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Interview: Chris Ewen on the the origin of Future Bible Heroes, collaborating with Stephin Merritt, and the sound of ‘Partygoing’

 

Photo by Kimberly Butler

[dropcap]P[/dropcap]erhaps best known around Boston these days for his DJ nights at T.T. The Bear’s Place in Cambridge (Saturday’s new wave dance party Heroes and the monthly Xmortis goth night, which followed many years in the booth at Central Square nightclub ManRay), Chris Ewen has long been known to fans of synth-pop music both for his work with ‘80s band Figures on a Beach (remember “No Stars?”) and as the musical force behind Future Bible Heroes, his collaboration with the Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt and Claudia Gonson.

While the Magnetic Fields occasionally still try to reach back to their synth-pop heyday, there is no reaching for Ewen – he is totally there; he never left. Ewen’s latest album, June’s Partygoing [Merge Records], is more classic Future Bible Heroes — bubbling layers of synths and gentle beats, matched neatly with the wry lyrics of his former roommate, Merritt.

 

This Sunday, Future Bible Heroes perform live at the Sinclair in Cambridge, and Ewen (synths, programming, backing vox) will be joined by Magnetic Fields members Gonson (synths, vocals) and Shirley Simms (ukulele, omnichord, vocals), as well as Ewen’s old Figures on a Beach colleague Anthony Kaczynski (guitar, bass).

Unfortunately, Merritt hasn’t participated in this summer tour and (despite some rumbling rumors to the contrary) won’t be in tow for Sunday’s gig — perhaps he’ll be the one wearing clown shoes down in old Provincetown, doing his impression of David Bowie, if we take any heed to the lyrics on Partygoing. But we’re going to raise a glass to him anyway. [UPDATE 07.22.13: Merritt will perform tonight, though not necessarily with FBH; word is he’ll perform a few songs solo on the ukulele.]

We had a chance to rap with Ewen by phone after a recent Future Bible Heroes sound check in Minneapolis, talking about the new record, its recording process, the band’s origins, and of course, his collaborations with Merritt.

 
 

So is there any connection between the names Figures on a Beach (Ewen’s ‘80s band on Sire Records) and Future Bible Heroes? Or is it a coincidence that they have similar letters in their names?

Not really. I mean, there’s an ‘F’ and a “B.’ It’s a complete coincidence!

You haven’t done an album in a long time with Future Bible Heroes, but it sounds like you haven’t missed a beat [last album was 2002’s Eternal Youth]. Does it sound like that to you as well?

It doesn’t feel like eleven years have gone by since we’ve recorded an album. It seems like an obvious continuation more than a radical departure.

 
 

Considering that they are always changing sounds from one album to the next in the Magnetic Fields, do Stephin and Claudia like returning to the familiarity of this project?

Well, in a way it’s familiar and in a way it’s not. For this album we set up different parameters for how we work together. In the past, I would send Stephin complete tracks, completely arranged and produced, and he would add vocals to them. But we decided to be a lot more collaborative this time around where I would send him demos of ideas and he would pick things that he liked and write to them, and I would take those ideas and rearrange the tracks, more-fully flesh them out, and send them back to him, etc. He would tell me what he thought until finally we had a full track. And Claudia was involved in a lot of the backing vocal arrangements.

Now, did Stephin add any music? Did he put any little trademark musical flourishes on the tracks?

Oh yeah, there was a recorder solo. There are all kinds of little things all over the album.

 
 

There is one song towards the end of the album that has this pitchy, dissonant keyboard that sort of takes over the entire song.

“Love is a Luxury that I can no Longer Afford.” Yes, that’s a Stephin solo.

It sounds like he’s fucking with your track a little bit.

I don’t think of it as fucking with the track at all. That song was actually interesting in the way that we wrote it. He actually sent me those lyrics before we had any music; so I wrote music to his lyrics and then sent in what I had written. And then of course, he has to add his stamp on that. It’s a cool thing, you know?

 
 

Does Stephin write the lyrics to the songs imagining you, or is he just being himself?

I think that Stephin allows the inspiration of ideas. He tends to think that some of the music that I come up with has very sci-fi qualities. The way I use synthesizers, etc. In the past, the way I have used atmospheres to create the tracks influenced his lyric writing directions. This time we worked more collaboratively. We kind of tailored the songs and arrangements so that any one thing didn’t determine the direction to the detriment of the other thing.

You are a big part of the Boston nightlife scene, and you have your DJ and dance nights. But I have heard that Stephin is a little more withdrawn and sort of does his own thing. Do you think that a song like “Living, Loving, Partygoing” in particular speaks more to your lifestyle than to his?

No, because every party in that song is true. They are parties that Stephin and I, and Claudia to an extent, have been to in our lives. Those are actually all real things. And the title is a reference to Henry Green novels —- so there is a literary thing there. I don’t think Stephin tailored those lyrics to the nightlife scene that I take part in.

 
 

Do you have a parallel in your own mind for how your music and Stephin’s music fit together?

As far as I can tell, this is the only composing collaboration that Stephin is involved with. I think it offers him the chance to stretch out and write music with someone else within a pop context.

Was there a time that you, Stephin and Claudia were just going to do a band together full-time?

Not really, no. Future Bible Heroes sort of came about as a happy accident. It was after Figures broke up. I was still writing instrumental music at home and Stephin and I were living together at the time. He said, “you should get someone to write lyrics for your stuff.” And I said, “you should write lyrics, because I think you’re a great lyricist!” So we recorded some songs, and my friend Steve Lau, who was in the Ocean Blue, was putting together the Red Hot + Bothered project —- the AIDS benefit project (1995) —- and he asked us for a track. So we gave him one of our tracks, and someone heard it at Slow River/Rykodisk and wanted to sign us. At that point it was like, ‘oh wow, this a real thing!’ So we recorded a bunch of songs and came up with our first album. We thought, ‘we’ll see what happens with it.’ There was no formal thing where we said ‘let’s form a band.’ At this time, Stephin was starting to find popularity with the Magnetic Fields. He already had a band, and so this became a Stephin Merritt side project.

Is there any music that you don’t overlap on?

 
 

It’s really tough to say because we are both musicologists in some ways. He’s probably a little more familiar with folk than I am, and maybe some roots music. But our tastes tend to run really, really wide.

I notice that there is an innocent ‘50s pop thread that runs through some of the Partygoing tracks that I don’t hear in a lot of Magnetic Fields music.

Yes, I would say that. Whenever you do two or three chord songs, that’s probably going to happen. But we like to offset the happy music with lyrics that take you a different level. Songs like “Real Summer” off the first album really aren’t that happy. There is a lot of wistful sadness in the lyrics. We like the juxtaposition.

Talk to me about this song “All I Care About Is You.” Every time I listen to the album, this one stands out to me as being really direct, and nothing in the production or lyrics can take away from it being a really heartfelt song.

I think it was meant to be. That and “Sadder than the Moon” came later on in writing this album. I think that Stephin felt that they were important elements to add to the album—not of comedy and not of tragedy, but just of a real sense of honestly. So they do sound straightforward because they are, but with his lyrical take on everything.

 
 

So, in addition to the full-length album Partygoing, you also have a new box-set of previously released material?

It’s a 4-CD or 3-LP collection of all of our previously released material.

And that fourth disc is rarities and b-sides?

In addition to our albums we’ve also put out EPs. So the fourth disc is a collection of our EPs, tracks we’ve put out on compilations, and other tracks we haven’t put on albums.

And who will be playing with you Sunday?

It’s this really cool act Luxury Liners who has been playing with us on this tour. It’s hard to explain what he does. He mixes instruments and effects with guitar and singing. He’s sort of a DJ/one-man-band that creates these beautiful aural landscapes. It’s really quite wonderful. I’ve been enjoying all of his sets.

 
 

OK, we’ll see you Sunday at the Sinclair.

Thank you, it’s great to talk to you.

FUTURE BIBLE HEROES + LUXURY LINERS | Sunday, July 21 at the Sinclair, 52 Church St., Cambridge | 9pm, 18-plus, $15 advance / $18 day of show | advance tickets | facebook event page