“Sometimes I don’t even celebrate Christmas,” says singer-songwriter and holiday anti-consumerist Sufjan Stevens, 31, who, paradoxically, just released a five-CD set, Songs for Christmas. He began the project in 2001 as an exercise in understanding yuletide songs, tinkering with arrangements of classics including “Silent Night” and “The Little Drummer Boy” and adding cheery originals such as “It’s Christmas! Let’s Be Glad!” Like most of his recordings, this set was engineered, produced and performed almost entirely by Stevens, who plays oboe, flute, guitar, banjo and piano, among other instruments. Stevens has a pattern of thematic releases — his 2004 album Seven Swans is laced with religious imagery (he attends an Episcopalian church in Brooklyn), and 2003’s Michigan (his home state) and his 2005 breakthrough, Illinois, are part of an ambitious “fifty albums for fifty, states” project. “It’s a sacred form,” Stevens says of the Christmas songs album, “and yet it’s also incredibly annoying and profane because it’s the soundtrack in shopping malls across the country. I’m interested in reconciling this phenomenal event — the incarnation of God — with Santa Claus and blue-light specials at Kmart and the weird preoccupation we have with buying a lot of junk and giving it to each other.”
Let me guess. You don’t celebrate on New Year’s Eve, either.
I can’t stand it. There’s something about a New Year’s party that I find really phony. I don’t like false pretenses and false parties. In those environments I’m a bit of a curmudgeon.
What was playing in the house when you were growing up?
My stepfather played a lot of old records. A lot of Beatles, psychedelic Stones, Arthur Lee, Boomer’s Story, by Ry Cooder, and Nick Drake’s Pink Moon. He would organize these fake radio shows where he would spin the records and me and my siblings would do all the talking. We’d introduce songs and give the news and weather. He was living out his DJ fantasy through us. Occasionally he would be a special guest [laughs].
Did you ever DJ for real?
In college one time, me and my friends broke into the student radio station. We were basically reading Bukowski poems, playing our own music and a Slint record. We got away with it for about fifteen minutes.
You’ve said before that you “hear music in terms of what I can take out of it.” What have you learned recently?
There’s a Balkan brass group that plays in Park Slope [Brooklyn] on Tuesday nights. It’s like a fusion of gypsy brass music, New Orleans brass, American jazz and funk, but they do a lot of traditional Balkan pieces, with, like, nine or ten horn players playing all at once. It’s sophisticated because of the weird meters and time signatures, but it’s just about dancing and partying and drinking a lot of beer. I learned that the trumpet is far more aggressive than the electric guitar. Hearing it in a small room is terrifying, exhausting and way more aggressive than a lot of punk music I’ve seen.
Many of your songs involve researching historical figures and events. Have you researched the lives of musicians you love?
I don’t obsess about musicians. I get distracted by the lives of writers. I’m into Thomases right now. What on Earth is Thomas Pynchon all about? Thomas Paine wrote Common Sense and was eventually driven to poverty and almost universally disliked. And Thomas Merton, a Catholic monk mystic who lived in isolation in a monastery.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen from the stage?
Nice. Do you have any vices?
I’m addicted to antioxidants — vitamin C, garlic and pomegranate juice. I chew ginger like most people chew gum.
Are you a night owl?
Not really. I’m pretty quiet, I keep to myself. But I’m really into friend-rock — I think that’s the term. Like, if your friends are in bands that you don’t necessarily like but you’re supporting them, you’re into friend-rock.
In the liner notes to Illinois, you said you recorded the piano parts in a church, in the dead of night. Freaky?
It’s a huge old Gothic church. It’s very dim inside and there are a lot of mysterious sounds — radiators clicking, pews creaking and footsteps. One night, I had headphones on, and a mike fell on the ground, and it started picking up this weird sound, dishes clanging and people speaking in German. All the hairs stood on the back of my neck, and I got out of there as quickly as I could.
Why were you there to begin with?
[Laughs] The priest lets me rehearse there. I don’t really record in a studio. I record where musicians and instruments are available, because I don’t have a lot of my own. I don’t even own a guitar or a banjo. I just take my portable recording device wherever instruments are, so I don’t get stuck with a static tonality for every track I put down. Some engineers would say it’s a problem to record in all these different places, but I don’t care.
Have you ever contemplated a stage name that is easier to pronounce?
I never thought of what I do as having any pretense, but now in hindsight I realize that’s impossible, that any time you write music or make art, you’re entertaining a pretense. Now I wish I had a stage name.
How about Thomas?
Thomas Stevens. I like that.