Back in 1996, a few years before the Magnetic Fields went from an indie band with a cult following to the critically acclaimed collective that they are today, Stephin Merritt and Claudia Gonson became involved with a Boston sideproject headed by Chris Ewen called Future Bible Heroes.
After releasing two LPs and 3 EPs in 7 years, the band remained dormant for a decade. Now, 11 years since their last release, the band returns with Partygoing, available on Merge Records, on its own–or even more appealing– as a box set with all of their previous recordings together in one package.
Picking up where the band left off, Future Bible Heroes’ sound is still steeped in analog synths, and while the band dives into darker and dancier terrain, Merritt’s signature whimsy and witty sarcasm provide some humor to their seemingly somber tales. With song titles like “Digging My Own Grave”, “Keep Your Children in a Coma” and “Let’s Go to Sleep (And Never Come Back)”, the Future Bible Heroes remain scathingly satirical and inherently fun.
I was especially lucky to catch up with the band’s founder, Chris Ewen for a rare in-person interview at the MIracle of Science in Cambridge, Massachusetts, just a day before tour and a few hours before the masses crowded the streets to jockey for positioning for that evening’s 4th of July fireworks. Below is the conversation that transpired.
Yes it was. It started in Boston and it evolved when he moved to New York. It started when my own band Figures on the Beach broke up and I was still writing… which is funny because one of the members is now touring with Future Bible Heroes. But when that band broke up I was still working on a lot of instrumental things and one day Stephin said, ‘why don’t you just have someone write lyrics and sing songs to your music,’ and I said, ‘well then why don’t you do it because you’re a great lyricist.’ So we messed around with some songs and wrote some songs.
What year did this take place?
I want to say 1996-ish.
So your band broke up, you were doing instrumentals and then Stephin came into the picture? And then Claudia? The first EP sounds like it’s mostly Stephin and the second seems like it’s mostly Claudia…
Well the first one is definitely boy/girl. It alternated. Stephin and Claudia alternated each track. At that point it was an approach to differentiate them from the Magnetic Fields, where at that time Stephin was singing most of the songs because it was pre-69 Love Songs.
And how did Claudia become involved?
It was weird because Stephin and I put together a bunch of songs and one of then got picked up by a friend of mine– Steve Lau– who used to be in a band called The Ocean Blue. He had a record label through Warner Brothers and through Reprise called Kinetic. He was putting together one of those “Red Hot” compilations and he asked me for a track. So Stephin and I submitted a song called “Hopeless”—a really early version of it. They accepted it, put it out on the comp and someone who was at another label called Slow River, which was associated with Ryko, heard it and wanted to sign us with just that one song. At that point this thing went from being a fun little hobby to being a real band. When we recorded everything for the first record with Slow River, Stephin sent me a recording with Claudia singing and I thought it sounded great. So suddenly she was the third member of the band. So from then on we started writing songs with her in mind as well as Stephin.
So was it just you doing the instrumental parts, or has it changed over the years?
It’s changed over the years. Stephin has always added a little Stephin magic, but most of the instrumentals are mine though.
Does it start with instrumentals and you write with their lyrics in mind or is it a more collaborative process?
In the past it was very much me sitting at home with a bunch of keyboards plugged in. The first two albums were basically me programming MIDI synths and recording live onto a two-track recording… DAT or something like that. Stephin would then write around them or come at them with melodies that mimicked or complimented what was in the tracks. And then occasionally he would add some extra things. It was really hard to change things though. We didn’t really collaborate on the musical end of it. Since everything was recorded live all the time we did it, and it would have to be redone much differently. This time around it was much more collaborative. I would send him demos this time around instead of completed, finished tracks, so he would say change the key or add choruses there, and we would build things up together. Or he would send me different versions of him singing things and we would work around that. This time around he would actually send me lyrics and we would go from there. We were a lot more collaborative this time around.
Would you say the band has always been made up of the same people? Or would you say this is more YOUR band, with guest singers? Or has it evolved from one to the other?
When it initially started out, it was Stephin and myself. When we started getting serious about it and recorded our first record, Claudia was definitely involved and I always thought of this as a band with the three of us. Maybe it’s not a band; maybe it’s a project. It’s definitely not just me and guests. It’s the product of all of the things that each of us brings to it, which keeps it different from the Magnetic Fields. It is it’s own entity.
Even with Stephin’s other bands like the Gothic Archies or the 6ths, he basically writes all the words and the music.
When is the last time you actually toured?
Well we haven’t done an album in 11 years, so we haven’t toured in ten. I realized the last live shows we’ve played were in London with a few shows in Spain.
What is the live show setup this time around? And how does the live show differ from the early incarnation of the band?
The first tours we did, Stephin and we brought out all old synths and hardware sequencers and brought out all of our delicate equipment and just did it. The stage always looked great because it was chock full of all these synths, but it was really a pain to carry all of these heavy things around, they were really delicate, they were breaking a lot. So we had to scale that back a bit. Actually, the very first time we toured we had all these synths and had Sam and John from the Magnetic Fields play with us too to flesh things out. Then we scaled it down a bit, as best we could. By the time “Eternal Youth” came out we decided that touring that way was totally impossible. So we scaled it down to a piano and a synthesizer and maybe a drum machine. And Stephin played ukulele and guitar. We basically did an electronic band acoustically. And that was really fun. So this time around, it’s been awhile, we decided to bring out some synths again. There are four of us now. I’m playing synthesizers and drum machine tracks. Claudia is playing synths. I’m playing soft synths. Claudia is playing synthesizer and singing. Shirley sings—she was with the Magnetic Fields. She also plays ukulele and this great electronic autoharp called omnichord. The fourth member of our touring band is Tony Kaczynski who was in Figures on the Beach. He’s playing bass and singing. So we’re playing a lot of stuff live.
In the in-between times did you know the band would pick up again? What brought it back together?
Earlier when I said we like to impose a lot of rules on ourselves… a lot of the rules we impose upon ourselves weren’t rules that we put on ourselves… it was technology at the time and the fact that we lived in different cities for a long time. I mean we were doing the Postal Service thing before the Postal Service. We would send tracks back and forth. A lot of mail, a lot of DATs and cassettes and a lot of phone calls, so it was a pretty unyielding way to work. Now we both have our own fully operational recording studios and can send huge files back and forth. I think that’s made it really easy to actually do it. It was a good time to do it, because it became easier for us to do it. The second album was a real pain to record because digital technology was not at its peak, lets say. We were both using different formats of recording devices so it was tough to synch things up and convert things to each other’s formats. I don’t think it was a pleasant experience. This time it became much easier. This time when we decided to write again, and that is largely based around the Magnetic Fields and his other projects, it seemed like a good thing to do. It just started coming together really quickly.
Was Stephin supposed to be on this tour?
I don’t think it was ever decided that he would be on this tour, but I know from him that touring with his ears is not a good thing. I think the last Magnetic Fields tour really took a toll on his ears. So when we discussed putting this tour together, from the beginning we tried to figure out how we could tour if Stephin can’t tour. That’s why we listed Troy and Tony from the very beginning. Shirley was obvious. Claudia had worked with her for a long time. I had been aware of her since Buffalo Rome, Stephin’s pre-Magnetic Fields band. Tony I knew, and he’s a great musician. It was never something where we wanted to make Stephin tour. I knew it would be impractical for him for medical reasons. Personally, I’d rather make another record with him than have him go out for a month of tour and then lose more hearing.
What made you decided to re-release all of the old work as a package with the new record? Was everything out-of-print at this point?
Yeah, a lot of it was really unfindable and it was all on different labels. We had one EP on Merge, something on Slow River, licensing deals in Europe for different things that had come and gone. The second record was on Instinct records and I don’t think they’re around. We owned the rights to them all. So it seemed like a good thing to do to make all of our stuff available again and have it all on one label and to have Merge do it. It’s worldwide and it’s all available again.
With the new record, the title seems to be tongue-in-cheek. The songs are quite dark, but they also are quite humorous at times too. Is this always a conscious concoction with FBH?
I think that we have always straddled that line of being really perky and fun with lyrics that maybe aren’t as upbeat. I love that juxtaposition and Stephin does too. I think it brings some depth to the songs. Maybe part of it is that Stephin will write lyrics to counteract the perkiness of the music. The last time we toured we put together a setlist and we put all the songs in a row and we looked at the list and it was so horrifyingly depressing that we burst out laughing. It was so ridiculous in a really fun way. And we don’t really think about that until we see all the songs listed in a row. We realized this in Hudson when we were playing “Hopeless” and then there was “Lonely Days”. It just made us laugh.
Is it meant for humor? Is it storytelling? Or does it seem real when you’re doing them?
In some cases, maybe especially on “Eternal Youth”, Stephin got a Sci-Fi vibe from the instrumentals, so I think his lyrics tended to reflect what he was getting. Then the theme developed around an album. Was it supernatural, or human, or one versus the other with this whole Sci-Fi vibe he was getting? I think the albums have tended to be loose concept albums. The first one was love songs or anti-love songs. The second was about people’s obsessions with death, youth and beauty. I think that carries through now that we’re a little older and now people are even more obsessed with beauty and youth and youth culture, and maybe even more divorced from reality. I’m not saying we are feeling our age, but we have a different perspective than we had 10 years ago. Maybe “Partygoing” is our reaction to who we are, as opposed to people we were when we would go to parties, or what parties are like now and us vs. the youth culture. Stephin may disagree with me here though.
Because it was so long in between, were some of these songs ready a long time ago?
We started talking about this two or three years ago, so I started writing for whatever the album was going to be. Whereas in the past I would send Stephen a certain amount of tracks and he’d pick the ones he wanted on there and sculpt his melodic bits, this time we had more freedom and I sent him a LOT of demos that were very loosely arranged to see what he liked and what he could work with. Then he’d work on them and send them back and I would work more on them and send them back. It didn’t take us as long as it has in the past to come up with an album, but there was a time when it was much more of a loose process. Once we got done to recording and making it final, it happened very quickly.
Do you complete all of the finished product and post-production in your studio?
I have in the past, but usually the vocals have been recorded wherever Stephin is living, usually New York. I don’t think we did stuff when he was in LA. This year we did the final mixes in New York, so he took control of that. We could actually have different tracks this time around, so I sent him all the stems. They were mixed much more sympathetically in the past I will say.
You were saying there was a lot of analog stuff and trading things digitally, but have you changed the way you record and the instruments you use?
For a long time my studio has been a hardware and software hybrid. I love the sound of old analog synths and I like to use as many as possible. There are some software things I’ve used, but since we’re so multi-tracked we can use the old analog synths with some updated software as well.
When you’re trading tracks, you are here, Claudia is in New York. And Stephin…
Stephin’s in New York. He lives in Hudson now, which is kind of upstate.
Obviously right now you’re dealing with the present and the current tour and recent record, but do you ever think about whether this project will happen again?
I would like it to happen sooner rather than later. I’d like it if it happened before another decade passed. Besides Stephin’s schedule, I think one of the major problems was how hard it was to make “Eternal Youth”. I think that now we have proven to ourselves that we can have fun making a record together and it’s easier than it was in the past. We can come up with something we’re really proud of. So I think it will happen again sooner rather than later. And I think it’s gotten me back in it as well. It’s one thing when you’re not producing something, or when people are living in different parts of the country– it’s difficult to get in the mindset. But with the ease of this new process, I’m not going to stop now. I’m going to keep writing when the tour is over and catalogue a bunch of new demos for the next time we start recording.