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Daniel J. Kushner, traipsing through sounds

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More Adz and Ends: Sufjan Stevens Bonus Interview

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In the course of publishing an interview, editing is inevitable. My recent three-part interview with Sufjan Stevens is no exception. In this post comprised of discussions that didn’t make it into the interview proper, the artist talks about the music of Asthmatic Kitty labelmate Shara Worden–who will open for Stevens at his August 2 concert in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park–architecture,the term “composer,” his perspective on contemporary music criticism, and more.

Daniel J Kushner: Your music has been appropriated for a wide variety of music purposes, as string quartet music, hip-hop samples, and also as ballet music. Does this extrapolation of your work s inform how you think about what you do?

Sufjan Stevens: Yeah. I mean, I think that music has a function, and we forget that it can have mutiple functions and it can be site-specific…And I think there’s something very iconoclastic about going into an H&M store and being accosted by techno music or dance music, because I think that that’s a misuse of form. The form itself, it’s meant to engage with movement and bodies, and you know, the dance floor. And we go in the restaurant, and there are these speakers everywhere and they’re imposing this music on us. And I think that we’ve become even careless in how we do music and exploit it, and it’s part of this constant soundtrack. So I think about function a lot.

One of the reasons why I don’t like to play outdoor festivals is cause I think there’s something really sacrilegious about blasting sound through a huge PA system in an outdoor environment. There’s something very environmentally irresponsible about that, you know? There’s something very strange about that that I’ve always had trouble dealing with. I like to think that music can have multiple functions but should always be sort of deliberate and responsible and sort of accommodating to each environment….I don’t think as a society we’re ever going to grow weary of music. I think it’s always going to be valuable. It’s funny, cause I think of architecture as being vital. Architecture is this sort of discipline in creating space which [sic] we inhabit, and architecture matters more than anything else because it’s all about physical matter that covers us. We live in these rooms, in these spaces.

Music has no physical matter at all, it’s just waves, I guess. I don’t even know what it is. It’s just waves. And yet emotionally and psychologically it matters to us probably far more than architecture. I think people have more opinions and allegiances to songs and styles than they would to architecture, for some reason. And I don’t know why that it is, even though it doesn’t matter—like physically doesn’t have matter. It still matters more to people. It’s a mysterious thing.

Kushner: I wouldn’t ask the question about labels if it didn’t seem so relevant. In talking to contemporary composers, it just seems to be this ever-present issue that some people really take personally. Is it contemporary classical? Is it indie classical? There are all these terms floating out there that people choose either to utilize or avoid. It’s a really perplexing problem without a real answer. The label itself doesn’t say anything or explain anything about the music itself.

Stevens: Yeah, well music journalism and music criticism today is pretty sloppy and irresponsible with language, and there’s actually no accountability in terms of the kind of flagrant labels they use. There are a lot of run-on lists of descriptors and modifiers that aren’t usually very responsible. And I think I’m less interested in these descriptors and modifiers than I am in concrete nouns. I think if you’re going to call something what it is, you should use a noun, because a noun holds up better…

[Writers are] really desperate to kind of describe something, but they describe it as a list of modifiers that are constantly cross-referencing or alluding to previous work. It just feels very kind of insular and circular and reductive….it makes for really clumsy prose, cause as a reader you have to wade through all those references and there’s no concrete terminology on which to stand so that as a reader you feel confident about the subject at hand. Maybe it’s just an inherent problem in music journalism or writing about music, because music doesn’t have shape or form—like you said, it’s ephemeral. It’s extremely subjective, and it’s a mysterious phenomenon, and the desperate need to categorize is indication of how mysterious music is.

Kushner: I was wondering what you thought of the current music scene in New York, particularly the Ecstatic Music Festival?

Stevens: [Shara Worden] did a My Brightest Diamond show with all new material…I was kind of blown away by Shara’s new songs because they’re really exuberant and very generous and dynamic, and they were very confusing too. I was having that conundrum, that labeling conundrum, wanting to to reduce it to a formula, form or term, and afterwards I was just baffled by it all. And I kind of liked being really confused. Some of it was like weird 60s Gospel/Broadway theater, there was like a theatrical element to it, there was dance. Some of it was just real simple folk, but then it had all these really kind of dense wind arrangements, tone colors and flourishes. But then it had these big fat beats too. It was very beat heavy, and it felt kind of like poppy and hip-hoppy. She’s becoming more soulful…I was really confused by it all, but where her other previous stuff has been very focused, you know? She was doing this dark gothic rock thing, and all this new material is really turned away from that and is much more dynamic, more joyful.

Kushner: It seems like she’s emerging into the most natural version of her creative self, or a fuller representation of her creativity. I think that was the nature of that festival as a whole. I think if you walked away confused in terms of how to categorize something, it’s probably a good thing. For me, this happens in your music too. In the cases of songwriters like you and Shara and others, I don’t really separate composer from singer-songwriter. I think you’re all composers who happen to use song as your medium of choice.

Gustav Mahler is a composer, but he’s most well known for writing songs. Technically, he was a songwriter, but no one refers to him as a songwriter. I don’t know what distingiuishes someone from being a composer or not being a composer. I don’t make that distinction, but as we’ve determined, that distinction doesn’t matter so much.  [Editor's note: Upon initial publication, the quote contained in this paragraph was incorrectly attributed to Sufjan Stevens.  This quote was in fact spoken by the interviewer.]

Stevens: Who cares what I think, too, because I think that my hesitation with the term composer, it’s like personal hang-ups with the connotations of that word, composer and composition. And my instinct is to dumb down what I do. I always just want to keep it simple. People ask me what I do for a living, I say, “I write songs.” They say, what kind of music, and I just say, “Pop music.” End of conversation. It’s such a vague, kind of all-encompassing term, but it’s good enough for me.

Kushner: Is the connotation of the composer that it’s too complex and not accessible enough?

Stevens: Maybe, that it’s too important, more important than I’m willing to concede.

Kushner: Maybe music somehow feels more personal [than architecture]. You can take ownership and make it your own more than you can take ownership of that great building you walked by. I think that’s what it is, at least in part…

Stevens: An object, just by the nature of its physical being, resists possession in a way because it’s an object, you know. You can’t carry around a building obviously. You can’t possess it, in a way. I guess you can own it, like real estate, but that’s short=lived anyway. Music is nebulous. We talk about intellectual property of music, but that’s just politics. I don’t know what that means. That’s why I really believe that the song sustains its own consciousness and is dispossessed of its owner, and then it basically yields to the multitudes of listeners, of consumers, and everyone owns the song.

It’s such a relief for me to acknowledge that because I feel far less possessive of my own music, and I feel lest earnest and less despairing about its worth, or its value, and more willing to just make it, create it, do my best work possible, and then give it away.

Kushner: Precisely because it never belonged to you to begin with?

Stevens: Yeah. It’s not concrete so it doesn’t feel like I own it. It feels nebulous.

Kushner: The implication that you’re presenting is really interesting, which is that the physical things that one can make into a commodity or possess, those are the things that you actually can’t control, and it’s the things that seem totally intangible and unattainable, and those are the things you can really own. I think that’s a really epiphanic thought. It’s kind of revelatory, and it flies in the face of our culture for sure…

Stevens: We’re born into this world naked and screaming, with no possessions. And we leave in the same way, you know? We can’t take it with us. All we have is our bodies and our souls and that’s it. I don’t even think our bodies are our own. I think that’s just borrowed. So give it away, that’s what I say. Give it away.

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.

Written by winebrick41

July 25, 2011 at 3:06 pm

Adz and Ends: An Interview with Sufjan Stevens (Part 3 of 3)

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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 Royal Robertson, Sun Ra, Parliament, the dance aesthetics of Janet Jackson and Paula Abdul, and the movie Tron. In part three of my interview with the artist, Stevens talks about striving to write the perfect song, his gravitation toward noise, and Royal Robertson and the cliche of the tortured artist.

The Age of Adz; photo by Josh Higgason.

Daniel J. Kushner: How do you feel about genre labels and their level of usefulness?

Sufjan Stevens: Yeah, I think they’re only useful in commodity, in kind of an economic sense. They’re useful in just categorizing for marketing. And I guess as listeners, unfortunately we’re obsessed with identifying and categorizing and putting everything in its place. I’m not sure why that is. Maybe it’s necessary for our understanding of it and relationship to it and proximity to it. But for me, I guess I decided now that I shouldn’t concern myself with categories, and just let the music be its own thing, and speak for itself.

All the lines are blurred now, more than ever. The music industry’s much smaller, and I think that that gives songwriters and musicians and composers greater freedom to meander from one form to another without too much, there’s very little backlash or criticism, I guess. I wouldn’t say I’m a composer. I still say I’m a songwriter. And my objective is to write the perfect song.

Kushner: Do you think that’s something you could ever achieve?

Stevens: No, I don’t think it’s attainable but I think that the effort itself is the achievement, more so than the song. I don’t think it’s identifiable—the perfect song. The perfect song is different to everyone.

Is there anything I failed to bring up?

When I did press for The BQE, I was always shocked that nobody talked about the film, and The BQE was the film, like it was a movie, and they would talk about the music as if it was like an album. And the same thing with this Age of Adz, I’ve had a lot of conversations with writers, and they never asked about Royal Robertson. I just assumed that maybe they knew everything and they would just kind of fill in the blanks themselves.

Get Real, Get Right from Asthmatic Kitty on Vimeo.

Yeah, that’s a good point. Definitely, the album made me more aware of Royal Robertson, and then having recently seen the documentary Make, that definitely filled in some other blanks. It seems that in pretty much all of your work it’s definitely very theme-centric. I know that’s a very generic thing to say, but the music itself almost functions like a documentary in that way. And I’m wondering if that’s something you’re conscious of and of this latest focus on Royal saw you approach the way you write about subject matter differently.

Yeah, because of the emphasis on sound, and a lot of the subject is on emotional well being, or mental health and physical health, the sounds are much more kinetic and I think inspired by that, by the nervous system in the body. I’m glad that you can kind of perceive that in this music, that there is a language to the music and the arrangements that’s communicating, documenting something that’s not explicit necessarily in the lyrics. And I think a lot of listeners have a hard time managing that. They’re obviously aware unconsciously of how the music affects them, but I think that most of us are probably predisposed to hone in on the lyrics and the subject itself as it’s manifest in the narrative of the song. And I don’t know if the lyric-writing on this record is strong enough to kind of stand on its own. I think it really requires the environment in which it’s contained, the sounds themselves. A lot of that’s coming from Royal because there’s script all over his paintings and drawings, but it’s nonsense or it’s non-sequiturs, it’s grammatically flawed, and full of expletives, and he disrupts himself, interrupts himself. And you kind of have to take it all as a whole, and none of it is very appealing or beautiful necessarily as a whole. It’s all very problematic.

There’s almost this sort of duplicity in his feelings toward his estranged wife Adell. If the phrase “love-hate relationship” was ever more apt, I’d be hard-pressed to find the context. He obviously really loved her, but his work is totally infested with this vitriol against her. Do you feel that dual nature of relationships present in the album?

Oh yeah, oh yeah. Royal’s a real messed up guy, and I think it’s frustrating to engage with that malicious quality in his work. It’s really frustrating. I don’t know why, I really felt akin to that in some way. I felt that I also had these issues of really longing for and desiring something, but then also feeling repulsed by it. And I think it comes out of that quality of masochism in my work, ‘cause I’m drawn to the disorder and the cacophony, and al the disruptions and the noise. And I’m drawn to all of that, and I find that as I engage with it, even if it’s an unhealthy kind of obsession with noise, that I really want to draw from it an experience that’s joyful and beautiful and satisfying. But then I often leave feeling kind of disturbed and injured. And I don’t know where that’s coming from or why that is.

Sufjan Stevens in the spotlight; photo by Josh Higgason.

You mentioned in your show last year in Toronto that the story of Royal Robertson is in part a cautionary tale about the potential “disease of the imagination.” Could you elaborate on that and how might relate to your own creative process?

Yeah, I wonder if “disease of the imagination” is just a euphemism for mental illness or schizophrenia. And I don’t know where I stand on this issue, but I sometimes feel that all creative endeavors are in some way related to mental illness or madness, because the imagination is such a kind of unwieldy, limitless environment in which one can reside for long periods of time and lose track of reality, ordinary life. I mean royal was really, really sick, and isolated for years and years. I definitely don’t have a mental illness, and I’m not autistic or schizophrenic—I don’t hear voices. But I do know that when I’m really fully engaged in writing, music, or whatever, that I do feel a kind of, like a sense of losing my foundation, like losing sense of reality, and sense of what’s kind of like normal and ordinary. I become kind of asocial and I spend a lot of time alone, and stop shaving and stop doing the dishes, kind of thing. And ordinary life becomes really disorganized, a mess. Yeah, I kind of forget about ordinary living.

Do you think that being tortured is almost a prerequisite for making art, or quality art?

I don’t know if it’s torture but I do think there’s fundamentally there’s a necessary masochism involved, especially with the kind of work that I’m doing, which isn’t natural. It’s very unnatural, and requires kind of a habit of risk-taking and a habit of running into obstacles, and there’s a kind of inherent masochism in that. And I think I get a thrill out of punishing myself through creative effort. And a lot of people I work with suffer the same kind of of symptoms of the creative willpower. I don’t want to romanticize mental illness, and I also think that the tortured artist is a cliché. I think it’s work, and effort, and you know it’s sort of our curse is to toil and labor. Creative life is no different than the sort of working class, blue collar life of labor. I feel like they’re more related than we might think.

Is noise a sonic manifestation of masochism, do you think?

No, maybe I’m sort of unethically imposing that term on the sonic environment that doesn’t really have any meaning necessarily. But I think a lot of people are really afraid of noise. There’s a sense of obligation and duty in the songwriter to arrange sounds in a way that they’re really beautiful and harmonious, and most people would rather switch to something that’s pleasing, but there’s a big part of me that really likes noise improv, and that kind of disorder. I was never really into punk rock or anything, but I would go to these shows where, back in the day when Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo would just like do feedback for an hour, and everyone would just stand there kind of simultaneously appalled, bewildered, and pleased by the whole effect. It gives you a headache, but it draws you into a meditative environment.

I think it’s the difference between listeners whose relationship to the song is predicated mainly on having a pleasant experience and listeners whose relationship to song is more about a reflection of what they’re feeling, and those feelings aren’t always particularly beautiful. Why do people like Joy Division? Is it just because they’ve come into vogue as this seminal band? I mean I guess that’s part of it. I mean their music isn’t particularly pretty. It doesn’t necessarily sound very good. Ian Curtis is not a particularly gifted singer, but it’s able to resonate because it’s so authentic to so many experiences for whatever reason.

I agree. I think you’re talking about an indescribably phenomenon that we might call authenticity or honesty or truth. I tend to use the word realness. The value, the substance of realness, of a man’s work, of a person’s craft. I don’t know how else to describe it. It’s just resonance as real, as true.

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.

Written by winebrick41

July 23, 2011 at 2:27 pm

Adz and Ends: An Interview with Sufjan Stevens (Part 2 of 3)

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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 Royal Robertson, Sun Ra, Parliament, the dance aesthetics of Janet Jackson and Paula Abdul, and the movie Tron. In part two of my interview with the artist, Stevens talks about his period of disillusionment, discarding his signature whispered vocals, and the prospect of alienating Illinoise era fans.


Sufjan Stevens and band performing "Too Much;" photo by Josh Higgason.

Daniel J. Kushner: Your temporary disillusionment with songwriting was fairly well documented, particularly on the Asthmatic Kitty web site. How did you ultimately rediscover the value of the song?

Sufjan Stevens: Well I think I just got fed up with my own existential quandary, and got really bored with this sort of circular, philosophical pondering and my obsession with naming things and categorizing things. I think I wasn’t so much [disillusioned] with songwriting as I was disillusioned with form, and I was really frustrated with the limitations of the song. And I think a lot of that was suffering the repercussions of The BQE and having spent way too much time investing in that project and trying to render something meaningful out of this ugly modern urban expressway. And I really wanted to challenge the form, the format of the song. And that piece, by making it a film, and making it a soundtrack, and making it a photo-essay and exposition, and everything else except for song…when it was all finished I realized that I felt really sort of creatively spent but unsatisfied, you know?

It made me really question, well what is a song? Why are we so limited by these parameters? And then at some point I just got fed up with the kind of whiny, existential questioning, and I realized that really wasn’t my business to differentiate these categories, that my role was to do the best work possible, and not try to categorize it beforehand. I also got really sick, and you know, and couldn’t write for a while, cause I went through all this crazy physical stuff, and then when I came out of that, I sort of felt kind of this necessary revitalization, and I just felt like I had a second lease on life. I was really excited about writing—didn’t even want to question it anymore.

Kushner: You were trying to reconcile the difference between song and symphonic work, or something that’s other than song, and then trying to categorize it?

Stevens: Yeah. I think I was getting tired of my creative habits, and I was trying to challenge all of that by imposing all of these other kind of variables. Who’s to say a song has to be four minutes long? And wanting it to have multiple movements within sort of one comprehensive form, and really questioning the role of the voice and the narratives, and even melody—you know, everything, I was just kind of like taking apart and over-theorizing.

And I think that generally the least common denominator of the audience—they don‘t even care. They don’t question these things. They really approach everything on instinct, whether you like it or don’t like it. Does it sound good? Does it have a beat? Does it make me feel good? Most people aren’t really too preoccupied with the kind of theorizing of music, and I actually think that I learn something from the audience, from the consumer, and deciding that the creator, the artist, doesn’t need to be so preoccupied with knowing and the theorizing. ‘Cause I think intention—an artist’s intention—is kind of irrelevant. It doesn’t have much bearing. ‘Cause I think the song—its greatest realization—becomes its own, has its own consciousness, speaks its own truths, and belongs to the listener more than it belongs to a writer.

"Vesuvius," Age of Adz tour; photo by Josh Higgason.

While writing The Age of Adz, was there any concern that the record would alienate some fans of your music, particularly those who had fallen in love with the Illinoise era?

I was aware that the textures and the sonic environment was a little dirtier, more cacophonous, or whatever. I was aware of that, cause I feel like I was also extremely aware during the making of Illinois of how much effort I put into making it listenable. It’s such a populist record—there’s just so much effort in appealing to the listener, you know there’s such a kind of a pageant of sound, and it’s constantly entertaining and rewarding, and it’s just sort of a patchwork of this sort of harmonic beauty, harmonic what do you call it, I don’t know—It’s very harmonious.

You know, The Age of Adz, these are pop songs, but they’re based on sound experimentation and noise. They’re more aggressive, and even my tone of—the way I’m singing—it’s more in my throat and not always pretty. So I was aware of that, and I just felt like an imperative to experiment with these tones, and generally, I think now more than ever, I’m making music for that elite 5%—you know, the listener who’s been with me from the very beginning and understands my interest in electronic music and noise and in sound sculpting and minimalism and all that stuff. So I think that that record, The Age of Adz, is really for that listener, you know? I don’t think it’s meant to be for the casual listener who likes the song “Chicago,” which is fine. There’s no condescension at all in that remark. I don’t condescend to any of my music or to any listener. But I just am not in a season right now of feeling that kind of populist thrust. I don’t feel motivated to make things so listenable.

"I Want To Be Well," Age of Adz tour; photo by Josh Higgason.

In the summer of 2010, All Delighted People was released, and it was really the first indication, that compositionally something had shifted, particularly in your vocals, which now seem less whispered, and much more emotive and vulnerable even. Can you expound upon that a bit?

Yeah, I think my voice is my Achilles’ heel, ‘cause I’m not a great singer and I was involved with music very early on but I didn’t start singing until I was in my 20s, and I’ve always felt really self-conscious about my voice. And I think maybe that might explain all the sort of dynamic arrangements, and the shifts in styles and fashion from song to song, and also it might explain why I use so many background singers, cause I always feel like I’m so limited vocally. But then in terms of instrumentation and arrangement and style I don’t feel self-conscious at all, obviously, ‘cause I’m kind of jumping all over the place.

And so recently, in the past few years, I decided to really be more engaged with my voice and try to be more expressive and soulful, and to kind of step up and be a singer. And I was getting tired of the kind of coy and fey whatever-you-call-it, kind of assertive innocence or sensitive whispery tone of voice—what I’ve been using for years. I sang like that partly out of self-consciousness and partly just because I was singing to myself and writing in isolation and so my singing was very kind of quiet and intimate and almost like conversational. More recently, I’m becoming more emotive and dramatic and dynamic, and even kind of trying to be more for soulful. I guess I felt sort of like I needed to be more responsible as a singer and to take more challenges, more risks vocally. Whether or not I could hit a note, it didn’t matter, like I just kind of try go for it.

And I toured with Shara Worden from My Brightest Diamond, and she’s a singer of great facility, and she’s extremely soulful and she’s got a pretty wide range. She’s been really inspiring, ‘cause sometimes when I’ll write a line in my mind myself I always think of her, I think of someone like her. And then when I actually sit down to sing it in the studio, it’s like this kind of challenging gymnastic trick that I have to do multiple takes.

I feel like that might even be perceptible on the EP and the latest record, in that it seems that in parts some of the lines are a little more florid than maybe they were in the past.

Yeah. Less breath and more body, too, you know? I’m singing more in my throat or through my nose, and it’s a little more nasal. It’s not as beautiful. I’ll admit to it: I think it’s prettier when I sing more quietly. To me, sometimes the quiet singing feels put on, pretentious, and a little bit coy. And I really just want to be more human and more real.

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.

Written by winebrick41

July 22, 2011 at 10:44 pm

Adz and Ends: An Interview with Sufjan Stevens (Part 1 of 3)

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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

Sufjan Stevens Concert Trailer: Age of Adz / Prospect Park from Asthmatic Kitty on Vimeo.

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.

David Stith (background) and Sufjan Stevens (foreground) in full regalia; photo by Josh Higgason.

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.

The Age of Adz Bliss-Out; photo by Josh Higgason.

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.

Written by winebrick41

July 22, 2011 at 9:00 am


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