For his fifth album,
Michigan native Sufjan Stevens sought inspiration from the state to the
west, crafting songs with evocative titles such as "Concerning the U.F.O.
Sighting Near Highland, Illinois," "Decatur, or, Round of Applause for Your
Stepmother!" and "Casimir Pulaski Day."
The result has been one
of the most lauded albums this year from the indie-rock underground.
Stevens, 30, was
raised in Detroit by Persian parents (his first name is pronounced "Soof-yawn").
He started his career as a Christian singer and songwriter, a topic he's
reluctant to discuss, since it is often "misconstrued and misunderstood."
"There are certain
things that are very personal and sacred that you maybe shouldn't talk
about," Stevens says. "I am a Christian, and it is very clear in my writings
that these are my beliefs. I think that is fine as a way of understanding
the world, but it can be a little dangerous and a little isolating."
STEVENS, LAURA VIERS
Metro, 3730 N. Clark
Starting with his
fourth album in 2003, Stevens hit upon the idea of recording one disc about
each of the 50 states. The second of these, "Illinois," at times veers
annoyingly close to sub-They Might Be Giants camp. But Stevens also displays
a novelist's flair for revealing details, and his lush pop arrangements are
simply gorgeous. We spoke as he prepared to play these songs in Chicago for
the first time at Metro tonight.
For your national odyssey, why did you choose Illinois next?
I think of it as the stronger older sibling [to Michigan], and I think I had
a source of wonder and envy about Chicago. I was born in Detroit, and it was
such a failed industrial town that let us down in so many ways. Chicago
seemed much more vibrant. I might go to the coast for my next project and
tackle Oregon or Maine.
Of course, the album is
not really about Illinois.
It's more about me and my imagination. I've never pretended to create the
comprehensive, historical survey album that people have come to expect of a
project of this sort. I think that would be simple and juvenile. I'm using
the state as a veneer -- the pretense -- but there is a lot of regional and
cultural information there.
Where my strength
lies is in observation: I'm a writer, and I studied writing in undergraduate
and graduate school. I'm a failed novelist. I don't think I can say I've
written one, but I'm working on a novel. But what I learned in writing is
the art of observation: using everyday objects around you to represent
profound things. I think a lot of my songwriting utilizes the mechanics of
You started out as an oboe player. Why did you turn to rock?
I studied oboe and then went to music school and learned piano by ear, and
just through the bit of music theory I knew, I made up songs on the piano.
But they weren't pop songs or rock songs. They were slow classical songs,
Reader's Digest versions of Bach's minuets and Chopin and Rachmaninoff. That
was the music that really influenced me early on. It wasn't until I went to
college that I really started listening to rock 'n' roll. I learned to play
guitar, and I think that is when everything really changed.
When you're writing
songs, does the music or the lyric come first?
The music always comes first. I'm an instrumentalist and a composer first
and foremost. I find that music is my natural instinct. The words come last,
but every musical idea or chord progression or melody sort of imposes a kind
of meaning or context. The story that I use over the song usually relates
strongly to an inherent kind of meaning in the music.
So you seized upon writing songs about different states as a tool?
Yeah. I think it's a
restriction that imposed guidelines for me: Let's use arbitrary state lines
as a context for what I'm doing. I'm writing about place, and I'm writing
about people, and I'm writing about specific regional cultures, and I
thought, "Why not limit myself to a particular area?" It's an exercise.
Painters do this all the time.
Did you wind up with a backlog of things about Illinois that you didn't
Yeah. I read a lot of Saul Bellow and didn't use him at all. And I wrote
many songs about Abraham Lincoln, but they all seemed kind of forced or too
melodramatic, so I didn't use any of those. There's a lot of stuff I didn't
write about: this large man-made lake called Carlyle Lake, and the super
computer at University of Illinois that I was obsessed with for a couple of
And amazingly, you didn't take any shots at the Daley machine.
No, and I don't think the mafia is going to be after me, either.
REASONS FOR LIVING
Chicago has endured three long, hot months full of pop music festivals:
Lollapalooza, Intonation, Warped, Ozzfest, Anger Management. But fans of
challenging rock music can add one more to the list before summer yields to
fall, and it's the darkest gathering of the year, as befits the change of
Billed as "North
America's largest Gothic music festival and expo," Gothicfest comes
to the Odeum, 1033 North Villa Ave. in Villa Park, starting at 11 a.m.
Saturday and running through midnight (fittingly enough) with 13 hours of
dark, symphonic, hard-core and industrial bands from the Goth underground,
as well as 50 exhibitors including tattoo and body artists, fashion vendors
and Goth-oriented magazines and record labels such as Fangoria, 99th Floor,
Projekt Records and Metropolis Records.
Hanzel Und Gretyl, Slick Idiot and Project .44 (featuring former members of,
respectively, KMFDM and the Thrill Kill Kult), Grigori 3, Slave Driver,
Deepest Symphony, Ofearia, 13 Winters, Dies Mali, Rosenguard, Withering
Soul, Drake, Reverend Agony, Rachael's Surrender, Psionic, Methodical,
Terminal Bliss, the Blessed Virgin Larry and Reverend Agony.
Unless you frequent
DJ Scary Lady Sara's regular Nocturna events of "dark beautiful music and
ritual dance pageantry," you've probably never heard of most of those
performers. But Gothicfest promises a good time nonetheless, with prime
people watching (nobody outdoes the black lipstick and nail polish crowd
when it comes to dressing up for going out and getting down) and deliciously
ghoulish sounds that will leave you counting the days until Halloween.
Tickets are $32.50
through Ticketmaster, (312) 559-1212. For more information about this
all-ages event, visit www.gothicfest.com.