INTERVIEW: Of Great and Mortal Men

Many people have heard of NaNoWriMo -- National Novel Writing Month, which takes place every November and just celebrated its 10th year in 2008 -- but did you know it has a musical cousin? February Album Writing Month (FAWM) just got wrapped up, challenging musicians to write 14 songs over 28 days, and while one can imagine how much chaff such an endeavor must produce almost by nature, you shouldn't throw the wheat out with the bathwater.

J. Matthew Gerken, Christian Kiefer, and Jefferson Pitcher teamed up for last year's FAWM, taking the challenge one step further: over the course of a month, between them they would write a song for each and every President of the United States of America. Realizing they were onto something great, the three sent their songs out and got some of their favorite indie musicians -- Alan Sparhawk of Low, Mark Kozelek of Red House Painters and Sun Kil Moon, (Smog)'s Bill Callahan, Califone, Xiu Xiu's Jaime Stewart, etc. -- to play on the tracks. The result -- Of Great and Mortal Men: 43 Songs for 43 U.S. Presidencies -- is as exciting to listen to as it is informative and an eye-opening look into the lives of these great, mortal men.

Davecat was extremely fortunate to be able to talk with each of the three songwriters about the project, out as a three-disc set from Standard Recording Company -- and now including a 44th song for President Obama.
>>>> Christian is a history teacher, but what (if any) background do Jefferson and Matthew have in US history?

CHRISTIAN: I should probably note that I’m not actually a history teacher, although I do a fair amount of history-related reading in my classes. My graduate work is in American literature and I’m currently teaching English (rhetoric, writing, and literature) for Stanford University’s cutting edge Education Program for Gifted Youth, Online High School. My students are brilliant and it keeps me on my intellectual toes working with them.

JEFFERSON: I do not necessarily have a “formal” background in American History, though my undergraduate degree is in American Studies, and I have a longstanding interest in history. I think more important in the case of this project, rather than any strong ties to an academic path in history, was simply our inquisitiveness about the subject matter. History of the presidents is arguably about myth and popular culture as much as it is about the formal discourse of history (at least in the greater cultural sense) so a curious mind, a willingness to do a bit of research, and a longing to examine the way in which history is told was all relevant. My graduate work was an MFA in studio art, and while critical theory was present in that, I is, I think, wholly unrelated to this sort of history.

MATTHEW: I studied an obtuse brand of economic and social theory known as historical materialism as a part of my undergraduate degree in Urban Geography and Political Science. It is not really history as people normally think of it, but a certain lens for viewing the world, based in part on history (especially since the industrial revolution). Partly as a result of this project, I started to read more US history books, especially those with presidential themes. Actually, I think the degree to which one is interested in history might be a pretty good barometer for me to use in identifying new friends. I think I would naturally gravitate toward people that have at least some interest in history and away from people showing no such interest. Wow, I got way off topic there!

>>>> How were you able to line up so many popular indie musicians for the album? Were there a lot of personal connections, or did the idea to include others come later in the project's conception?

CHRISTIAN: The project is somewhat amazing to me for this reason. Much of it was connections via friends of friends, and a few labels were very, very kind in helping us making new connections with bands and musicians we love. We knew pretty early on that we wanted to include some guest artists. In particular, I was aware that I was doing an Alan Sparhawk-imitation when I was singing Eisenhower for the first time. So when it came time to do the real recordings (I mean post-demo stage) it seemed natural to ask Alan if he would do it. We’re quite fortunate to have learned that musicians really want to make music. Nearly everyone we asked to share their time with us was quite willing to do so. I’m still amazed by that, although I probably should not be. Musicians are good people. I’ll leave Jefferson to the next part…

>>>> Were any of the songs written specifically to be sung by the artists that perform them on the album? I ask because in some cases (such as the John Tyler song "Hindsight Falls On Deaf Ears" with Bill Callahan) the performance seems so completely suited to the song that it sounds they could have written it themselves for one of their own albums. Was there any collaboration with the performers as far as arrangement of the songs was concerned?

JEFFERSON: None of the songs were written with any specific performers in mind, and only a handful changed at all from the time of the original demos. We wrote the demos as a part of a songwriting challenge called FAWM (fawm.org) in which one writes fourteen songs in twenty-eight days (February). Because of the nature of the songwriting, we felt that we wanted to stay as “true” as possible to the idea from a compositional standpoint. That said, as guests joined the project, we were certainly open to some degree of change in the arrangements. The songs that standout the most to me, as having diverted from the original and having been collaborative are Coolidge which changed a fair amount when Jim Putnam (Radar Bros.) began working with it, Lyndon Johnson which Steve Dawson (Dolly Varden) re-arranged a bit and added lyrics to, and Wilson which Kiefer basically re-wrote when Jamie Stewart (Xiu Xiu) got involved.

CHRISTIAN: I’m a huge, huge fan of the Staple Singers so my original demo of Tyler was basically me trying to be Roebuck (“Pops” to his friends and family). I tried to get some of the folks from Ollabelle to sing some of their harmonies on it but that didn’t work out. Bill Callahan was a long shot but it turned out he was interested in doing it. Interestingly, out of the entire project, Callahan is the only guy I had no direct contact with whatsoever; everything with him was through kind folks at Drag City. It’s just a transformational performance from him—really mindblowing in every way and we’re very fortunate that he had the time and inclination to do it.

>>>> Speaking of individual songs, I'd like to know more about the (creepy) Woodrow Wilson song "A Life Among Men" featuring Jaime Stewart of Xiu Xiu. Looking through the impressive guest list of artists for this project -- Callahan, Califone, Sparhawk and Kozelek, etc. -- Stewart seems to be the odd man out (in the best way possible, of course). How did he wind up attached to the project, and to "A Life Among Men" specifically?

CHRISTIAN: Jamie Stewart has one of the most distinctive and heart-wrenching voices in music today. Having that voice on this project was very important to me. Turns out his sister is a history teacher and he felt therefore obligated to be a part of our weird history lesson. We pitched a few songs his way and he decided that Wilson was the only one he could really pull off. The original version we sent him was kind of a heavy Pink Floyd trip, but once we got his vocal back (in the mail) I sat and re-configured and re-produced the track so that his voice was really placed at the forefront. I didn’t intend to make a pseudo-Xiu Xiu track out of it, but I fear that’s what I did. Sometimes it’s difficult to avoid one’s influences.

>>>> "Someone to Wake," the 44th song in the 43-song series, was written after Barack Obama's election this November. Had you given any thought before the election what John McCain's song would sound like, had things gone the other way?

JEFFERSON: I was the one slated to write a song for McCain had he won, and the task was indeed difficult. I didn’t want to take the easy route of writing something disarmingly negative because I didn’t like him politically. A few years ago, I watched a film by director Werner Herzog called Little Dieter Needs to Fly, which is about a Vietnam Veteran who was in a prison camp for quite some time. I was fascinated by the extremity of his situation, and the way in which I believe humans can resort to a much more biologically survivalist mode of survival in extreme situations. As much as I didn’t like the fact that McCain’s war heroism came into the election rhetoric, I was fascinated by what it must have been like to go through that experience. So the demo I had decided on was a song about how he was proud of himself for having endured. Of course that doesn’t qualify him to be president in any way, and I didn’t want to write about it politically. I wrote about it in the first person, from a very emotional standpoint. Had it seen the light of day, I think it was sounding something like a slow, but loud Sonic Youth song.

>>>> On a related note, the three of you just did a pre-Inauguration show in DC. What was it like, being in the captial during all the Inauguration festivities? Any good Inauguration stories?

MATTHEW: Yes, we had a big show at the 6th and I Historic Synagogue downtown, a
venue that has lectures as well as great musical performances. It was a beautiful and ornate building and we had this giant light show and videos tied to the presidential music for an eye-candy overload. We invited many east coast and midwest based musicians to "cover" songs from "Of Great and Mortal Men," and I, for one, was blown away by the quality of the guest performances. The three of us also got to sing a couple of our tunes to a large crowd of enthusiastic and attentive people. By the Saturday before inauguration, the City was really beginning to fill up and there were tons of parties and events all around the area, which served as "competition" for our event. We spent pretty much all day at the venue rehearsing, meeting the guest musicians as they would arrive, and otherwise preparing for the event. By the time we were finished with the show, we walked down the block to grab a drink, and it was very clear that we had some "catching up" to do -- there were stumbling, overjoyed people all over the streets of Washington. To me, there was a palpable buzz in the air, too. By most accounts, this was the largest and happiest inauguration gathering in history. It was wonderful to be tangentially associated with it.

>>>> Were you surprised by the takes on some of the presidents that your colleagues came up with? Did anyone write an alternate song for any of the presidents?

MATTHEW: These United States, a great Washington DC based band, did a very cool, very low-fi version of John Adams. For some of the artists, we would send them the song and they would sing over it or play over it and send it back. For others, there was a wholescale re-recording of the song and sometimes arrangement changes. These United States' version was very surprising to me, and was very different from the original. I ended up wanting to keep both textures, and therefore the cut that is on the record features their version at the beginning and end of the cut and my version in the middle. Speaking of These United States, they played an unbelievable opening set at the show in Washington and also covered the song about Taylor ("Rough and Ready") at this show. They absolutely killed! What a talented bunch of people!

>>>> Who are your individual favorite presidents (and why)?

MATTHEW: This is a difficult question. Part of the beauty of them is that they all had flaws... some more than others. Probably Abraham Lincoln did the most overall amount of good, of all our presidents thusfar. Teddy Roosevelt was a great US President, making important strides in land conservation and trust-busting.

JEFFERSON: This is a difficult question, because so much of our knowledge about the presidents is based in a very incomplete reading (and understanding) of history. Though a flawed man in many ways, I would have to say Thomas Jefferson, primarily because of his thoughts on both the principles of democracy (I think he would be rather shocked and disgusted by the degree to which those principles have been eroded in modern politics) and education. His ideals in both of those areas are still entirely relevant if not needed today.

>>>> What are some of the best presidential facts you learned that didn't make their way into the songs?

MATTHEW: Gerald Ford was an All-American center for the University of Michigan (football) and used to request that aides wake him up in the middle of the night if necessary (while traveling abroad) to tell him the Michigan-Ohio State score.

>>>> Any plans for this coming February's Album Writing Month? Vice presidents? Kings and queens of England?

JEFFERSON: I’m afraid that with an eleven-month old son, it is about all I can do to get some food in me and a shower each day. I don’t plan to do the February Album Writing Month this year, though I am working on songs for a new record, just at a much slower pace. While I have deeply enjoyed the process of writing about this subject matter, I don’t want to become the guy who writes about presidents, kings, etc. While most, if not all, of my records have some very concrete themes, mostly borrowed and stolen from literature, I am far too interested in experimentation to stay on the same path. My new project is about the lack of water resources in a fictional town. So perhaps a mayor here and there.