Sufjan Stevens Interview: Expressway Yourself

Laura Snapes talks to Sufjan Stevens about his latest musical exploration of the American landscape

It sure must be tiring to be Sufjan Stevens. You debut a few new songs, they wind up online, and the blogosphere (for want of a better word) explodes into paroxysms of joy at the apparently de facto indication that a new album must be on the horizon. You voice thoughts on what you perceive to be the existentialist nature of music, its meaning and purpose with regard to your own work, and journalists start analysing them with panicked and highly speculative fervour that this is the end. That’s not to mention the exhausting, mind-contorting nature of the thoughts themselves, reminiscent of the predicament in which the artist in Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York found himself. Sufjan has recently questioned: “What is a song even?” and “What’s the point of making music any more?" And this gives the impression of an artist somewhat consumed by both the personal and social expectations weighing on his work, and the extent to which it consumes his life.

When he talks about his latest project (it’s one of many forthcoming) — The BQE, a conceptual piece commissioned by the Brooklyn Academy of Music which explores one of New York’s lesser known, yet still infamous freeways — it’s in ever-enveloping metaphors. Nothing is simple for Sufjan. Not even what appears to be the sole note of aesthetic frivolity in the film that accompanies the piece: the inclusion of the Hooper Heroes, a trio of female hula-hooping superheroes whose role is to combat “the Messiah of Civic Projects, Captain Moses and his totalitarian social architecture”. They’re not just anodyne eye candy — their hoops represent the cyclical nature of roads, wheels, life, and who knows what else.

But in conversation with The Quietus this week — although never coming across someone who engages with his work on anything less than a highly serious, scholarly level — he’s surprisingly pragmatic about the future of music, relishing the possibilities of the MP3 and applying the positive “social” experiences he had producing records for fellow Asthmatic Kitties The Welcome Wagon and Ben & Vesper to his own work.

The BQE is out next week — why release it now, so long after its initial performance?

Sufjan Stevens: Because it was looming over me unfinished for so long. After it premiered, we recorded the music, and then I shelved it for a year, and then I felt a certain kind of self-loathing embarrassment, and feelings of inadequacy [laughs] for not seeing it through to a record, so then I spent a good part of a year then rendering it and reshaping it for the album and the DVD. So I think it was a bit of feeling obligated, in a way, to the material.

Did you feel that it deserved a bigger audience than just the few who heard the original performance?

SS: Yeah, the BAM [Brooklyn Academy of Music] didn’t expect me to do anything outside of the premiere, so the imperative to make it into an album was my own personal conviction. I felt like it deserved a wider audience, and it deserved a platform outside of an event in time and space, outside of just one show.

Would it be fair to say that you have a different relationship with the piece now to when you first wrote it?

SS: Oh yeah, a much healthier relationship now than at the time. I spent nine months creating the piece for the performance, and it was a pretty intense and very confusing and exhausting enterprise to assemble all of the music, the musicians, and to write all the music and to shoot and edit all the film. And then afterwards, I felt so fatigued from it all that I had to take a long break. So when I went back to it a year later, I felt restored and enlightened, and more objective. I felt kind of re-inspired and re-galvanized to approach it, and I think that’s when the comic book and the design and the Viewmaster reel, and all the other variables, were developed.

How did you write the piece — through notation, collaborative sessions?

SS: The basic themes were developed from a live session, rehearsing with some other musicians, but most of it is created on the staff paper. It’s my first project that almost from start to finish was created as a score, so it was a really abstract experience. In the past I’ve always written, layered, overdubbed – the process of making a record was the process of writing material, and this was different. It was all information on the page.

It’s the kind of record that, given your stature prior to The BQE, might be the first foray that many fans of more conventional indie rock take into classical music. Was that ever on your mind whilst you were writing it?

SS: I knew that it’d be something different because it was commissioned for the BAM, and they heavily influenced the aesthetics and the scope of a project because of their platform. It’s all about creating new work, and experimenting and trying new things. So I knew that it was going to be different. And the fact that I wasn’t singing really changed, really influenced the character of the piece.

There seem to be two default responses to The BQE amongst fans – one being that people see the film and hear the music, and find it beautiful and accomplished, but state that they really don’t understand it. Is there something to understand as such?

SS: No, it’s pretty much just visual. It’s the first project that doesn’t really require any narrative contextualization. It’s just basically a series of moving photographs about this concrete and steel expressway that runs through Brooklyn. There is a multitude of subtext and story behind the piece; there are so many ways of approaching it. I mean, there’s the whole politics of urban theory and urban planning in the 50s, and there’s the cosmology of the Hooper Heroes and the comic book created out of it, and the piece is also very meta-fictional, it’s about a struggle against an object of inspiration that’s lifeless and listless and lacking any kind of emotional environment. I don’t want to impose a meaning on it; they [the images in the film] can exist just as moving photographs and audio accompaniment.

What exactly was the detail of the commission?

SS: There were no stipulations other than that it had to be about Brooklyn, and everything else was my own intention.

What made you choose the bridge?

SS: Well, I felt that there’s an obligation when writing a piece about an urban expressway made in the 50s to acknowledge the context, and Robert Moses is sort of an iconic figure in New York, and he influenced the shape of the city more than anyone else before or after him. He was one of the most powerful and influential civic architects in the world, because of how much he transformed the city. He built multiple bridges and highways and parks and recreational spaces, beaches – in the course of a few decades, he completely changed the city.

He had an absurd amount of legislative power too, right?

SS: Oh yeah, he held multiple positions in government to which he was never elected, and then he was able to manipulate legislation to allow for financing for his projects, and he was unchallenged for years. He was this unstoppable, heroic force [laughs] you know? I mean that’s pretty amazing. The BQE is not one of his shining moments, of course.

No, it’s not one of his most famous bridges, more of the underdog bridge?

SS: Yeah, the BQE is pretty diminutive to other expressways in the area. There’s like FDR Highway, and the Westside Highway, and the Cross Bronx Expressway, and these are much bigger, more accomplished urban runways, so the BQE is kind of troubled, badly built and really disorganized. It’s really primitive in a way.

The other response that seems to appear online is that quite a few people insinuate that you’re somehow pretentious for attempting such a grand project, one that they view as being beyond your remit as an “indie rock” musician.

SS: The approach to this project is kind of ambitious and far-reaching. Maybe that is pretentious, I don’t know. But everything was created in earnest. I don’t hold myself to standards of an “indie rock” musician, and I think that I’m capable of just making art, and doing illustration or making a film, making music – they’re all just different media – media that I can use to communicate my feelings and my politics and my work.

Did you do the artwork for the album?

SS: Yeah, yeah. I did the design and layout, my friend Denny took most of the photos, I took a few. Originally they were going to be really conservative, almost clean representational art pieces, but then I felt that it was too clean, too sterilized, so I started to sabotage them with this weird futuristic graffiti, with hidden messages. They all have words and phrases… It’s inspired by graffiti, it’s basically graffiti.

How much of a part of the film were you? Were you present during filming?

SS: Oh yeah, it was just me and my friend Reuben, we did everything.

Did you run into any difficulties?

SS: We ran into problems with police quite often. They’re really suspicious, and there are all these laws, post-September 11, homeland security laws, that didn’t permit filming or photography in certain bridges or tunnels, so they were really suspicious, even though we were obviously just like kids making a student film. A few times we had to pull the film out of the camera, expose it, stuff like that. It’s illegal to photograph bridges, evidently, I didn’t know that. I know, who knew?!

There’s a really different tone between the video that accompanies the album version of The BQE, and the images that accompany the two unacknowledged, lyrical songs at the end of the DVD. Can you tell us a bit about those?

SS: Originally, I’d written the one song, ‘The Sleeping Red Wolves’ for The BQE, and I was going to perform it then but there just wasn’t enough time, so I just threw it in at the end. A lot of that video is just unused footage. The first piece actually, after the credits, was a song originally, but it was borrowing an Emerson, Lake & Palmer melody, but the lawyers wouldn’t clear it so I couldn’t use the song, so I ended up using one of the pieces that my stepdad Lowell and I created for Music For Insomnia, which is our little conceptual music library series. So the first song is from that. I found out at the eleventh hour that I couldn’t use this Emerson, Lake & Palmer song, and we were going into production, and so at the last minute, I just put this song from the library catalogue record in there, and replaced the previous song. It just happened to fit – I think it worked out pretty well, but it wasn’t intentional.

Although it’s unintentional, it really works with the footage of the original BQE piece being very sterile and clinical, and the songs with lyrics having more human images, people having fun and hanging out.

SS: The first thing is seeing people, who aren’t in costume dressed up as hula hoopers! But it definitely feels like a relief from this architectural design of the film. It’s so carefully edited and constructed, the BQE film is very much a design enterprise, and at the end, it was nice to just let things – even the closing credits, with the cyclists on the BQE, I feel like at that point is when things start to really relax. It’s a release from all the restrictions, and I think I wanted to offer that sort of hope and relief to the viewer so that there would be some kind of human element.

Is it right that you’re currently taking hula-hooping classes?

SS: I took some classes in preparation for the project, and I don’t take them now, but I hoop pretty regularly. I have a lot of friends who have hula-hoops, it’s like a mixture of dance and athletics and exercise, meditation. It’s a healthy hobby I think. I can do a few tricks, I can hoop from my neck and shoulders, and I can do a few moves, a few tricks! I can walk through the hoop whilst it’s spinning. I feel like there’s definitely an interest in promoting the hula-hoop as an important pastime! As a valuable hobby, it’s part of the politics of The BQE I guess.

I was reading Richard Knerr’s [he marketed the hula-hoop in the 50s for his company, Wham-O] obituary recently, it’s amazing to think of kids in the 50s being consumed by the excitement of hula hooping!

SS: Yeah, the whole thing has taken off in China now too, do you know that? It’s part of their gym class or something. It’s becoming more and more popular.

You mention the Music For Insomnia project – one of the less musical differences between The BQE and the library catalogue compared to what I guess you’d call your more traditional work is the titles. They almost seem quasi-theoretical, abandoning the literary, long-winded titles of your past work. Do they have a meaning?

SS: I think that there was a self-conscious decision to divest myself of anything personal or literal or narrative in The BQE, and it was kind of cleansing and refining to experience, to eliminate anything autobiographical, so the whole project is really technical. It’s physical, it’s visceral, and I wanted to exercise a different part of my thinking, a more conceptual part that wasn’t so earnest, so emotional. The BQE is obsessed with technique really, it’s all about patterns and rhythms and time signature. There’s this technical jargon in the titles, and a lot of those titles are taken from terminology from the Department of Transportation, and traffic theory, urban theory, and there’s this really beautiful romantic language that comes out of textbook lexicon. That’s where I got all the titles from mostly – these things like ‘Self-Organizing Patterns’ and ‘Traffic Shock’ – terms that traffic theorists use to describe patterns on highways and expressways.

You mention how scholarly and theory based The BQE is, the songs that you’ve been performing recently that have been popping up online seem to have more of a deconstructive bent to them. They feel as though they could cohere into a full-bodied album. Are they starting points for a new record?

SS: The songwriting that I’ve been doing lately has been working on the long form, which means the song in more of a sonata or symphonic form, because it allows me to develop theme and variation, and I don’t think we’re any longer held to the time constraints of an album, an LP or a CD, y’know, ‘cos an MP3 is infinite really. I think it’s really inspiring to try to develop longer forms, and it’s sort of in contradiction to the limited attention span of the contemporary listener, but I think there’s a value in the length, the unlimited length of time. A lot of those songs are only half as long as they’re meant to be, some of the songs are just half-baked. I’d still like them to be longer."

You seem to be embracing the technology of the MP3, but does it make you sad that you have to think of your music in those terms?

SS: No, I think that music has always been restricted to media. The LP is an antiquated form, and the CD is now an antiquated form, and there’s no sense grieving. Music is forever, there will always be songs. It’s exciting that we’re not limited to the media any more. I don’t hold a precious view of my work, that it exists outside of social constructs or the confines of a platform.

How do you feel about debuting these new songs, someone videoing them and then they’re online for everyone else to see?

SS: I think it’s great, I can dispossess them! I’m no longer beholden to the sacredness of the recorded song as some kind of ultimate standard by which every performance of the song is measured. I like to diversify, that there are multiple versions of every song. And the songs incorporate a lot of improvisation, and an element of chance, and I think that’s exciting. There’s no one true formulation of a song, they have various manifestations depending on the space we’re in. I like that.

When people are constantly analyzing your motives, do you ever entertain the notion of becoming a recluse and hiding your work away from everyone?

SS: No not really, I’m not beholden to the public, and neither are the public beholden to me or my songs. I’m very much of a populist on those terms, I believe that the song is no longer mine anyway. I like to process the dispossession that happens when you play something live. I don’t have a clue as to how these songs are going to plan out, whether they’re going to be on a record. I don’t know yet.

Do you know what you’re going to be doing next year? Are you aiming towards a record?

SS: It’s a noble goal! [laughs] A very noble goal, and I’d like to make that my goal, but we’ll see.

Has the production work that you’ve been doing with Ben & Vesper and The Welcome Wagon impacted on your approach to your own work at all?

SS: Yeah, I think that some of that material that we recorded is as much about community, and about capturing a moment. We always tried to have several people in the same room, recording at the same time, so it’s a lot about the value of that kind of social interaction between musicians in the same space. A lot of the previous records are the result of overdubbing, extensive overdubbing, and I’m more interested now in live action.

That really comes through on The Welcome Wagon’s album, how you keep in Monique Aiuto saying that she messed up. Was it just a coincidence that you came to work with two sets of married couples?

SS: Yeah, it was natural, it didn’t feel too… There was nothing intentional about it at all. It felt like we were just capturing moments and time.**

Having produced a few other people’s records, would you be happy to turn the tables and have someone else produce one of yours?

SS: Yeah! I would love that. I can’t think of anyone though. It’d be fun to do that, I’m tired of producing and recording myself.

You talk about the social aspect of working with Ben & Vesper and The Welcome Wagon – has that translated to your own work too?

SS: Some of it has been, the fact that we’re showing stuff live indicates the social aspect of it obviously, and I definitely would like to make music with people more consistently, because so much of what I’ve done before happened in isolation. It’s a moment of truth about is my music social, or is it personal, and I’d like to expand it to be more community based. It’s just hard because everyone’s so busy doing their own thing, and my band is comprised of musicians who live all over the country, and it’s hard to get them all together.

Lastly, this isn’t really related to anything, but if you were to write the Illinois record now, would Obama feature on it?

SS: No, not at all! Most of the material from that record is measured by time, there’s a certain proximity. Everything is far removed, and there’s nothing very contemporary or topical on any of that stuff, I don’t really write about the here and now. I try to live in the moment, but my work is generally about the past or the future or some other transcendental time period. I don’t write about current events, ever.

Is that approach to do with the benefit of hindsight to form a considered judgment about something, or is there a romanticism to periods far removed from our own?

SS: It’s a mystical quality of music, that music isn’t really concrete, and it’s communicating abstractions about imaginary worlds. At least, my music’s like that. It’s not real. It’s unreal, it’s all fabrication. To write a song about Obama would suddenly break the spell.

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