Sufjan Stevens

BY Vish KhannaPublished Oct 29, 2009

One of the most celebrated and respected artists in all of contemporary pop music, Sufjan Stevens is a Michigan native who calls Brooklyn, NY home. Stevens is a renowned multi-instrumentalist, composer, and songwriter who challenges himself with daring musical projects, such as crafting an album inspired by each of the 50 United States of America, two of which, Michigan and Illinois, are among the most astonishing releases of this young millennium. A founder of the equally ambitious Asthmatic Kitty record label, his latest effort was commissioned by the Brooklyn Academy of Music and is a remarkable multimedia feat called The BQE, which consists of a visually stunning film, a stirring orchestral soundtrack, a stereoscopic View-Master reel, and, in limited edition, a 40-page comic book about characters known as the Hooper Heroes. Hours before his most recent Toronto show at Lee's Palace, Stevens shared his thoughts on the BQE and the state of the world.

The BQE overwhelms me in many ways because it really is a stimulating and provocative kind of sensory overload. I see in it all of the pageantry and curious fascination with human ingenuity that you've infused your work with in the past but the visual motion of it all is something new. Can you discuss the creative process that inspired the BQE to come to fruition?
Well, the object itself inspired the piece. There's a 12-mile urban expressway that runs from the bottom of Queens all the way through Brooklyn, framed by the Triborough Bridge and the Verrazano Bridge in the south. It's this sort of piecemeal road that cuts in and out of the neighbourhoods in Brooklyn.

Okay, so you see this bridge there and decide you're gonna do something. How did you come up with the approach that you ended up taking with The BQE?
My first approach was pretty literal, which was to capture images of the expressway from all different angles, and I wanted to do that with moving pictures instead of photographs. So I decided to hire a cinematographer [Reuben Kleiner] from Pratt, an art university in Brooklyn. He helped me with all the 16 mm footage, which was shot on Bolex. And then I used Super 8 as well, which I've been using for years. And we just went around for a couple months and set up all these different shots, different angles, and tried different techniques. Some of it's stop-animation, some is time-lapse, slow-mo, night and day shots. So that was more technical, just gathering information.

And then, looking at the footage, I would start to write movie soundtrack themes, ideas, and motifs that would accompany the images. Because the BQE is such an ugly, concrete form that doesn't inspire much, I decided to utilize other concepts. One of them was some of the principles of Subud, which is a religious group that my parents were in when I was a kid, from which my name, Sufjan, derives. So I used that, which was pretty arbitrary but it felt like a weird kind of conceptual starting point because it's so abstract. The group is about spiritual enlightenment and it's not even a religion; there's not really a deity. It's about transcendent spiritual experiences, which they call latihan. It comes from meditation that you do in groups. The cosmology and the symbolism of that religious organization started to work its way into the form, musically, of The BQE. So, I just started using those ideas. One of them is that there's seven rings and seven lines in the Subud symbol, so I started to focus on this idea of seven ― as a time signature, as a number of movements, and as a theme and religious number. There were also the lines versus the circle; conceptually it was about circular motion versus linear motion and the expressway represented lines and the transcendent mediation of Subud represented circles. There are different rings that relate to different levels of enlightenment. And then the hula hoop fit its way into that, conveniently, just because of geometry (laughs). So, it was all just gathering for months, all these different, pre-existing conceptual foundations, and then working them together, even if it didn't make any sense at first.

And the form of the film itself is these three angles of the same image, kinda juxtaposed together. What were you trying to convey there?
We wanted to really capture the panorama of the landscape and cityscape of Brooklyn. The BQE itself is a very wide angle object. It's impossible to capture in a 6 x 9 or 4 x 3 format, which is what were using to film. So we decided to fabricate a wide-screen image by using three images. So, it's super-wide and it's all about intersections. It's all intersecting lines, and it's all linear. It created really interesting geometric shapes by juxtaposing different scenes and angles. It made for interesting visuals.

Yeah, it's a collage of images and colours in a way. For anyone, the BQE would be a lofty endeavour but, in some ways, you gravitate to this scale of artistic expression. What motivates you to take on such grand projects?
Well y'know, I don't think I set out to make epic projects. I think the projects themselves become unmanageable in the process and I end up producing so much for a single project that they end up taking over and becoming much bigger and grander than I'd anticipated.

You're saying you get the kernel for an idea and then it just expands?
Yeah, I never intended for this to be so drastic or extensive. In the case of the commission from BAM, I was definitely working within a form. The piece itself had to exist in an opera house seating 2,000 people and fill the space visually, aurally, and conceptually. So I knew I had to work within that scale and that's why I wanted these three images, a miniature orchestra, and live hula hoopers, because I felt like that was what was required, y'know (laughs)!

Right, what would a show be without live hula hoopers?
(Laughs) It's also economics. I had the grant so I had the money to see things through. And then after the piece premiered and it came time to condense this into an album, I was really frustrated by the inability to reduce it to a CD or an LP. That's when I started to develop more of the expository parts of the essay, and that's when the comic book developed. So, the whole thing was unwarranted of course, but was heedlessly enraptured by this conceptual ideal or grand idea of just venturing beyond what was normal or rational to capture it, and satisfy my creative desire to have a set piece that would represent The BQE.

Well, that speaks to The BQE but you're saying generally, a lot of your ideas come from really basic structures?
Yeah. They're really small. I really work on a very microscopic level. I really think in terms of the song or folk song, and I work within a very conservative frame of melody, accompaniment, and narrative. So really, really basic, simple forms. And they just end up becoming hybrids or amended or expanded to form greater, epic, set pieces.

Well, in speaking of ideas and motivations, how did you come to start playing music and so many instruments?
Well, I play a lot of things but not very well. I would never say I'm a master of any one instrument. I'm a real utilitarian musician and I just use what I can for the purposes of the song. My training was in oboe, which I studied for a bit in middle school. I went to Interlochen for a year, which is a music school in Michigan, and that's where I got my basic training in music. But it was all classical music and wind ensemble and band music and it wasn't really a creative outlet for me. When I went to music school, I found that I was rehearsing and practicing but it wasn't satisfying creatively. So I started playing the piano by ear, just from hearing people rehearsing. I tried to learn the mechanics and basic theory of piano on my own and, when I started doing that, it felt like it was coming from a different place. I felt really awakened creatively from just mimicking other people's playing. I would just translate or do Reader's Digest versions of students practicing Bach minuets.

How old were you when you did this?
This was when I was 13 or 14, ninth grade, maybe? I had played the recorder in elementary school at Waldorf School, and I had some recorders. I think it was my second year of college when my roommate left a guitar. That's really when I started writing songs; before that I was just sorta messing around on piano.

Right, okay. The score you've composed for The BQE is eclectic and dramatic and, outside of some cool electronic flourishes, generally consists of instrumentation that some might associate with pop-oriented orchestral music. What do you suppose draws you to these bubbling, soaring sounds?
Dude yeah, I dunno (laughs)! So many unexpected things happened in producing this. I'd set out to write a piece that felt really cool and slick, and really modern. I ended up writing a piece that feels really anachronistic, romantic, and melodramatic. I didn't intend that. I think that has something to do with who I am innately and how I communicate using music. They're definitely processed through a melodramatic film or screen.

There often seems to be an arc or development like a plot, towards something intriguing.
Yeah, there's also a sense of humour in every movement. It's very comical and whimsical and constantly moving. The instruments kinda become like cartoon voices. I wonder if it's maybe just from listening to Peter and the Wolf or Fantasia or whatever. There's something very animated about it. It's also because a lot of the footage is stop-animation or time-lapse. The music is meant to augment that.

Well, speaking of that, with the hula hoops and superhero costumes of the Hooper Heroes, you've again reflected a fantastical comic book world within the context of your music; what is it about this medium that appeals to you as a visual artist?
You might have a better perspective in assessing my motivation in all that, in creating a fabulous, fabricated environment. I'm not really sure where it comes from. It's probably just the fact that I believe what I do is artificial ― that art is artifice and a fabrication. It's not real; it's a reflection or representation of reality but it isn't reality. So, the colours are much more saturated y'know, in the artwork and the sounds are much more dramatized. There's a kinda melodrama inherent in almost everything I do, whereas myself as an ordinary, every day human being, I'm extremely normal, ordinary, level-headed, phlegmatic, and I don't have dramatic outbursts. Whereas my music is always clamouring for attention and so I think it's like an alter ego. It's true for a lot of artists but my work is really animated; it's the work of the imagination. It's the language that I use to represent very real, true, ordinary, and tragic events in every day life. For me, the BQE is a tragic object because of how it's displaced people, the way it's an obstacle, the pollution and noise, and the constant upkeep and the traffic and all that. It's a very real, practical problem in my life every day and my way of rendering that through art is to transform it into a fabulous object. Into a transcendent, phenomenal experience that's completely unreal, completely artificial. The Hooper Heroes come to represent all these issues ― environmentalism, urban planning, and the plight of the pedestrian versus the monstrosity of the city. The Hooper Heroes represent that as these artificial comic book characters.

It is fascinating to me that your route to escapism is often rooted in real places and things. They're not phenomena, they're states, they're places people can visit. I guess you're just re-imagining them in a weird way.
Yeah, maybe I have a utopian view. Maybe I'm an idealist in that way. Because I think in regular life, I'm a bit of a pessimist. I don't necessarily presume the best in life for me. I expect things will work out but in my work, it's definitely a heightened idealism.

Well, it's not even to suggest that it's idealism. I think you tackle some really dark things but it does come across as bright and shiny in some ways, even though you're dealing with weird and damaging things.
It's weird how palatable the music really is. I don't really make music that's inaccessible necessarily. There are bits of noise and discord here and there but generally, it's actually very palatable and based on awe and wonder.

Earlier I mentioned your interest in human innovation, which I see as a recurring theme in your aesthetic. Whether its states in your country, man-made infrastructures, or cultural products like cars and hula hoops, you seem to have a deep fascination with the human spirit and its drive to create tangible things and essentially memorialize itself. Why do you suppose your work has been so immersed in this sort of social connection and commentary?
I dunno. It might have something to do with having been born and raised in Detroit, which is the centre of automobile innovation. Now that it's in decline and kind of a wasting city that is seriously recessed and depressed, maybe I somehow feel like my role is to celebrate these innovations and participate in some way. And I think my work is often about nature versus civilization. I see that there's a reverence, awe, and a fear of the natural world in the sense of William Blake or Wordsworth, who were in awe of the landscape and that society is opposed to the natural landscape. I don't want to be such a pessimist in terms of civilization but I think some times that my work is pitting those two powers against each other. That, to be a human now in the post-industrial world, is to really reside in the ambiguity of that state of being ― being an organic, natural entity born of the earth but raised in industrial society. A society of products, engineering, and innovation, and our whole world is completely buttressed by these mechanical objects, which allow for the progression of man. We live longer and supposedly healthier; we can fight diseases; and can overcome the ills of our natural state through science and technology. And obviously that's a very mid-century, '50s, utopian worldview that I borrow because I think a lot of my work is based on that aesthetic.

Right. So you think that's coming through in your work?
There's a bit of that going on. It's kinda reductionist to say that it's just "nature versus civilization." There are cars and houses...

Even states, as we discussed earlier. I feel like it call comes down to these man-made structures.
Everything can be viewed as a man-made construct. We're forced by consciousness to determine the boundary lines and state lines and even psychological lines, like roles and things like that. Society is all fabrication. What else is there but the freedom of the madman in the jungle? That doesn't really exist that much any more.

Hm. Well, speaking of making things and leaving them behind, how and why did you start Asthmatic Kitty Records?
Well, I started it with Lowell, my step dad, because he had a real interest in music and had been collecting records for years. I couldn't really find anyone to release my music so we just decided to self-release it. He started the label primarily as a platform for me to release my music and it started out as nothing ― just as like a couple hundred CDs sitting in a room somewhere. Just through developing relationships, like ones with Lisa [Moran] and Tyler [Clark Burke] at Three Gut Records, we learned a lot about how to run a label, how to develop and grow, and release other artists. It really was a very unintentional, modest endeavour early on. I never really wanted to own and run a label. It was more his intention than mine, and it just developed into something that's been really special.

And what is your involvement now?
I'm just sort of the general aesthetic coordinator. I just help make decisions when we're working on new records or with new artists. I do some of the design work and do a lot of copy-editing. I'm supposed to be keeper of the house in terms of grammar; it's a really important variable ― communicating what we're doing. That's my role. Lowell's the kind of nuts and bolts of the label. He does a lot of the budgeting and communicating with fans over email. Michael Kaufamn is out of Indianapolis and he does a lot of the A&R stuff.

To my ears, the label doesn't seem limited by any particular aesthetic.
Yeah, not so much anymore. I think early on it was mostly about songwriting. Now it's really diverse and we've been releasing a lot of stuff and some of it is much smaller scale, as a modest enterprise. We're trying to get away from being so insular and being just one thing. I think there's a real effort to be open to other kinds of music, whether it's electronic, instrumental, or programmatic music. Yeah, so it's been fun working with other people.

And they're generally people you know or are you taking on artists you've met?
It's mostly people we know; it's very unusual for us to work with anyone we don't know. It's still based on relationships and I think a lot of the true, small, independent labels are still based on that.

So, again, it sounds like this small thing that developed into a larger enterprise.
It's still really small. I'm still the biggest selling artist on the label but there's a lot more music, energy, and a lot more going on. I think it's really healthy.

In a recent interview you conducted with Shannon Stephens for's Sidebar section, you wrote the following; "For myself, I'm starting to fear that music is far too selfish, self-absorbed, and self-interested for the ordinary life. When I'm entrenched in a project, for instance, the dishes are left undone, the bills left unpaid, the house is a mess. I become sub-human. I begin to despise all my bad habits." Then later, you say, "I'm at a point where I no longer have a deep desire to share my music with anyone, having spent many years imparting my songs to the public. Although I have great respect for the social dynamic of music ― that it should be shared with others, that it brings people together ― I now feel something personal is irrevocably lost in this process." And in your essay for the BQE project, you suggest that car culture and the expressway itself really reveal the self-destructive nature of man. So, after all of this, my question here is, do you think that you or perhaps all of us stuck in this moment of our cultural trajectory, are enduring a particular kind of existential dilemma?
I can't speak for the culture at large or anyone else. But for myself, I definitely feel a kind of claustrophobia because of the excess in our culture and the availability of so much.

It's funny that you had this little interview and it made headlines. People seemed to think you were saying, "I'm retired."
Yeah, no, I didn't intend to say that. I would never explicitly say something like that. But I definitely feel like "What is the point? What's the point of making music anymore?" I feel that the album no longer has a stronghold or has any real bearing anymore. The physical format itself is obsolete; the CD is obsolete and the LP is kinda nostalgic. So, I think the album is suffering and that's how I've always created ― I work with these conceptual albums in the long-form. And I'm wondering, what's the value of my work once these forms are obsolete and everyone's just downloading music? And I'm starting to get sick of my conceptual ideas. I'm getting tired of these grand, epic endeavours and wanting to just make music for the joy of making music and having it be immediate and nothing to do with the industry itself, which, y'know is suffering right now of course. And I think it has to do with a creative crisis too. I'm wondering, "What am I doing? What is a song even?" I'm questioning, what's the point of a song? Is a song antiquated? Does it have any power any more? The format itself ― a narrative song with accompaniment ― is really beyond me now. Like, I feel that The BQE is not really a song, it's not really a movie, it's not really just a soundtrack. It's so ambiguous and diversified, it seems to lack shape. And the expressway itself lacks shape, so I feel like it's all related to this existential crisis: Me versus the BQE, or me versus my work, y'know? And I don't think I can win; I feel like it's a losing battle.

I guess where I was going with that is that, I don't think this is a sentiment that's isolated to you. The conversations we're having now are more about "Environmental collapse is imminent. The world is going to end and it's too late to change anything."
I don't believe that the world is going to end. The world is forever. Our societies will end.

Which, to a lot of people I think, those represent "the world."
Yeah, no, I believe in a greater world and that society is just a convening of people and cultures. The city is a very special, sacred part of society but it's impermanent. None of us are eternal. But I think, for me, I can break it down to economics. Music, on record, is so closely aligned to the commodification of art on an album in the culture of rock'n'roll. This is all from the '60s and '70s and we're still living in that structure. Those are outdated forms. So, I think it's really more specific than "Society will fail" or "It's the end of civilisation."

It does seem to me in your essay that the BQE stands in for a lot of what is wrong about our society and culture. There's so much rage in The BQE that I was not expecting.
Well, because I think these forms aren't sustainable. The expressway, the automobile ― it's obvious now that these things are contributing to our decline, the death and destruction of the natural world. So, that's no mystery. But I don't offer any solutions obviously.

No, no, but I think my point is, in discussing these bigger picture issues, they seem to reflect your general outlook as an artist these days. I feel like there's a parallel there.
Oh. Maybe, yeah.

You're like, "what is the point of this?" And I'm not trying to get too dour here but it does seem to be coming up.
I don't really have as much faith in my work as I used to. I don't feel a certain kind of confidence that I used to. But I think that's healthy, I think that's good because I can't really rely on it anymore. I don't trust it anymore. I think it's allowed me to be less precious about how I work and write. And maybe it's okay for us to take it less seriously. I believe things are gonna change for the better but I think they'll get a lot worse first (laughs).

(Laughs) Okay, well I'm looking forward to all that.

Well, I dunno if this question is still relevant but has the positive reception for your work by critics and fans affected you or altered your perspective on life in any profound way? You're saying now that you're feeling less confident, but you have been embraced in a way that some of us who first encountered you some ten years ago might not have expected.
Yeah, it's a real blessing and a privilege to have an audience and positive critical response. But I don't measure what I do in those terms at all. I don't take it for granted at all; I'm always grateful. But I try to ignore all of that because it's important to continue looking forward, to remain near-sighted, and to honour the work. The work for me is the most important thing. I have great respect for my audience but I don't feel any inclination to create for them. My impulse to create is for the work itself. But it's funny; it seems that positive critical response doesn't really do much for one's ego in the end. That's kind of surprising but I think I just have the disposition to not take any of that seriously any way. I don't take it for granted and I'm very grateful for it but it doesn't have any bearing on how I work.

So, taking that into account, what's next for you in terms of your own music and that of Asthmatic Kitty?
Well, I'm trying a lot of new material on this tour and they're kind of long-form songs ― meandering works in progress, but I'm hoping that they'll eventually find themselves on an album. So I think that all of that negative view of the state of affairs of the music industry and the demise of the LP and all this ― I feel like that's sort of old news for me. It's a recent crisis but one I feel that I'm getting around. I think that a lot of the new material that I'm working on is inspiring enough to get me to record it and maybe have a new record out next year."

And you're freeing yourself of any conceptual restraints?
Yeah, I don't know if I'll have any success doing that because it's how I've worked for so long but generally, I'm trying to dissuade any kind of conceptual framework and just write music, love songs, pop songs, and just forget all that conceptual mess.

And in terms of Asthmatic Kitty?
That's a good question. I think we're just gonna continue releasing music as long as we can. If that means maybe downsizing if we have to, then that's something we'll have to do. Unfortunately, it's very clear that the health and well-being of the label is correlated to my releasing music or not. The BQE and the string quartet project, Run Rabbit Run are instrumental works and sort of hobby projects so I dunno if they're gonna be hugely successful. So I think it's important that I have a healthier view of my work so I can continue writing and recording and releasing. But we have a lot of incredible, incredible artists who are making great music right now and actually reaching an audience. Like Shara from My Brightest Diamond has been really successful, working, touring, and collaborating a lot. I would like us, as a label, to be much more unified and more collaborative and more interactive instead of just being disparate artists and bands, working all over the states. It'd be nice if we were much more collaborative and some times that works and some times it doesn't. It's already inherent in the way that we run our label. People show up on other people's records all the time, and we tour together. I'd like to see more of that and that's gonna be healthy for us.

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