Adz Future: Sufjan Stevens Interview

Posted May 3, 2011 in Music Features

DDF apr-may-24 – Desktop

In the pantheon of musicians making Big American Music, Sufjan Stevens might be counted as an analog to Jonathan Franzen in literature. A couple of formative early records (A Sun Came, Enjoy Your Rabbit) acted as tasters for his expansive later work (the Michigan and Illinois albums, part of the now-abandoned project of documenting each American state with its own album). Stylistically recognizable for his banjo and piano-laden odes to heroes and villains both human and man-made, Stevens re-injected the Americana singer-songwriter stereotype with a newfound clarity of vision and musical adventurousness.

The Age of Adz (that’s pronounced ‘Odds’, folks), his latest work, takes the non-conformity of his work to a wholly stranger field. Dashes of autotune and twenty minute songs aside, Adz represents either a rebirth or a new perspective from Stevens. Still intact is the vast musical tableau and the biblical intensity that are his calling cards. All you lucky ducks with tickets for his upcoming Olympia Theatre shows are in for a treat – not only is Adz an inspired piece of work, but now the Sufjan brigade have dance moves and neon costumes to match. Here is Sufjan Stevens talking about things.

Hey Sufjan. Where you at?
I’m in Brooklyn. It’s good. We’ve had a real severe winter. But now it’s getting hot.

Likewise. It’s pretty inappropriate since I’m sitting in the sun eating an ice-cream, but I thought we might talk about the end of the world.
That sounds fine.

The Japanese earthquake seemed to make everybody feel pretty apocalyptic. Maybe it’s the nuclear element. Maybe it’s the 2012 conspiracy videos on Youtube. But do you think the world is any closer to coming to an end than it was in, like, the 15th century?
I think so. Geologically speaking, it’s a living breathing force that’s far beyond what we can contain as people, as civilization. We’ve lived in a delusion and somehow created a social, civic network that makes us feel completely severed from the natural world. Which is one of the great mistakes we’ve made.

The Age of Adz hints at the story of Pompeii and Vesuvius, this entire population wiped out by an arbitrary force, which makes me think that maybe environmental consciousness is almost a waste of time – the Earth can still completely fuck us over of its own accord. Does that terrify you?
It’s pretty terrifying. I guess somehow we think we’re the ultimate species because of our consciousness, like we have this leverage of our cerebral power. But we’re animals, and it’s all about survival of the fittest. I think that our life is not our own. We have the short privilege of being stewards of these bodies. But I think there’s a lot to be learned from meditating on mortality. I don’t know if I buy into the apocalypse as a literal event, but I do see it as a… slow and inevitable death…

Stand-out lyric from the album: ‘words are futile devices’. Are words futile devices?
I believe in the force of language, and I believe that words create reality. But I think that reality will always be an illusion, it’s not actuality, it’s a representation, and so there’s a limited value and function for any symbol. It’s just an indication of a deeper, greater transcendent thing. I’ve started to realize more and more lately that language is a utility, but it’s also a futility.

This album explores different modes of communication, whether that’s sound or texture, or using dance in the live show – what kind of processes did you use to eke out some of the sounds on the album, and are they specifically expressive of anything more profound?
A lot of the noise experiments are very much trial and error, and playing around with gear. Doing away with the strummy guitar and banjo and piano, and starting out with just gear, computers, electronics and synthesizers… A lot of it was kind of built on a structure of accidents, and improv. Some of it’s deliberate in its refinement and architecture, but the source material is accidental. I don’t know how that relates to language except that maybe it’s like speaking in tongues… You don’t know what you’re saying, but you know it’s coming from inside.

Do you still enjoy more traditional songwriting from a listener’s perspective? DM Stith, for example, is supporting you on tour, and he’d be classed as very much a traditional songwriter.
I still love songwriting and folk music, and I guess I’m essentially still a folk musician. This is for me a season of experimentation. It’s an exercise for me to shake off old habits and try new things. I haven’t walked away from folk songwriting at all.

A large part of folk songwriting is that it’s narrative-driven, and while Age of Adz is a lot more abstract you’re pretty well known for being a good storyteller. Do you engage with that outside of music?
I used to write a lot of fiction when I was younger. I still write a little bit here and there, but it’s less and less so as I take music more and more seriously.

Are you reading anything at the moment?
I’m trying to read Proust’s Swann’s Way, the translation by Lydia Davis at the moment which is really beautiful, but dense, and requires patience and suspension of immediate desires… That’s the pretentious one I’m reading at the moment. Oh, actually! I just finished reading the Road by Cormac McCarthy which is about the end of the world, of course.

There’s this awesome book I’m reading for our new issue called The Atlas of Remote Islands, which is this combination of cartography and fiction. The author’s picked 50 islands from around the world that she has never, and will never visit, and written these one page anecdotes from each island, and then painstakingly drawn beautiful maps of the island, which reminded me of the erstwhile 50 States project.
Oh yeah, that sounds fascinating. Islands have this pull on me too. As an island inhabitant do you think that there’s a whole different kind of culture that comes with living somewhere removed from other places around you?

Absolutely. I think it fosters a much denser mythology and cultural habits. And everybody is inbred. Would you like to own an island?
I would love to live on an island. I was recently in Australia and New Zealand, and they’re extremely isolated. There’s a sense of isolation and mystery, and a kind of a quietness to it that I really enjoy.

Do you secretly hope there’s a retirement home in Florida at the end of all this for you?
I guess there’s peace in death. Work is the curse of man, but it’s also a privilege. The work of our hands is an honour, it’s our legacy. It’s constant work, effort, and movement. We’ve applied this negative connotation to work – toiling and labouring is a curse in the Christian sense. But in the natural world it’s done with this instinct, there is no application of grief or pleasure to work.

We got that Nintendo Wii game, Just Dance in our house recently, and I like how learning some really simple routines gets you over the self-consciousness that I think comes with dancing for most people – given that it’s so much related to remembering and repeating patterns, do you find it’s like learning new songs on an instrument?
It’s definitely similar. They say that when you move you’re stimulating memories, that the act of dance is the act of remembering. I feel that when I’m making music and writing a song, I don’t feel like I’m venturing into something new, I feel like I’m gathering from something that exists already. I don’t know if it’s an event or an episode of my own, or if it’s the Universe’s. I’m just bringing it together and participating in that. And dance is the same as that. It’s traditional and ritualistic, it’s kind of like you’re participating in something much bigger. We’ve been doing a lot of dance in the show… as much as we can. I’m sort of stuck to the microphone, but the girls are getting to do it a lot more than I am. But we’re really trying to inhabit the music, physically, I never really experimented with that in the past. I’m enjoying associating movement with lyrics.

The clips I’ve seen remind me of Parliament/Funkadelic. Are you expecting a lot more audience participation than maybe before? Neon-clad fans might be an interesting spectacle.
I guess I don’t have discretion anymore… there’s no holding back. The performance is totally an exercise in excess, it’s definitely got a cosmic space-jam feel to it. It totally comes from Funkadelic, and probably Pink Floyd, and a little bit of Janet Jackson. If I could afford it and get away with it, I would completely have laser lights, balloons, confetti, the works.

I think more conservative music fans are coming back around to the spectacle of a live show.
It’s a really unique opportunity to experiment with a lot of new things. It’s become much more valuable and transcended the album. The show is an investment as an audience member, it’s a very special self-contained event, and I think more people are taking advantage of that and trying to communicate with something new and different. I’m into spectacles.

Sufjan Stevens plays shows at the Olympia on the 17th and 18th of May. His album, The Age of Adz, is available in all non-dubstep-specific record shops now.

Words: Daniel Gray



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