weird that Boston’s the place I’m doing Burgerz and I’m excited for that. Some of my old students are coming, so I’m looking forward to it. And now I’m knowing that you’re a Green Man, I’m even more excited because I’m doing a lot of festivals this year, but I’m in and out in, but I picked Green Man as the one to stay for the whole weekend. And so this is this universe being like, “You picked the right one.” Because I get to see you on a Sunday and my show’s on a Saturday, so I’ll be relaxed and be able to be drunk. So, perfect. Ezra, I can’t wait to take this conversation off of Zoom, so I think we’ve given them enough.

Ezra Furman:
Yeah.

Travis Alabanza:
I just want to ask, where are you going to be taking me for dinner when we get dinner in Boston?

Ezra Furman:
That’s a great question. Probably… It’s a Scottish place, I think it’s called McDonald’s.

Travis Alabanza:
I’ve never heard. Perfect, we’ll try that. We’ll try that.

Ezra Furman:
[crosstalk 00:36:18] I know you never get enough of those, huh?

Travis Alabanza:
We’ll try that. And on that note, see you at McDonald’s.

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