It was eleven short months ago that Sufjan Stevens effectively returned to songwriting. A five-year hiatus had separated the venerated indie singer-songwriter/composer from what many considered to be his last "proper" studio album, but in late August of 2010 he released the All Delighted People EP, an album-length appetizer to the feast of idiosyncrasy that is The Age of Adz, released two months later.
Following rigorous U.S. and European tours supporting Adz, Stevens and his band set upon the Prospect Park Bandshell as part of New York City's Celebrate Brooklyn! summer festival on August 2 and 3 to sing the (seven) swan song of The Age of Adz tour. Among the stage show's inluences, Stevens cites such distinctive influences as Sun Ra, Parliament, the dance aesthetic of Janet Jackson and Paula Abdul, and the movie Tron. I recently spoke with Sufjan Stevens about the Age of Adz concerts, pre-concert Quiet Craft Time, and the prospect of alienating his fans.
The center of gravity is really [outsider artist] Royal Robertson. We kind of go off on a lot of tangents, but really his design and his aesthetic is the foundation on which we've built the whole show.-Sufjan Stevens on The Age of Adz show
Daniel J. Kushner: How did you settle on neon gaffer's tape as part of the aesthetic look of the tour?
Sufjan Stevens: I remember at one point we just started putting it on our bodies because the lighting designer was using black lights, and it just looked really cool. The girls were really well costumed, but the rest of us were kind of thrown together. The costumes weren't really fully realized, and so halfway through the tour, when things started to get kind of ragtag, we started just taping everything together with gaff tape, and it just kind of turned into its own thing.
David Stith (background) and Sufjan Stevens (foreground) in full regalia. Photo by Josh Higgason.
Kushner: So it wasn't just an aesthetic choice, but a practical one as well?
Stevens: What happened is that people in the band had some time before the show and there was gaff tape lying around, and they just started taping up their arms and their legs and putting tape on their shirts...at some point we realized that there was like a good 20 to 30 minutes of like Quiet Craft Time per stage. Once they got their parts down they would spend more time on their gaff design than they did, you know, during soundcheck, 'cause we had the music figured out, so we just spent most of the day using gaff tape.
Kushner:Will the Prospect Park concerts be the last time people can see the stage show that is The Age of Adz?
Stevens: Yeah, yeah, it's the finale. We're going to retire the show, and I'll move on to something else. I don't know what though.
Sufjan Stevens and band performing "Too Much;". Photo by Josh Higgason.
Kushner:Do you have any idea as to what might be next for you?
Stevens: I don't know. I still feel like I have a lot to learn in the realm of sound experimentation, and I think I would like things to get noisier and weirder and more distressed and more aggressive, but I don't know if that's something that would be suitable for public consumption. It might just be like a private exercise in which I spend time alone making all those sounds, and then at some point get back to songwriting. Ultimately, like I said before, my imperative or my objective is songwriting. And I think it's safe to say that The Age of Adz is a bit of a tangent away from songwriting. It'd be nice to kind of return to songwriting again.
Kushner:While writing The Age of Adz, was there any concern that the record would alienate some fans of your music, particularly those who had fallen in love with the Illinoise era?
Stevens: I was aware that the textures and the sonic environment was a little dirtier, more cacophonous, or whatever. I was aware of that, cause I feel like I was also extremely aware during the making of Illinois of how much effort I put into making it listenable. It's such a populist record--there's just so much effort in appealing to the listener, you know there's such a kind of a pageant of sound, and it's constantly entertaining and rewarding, and it's just sort of a patchwork of this sort of harmonic beauty, harmonic what do you call it, I don't know--It's very harmonious.
You know, The Age of Adz, these are pop songs, but they're based on sound experimentation and noise. They're more aggressive, and even my tone of--the way I'm singing--it's more in my throat and not always pretty. So I was aware of that, and I just felt like an imperative to experiment with these tones, and generally, I think now more than ever, I'm making music for that elite 5%--you know, the listener who's been with me from the very beginning and understands my interest in electronic music and noise and in sound sculpting and minimalism and all that stuff. So I think that that record, The Age of Adz, is really for that listener, you know? I don't think it's meant to be for the casual listener who likes the song "Chicago," which is fine. There's no condescension at all in that remark. I don't condescend to any of my music or to any listener. But I just am not in a season right now of feeling that kind of populist thrust. I don't feel motivated to make things so listenable.
Sufjan Stevens. Photo by Daniel Vatsky.
The full three-part Sufjan Stevens interview, plus bonus material, can be found on Daniel J. Kushner's blog at http://postpostrock.com.
NOTE: Sufjan Stevens's August 2 concert at the Prospect Park Bandshell in Brooklyn is sold out. To purchase tickets for the August 3 concert, visit Celebrate Brooklyn! here.
Follow Daniel J. Kushner on Twitter: www.twitter.com/danieljkushner