Satire with bells on
Sufjan Stevens's playful Christmas album has a dark side - The singer-song writer tells James McNair why, in truth, he can't stand Santa
When I meet Sufjan Stevens for the only face-to-face interview he’s doing on this trip to Europe, he’s photographing his live-sound engineer by their Barbican theatre-parked tour bus. Last night, said technician dislocated his knee in Manchester, whereupon Stevens carried him off-stage and into the arms of waiting paramedics. The photographing of the restored patella – or at least of its smiling owner – seems important to Stevens, the full stop on a small saga of employer/employee care, as it were. As we shall see, this is a musician who does things differently.
“Different” was certainly a word that came to mind when one learned of his Fifty States Project, wherein he pledged to record an album themed around every US state. With only Greetings From Michigan and his eclectic masterpiece Illinois behind him, it would take Stevens, 31, until he was 79 to complete his undertaking at the brisk pace of one album per year. Though he should perhaps be getting his skates on, he has instead just filed Songs F Christmas, a five-CD set of traditional/original material recorded between 2001-2006. How he found time to make the painted butterfly/bird wings that he and his 10-piece band currently wear for gigs is anybody’s guess.
We repair to a café and Stevens puts contact lenses in. He’s simultaneously handsome and geeky, the upturned earmuffs of his Russian hat a comic aside to his swarthy good looks. Though not without a dry sense of humour (“It’s a charming militaristic Muslim name” he has said of his Armenian first name, which means “comes with a sword”), Stevens knows his scholarly lyrics and the dark intensity that pervades some of his wonderfully idiosyncratic songs have cast him in a certain light. Songs For Christmas, it seems, is partly an attempt to redress the balance.
“Hopefully it’s more fun,” he says of the album that includes takes on “Jingle Bells” and “The Little Drummer Boy.” “There are lots of big choruses, lots of trumpets, and it has more humour. Most of the songs started out as gifts for friends and family, but it turned into an epic project, partly because of the fairly extraordinary packaging [the box set’s many extras include lyric sheets, animations, comic strips, and short stories penned by Stevens]. In some ways it’s the most complicated record I’ve released.”
While the sleigh bells-imbued “Let’s Boogie To The Elf Dance!” and brass-bolstered “Get Behind Me, Santa!” are frolicsome originals, the latter clearly has a satirical aspect, too, its line about Christmas becoming a four-letter word (Xmas), a reminder that he is a practising Christian. Anagrams aside, though, is Santa really The Great Satan?
“Santa is such an icon,” he says, “and I’m frustrated, because if you trace his origins he’s based on an important and philanthropic Catholic Saint, yet we’ve ended up with this overweight, cartoonish guy who breaks into people’s houses. At our recent shows we’ve been throwing lots of inflatable Santas into the audience, and I don’t know if it’s indulgence or masochism. The truth is I can’t stand Santa.
“We’ve taken a very sacred time and commodified it, so that there’s a capitalist campaign to buy more, consume more, and then you have a conflict between the spiritual and the mundane. I don’t want to sound didactic, but that’s what I think.”
As we’ve touched upon spiritual matters I ask Stevens about his faith. He says he doesn’t want to proselytise and doesn’t feel comfortable talking about his Christianity in a public forum. He does affirm, however, that his priority is “to serve God and to serve people.”
He’s a little happier discussing how his beliefs inform his business decisions, describing his approach as a “socialist bohemian” or “cooperative” one in which everybody he works with needs to be taken care of. “I shouldn’t be making decisions based on making money, or gaining exposure for its own sake,” he adds, “and when we tour I get paid the same as everybody else.”
Sufjan Stevens was born in Detroit, Michigan, and grew up in “the chilly upper reaches of the Lower Peninsula.” He briefly mentions his father, stepfather, mother and stepmother in the course of our chat, and this, coupled with his natural reticence to discuss his nearest and dearest, makes the jigsaw of his upbringing tricky to assemble.
In concert, he is a tad more forthright, telling how the banjo-led title track of his 2004 album Seven Swans was inspired by a fire that occurred when his father’s ritual burning of a rubbish heap set a ring of cedar trees alight. The fireman who extinguished the blaze sat around singing songs with the Stevens family afterwards, and Sufjan saw Old Testament-like “signs” in the smoke-filled sky. The song’s conflation of fact and seeming magic-realism is striking indeed.
Together with his brother Marzuki (now an Olympic-class marathon runner) and sister Djohariah, the young Sufjan attended Detroit Waldorf School, an establishment big on the teachings of the Austrian philosopher Rudolph Steiner.
“It had a huge influence on me. They pushed music and the arts over academics. There was lots of making things from strictly organic materials; lots of knotting and beeswax (laughs). It was weird to be part of that educational environment in dirty, run-down old Detroit, though. Our house and our car were broken into all the time and we’d get beaten up.”
Stevens’s step-father, Lowell – the pair would eventually set up the independent label Asthmatic Kitty together – introduced him to some choice music, mailing cassettes of Neil Young’s Harvest and Nick Drake’s Pink Moon which the 10-year-old Sufjan listened to on headphones while walking to school.
His own musical development later flourished at Hope College, Michigan, where he became proficient on oboe, recorder, banjo, guitar, bass, drums, piano and more. Stevens’s talent in scoring for all-manner of instrumentation, and the breadth of his influences make sense in the light of this; the inspired arrangements on Illinois, for example, can evoke Steve Reich, Aaron Copeland and jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi as well as folk and pastoral rock luminaries.
We should point out, however, that his early Asthmatic Kitty releases, A Sun Came (2000) and Enjoy Your Rabbit (2001), were not especially listener-friendly and sold accordingly. Indeed, the latter was an all-instrumental work based around the animals of the Chinese Zodiac, and for all its charms, basically amounted to The Year of the Turkey for Stevens. This gave him pause for thought, and he moved to New York City to study creative writing at The New School For Social Research.
“At that point, music had begun to feel like a hobby,” he says, laughing. “For two years I hardly played at all. It felt like a positive kind of fasting. The syllabus on my writing course was multi-cultural and pretty modern; we were reading authors like Saul Bellow and Zadie Smith. I was mostly writing short stories, so I was also reading Carver and Chekov.”
“Enjoy Your Rabbit was about self-abnegation, exercising restraint,” he goes on, “but when I started doing music again I was writing songs on acoustic guitar and banjo. Everything had turned full circle.”
The resulting album, Greetings From Michigan, put Stevens on the map, its personal songs touching on topics such as his parents’ unemployment and his friend Vito’s ordination. It was 2005’s Illinois, though – a true cornucopia that is part people’s history, part gazetteer - which marked a leap forward.
Illinois is the album The Eels’ Mark Oliver Everett chose to give Tom Waits as a gift. It’s also the record that turned Pete Townshend onto Stevens’s work. Joyous and moving, it is has an almost limitless capacity to repay repeat visits, Stevens researching its settings and characters like a novel, then setting the lyrics to some wonderful music.
Its most affecting track, perhaps, is named for the Chicago-born seri-al killer, John Wayne Gacy Jr, the song’s mesmerising, Stevens and Shara Worden-sung vocal getting right under the skin. Did he have any misgivings about tackling such a delicate subject? “I worried that there might have been a carelessness in trying to sympathize with him. I did research and read some of the newspaper stories and it felt as though I was entertaining that sick obsession which people have with violent crime. “I’d been writing about heroic figures such as Lincoln on Illinois, but they were less manageable, somehow. John Wayne Gacy felt more real, even though he was so inhumane. Some people have read the song as a comment upon human sin or depravity – there’s a bit of that, but it’s not a theological statement. I will admit that I am capable of doing what he did, even although I don’t have those impulses and have never behaved in that way.” Is that why the lyric shifts to the first person at the end of the song, Stevens singing: “And in my best behaviour / I am really just like him”? “Yes, but I think that confused people and it confused me, too. When I sing those lines I feel like a complete moron. Am I confessing my sins, or am I making a blank statement about human behaviour? Perhaps I continue to sing the song because it’s a way of meditating upon it. It’s like a prayer you say over and over again, as much a repentance as it is a question.”
What, though, of the follow-up proper to Illinois? Good as they are, Songs For Christmas and this year’s Illinois outtakes album The Avalanche seem like adroit pit stops.
“You know, I don’t think Illinois is as good as people say it is. I feel some external pressure to follow-it up well, but I feel more pressure from myself, and my own goals, which are much grander than anything I can ever accomplish. My way of dealing with it is to try and find ways of making music that are fresh for me. Hopefully that will be enough.”
‘Songs For Christmas’ is out on 4 December on Rough Trade