The pair’s new concept album ‘A Beginner’s Mind’ takes its cues from an eclectic list of films, from Mad Max to The Silence of the Lambs.
Sufjan Stevens has his biopic all planned out. “Who would direct? Yorgos Lanthimos. And who would play me? Donald Glover. Duh!” The revered American songwriter is joking, but the truth is a film charting his rise to folk stardom (and subsequent veer away from that status) wouldn’t be the first time that he and the movies have overlapped.
In 2017, he composed songs for Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name, underlining the film’s most emotive moments with his signature brand of melodic melancholy. Before that, his music had been a benchmark of mid-’00s indie dramas and teen TV, with songs featured prominently in Little Miss Sunshine, The OC and everything in between. Cinema even reportedly played a part in the creation of one of his most adventurous releases: in a 2011 profile The Observer detailed a “sensory overload” suffered during a screening of Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr Fox that informed the fried-synapse feeling of Stevens’ 2010 album ‘The Age of Adz’.
This week sees the release of a record that takes Stevens’ relationship with cinema to another level. “It kind of happened haphazardly,” the 46-year-old says of ‘A Beginner’s Mind’, a concept album made in collaboration with Californian artist Angelo De Augustine. Every song takes a different film as its catalyst, and the references are joyously eclectic: tracks inspired by horrors like George A Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and Hellraiser III (‘You Give Death A Bad Name’ and ‘The Pillar of Souls’ respectively) sit alongside “wandering interpretations” of the Bette Davis classic All About Eve (‘Lady Macbeth in Chains’) and Wim Wenders’ arthouse staple Wings of Desire (‘Reach Out’). There’s even a nod to a direct-to-video cheerleader comedy: “Bring It On Again may not be classified as high art, but there’s still something in it. I don’t care what anyone says!” insists De Augustine of the film that formed the basis for enchanting late-album highlight ‘Fictional California’.
Written during a month-long retreat in Upstate New York, in which they watched films by night and wrote songs by day, Stevens and De Augustine have described the record as a “rambling philosophical inquiry” that uses “plot-points, scene summaries and leading characters [to ask]: ‘What does it mean to be human in a broken world?’” But how did it come together, why is it dedicated to Jonathan Demme, how did one song end up drawing parallels between Mad Max and the police brutality that saw the world rise up in 2020, and what has Stevens got against the Marvel Cinematic Universe? We spoke to the pair to find out. (Yorgos, if you’re reading, Sufjan is waiting on your call…)
LWLies: Did you set out to make an album inspired by movies or did the concept kind of present itself to you as you started to work together?
De Augustine: It was [1981 Lawrence Olivier movie] Clash of the Titans that started it. We were working together and I told [Stevens that] it was my favourite movie from my childhood. He told me he loved it too. So we watched it, then the next day integrated some of its themes into a song.
Stevens: That was how it began, almost by accident. From there, there was a lot of interpreting and appropriating ideas from films and their emotional environments, then disregarding the original text and source material to just run with a few particulars. We’d identify something – a theme or concept or something that a character might be feeling – then appropriate that into our own personal, emotional narratives.
There’s such a diverse mix of movies referenced on the album. Is that reflective of your own tastes in cinema? Have you both got pretty eclectic sensibilities when it comes to film?
AD: Oh, definitely – especially so after making this album. We watched a lot of films. Sufjan turned me onto the Evil Dead series. I’d never watched any of those real ’80s movies. We watched every single Hellraiser. After we finished the first, it was like, ‘Okay, we gotta get to Hellraiser 5 at least!’
SS: I’m a horror film fanatic. I’m kind of a junky for anything science fiction or horror. I’ve always been that way, whether it’s high brow or low brow. I love 2001: A Space Odyssey, Solaris and all the Tarkovsky stuff – but I also love zombie movies. I’m a typical American in that I’m a massive consumer of film. I have a real aversion to superhero stuff – it just gets on my nerves – but other than that, I’ll watch anything.
What gets on your nerves about superhero movies?
SS: I just feel like they’ve lost the plot. They want it all ways. They want it to be funny and campy but they [also] want it to be deathly serious and apocalyptic. They lack focus, too. All those films have gone through so much corporate editing and so many directors that there’s a lack of congruency to them that just leaves you feeling like, ‘How can I care about this? It’s just branding!’
“Mad Max: Fury Road is a perfect movie. It speaks to a disease in our culture that’s here and now.”
There’s a track on the album, ‘Murder and Crime’, that’s inspired by Mad Max. What’s your relationship with that series of films?
AD: What’s disturbing about [the original] Mad Max is that he loses his child in that film. When it came to the song, I thought about that in terms of the larger world: people being taken from us and there not being any justice for it. That was something that was really on my mind at that time. We ended up drawing a parallel between that film and what was going on with people of colour being murdered in our country.
SS: The Mad Max films are so violent and over the top, almost in a comedic way. They’re so extreme, and that’s what makes them watchable. But when you stand back and assess it you realise it’s really terrifying and reflective of a potentially devastating future that we could be heading towards. Those films are fully entrenched in the apocalyptic environment they create, and the director is really committed to that reality. Fury Road is a perfect movie in my opinion. Distrust in government, loneliness, disenchantment, racial inequity: it’s all built into that film, and built into the systems we live in today. It speaks to a disease in our culture that’s here and now.
The title track has some pretty heavy allusions to Point Break. What was it about that film that felt so ripe for exploring musically?
SS: I love that film! I can’t think of a film that’s more testosterone-driven, yet it’s directed by a woman, Kathryn Bigelow, who’s phenomenal. That film is ridiculous. It creates such an environment of heightened reality. It explored toxic masculinity before it was really a phrase we recognised.
AD: I grew up outside LA, and there’s lots about that movie that really does exist. There’s a real tangible darkness and hedonistic pursuit of danger and money and attention that does exist to some degree in LA. It’s inherent. We were talking about our dysfunction as a country earlier – I think this city has a dysfunction that’s unique to it, that Point Break just totally gets.
The album is dedicated to Jonathan Demme, and there’s a song on it inspired by The Silence of the Lambs. Is he someone either of you had ever met?
SS: I knew Jonathan a little bit. I only met him briefly; he’d seen a few of my shows and brought his family. What I love about his work is how diverse it is. He wasn’t afraid of genre. He wasn’t afraid of remakes. He wasn’t afraid to try new things – every film was different. He was so full of wonder and wanting to understand the human condition. He had a perspective on beauty and empathy that I really admired. I recently watched Rachel Getting Married and was blown away by what was going on in every single scene: the multiplicity of characters and activities and behaviours and dysfunctions and reactions… I don’t know how he was able to cultivate all that.
AD: That song began when I woke up one morning and started to write on the ukulele. I’d been imagining this situation where the character [Buffalo Bill] could have a conversation with the director. What would be said between the two of them? Would the conversation be one-sided because they’re both living in separate planes of existence? Or could that barrier be broken and an understanding be achieved? I think [The Silence of the Lambs] is about wanting to be loved for who you are. We seek guidance all the time for what purpose our lives hold, and that movie can be helpful for understanding some of those things.
Cinema has always had a presence in your songs, Sufjan. Is writing an album of songs inspired by movies a natural continuation of the way you’ve often looked to films for inspiration?
SS: I think that’s fair. Even when writing confessional folk songs, there’s still an understanding for me that it’s theatre – I’m taking on personas, and even if I’m singing autobiographically, I still feel like there’s a character within me ushering in that narrative. It’s like organising elements and creating scenes and editing. That’s what cinema is.
That relationship goes both ways. In addition to the music you wrote for Call Me by Your Name, your songs are regularly placed within TV shows and movies. Do you have any favourite – or perhaps least favourite – uses of your music?
SS: To be honest, I very rarely watch movies or TV shows if I know my music is in it. The way it usually works is I get a description of the scene and a solicitation from the director for why they wanna use the song. If I feel they’re doing justice to the scene and that my song speaks to them then I just trust their vision. I’m pretty democratic about it. After that, if I know my song is gonna appear in a film or TV show I turn it off so it doesn’t make me uncomfortable! With [Call Me by Your Name], I had so much admiration for Luca’s work because his films are infused with song and he’s just a real scholar of music. But I had to watch that film a lot, in all these different screenings, and every time my music came on, I’d either run to the bathroom or slouch in my seat ’cos I was kind of embarrassed.
Sufjan Stevens and Angelo De Augustine’s ‘A Beginner’s Mind’ is released on Friday September 24.
Published 20 Sep 2021
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