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On Sisyphus
Sufjan Stevens discusses Jim Hodges’ art and the new name for his S/S/S trio

By Paul Schmelzer

“We have so little in common but we have deep love for each other,” says singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens of his collaborative project with composer-producer Son Lux (Ryan Lott) and rapper Serengeti (David Cohn). “And we are pushing that stone together.” For its second collaboration—following the EP Beak & Claw—the trio leaves its old moniker, S/S/S, behind, taking a new name inspired by the art of Jim Hodges, especially his steel-clad boulders on the Walker hillside: Sisyphus.

On February 14, 2014—coinciding with the opening of the exhibition Jim Hodges: Give More Than You Take—Sisyphus releases its first self-titled LP. Co-commissioned by the Walker and SPCO’s Liquid Music series, the limited-edition album will be available exclusively at the Walker Shop. Issued by Asthmatic Kitty and Joyful Noise Recordings, it features a cover designed in collaboration with Hodges. Listen to the single “Calm it Down” here. (The trio will be present for opening-weekend activities for Hodges’s survey exhibition, which was co-organized by the Walker and the Dallas Museum of Art. Via a Walker/Liquid Music copresentation, Sisyphus will make a cameo appearance at Walker After Hours on February 14, and will participate in an opening-day dialogue with Hodges and Bill Arning, director of Contemporary Arts Museum Houston on February 15.)

Writer Dan Johnson recently sat down with Sufjan Stevens to discuss the making of the new album, the working process of a collaboration dubbed “music’s least likely supergroup,” and the unique dynamics of 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. Eff those Nazis. We did some brainstorming on words with three S’s. (Swastikas? Oh, hell no.) Sisyphus felt like a capable hero, endless struggle, the human plague, the existential condition. We are all working toward 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 is from (Atlanta?). Other than that, we have so little in common but we have deep love for each other, and we are pushing that stone together.

Johnson

Are there any guest artists on this record, outside of the three S’s?

Stevens

Ha! You mean like celebrity guests? Just make some shit up to generate press. Kendrick Lamar ghostwrote all the raps. Hudson Mohawke did the beats. Beyonce. Jay-Z. Janet Jackson, etc.

Johnson

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?

Stevens

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 a total slipshod, thrown together off-site, upload/download kind of thing. 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 (RIP Paul Walker!). ’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.

Johnson

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?

Stevens

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 heartbeat.

Johnson

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 and cool, formal poise in those harmonies is very native to hip-hop, like in Nico Muhly’s 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?

Stevens

Yes! And what the eff is a Sufjan chord progression anyway?

Johnson

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?

Stevens

We shared control by giving it up. This creates intimacy. Love and learn so your shit can get real. 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. 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.

Johnson

How does Jim Hodges’ artwork play into the album?

Stevens

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, pop songs, and sad ballads. 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.

“Jim [Hodges]’ 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, pop songs, and sad ballads. But if you inspect some of the content, you’ll uncover some bleak events.” —Sufjan Stevens

Cover art for Sisyphus (Asthmatic Kitty and Joyful Noise Recordings, 2013), designed in collaboration with Jim Hodges

Jim Hodges, Untitled, 2011

Photo: Gene Pittman

Sisyphus (Sufjan Stevens, Serengeti, Son Lux)

Jim Hodges with Untitled, 2011