Adz and Ends: An Interview with Sufjan Stevens (Part 1 of 3)
It was eleven short months ago that Sufjan Stevens effectively returned to songwriting. A five-year hiatus had separated the venerated indie singer-songwriter/composer from what many considered to be his last “proper” studio album, but in late August of 2010 he released the All Delighted People EP, an album-length appetizer to the feast of idiosyncrasy that is The Age of Adz, released two months later.
Following rigorous U.S. and European tours supporting Adz, Stevens and his band set upon the Prospect Park Bandshell as part of New York City’s Celebrate Brooklyn! summer festival on August 2 and 3 to sing the (seven) swan song of The Age of Adz tour.
Among the stage show’s inluences, Stevens cites such distinctive influences as Sun Ra, Parliament, the dance aesthetics of Janet Jackson and Paula Abdul, and the movie Tron. I recently spoke with the artist about his theatrical stage show, pre-concert Quiet Craft Time, and what he learned from the Michael Jackson movie This Is It.
The center of gravity is really [outsider artist] Royal Robertson. We kind of go off on a lot of tangents, but really his design and his aesthetic is the foundation on which we’ve built the whole show.
–Sufjan Stevens on The Age of Adz show
Daniel J. Kushner: Did this past tour feel different to you compared to past tours?
Sufjan Stevens: Yeah, it actually did. [indistinct] I feel like I kind of designed the show as a way of communicating more than the music communicates on its own. And I think in the past I’ve always just like made the record and then the live show was sort of struggling to present the song in the best way possible. And I think for some reason, this tour, it felt like the songs were kind of more fully realized on the stage, at some points, than they were realized on the record.
Kushner: Does that mean that your intention for the record is larger than perhaps the medium of a song can encapsulate?
Stevens: Well I think the music in some ways is finite, and it communicates multitudes on its own, but it’s still very self-contained and limited. And then the show became kind of an experimentation [sic] with multiple mediums….We kind of turned it into theater, in a way, like multimedia theater, for better and for worse.
It seems that The Age of Adz live show is very much like experiencing a live music video, particularly during songs like “Too Much.”
Yeah. The video stuff, with the dancing and the kind of graphic, Tron-esque neon kind of laser lights—those were all created for the show, but we ended up posting some of it as like a music video because it was…I never really had done a music video before, so it felt like a lot of times the show itself was like that—it became a live music video ‘cause there was all the dancing and the choreography and the lights were all really kind of designed and everything was kind of fabricated.
How did you settle on neon gaffer’s tape as part of the aesthetic look of the tour?
That kind of happened midway through the American tour, ‘cause I think the U.S tour, the first two weeks were really just a trial run, you know we were still working stuff out, like live rehearsals. And this was the first tour I had a pretty fundamental production crew…they use gaffs to mark positions on the stage—instruments and objects….I remember at one point we just started putting it on our bodies because the lighting designer was using black lights, and it just looked really cool. The girls were really well costumed, but the rest of us were kind of thrown together. The costumes weren’t really fully realized, and so halfway through the tour, when things started to get kind of ragtag, we started just taping everything together with gaff tape, and it just kind of turned into its own thing.
So it wasn’t just an aesthetic choice, but a practical one as well?
What happened is that people in the band had some time before the show and there was gaff tape lying around, and they just started taping up their arms and their legs and putting tape on their shirts…at some point we realized that there was like a good 20 to 30 minutes of like Quiet Craft Time per stage. Once they got their parts down they would spend more time on their gaff design than they did, you know, during soundcheck, ‘cause we had the music figured out, so we just spent most of the day using gaff tape.
The costumes have gotten considerably more elaborate as the tour has progressed. Can you talk about the evolution of this concert element?
I mean it’s the same show, it’s the same music, and generally it’s the same video, but it’s become a lot more dramatic and more choreographed. The dance is a lot more developed, and movement—we’re just much more confident the way we move….I think what we realize is that this is actually theater, and even though it’s just pop music and it’s still me just up there singing, and I feel like ultimately I’m a folk songwriter at heart. I feel like this material has a kind of dramatic, dynamic quality that requires a real suspension of my own kind of suspicions of theater.
It requires us to engage with the theater element of it, and we just decided to own it. We watched the first half of the Michael Jackson documentary This Is It, and it’s about all these dancers, and they’re trying out and rehearsing to get into this show; and they’re really young but they’re really committed, and they’re just wholeheartedly invested in this project, and we kind of took inspiration from it and decided that we weren’t going to be coy about this. We weren’t going to be ironic about it. We were just going to own it, and engage with the kind of psychological theater and try to make it as big as possible….
It was the dancers, you know, they’re being interviewed, and this is before Michael Jackson’s death, and there’s a kind of hysterical allegiance to the form, the dance form—the language, the dance language that Michael Jackson created in his lifetime. Those people know it so well, and they’re committed to it and want to be part of it. And the enthusiasm is really inspiring, cause I think a lot of people in my camp—there’s a kind of lackadaisical aethstetic. You don’t want to try too hard, you don’t want to look like you’re trying too hard. There’s kind of a sense of paying allegiance to what’s natural, and usually what’s natural should be sort of easy and instinctual. But I don’t know, my whole school of thought is pain—through pain and work and willpower, and through constant challenging and discomfort, that’s how I sort of engage with my work.
Will the Prospect Park concerts be the last time people can see the stage show that is The Age of Adz?
Yeah, yeah, it’s the finale. We’re going to retire the show, and I’ll move on to something else. I don’t know what though.
Do you have any idea as to what might be next for you?
I don’t know. I still feel like I have a lot to learn in the realm of sound experimentation, and I think I would like things to get noisier and weirder nd more distressed and more aggressive, but I don’t know if that’s something that would be suitable for public consumption. It might just be like a private exercise in which I spend time alone making all those sounds, and then at some point get back to songwriting…my imperative or my objective is songwriting. And I think it’s safe to say that The Age of Adz is a bit of a tangent away from songwriting. It’d be nice to kind of return to songwriting again.
NOTE: Sufjan Stevens’s August 2 concert at the Prospect Park Bandshell in Brooklyn is sold out. For more information on the August 3 concert, visit Celebrate Brooklyn! here.