Interview with Sufjan Stevens

Sufjan Stevens

In the world of indie rock, there are few more enigmatic artists than Sufjan Stevens. Having followed up his debut release (2000’s A Sun Came) of twisting pan-ethnic indie folk with an ambitious electronic concept album based on the Chinese Zodiac (2001’s Enjoy Your Rabbit), he has already covered more textural and conceptual ground than most artists will explore in a lifetime. Even better, when not working on his own masterworks he can be found manning the banjo in the avant-garde-absurdist-Christian-folk machine known as the Danielson Famile. In short, he gets around.

On top of all that, he’s a really nice guy, too, and not at all afraid to voice his opinions on the current state of modern music. Having spent most of his life immersed in music on some level, you’ll find few musicians who can express their musical and philosophical musings as articulately and as thoroughly. So, grab a dictionary and listen up as Sufjan Stevens gives DOA the truth on his musical past, his perspective on the role of faith in music, and insight into just what it’s like to be an honorary Famile member.

Delusions of Adequacy: First, could you give us a little background information? When and where did you start making music and what was your original goal for your art?

Sufjan Stevens: I entered a lip sync contest in middle school (I did Peter Cetera’s “Glory of Love”—from The Karate Kid Part II with choreography and make-up). I wore a red bow-tie and pants with zippers on the cuffs. I didn’t even get runner-up, it was so awful. I wasn’t interested in art or aesthetics. I wanted to be a celebrity, smothered with reputation, smoke machine and all.

I went to music school at Interlochen Arts Academy for a year when I was 14 to play oboe and study reed making. It was just awful: four-hour ensemble rehearsals, competitive juries, gossip groups posed as sectionals, practice rooms insulated with asbestos. We were all so maladjusted. I cried everyday. I hated my oboe. It was the only instrument for which I took lessons, and now it’s the only instrument I have no interest in playing (although I use it for overdubbing occasionally). About that time, I started learning the piano by ear, eavesdropping on my sister’s lessons, or listening to recordings of Rachmaninoff. The piano seemed so much more mysterious than the oboe: it had internal organs, a series of interlocking hammers and strings, a lid. I started making up songs, variations on “Chopsticks” or Bach minuets. When I went to college, I started learning guitar, bass guitar, drums, banjo. I bought a cheap kit (two toms, a snare, a kick) and practiced off-beats and 5/4 rhythms. I played recorders for a folk band, then borrowed my sister’s flute. If something was available — an accordion, a sitar, a harmonica — I’d spend enough time noodling to get something down on tape. I was promiscuous — each instrument was a new sordid affair. One thing led to another. I’m not sure where I’m going with all of this. Perhaps you’d like to read my memoirs: “The Promiscuous Pianist and Other Adventures in Making Music.”

To be honest, I have a hard time talking about my music as art because I don’t believe it. Music is something much more primitive: accelerated sound, oscillating waves and reverberations (sine, cosine, etc.). We are only participating in the laws of physics, applying terms like rock ballad, cantata, Catholic mass. My only goal is to extend myself — instrumentally, thematically, theoretically — until I come across something exciting (something otherworldly), making the most joyful noise possible.

DOA: Obviously, you are conversant in a variety of musical languages. How do you decide what sounds you are going for and how do you know when you’ve found them?

SS: Musical languages makes it sound so linguistic, so foreign. I almost failed Latin. But the piano came to me in a matter of weeks. I have a certain inclination to make music, in the same way, probably, that a gymnast has an inclination to balance or jump. Even still, making a good song is always a process of trial and error. I never know what I really want: I start with a note, a minor triad, a major sixth, and go from there. A casual strum on the banjo becomes something else: a funeral march or accompaniment to a Persian dance song, I don’t know, I’m making this up. The less I am prepared (or practiced), the better I sound. Forethought (or even its purpose) is misleading. Practice makes perfect for as long as you think perfection is even possible: then you realize it really isn’t (that you are actually mediocre) and you throw in the towel and start having fun (or you start having a fit). The more I am prepared on an instrument, the less I am surprised (or simply moved) by my performance. For instance, when I first learned to play guitar in college, I used numerous alternate tunings, used forks and hammers on the strings, borrowed effects pedals and whammy bars and vintage amplifiers with tremolo. It was so fun. What I lacked in skill, I made up for in invention. Now, my dexterity on the instrument (albeit modest) is such that I feel less inclined to take risks, to manipulate sound, to trash it. This is an indication that it’s time to take up something else: the flugelhorn, or the clarinet, which I might learn left-handed, or play using the mouthpiece from a tuba. Now really, if only I took such risks.

DOA: With such a dynamic variety of approaches, I would assume you have a rather eclectic musical background. Who are your strongest musical influences?

SS: I listened to standard popular radio — Casey Casem and American Top 40, circa 1987: Prince, Peter Cetera, Cyndi Lauper, Tiffanny. At music school, I started listening to Dvorak and Stravinksy and Shoenberg. I have more Baroque records than anything else. I have a few incredible recordings of Glen Gould, who was notorious for humming while he played. I have a delightful recording of Teleman Suites performed by the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, in period instruments. I’ve leaned, more recently, to appear informed and cultivated: I display records by John Fahey (whom I find tedious and uninspired) and Autechre (which bores me to death). I make mix tapes of Tom Verlaine or Nels Cline to impress friends on road trips. But when I am alone in my room — with a bag of pistachios or a bottle of 7-Up — I pull off my socks and put in the old favorites: Purple Rain, Pat Benetar, anything by The Bangles. I’m sorry, but that’s what it comes down to.

DOA: Enjoy Your Rabbit seems to have a very strong thematic, almost visual, component to the textures. What exactly was the concept behind the album?

SS: Many people say the same thing: that they inevitably end up visualizing a place or a picture when listening (carefully) to the album. Maybe this is the purpose of instrumental music in the first place. There are no lyrics (or narrative) to encourage the listener. Therefore you are free to imagine what you like. Originally, I wanted to create an aural environment for each animal: a movie soundtrack (without the movie). It required tremendous patience and self-abnegation: I could only use my voice as an instrument, without words or text. I could only use original material, live recording, or manual drum sequencing (no sampling or MIDI). I wanted to use organic wind instruments to make mechanical sounds. I made oboes to sound like fog horns, or xylophones to sound like microwaves. I tweaked and manipulated live tracks, wrote whole songs (with contrapuntal riffs, seven part harmonies, trumpet flourishes and tom-toms) that later became samples for a subsequent song. I amassed hours (months, years) of raw material, rending it in all directions, amending, mixing, extracting, abridging — until I was left with the most minute sample of something (a bravado hum, a digital hiss, a nuance of vibrato) which might somehow, in some abstract way, resemble an ox, or a rooster, or a horse. It was all very hit or miss. In the process, I began to develop an affinity, an affectionate bearing, a deep love for the songs, to empower them with symbolism, extrapolating meaning and purpose and bullshit art theory in the same way a museum curator directs the viewer with condescending exposition (plagiarized from a graduate thesis) printed on the walls. I put together argumentative essays, stanzas of free verse poetry, persuasive dissertations and assertions (using algorithms and geometric proofs and anthropomorphic relationships between animals) to prove the existence of God based on the 12-year lunar calendar! It all seemed so possible! So heroic! So divinely-inspired! Of course, when it comes down to it, the music reviewer wants to know: does it have a beat?

DOA: Do you generally construct songs as individual entities or as companion pieces to other songs on the album?

SS: I was asked this question for an interview with Sound Collector, so I’m going to give you the same answer. As an exercise, some painters work in a series to develop their skill. Cézanne’s still lifes or Cindy Sherman’s movie stills are examples in which an artist generates multiple pieces within a certain criteria (a theme, a setting, a particular color) to produce a series. Musicians do this as well: Vivaldi’s Four Seasons or Danielson’s A Prayer For Every Hour. I normally don’t write a song in consideration for its greater context. My first album is a hodge-podge of songs that have very little to do with each other. Naturally, each song I write is an independent event. I suppose it’s our arty postures (and clever ideas) that impose context. The decision to record songs for astrological symbols was arbitrary. I’ve done this before: a series of songs for the apostles, songs for the planets, songs for different places I’ve been — Eugene, Ore.; Holland, Mich.; New York City. More and more I find it helpful (even liberating) to impose such limitations (songs in the key of D, songs for women in the Bible, songs in 5/4) because these limitations allow me to exercise, to practice, to hone my skill (if I can use a hackneyed phrase). Like any art exhibit or piano sonata, you would hope that an album suggests the slightest semblance of organization, of cohesiveness, even if its organization is meant to be disorganized. This is a good thing.

DOA: How did it come about that you became affiliated with the Asthmatic Kitty and Sounds Familyre labels?

SS: My stepfather and I started Asthmatic Kitty as a resource for musicians in Holland, Mich., where I went to undergraduate school. I assembled a series of 4-track songs and it became our first release. We printed 1,000 copies and walked them around local stores, asking: “Will you carry our merchandise?” When I moved to New York City (for graduate school), I began to meet other folks: Dan Smith (of Danielson Famile), Mike Kaufmann (of therefore) and Glen Galloway (of Soul Junk). A few years later, we got to know John Ringhofer (Half-handed Cloud), and I heard some of his music and thought, this is the most interesting stuff I’ve heard in a long time. Isn’t that how it all starts? I sent some mixes to my stepfather, who had relocated to Santa Fe, N.M., and we knew right away that we had something good. We decided to start acting like a real label. We hired promoters, conglomerated e-mails, distributed flyers, begged writers and reviewers to consider us, please, just this once! We “discovered” another act: Liz Janes, a haggard blues singer from San Diego — Nina Simone meets Sonic Youth — and we went to work immediately on recording her material. I produced, arranged, and mastered her album in a matter of months; we assembled a promotional CD (To Spirit Back the Mews), organized an Asthmatic Kitty family reunion, invited international acts, baked cakes and cookies, wore head bands with cat ears, invited the press. We do everything ourselves, from design to pre-press to recording to mastering. It’s such a lot of work, but isn’t it worth it? Of course, all of this is done in honor of my stepfather’s two cats, Tabby and Sara, who suffer various breathing disorders: asthma, allergies, etc. We love and respect them very much.

I have a little less involvement with Soundsfamilyre, but we are closely connected (Soundsfamilyre co-released Half-handed Cloud’s debut, and Dan will be releasing an album of my banjo and guitar songs this year). I guess my involvement with Soundsfamilyre has as much to do with my involvement with the Danielson Famil e —I’m an occasional helper, an itinerant foster sibling. They have been unbelievably gracious. It has been such an inspiring and rewarding experience to work with them. I’m from a large family as well, so perhaps I feel comfortable in a familial environment. I suppose one difference between the two labels is that Soundsfamilyre is probably more invested in music by people of faith; I can’t speak for Dan, but I think he has a remarkable conviction to support and cultivate a community of skilled believers (in making them accountable to their craft and to their Creator). Asthmatic Kitty has no faith-associations (or stipulations) whatsoever. We produce agnostics and Anglicans alike.

DOA: Similarly, what were the circumstances by which you became an honorary member of the Danielson Famile?

SS: I’m not sure how this all started. I helped organize a festival a few years ago that included Danielson Famile. It was my first time seeing them live. It was unbelievable. After that we just kept in touch. It turns out that my proclivity to doodle on any number of instruments is finally paying off. Dan asked me to fill in for brother Chris on organ last year for a short tour, and then I contributed some banjo parts when he returned. It was really a fun time. It sounds like children’s music, but the parts are tough. Later, I had to learn Andrew’s parts on percussion for the Famile’s European tour. Then Dan asked me to open up for him on a short Brother Danielson tour, which was unbelievable. I guess I just try to help out whenever I can. I’m not a member, by any means. I’m a servant helper. It’s not everyday you get to wear a doctor’s uniform and clap your hands on stage.

DOA: How much does your faith influence your art?

SS: Well, faith is art: the art of taking a big risk, I suppose — the art of making a big mistake and suffering the consequences. But logistically I suppose my process of making art is driven less by abstractions of faith or politics and more by practical theory: composition and balance and color. On an aesthetic level, faith and art are a dangerous match. Today, they can quickly lead to devotional artifice or didactic crap. This would summarize the Christian publishing world or the Christian music industry. If you are an artist of faith (a Methodist or a Jew), then you have the responsibility to manage the principles of your faith wisely lest they be reduced to stereotype, which is patronizing to the church and to the world, and, perhaps, to God. Consider what John Zorn has done for Jewish music. It’s not so much that faith influences us as it lives in us. In every circumstance (giving a speech or tying my shoes), I am living and moving and being. This absolves me from ever making the embarrassing effort to gratify God (and the church) by imposing religious content on anything I do. I mean, I’ve written songs about stalkers. Is that any less religious than a song about an ordained pastor? No way.

DOA: Daniel Smith doesn’t like the Danielson Famile to be labeled as a Christian rock band because he says that they make music intended for everyone, not just Christians. Yet, obviously their faith plays a central role in their creative process. Can you really separate your art from your faith?

SS: It’s a question of modifiers. How is the phrase “Christian rock band” different from “a band of Christians” or “a band of rockers,” or (yikes!) “A band of Christian rockers”? There’s a huge difference. If I’m a vegetarian, would I aspire to cultivate vegetarian fans? I don’t care what they eat, as long as they are eating regularly. As for your question of faith (which I think has nothing to do with Dan’s statement): on a certain level you cannot separate art from faith, because it is our persuasions which drive us to create. An agnostic painter might use the expression ideologies instead of religion, but it’s the same thing. Whether you are religious about politics or fashion (or saving the whales), you are still motivated by your convictions to participate in art. But I don’t think that means faith should necessarily prescribe art. In fact, this is a dangerous assumption, which often leads to music that is pedagogical, or a novel that is moralistic. As for our intentions, well, that’s all bunk. We may intend our music for one person or another, but who’s to say? I can’t decide who reads my novel or buys my record. Look what that did for Jonathon Franzen, who snubbed Oprah for liking his book. It’s an arrogant, imperialist motive to try to determine who will receive you and who won’t.

DOA: With artists like the Danielson Famile, Soul-Junk, Half-Handed Cloud, the Singing Mechanic, and yourself all making adventurous and artistically viable faith-themed music, do you think we’re seeing a new era for Christian music?

SS: No. Not at all. There have always been extraordinary movements of faith, and extraordinary movements of music, but they are not always necessarily correlated. I don’t make faith-themed music. I’m working under very modest auspices. Bach’s Mass in B-Minor is faith-themed music. I’m no expert on the idea of eras: that’s for historians to decide in retrospect. I hardly think that a bunch of us kids are motivating some revolutionary era of faith-music. In fact, I stumbled across The Danielson Famile very late in the game. They’d already been in Spin, Index, Rolling Stone, all that. I missed the whole show. I came to New York with the intention of unearthing this wild scene. What I found was as discombobulated as the free-jazz movement, or indie rock, or the club scene. I mean, Christian music doesn’t really exist except in terms of a convenient yet unavailing identification tag for newspapers and magazines. I like to think we are all participating in the work of a Kingdom that has survived Gregorian chants, Amy Grant, and Stryper. In fact, I don’t think your question is in regard to history, but to commerce. I just read an article in Q Magazine about the popularity of Christian mega-bands in America: Creed or POD or whatever they’re called. I don’t suppose its so unusual that members of these bands are believers (Britney Spears, U2, and most R&B stars prescribe to some form of Christianity). But it suddenly seems strange to people (to the press, or to the consumer, I’m not sure which) that their faith should not prescribe their art or their merchandising. Christian music (as a genre) exists exclusively within the few insulated floors (cubicles and computers included) of some corporate construction in Nashville, Tenn. Otherwise, there’s no such thing as Christian music.

DOA: What direction is your new music heading and when can we expect to hear your next album?

SS: Oh that’s a surprise. But I will let on that I spent a month sabbatical in January at my sister’s cabin in the snowy hills near Pickerel Lake, Mich., with a grand piano and a coffee maker and my 8-track recorder.

DOA: What artists or albums have caught your attention lately?

SS: I’ve lost track of what’s new and hot. A sign of middle age. But everyone’s still talking this and that about Stereolab because they seamlessly suffuse so many familiar genres, and do it intelligently, and with discretion. Who else can make 7/8 sound so groovy? Neil Young’s latest Silver and Gold is just wonderful. Also, the one electronic album I keep returning to is Niggung Nuing (how do you spell that? how do you pronounce that), by Mouse on Mars (but honestly a lot of that stuff is really boring, isn’t it?). I can tell you what I absolutely hate: Jim O’Rourke (fancy engineering gets you nowhere if you’re writing easy-listening Air Supply rip-offs and can’t sing); Wilco (any-kind-of-hyphenated-country-music-is-just-not-country-music-if-you-ask-me); Sea and Cake; Silver Jews; or any other racial slur.

DOA: Finally, if somehow Stryper was to reform and wanted you to play banjo on their reunion tour, what would your reaction be?

SS: If they’d buy me a banjo with stripes, I’d do it. If they’d buy me underwear briefs with stripes, I’d do it. If they paid me well, I’d do it. I’d do anything for money.