future bible heroes is a songwriting collaboration between stephin merritt and christopher ewen (figures on a beach, the hiddle variable, famous boston DJ) with vocals from claudia gonson and merritt. in addition to reissuing their earlier recordings, they’re about to release their first album in 11 years, titled partygoing, and it’s effing ace (as good as their debut, memories of love). they will play chickfactor 21 on june 12 along with the aluminum group, honeybunch and true love always, mc gaylord fields and special guests. stephin will not perform due to ear issues; the live lineup will feature gonson, ewen, magnetic fields singer shirley simms and anthony kaczynski (figures on a beach). see you at bell house!
I did this interview to write their bio for merge records, but I wanted to print it here. I interviewed them back in chickfactor 11 also! interview by gail
chickfactor: the previous FBH album came out in 2002. now it’s 2013. have you been working on it for 11 years or did you begin more recently? what took so long?
stephin: since 2002 I’ve made four stage musicals and four magnetic fields albums, a gothic archies album and a through-sung live score to a silent film. but in fact chris and I have been working on FBH too, and parts of the songs “when evening falls on tinseltown” and “a drink is just the thing” are quite old. the first describes my experience of living in los angeles—and leaving it, which I did while recording partygoing; the second describes solving all your problems with alcohol, which I don’t do much anymore either. writing true and heartfelt lyrics is pointless because once you get around to singing them, they’re lies.
cf: do you feel freer and more playful making FBH music because it’s not your “day job”? your singing—especially on “how very strange” and “drink nothing but champagne”—is very funny.
stephin: thank you. I had other funny voices that didn’t make it onto the record, but they should be available as either bonus tracks or blackmail fodder. after singing exactly like angela lansbury on “mr. punch,” claudia has retired her stage-cockney voice, but I hope she changes her mind for the concerts. I want to see that.
cf: do you know when you write a song whether it will be for FBH, TMF or something else?
stephin: I only write FBH songs to chris’s instrumental songs (which are often perfectly listenable and finished before I get them), so I always know whose song I’m writing. I don’t always know what album I’m writing for, though: this album has less science fiction than before, but I had dozens of half-finished songs in that j.g. ballard universe mapped so much better by gary numan and john foxx.
cf: was there a theme for this record? I know it’s called partygoing but it seems like aging, rejection, death and austerity are recurring themes.
stephin: write what you know (as they tell you in school, when you don’t know anything yet). those happen to be the themes of most of my work, I’m happy to report. aging is a great theme for any writer, because one never runs out of material, and everyone over 12 is obsessed with it.
cf: do you have a different lyrical approach for FBH than for TMF?
stephin: other than a tendency toward science fiction, which sort of matches the “futuristic” synthesizers, I’m not aware of any difference. I’m still just sitting around in bars with a song in my head, rhyming “arcade” and “rodomontade.”
cf: how has FBH’s recording process changed since the previous releases?
stephin: for partygoing I encouraged chris to let me do more of the work, and just give me skeletal fragments, and then we could toss them back and forth as though we were playing a “sport” of some kind. and I did some remixing, not like junior vasquez, but like me, and the results sound a bit more like me than chris sometimes. which some will hate of course.
cf: are there any ’80s-sounding new bands that you’re fond of? contemporary acts?
stephin: the “electroclash” moment came and went without anyone ever contacting us about it, but I always quite liked ladytron, miss kittin, robyn, peaches, goldfrapp and their imitators. they’re all women. what can I say, I’m a gay man, I cried in public when donna summer died. my favorite country song of the last ten years is “you and I” by lady gaga (closely followed by trailer choir’s “rockin’ the beer gut,” a major feminist accomplishment which could never have been in the country charts I grew up on). our roots are in new wave.
cf: you seem to be able to get away with writing about anything as a lyricist. has anyone ever been offended by something you wrote? whose lyrics inspire you?
stephin: when the new york times trashed my first chinese opera adaptation, the reviewer was shocked that I used the word “fucking” in a song, and implied that it indicated a lack of seriousness on my part. now, on my planet, any medium that can’t use the word “fucking” is aimed at pre-school american children, a demographic not known for its patronage of opera, chinese or no. I’ve been listening to nothing but felt recently.
cf: any plans for the 6ths, the gothic archies, TMF? theater and film?
stephin: I’m writing a lot these days for all of the above, but nothing I can talk about yet.
cf: how does recording for FBH differ from working on TMF records?
claudia: chris first composes lots of sonic ideas, like dozens of them, and sends them to stephin. then, stephin makes melody lines over some of them, and decides which are the ones he wants to use for the album. the process goes back and forth. sometimes chris adjusts the pitch or tempo or adds a new section to accommodate the melody stephin has written. once the songs are written, we record lead vocals and harmonies, and a few more instruments.
cf: you sing on partygoing—do you contribute any other sounds / ideas?
claudia: on one song, there is a musique concrète solo. each member was instructed to go out and do field recordings of various ambient sounds, and stephin and his engineer charles knitted together all these sounds to make the solo. on other songs too, stephin added a few other instrumental lines. but the instrumental backing tracks, for the most part, are chris’s work.
cf: why do FBH play live so rarely?
claudia: we put out albums so rarely, that we didn’t have much occasion to tour. we did tour a bit after the first two albums, but back then it was incredibly difficult to get a stage set up with all those enormous bulky synths. we may do some shows for this album release, but the issue will revolve around the opposite problem, how to perform live in an interesting way without just hitting a button on a computer.
cf: do you feel freer and more playful making FBH music because it’s not your “day job”?
claudia: as the band’s manager, I can certainly say yes. but I also feel this way about playing with the magnetic fields. I enjoy my creative role with the band, since most of my time is spent wrangling over deals and contracts.
cf: who is pretending to be david bowie?
cf: is the FBH fan different from the TMF fan?
claudia: I think we have a lot of crossover but I have discovered that people, like my daughter and my parents, really enjoy FBH, because it’s got a synth-based sound and catchy beats. It’s very accessible to the disco set.
cf: how do you feel this album compares with the previous releases?
claudia: I really like the album. stephin and chris wrote some exceptional songs. it’s a bit depressing, lots of songs about suicide, and a nostalgic yearning for youth and happiness. but I think most of the FBH albums are like that.
cf: can we expect another FBH album in 2024?
claudia: hope so!
cf: the previous FBH album came out in 2002. now it’s 2013. what took so long? have you been working on it for 11 years or did you begin more recently?
chris: we began more recently. part of the reason it took so long is that stephin is obviously involved with a lot of other musical projects. another is that—since we all live in different cities, especially when stephin was living in los angeles—it was a bit more of a challenge for us to coordinate everything. back when we were recording eternal youth, we were both experimenting with different recording technologies, and successfully integrating them was somewhat of a hurdle. technology has finally caught up with what we want to do, so it seemed like the right time to collaborate again. I started coming up with some new ideas for FBH towards the end of 2009. a couple of TMF albums happened between then and now, so 2013 has turned out to be the year we’re releasing a new album.
cf: there are a lot of modern-day new bands that try to sound 1980s. are there any that match up to those from the original decade?
chris: when we released memories of love back in 1997, I was very surprised that the american press were quick to dub us an ’80s “new wave” band. it wasn’t our intention to be classified that way, and it certainly wasn’t what was in my head as we were writing and recording the album. I think that happened because we used a lot of synthesizers, which wasn’t very much in fashion back then. the times seem to have changed, and synthesizers are back in vogue, but this time around we didn’t make a conscious decision to make a blatantly new wave revival record either. however, we did use a lot of synths. ¶ one of the things that continues to attract me to a lot of music that came out in the ’80s is that it sounded like itself. it was new, fresh and surprising at the time…some of it still sounds that way. musical approaches and points of reference were blurred or sometimes completely obliterated. these days, it’s pretty easy for me to pick out what ’80s band influenced the sound of any particular new band, so the element of wonder is I experience listening to them isn’t as apparent. that said, I’m currently really enjoying the most recent albums by the soft moon, the knife / fever ray, freezepop, yan wagner and the horrors, to name a few.
cf: what kind of changes in technology have had an effect on the way FBH works?
chris: when we recorded our first two albums, we used our phones and the mail a lot, and sent things to each other on cassette or DAT. or we had to be in the same city. these days, it’s a lot easier for us to send music & ideas back and forth and develop them more fully. my studio set-up now is a lot more conducive to multi-track recording, and I’m not a slave to MIDI anymore. overall, the ways we work together have become much more flexible.
cf: there are scant details on the two first FBH albums about the “sounds” you make. can you share more info here and do SM / CG contribute to the music also?
chris: on those first two albums, I would basically come up with some song idea, and record all or most of the instruments at my studio in boston, usually MIDI sequences driven by a hardware sequencer live to two track. stephin would then get these fully formed instrumental tracks and have to write the lyrics and vocal melodies either around what I had come up with, or complementing it in some way. It became a process unto itself, as the instrumental tracks were already fully mixed, and any changes would mean lots of editing and completely re-recording the track on my end, or completely rewriting the lyrics on his. as far as the sounds go, I enjoy experimenting in my studio, and am quite content to just play around with sound manipulation. some songs came about because of a certain sound I was happy with…a full track could be inspired by something very simple. I also like to write at a piano, and then arrange those pieces for a fuller instrumentation. on the first couple of albums, since the music was already pretty much finished by the time stephin got the tracks, he & claudia would come up with elaborate backing vocal tracks, and in a few instances, stephin would add a lead instrument. these days, we have a lot more options.
cf: the house of tomorrow site says: “future bible heroes are a songwriting collaboration between stephin merritt (words and melodies) and chris ewen (instruments).” can you clarify your roles?
chris: nowadays we are much more of an integrated collaboration, and there isn’t one particular way a song will develop. “living, loving, partygoing” began as an idea stephin sang into my voicemail one night. “love is a luxury” began with the lyrics. as far as the tracks I instigated go, I made a point of sending stephin a lot of demos or song sketches, which I’d then develop more fully as necessary. this time around, we were able to write songs together using different approaches, and were able to arrange them along the way.
cf: whose music gives you inspiration?
chris: I love producers who love experimenting in the studio…conny plank, martin hannett, joe meek, lindsey buckingham. I continue to admire the magnetic fields of course, all of yellow magic orchestra, abba, brian eno, the gentlemen in cluster (or now, qluster), vince clarke, the throbbing gristle family, the human league and a lot of french and german synth-pop. recent inspirations include laurie spiegel’s the expanding universe re-issue, and everything john foxx has been doing lately.
cf: how long have you known stephin and claudia? how have they changed?
chris: we go back a while… we met around 1987 or 1988 I think, during the buffalo rome days. it’s hard to pinpoint exact changes—we’ve remained good friends over the years and through many scenarios, which means that they continue to possess the qualities that drew us together in the first place. claudia has become more self-assured. stephin’s become a more social creature. I think we’ve all grown up, which is probably something I’ve needed to do.
cf: are you involved in other musical projects these days?
chris: I’ve decided to completely revamp a project I started a few years ago called the hidden variable. It was a collaboration I instigated with several dark fiction authors, whose lyrics I set to music. besides a song I wrote with neil gaiman that claudia sings on, and one with gahan wilson that cosey fanni tutti sings, I’m planning on re-recording the entire album. there may also be the possibility of some instrumental solo material, and I’ll continue to come up with new ideas for FBH, in case we feel the urge to record a new album at some point.