Photo credit: Brenden Beecy
“Things got messy. There was a lot of Axe body spray and menthol cigarettes and red wine.”
Sisyphus is the new name for the collaboration between Serengeti, Son Lux, and Sufjan Stevens (formally s/s/s), whose new project under this moniker is a self-titled album partly inspired by the art of Jim Hodges, and commissioned by the Walker Art Center and The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra’s Liquid Music series in Minneapolis/Saint Paul.
The LP will be available for purchase from the Walker Art Center on February 15th, followed by a broad CD/LP/Digital release on March 18th by Asthmatic Kitty Records and Joyful Noise Recordings.
Dan Johnson spoke to Sufjan about Sisyphus.
Dan Johnson: What prompted the name change from s/s/s to Sisyphus?
Sufjan Stevens: s/s/s started to sound like the Nazi Schutzstaffel with a lisp so we had to change it. We wanted a word with three S’s and Sisyphus felt like a capable anti-hero—endless struggle, the human plague, the existential condition. We are all working towards nothing. Also, the apparent futility of this collaboration—a black rapper from Chicago, a white singer-songwriter from Detroit, and an arty producer with cool glasses, though I dunno where Ryan’s from, Cleveland? We have so little in common but we have deep love for each other and we are pushing that stone together.
DJ: Are there any guest artists on this record, outside of the three S’s?
SS: Like celebrity guests? Just make something up to generate press. Kendrick Lamar ghost wrote all the raps. Hudson Mohawke did the beats. Beyonce. Jay-Z. Janet Jackson, etc.
DJ: How did you guys decide to make a full-length Sisyphus record? The flow of it is terrific. Was the process different for you this time around than it was on the EP?
SS: Our intention was to make another EP, but there was a wellspring so we ended up with a full length. Ryan just finished his record and I’m working on a ballet, so we had mad ideas. The first EP was the Bastard Stepchild of Myspace and Pets.com. We did it all remotely. For this one, we decided to make everything together in the same room. And it was a very small room. Things got messy. There was a lot of Axe body spray and menthol cigarettes and red wine. The whole thing was done in three weeks total. Fast and furious. Geti kept saying what happens when the jams come on Spotify at the frat party? Are they singing at the hook, is the bass thumping, are the girls grinding? Lowest-case scenario. I mean, seriously, this is far from frat party music, it’s still heady as shit, but that was our objective, to trust our impulse and make it fun, for whatever it’s worth.
DJ: I feel like one of the big surprises of the EP and even more on this record—for me, anyway—is how much the three of you have really had in common all along, musically speaking. How would you say you relate to each other musically?
SS: We are all complicated guys, each with his own identity crisis. I won’t go into details, but it became clear from the start that we were all struggling with identity and that plays a big part in the energy on the album. But it’s clear we had our respective roles, and we tried to occupy them fully and be accountable to our strengths, not fuck around with ego. Ryan’s the DJ/producer, the man in charge, the beat maker, the ghost in the machine, he keeps it all together. I had to respect that. My role is to write the hooks, the sad ballads, and keep the chords interesting, sing in tune, be real with my lyrics. Ryan had to respect that. Geti is the prophet and king, so we had to make sure he got his rap tight and that our beats weren’t up in his kitchen. Me and Ryan had to trust his intuition because God knows white boys don’t got it. I think we each relate to each other by respecting what each of us do well and giving space to encourage that. I know this sounds like a self-help book, but honestly it felt more like professional wrestling. Physical and awkward and half-naked, men in speedos. But I’d do it again in a heart beat.
DJ: I sometimes hear a chord progression and I think, “that’s a Sufjan chord progression,” but when Serengeti’s rhyming over them I realize that the mixture of, like, grand emotional sweep + cool, formal poise in those harmonies is very native to hip-hop, like in Nico’s (Muhly) review comparing 2 Chainz to Philip Glass. And then under those kinds of fastidious, but fractured rhymes I hear Ryan’s beats and I realize that “fastidious, but fractured” is also a good way to describe Son Lux’s production as well. Does that make sense?
SS: Yes! And what the eff is a Sufjan chord progression anyway?
DJ: The other big surprise is that while you’ve got these three different aesthetics pointing in three different directions, it seems like such an intimate record—like all three of you managed to make this album your own. How did you guys share control? Was it challenging? Freeing? Both/neither?
SS: We shared control by giving it up. This creates intimacy. The themes on the record are pretty dark: sex, drugs, alcohol, depression, separation, life, death, fathers, mothers, kids, lovers, money, money, money. Life sucks and then you die. We had nothing in common but mutual respect and the desire to be real and create some good jams. Also, complete trust and no judgments and no bullshit. I could give a shit about the record, but the guys mean the world to me. As for the collaborative process, almost nothing was created autonomously. And the attribution gets blurry from the start. You might think I wrote the hook, but I probably stole it from Geti. And you might think Geti wrote the rap, but he probably stole it from Ryan. It was a real creative orgy. We made this shit as a team and it wasn’t easy. But it’s real as shit.
DJ: How does Jim Hodges’ artwork play into the album?
SS: His stuff is mostly abstract and it generally avoids a clear narrative, so there wasn’t a lot of literal conceptualization going on. We just kept his prints nearby and listened closely to its subconscious. Some of it is more obvious: sex, AIDS, drugs, fear of death, loneliness, love and beauty. We took some text directly from titles, but mostly kept the references loose. Jim’s work is meticulous, well-crafted and sentimental on the surface, but there’s some dark shit under all that ornamentation; I think this aesthetic informed our approach: we wanted to make ear candy—catchy raps and pretty love songs. But if you inspect some of the content, you’ll uncover some bleak events. Also those gold and metallic boulders Jim made were an obvious influence on our name change. It’s the Sisyphus stone with bling.
DJ: Anyway, thanks again—hope you’re having a great weekend!