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Sufjan Stevens, Serengeti and Son Lux are: Sisyphus
March 24, 2014 9:51 AM   Subscribe

"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." That's Sufjan Stevens, talking about his collaboration with the rapper Serengeti (David Cohn), and singer/producer Son Lux (Ryan Lott), who released their Beak & Claw EP last year as s/s/s (Bandcamp), and have recently released their debut album as Sisyphus (Bandcamp).

The new work was commissioned by the Walker Art Center and the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra's Liquid Music series in Minneapolis/St. Paul. It accompanies an exhibition of the work of visual artist Jim Hodges, opening at the Walker on February 14, running through May 11. If you're planning on going, it's quite a scene. If you can't make it, here's a video Opening-Day Dialogue: Jim Hodges and Sisyphus.

This unlikely collaboration stemmed from the fund-raising compilation Dark was the Night, which includes both Sufjan's cover and a Buck 65 remix of You Are The Blood, originally written and performed by Castanets. Stevens collaborated with Serengeti on the remix, and the collaboration didn't end there. The duo became a trio with the addition of Son Lux, and they added guest artists Doseone and Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond) to the EP. The new album is just the core trio, no celebrity guests.
posted by filthy light thief (30 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
I was just thinking about Sufjan for the first time in years last night after hearing "Say Something" - it sounded to me like it could have been a track on Illinois. After hearing my partner had never heard of Sufjan, I tracked down The Age of Adz (which is amazing, btw). So happy to see this.
posted by zug at 10:05 AM on March 24


That reminds me to go back to Dark Was The Night, one of the truly classic compilations.
posted by Theta States at 10:07 AM on March 24 [2 favorites]


I should note that there are some NSFW lyrics. If that kind of thing matters, here's Sisyphus on RapGenius.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:15 AM on March 24


Sisyphus isn't a very respectable figure.
In Greek mythology Sisyphus was a king of Ephyra (now known as Corinth) punished for chronic deceitfulness by being compelled to roll an immense boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll back down, and to repeat this action forever.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:18 AM on March 24


I can imagine they were in a pinch looking for characters with three distinct S's in the name. And from the interview: "Also those gold and metallic boulders Jim made were an obvious influence on our name change. It’s the Sisyphus stone with bling."
posted by filthy light thief at 10:26 AM on March 24


punished for chronic deceitfulness by being compelled to roll an immense boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll back down, and to repeat this action forever.

I'm not that familiar with the other acts that constitute Sisyphus, but I don't think I've ever heard a better metaphor for Sufjan Stephens' whole "I'm going to make an album for every state/hahalol nevermind I hate albums they are garbage here's a symphony made out of traffic noises" gestalt.

Also, this is a bit of a tangent, but I just want to heartily recommend "Dark Was The Night" to anyone who hasn't heard it. It's not only the best charity compilation album I've ever heard, it's one of my favorite albums that I own. I still listen to it regularly five years after it came out.
posted by Sara C. at 10:26 AM on March 24 [3 favorites]


"s/s/s started to sound like the Nazi Schutzstaffel with a lisp so we had to change it"

If they were trying to get away from that they could've done something different with the stylization of the band/project name on the album cover, but, I mean, I am not accusing them of anything so.

I wasn't into the record on first listen but I will have to revisit especially since I love Son Lux's albums so much.
posted by mountmccabe at 10:35 AM on March 24


Interesting part way through, but I was somewhat struck by the idea of retro-cool moving forward from LPs to cassettes. And doing a quick Google search to confirm that, yes, Limited Edition Cassette versions of indie music is a thing now. (Not saying this as a negative thing at all, just as an observational thing that I hadn't noticed before somehow.)
posted by skynxnex at 10:40 AM on March 24


Cool. I gave up on Sufjan for a bit because I lost him with the Christmas records, but I'm really liking this.

On a sort of tangential note, maybe we should start linking to that first track in certain MeTa threads:

"...When you feel like fucking shit up
Let's fuck shit up, let's fuck shit up, let's fuck shit up
And when you feel like you can't stop talking shit about each other all the time
You need to calm it down.
You need to calm it down.
You need to calm it down.
Calm it down.
Calm it down."
posted by Lutoslawski at 10:49 AM on March 24 [1 favorite]


The retro-cool cassette trend is definitely a thing. I was at a party this weekend where the all the music was first-wave kinda mellow reggae/ska on tapes.

My suspicion is that this is the ultimate way to 100% make sure your obnoxious niche taste in music is allowed to dominate in a social situation, since it doesn't leave the option of disconnecting this asshole's laptop and just putting on your own music from your phone.
posted by Sara C. at 10:50 AM on March 24 [1 favorite]


Hah, I've never thought of the social aspects of cassettes at a party.

For what it's worth, I've picked up limited edition cassettes over the years, because I'm a sucker for anything that is labeled "limited edition" in any meaningful way. Only 25 copies of your b-sides and unreleased material compiled on cassette in an ungainly package? Sold! Limited edition cassette with an exclusive extended mix of the title track? Sold! Your super-twee band made a cassette of new material and only recorded seven copies? Sold!

Unfortunately, I'm also a lazy archivist, so I want to record these cassettes the first time I play them, but my cassette deck isn't hooked up in any convenient way at the moment.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:58 AM on March 24 [1 favorite]


The control freak angle had never occurred to me until this weekend, where literally there was an analog tape deck connected to speakers, ten different home-recorded cryptically labeled virtually identical reggae mix tapes, and then the person responsible for the music left the party. It was like an act of party terrorism.

We tried to hook an iPhone into the tape deck, but the mic in was the old-school thicker kind.

Anyway, total derail. But yeah I think this is an actual thing. In other news, I'm always happy to hear the next Sufjan Stephens weirdness.
posted by Sara C. at 11:03 AM on March 24 [1 favorite]


Cassettes are huge right now in the music scenes I'm most absorbed in (DIY Chicago garage / punk / rock, as well as all the stoner garage pop coming out of So Cal). Something that usually gets lost in all the "omg hipsterrrrssss" speculation about the rise of the modern cassette tape is that most of these bands aren't Sufjan Stevens; choosing to do a run of 250 cassettes instead of 1000 vinyl records often mean they can afford to release an album without worrying about whether they'll ever recoup the costs.

I like Serengeti's Kenny Dennis character.
posted by Juliet Banana at 11:41 AM on March 24


choosing to do a run of 250 cassettes instead of 1000 vinyl records often mean they can afford to release an album without worrying about whether they'll ever recoup the costs.

Wouldn't it actually be cheaper to release on CD? Also easier, not to mention that you can be pretty sure that potential buyers actually own equipment that can play it.

The tape thing is straight up a trendy affectation. I don't think that makes it bad, per se, but there really is no practical reason to release music out into the world in tape format. It is an aesthetic choice, not a pragmatic one.
posted by Sara C. at 11:53 AM on March 24


Wouldn't it actually be cheaper to release on CD?

Wow, when was the last time you paid money for a CD?

To be fair, I'm probably super out-of-touch and living in a little garage-bubble, but I would much rather just stream digital tracks off Bandcamp than pay money for an easily scratched copy. I'll defend cassettes to the death when the "why wouldn't they just release an album on vinyl instead" question comes up, but to answer the "why wouldn't they release their album on CD" question I would have to be familiar with a world where people still purchase and listen to CDs.
posted by Juliet Banana at 12:06 PM on March 24 [3 favorites]


Wow, when was the last time you paid money for a CD?

You can buy a spool of like 200 for maybe $10 at any office supply store. Grab a pack of cheap paper sleeves for another $5. It also comes with the benefit of needing no special equipment to record, mix, or reproduce, all of which can be done on the most basic home computer.

Also, I mean seriously, you know that nobody purchases or listens to tapes, right? Like you can go to Starbucks, and they sell CDs. And your car has a CD player in it, standard. In order to buy a tape you have to go seek out someone who sells tapes, and then you have to dig around thrift stores till you find a functioning tape deck, and then MAYBE if the odds are in your favor, you get to listen to some music.
posted by Sara C. at 12:09 PM on March 24


When was the last time you paid a local band actual money out of your wallet for a CD-R they recorded a home, though? I generally throw them out when I get them for free.
posted by Juliet Banana at 12:14 PM on March 24 [1 favorite]


I think the real question is why release any physical media at all. It's expensive and the return is tiny. I mean, I think most bands assume they'll just eat the cost of producing an actual object.

I guess the idea is to have the physical media as sort of a marketing thing/cool bit of memorabilia/art/something easy to get around at gigs, and I do get that...but at least vinyl still sounds great, whereas tapes sound more or less like crap, yeah?

I don't know. I'm all for just doing digital release these days. Although I will say that I was at an Ok Go show a few years ago and they did a thing where they recorded the show each night and then after the show you could buy a thumb drive (looked like a domino) that had the most recent record along with the recording of that night's show, which I thought was creative and clever.
posted by Lutoslawski at 12:15 PM on March 24


Also, I mean seriously, you know that nobody purchases or listens to tapes, right?

I've probably spent about $30 on cassette tapes in the past month, all albums that either are only released on tape or released on vinyl/tape, no CD copy available. I'm not talking about the kind of band that gets their music into Starbucks, I'm talking about Lolipop Records, Eye Vybe Records, etc.
posted by Juliet Banana at 12:19 PM on March 24


When was the last time you paid a local band actual money out of your wallet for a CD-R they recorded a home, though? I generally throw them out when I get them for free.

But why wouldn't you do the same thing with a tape?

Especially since you probably don't own a tape deck, since nobody makes them anymore and nothing you already own comes with a hole for that particular kind of media.

The whole tape thing is all about inaccessibility and coolness. It's about separate analog bits of equipment and having to go seek things out in a special nerdy connoisseur sort of way. (On multiple levels -- it's hard for bands to record this way and also hard for listeners to access the music.)

Again, there's nothing wrong with that. But it's absolutely not a practical way to either release or listen to music.
posted by Sara C. at 12:20 PM on March 24


functioning tape deck

I tried to listen to a mix tape a few years ago, and found that neither of my cassette players worked anymore. Damn failure-prone, mechanical things
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 12:21 PM on March 24


I've probably spent about $30 on cassette tapes in the past month, all albums that either are only released on tape or released on vinyl/tape, no CD copy available. I'm not talking about the kind of band that gets their music into Starbucks, I'm talking about Lolipop Records, Eye Vybe Records, etc.

Yeah that's why I said it's a trendy hipster aesthetic choice.

You are not buying tapes because it's the most practical way to listen to music. These bands aren't releasing on tape because it's the easiest way to get music to their audience. It's an aesthetic experience.

And, yes, you are living in a little scene bubble. Which, again, nothing wrong with it. But if you're asserting that all people mostly spend money on cassette tapes and prefer to listen to music that way, you're wrong.
posted by Sara C. at 12:22 PM on March 24


You know that people still manufacture tape decks, right? Sure, Crutchfield isn't selling anything now (yet they still have the category, somewhere), but there are a number of options on Amazon, including dual cassette decks for dubbing tapes, and even a Tape2USB deck. Tapes are "trendy" in the sense they're not marketed to the masses, but it's not a blip on the radar of music consumption. They've been back since at least the late 2000s, in certain circles.

A fun story about buying albums on CDr: years back, I was chatting with a downtempo producer on and off about his music, and he told me he had a new album coming out. I picked it up from him online, and to my eyes, it was pretty clearly a burned CD. It was a silver CDr, so the underside didn't have a distinctive blue or purple color to it, but there were a number of clear signs (to me) that it was a burn, not a professionally pressed CD. I asked him about this, and he was surprised, but he went with a company who offered to package an album cheaper than other offers, and apparently the producer didn't notice the end product.

In short: while CDrs are cheap and generally not favored by most folks, they can be made up in a way as to fool the casual listener.

This thread reminds me I should make sure my cassette deck still works. It would be a bummer to have hauled it across states just to find it no longer works.
posted by filthy light thief at 12:49 PM on March 24


Woah, hate to interrupt the Who's Cooler, but did y'all listen to the linked Castanets track? I hadn't heard it in five years or so, and it's really special. Forgot how good that album was, and am definitely going back to it today. But first, the covers!
posted by carsonb at 1:03 PM on March 24 [2 favorites]


I think the kids and some of us old-timers are just nostalgic for that magical cultural moment in the mid to late 90s when cassette-only releases really were an actual thing that made sense because it was the easiest way for small punk and independent artists to self-release music. It's as much good-old-fashioned, non-controversial nostalgia as it is further evidence of the creeping cultural corruption of hipsterism.
posted by saulgoodman at 1:08 PM on March 24


pause tapes/mix tapes are still the best ever. It's just not the same anymore with digital tools. Now you really have no excuse why your mix isn't kick-ass perfect in every way, and because of that, no one even tries. With mix tapes, there was a craft to it. You had to time everything perfectly. Sometimes you'd even manually wind the tape a bit with a pen to get that cue perfect. You could hook your VCR's audio output into the tape deck's audio input and get these segues and interludes that just don't make sense anymore but on semi-permanent media like a mixtape were excellent and funny and surprising between songs. Now, because it's just going to wind up on your hard drive with all the other songs, it's not even fun to put little weird interludes in there anymore because if you hit "random" some day the stupid little interludes will come up and you're all "DELETE WITH PREJUDICE." Lost art, I tell ya.
posted by Hoopo at 2:36 PM on March 24 [3 favorites]


Feel like the best would be to sell cassettes (hey, funky physical proof that I was there before they were big!) and then have an easy way to access a digital version that I would actually listen to.

Or hell, I'd be happy with just selling me 'album artwork' with a specialized code attached for accessing a download. Coz album artwork is actually what I miss most about physical media: it's cool having some design or feelies associated with the music I'm listening to. It creates a much more immersive experience. But yeah, the physical CD only gets read once, when I rip it into the computer the first time.

So here's how you distribute your music. You create a vast array of 'keys' and then use a cryptographic hash to turn your valid keys into QR codes or somesuch. Then you put the QR code into a corner of your album artwork; maybe you print them in bulk as stickers. Then the person who wants to download does the QR code thing (or types out an annoying string), and the download is prepared. As an added bonus, if you're feeling evil, it's easy to then bake the encrypted key into each person's recording using some steganography, making it easy to track down whoever put the album on the pirate bay...
posted by kaibutsu at 4:10 PM on March 24


Hoopa:
One of my all-time favorite mixes is actually digital:
The Young Lady's Post Punk Handbook

It's released as one long track, so when you go to listen to it you listen straight through. And if there's a particular song you really like you cn go buy/download it elsewhere... And it totally still makes sense to put in those funny interludes (though this mix doesn't).
posted by kaibutsu at 4:15 PM on March 24 [1 favorite]


yes anyone who listens very seriously at all to EDM / DJ crafted/curated stuff knows that proper mixes are released digitally as all one long track that you play end-to-end. Otherwise it won't make sense.

related to the thread, I am stoked to see that Sufjan is back to doing collaborative / exploratory work. The Christmas thing really lost me and I was worried he'd gone all Mannheim Steamroller on us there for a bit.
posted by lonefrontranger at 4:44 PM on March 24 [1 favorite]


yes anyone who listens very seriously at all to EDM / DJ crafted/curated stuff knows that proper mixes are released digitally as all one long track that you play end-to-end. Otherwise it won't make sense. you are terrible, because you should never listen to a separated mix on shuffle

FTFY :)
posted by Theta States at 6:14 AM on March 25


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