NUVO Interview: Of Great and Mortal Men Songwriters 

NUVO: What were some of the difficulties in getting this project done?

J. Matthew Gerken: It is remarkable to me that the songwriting itself—14 songs in 28 days—was not that difficult, at least for me. I really thrived on having a theme for my songwriting. The sheer volume of material, more than any other single factor, made this difficult. Taking this many songs through the basic tracking, overdubbing, mixing, and mastering process represents many, many person-hours. We are indebted greatly to all the great special guests that contributed to this project, both musically and through the handcrafted art, tailored to each presidency. The process of bringing all those folks together was time-consuming, also.


NUVO: What were your motivations behind the project?

Jefferson Pitcher: There are multiple layers to this question, the first of which is that I was trying to remove myself from a habit of semi-autobiographical songwriting.  I don’t recall the exact moment that I landed upon the idea of writing about American Presidential history but it came from the impetus of seeking material that I thought would be complex enough to embody some very grave issues as well as the absurdity and humor of public life.  I also felt this would be an interesting way to examine a long period of time in a somewhat concise fashion.  In terms of participating in FAWM ( the idea or exercise of writing fourteen songs in twenty eight days was (and remains) terribly appealing to me for many reasons, the most prominent being that I like to constantly attempt different things as an artist, especially with regard to how I approach my process.  Making something so quickly without such intensive self-judgment is a great thing for any creative person, working in any medium to do, I think.


NUVO: How did Standard come into this project?

Christian Kiefer:  Standard came our way via Michael Kaufmann at Asthmatic Kitty.  Michael became interested in the project but thought it was perhaps too “50 States” for Asthmatic Kitty (it’s Sufjan’s label, after all).  But he passed us along to lots of label-friends.  Many were interested but none so much as Standard.


NUVO: Were other labels interested?

Kiefer:  We did have several other labels who were on the short list.  In some ways a project like this is a huge gamble for any label and meeting with some other label folks helped us put out business ideas into some form that a label might understand.  Portia Sabin and Slim Moon were both particularly helpful to us throughout the process and have been very kind throughout, offering advice and contacts and, perhaps most importantly, lots of encouragement throughout the process.


NUVO: What are your personal favorites from the album?

Pitcher: This is an impossible question so I’ll just pick two from each of us.  Of my songs, I like William Henry Harrison and Kiefer’s version of Taylor.  Of Kiefer’s I like Hoover and Jamie Stewart’s version of Woodrow Wilson.  Of Gerken’s I like John Adams and Bush Sr.  My reasons are more based in music than lyrics for these choices.

Gerken: I love Jefferson's songs on Jimmy Carter and Thomas Jefferson. The specific recording and mix of those tunes brings them out even more.  Christian’s arrangement (re-arrangement) of my tune about Gerald Ford is great! Jeff Alkire’s saxophone solos on my song about John Kennedy (“There is No Plan”) absolutely blow me away. I think overall my favorite of all, however, is the song about the current presidency (“Though the Night”). The subtle sting of the lyrics, [its] beautiful and grand arrangement, and the design of this song as the last song on the record make it really second to none, to me at least.  Christian’s composition on that one is stupendous.


NUVO: You have a Ph.D. in American Literature, to what extent did that experience help with this project?

Kiefer:  The Ph.D. certainly helps my confidence and my ego in terms of approaching this kind of project.  The training I received when doing my doctoral work certainly affects the way I approach research and perhaps the ways in which I analyze or interpret the past as a kind of narrative structure.  There’s also a sense of stick-to-it-ness that one develops when completing something as absurd as a dissertation.  The thought was: If I can finish a Ph.D., I sure as hell can finish a triple CD.  So there’s the post-graduate experience in action.


NUVO: As a filmmaker, are there any methods you used in composing your part of the project?

Pitcher: I suppose there are some structural similarities in the way that I build a film and make music, but I see the two forms as rather different.  I think any artist working in various mediums has a certain amount of leakage from one to another.  In other words, one imprints much of their self in anything they do, but it may not be all that apparent without really examining a good deal of someone’s work.  I also paint, and I think that my music, film, and painting all share some fairly strong similarities.  A more concrete answer would be that there is a good amount of improvisation in all that I do.  It likely sounds a bit cliché, but I really try to surrender to the moment when I am editing, or filming or composing, so that things sort of unfurl without my mind or ego or preconceived ideas being in the way.  I know this is impossible, but I do what I can.  Most of my guitar overdubs are done the first take as I improvise ideas along with the song.  I always record this stuff, and then sometimes go back and learn certain parts or edit out stuff that did not work.  I tend to do the same when I film and edit, so I do think there is some commonality for sure.  


NUVO: I read the entry in the blog about the insurance debacle after the birth of your child, and I was curious to what extent experiences like that play into composing largely historical songs like this. Any thoughts?

Pitcher: Well, it makes me wish that I was a bit harsher in my criticism of culture.  In some way, I think that all of my work is precisely about these small pieces of minutiae that make a life.  I think this is really clear with my films, but if you listen closely to the subject matter of my songs on this record, I am for the most part looking at small incidents in these men’s lives, much like the small battles we find ourselves engaged in on a daily basis:  battles with insurance companies and so forth.  While the big moments seem to define us, perhaps it is the collection of these small things that really make us who we are.  So to that end, composing largely historical songs is definitely influenced by these things.  I’ve been really interested lately in Wikipedia and other forms of what I will call “social knowledge.”  For so long, really since the first library in Alexandria 10,000 years ago, our history has been written by those with the biggest guns.  While I do think that Wikipedia has flaws, I believe a model is growing for a new way of telling history that is more complete.  If we have a history told by the collection of a million voices in some composite form, I think it will inherently be truer than the history told by a handful of wealthy, “educated”, powerful folks.  So in some way, these small stories could be arguably just as important to our history as the bigger events that we tend to focus on.


NUVO: Was it difficult writing about JFK? To what extent do your own political views and ideals play into a song like that?

Gerken: Somebody with a place in history like John Kennedy is very difficult to approach, indeed, even intimidating. How can I expect to "do justice" to someone like that? As you will notice, the song is really more about the scenario that would have occurred had Kennedy not been killed. Nixon was the first modern president to really master the current conservative approach to federal politicking, whereby the substance of any message is irrelevant. The actual policy analysis and discussion is secondary to the five-second sound bite and the painting of a presidential portrait.... posing next to landmarks... photo opportunities with important people...  Bobby Kennedy's presidential campaign avoided mass media advertising that was used by others at the time, including rivals in his own party like Adlai Stevenson. He preferred speeches and especially question and answer periods about policy (not that he did not benefit of more superficial things like his own charisma and charm...).  But, really, if you read about the way his campaign was run, and John Kennedy's before him, it is really so unlike what we see today. What if Kennedy wasn't killed? We would have been out of Vietnam five or six years earlier. What if Bobby Kennedy wasn't killed? Would he and his brother have served two terms each? That would put us through 1980! Then what?! Anyway, carrying this scenario through is something that really emotionally affects me, and writing about that angle is less intimidating to me then that.


NUVO: Did you share songs prior to posting them on the FAWM site?

Pitcher: Only with my wife, if she was still awake.  I’m trying to reduce the amount that I pay attention to “audience” with my work, as I think it has a tendency to keep me from growing as much as I would like to.  There is a great book titled Improvisation, by the avant-garde guitarist Derek Bailey, where he writes about the inherent flaw with audience: he basically says that the instant you begin paying attention to audience, your work suffers.  To this end, I’m trying less and less to share things before I feel they are done.  That said, sometimes another set of ears you trust can be really helpful.


NUVO: How much did the songs change from the original demos to the final recordings?

Kiefer:  We made a point of being pretty careful to not change them too much.  Part of the magic of the process is the concept that these were all songs we wrote in 28 days.  There were some issues, of course.  One example that comes to mind is Jefferson’s song about President Taylor.  He wasn’t particularly happy with the version of the song that was to become the final recording, so I took a stab at a re-interpretation of the song as a kind of country fiddle jam.  That seemed a much more effective way to get across the same basic chord structure and lyrics.  It’s the same song that Jefferson wrote back in February of ’06 but it’s a new arrangement.  This process speaks volumes about the recording process: The chords and lyrics and melodies might all be written but there’s still the challenge of getting across the best possible version of the song.


NUVO: I noticed in the comments on the President's blog that sometimes you were unhappy with how the songs turned out. Was there a temptation go in after the fact and edit? How much did those songs change from the original demos? 

Pitcher:  I sometimes believe that it is one’s genetic makeup as an artist to be dissatisfied with what one makes.  That said, I think we all felt a certain loyalty to keeping the songs as close to the demos as possible.  There are a few diversions, but for the most part they stayed really, surprisingly, close.  Part of what I find appealing about writing music in this way, is that one doesn’t have time to go in and edit.  Of course the temptation is there.  As a matter of fact, I think this temptation is just an inherent part of what it is to be an artist.  And I think this is okay.  But at the same time, I find that in the digital age, it has become so easy to “fix” everything, we sometimes “fix” things to the point where we take the life out of them.  One of the film world’s great editors, Walter Murch, wrote a book about editing called In the Blink of An Eye.  There is a wonderful section where he describes the difference between editing with an old film cutter, literally cutting the film, and editing on a computer.  He basically says that when you edit film you make less edits because it is considerably more difficult, and so you make a different film; a film that is often more alive.  When you are editing with film, you have to continually look at the scenes you discarded, and sometimes you change your mind.  I cannot count the number of times I have spent a week on something in a studio, only to return to the first take.  Anyway, I think we were all tempted to go back and “fix” things we weren’t happy with, but in the end my guess is that the record is better because we didn’t.  It was hard when we were re-tracking the songs to sometimes stay within the confines of the demo, but I’m grateful that we all did that.  Had we not, it would have somehow lost some of its truth I think.


NUVO: What president was the hardest to write about?

Pitcher:  I would have to say that it was a tie between Truman and Clinton.  How do you write about a man who said okay to dropping two nuclear bombs?  What could I possibly write about this man that wouldn’t be trite or obvious?  As for Clinton, he is just too close to be able to examine with any objectivity.  In that way, all of the older presidents were easier for me to write about, because they seem to exist in a different world entirely.  I’ve always been amazed by bands like Fugazi who can write eloquent, sophisticated, interesting songs about current events.  I have always struggled with that, so lyrically my work tends to be fairly oblique.  I may tell you that a song is about something really obvious in pop culture, but often you would never guess it from the lyrics.  So for me, going further and further back while being literal was quite a bit easier.

Kiefer:  Hoover.  Jesus that song was terribly difficult.  I think I hit the writing wall around that time and actually wrote 3 or 4 different versions of it with the same lyrics but different arrangements and chord structures.  I finally happened upon the “After Hours” version — just a piano and a vocal part — and that seemed to translate the lyrics the best.  One of the problems was that I bought a stack of R.E.M. albums at that time — albums that I had grown up with on cassette but which I hadn’t heard since high school—and thought I’d take a stab at writing a jangly pop song.  Ouch.  Just not something I can do convincingly, I’m afraid.  Lonely piano ballads, for sure, but not jangle-pop.


NUVO: Was it easier to write about older presidents or about more recent presidents?

Kiefer:  There was certainly a sense for me that the more recent presidents might bear closer scrutiny from listeners.  No one is alive today who lived under Andrew Jackson, but Carter, sure.  There’s also a greater sense of legacy with more recent presidents, meaning that we can see their effects in the present more readily than we can feel the legacies of more distant presidencies.  I mean that in a pop culture sense, since obviously we’re feeling the effects of Jackson’s presidency, and Lincoln’s, and Monroe, for example, but the various political and economic ramifications of more recent presidencies bears a larger hammer in the popular press.


NUVO: I noticed on the blog you wrote a lesson plan of sorts for teachers to contextualize Washington. Is there value using these songs to stimulate student's interest?

Kiefer:  This is one of the most important aspects of this project for me—a sense that we’re not merely presenting a set of songs with a clever book, but rather are offering a way for the listener to become a kind of student of history.  I would love to see this project enter a classroom environment and we would likely all be very willing to speak to classes about the project and about presidential history.  (Not that we’re experts on presidential history, but we do have some sense of it.)  If there’s one thing we learn from history, it’s that we do make the same mistakes over and over again.  Having said that, it certainly doesn’t mean we can’t educate ourselves in an effort to try to avoid making those mistakes.


NUVO: Personal favorite President? Least Favorite?

Pitcher: Jefferson.  George W. Bush.  Both should be fairly self-explanatory.  I agree with most of what Jefferson did and espoused and disagree with most of what GW does and espouses.  I see these two men as the polar opposites of American Presidential History.

Kiefer:  It’s hard to ignore FDR as a favorite.  He really took the presidency and did something significant with it, not just in terms of the war, but in a larger sense that the presidency was an office that one could use for good purposes—a subject that Matthew covers quite well in his song about FDR.  Least favorite: Likely I’d choose Andrew Jackson, although his legacy is certainly mixed.

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