Future Bible Heroes: Cry while laughing, laugh while crying
Most people are probably familiar with Claudia Gonson's backup vocals in the Magnetic Fields, but she does way more than that. Claudia Gonson is a busy woman. She is not only the voice of Future Bible Heroes, she's the business, promotional, and organizational side as well. She's also Stephin Merritt's manager and a fairly new mother to top it all off.
For anyone who has seen the documentary Strange Powers, you know that she and Merritt are a musical package. You don't get one without the other, more often than not. In Future Bible Heroes, Gonson sings Merritt's characteristic witty-yet-melancholy lyrics as the bubbly melodies soar over Chris Ewen's electro-pop soundscapes. Gimme Noise caught up with Gonson just after she dropped her daughter off at preschool.
Gimme Noise: Future Bible Heroes has just released Partygoing. It's been a while.
Claudia Gonson: Yeah, 12 years.
What prompted you guys to start again?
I work, as you know, with Stephin in various bands. There's the Magnetic Fields, Future Bible Heroes, the 6ths, Gothic Archies, and all of his miscellaneous theater, film, and book projects. We just tend to rotate around. We don't like to let any project completely disappear. The release of 69 Love Songs in 1999 ended up sucking up a lot more of our energy in the first half of the new millenia than we had hoped. We put out a Future Bible Heroes record in 1998 (Memories of Love) and then we put out another one in 2002 (Eternal Youth). I think we would have put out another one in the later part, like 2006/2008 but because of Magnetic Fields and 69 Love Songs things just got [pause] delayed.
With all of your projects, did you ever expect the Magnetic Fields to take off before other bands? Which one did you expect people to grab on to?
Honestly, I didn't know. I really say that with honesty. I always knew that the Magnetic Fields was Stephin's personal project that was really reflective of him being the ringleader. But there could have been a song that he wrote with the 6ths that could have had a huge success on a TV show or a movie or an ad, or maybe a Future Bible Heroes song on a car commercial. You just never know. They're all Stephin's lyrics and melodies in the end. I was perfectly happy to give everyone equal opportunity for success.
Is there one group that you feel more heavily involved in?
No. Stephin Merritt. He's my product and my friend and my client. Whatever he does is my focus. Of course I feel very emotionally close to Magnetic Fields and Future Bible Heroes, but I actually feel very close to all of these bands. I feel especially close to Future Bible Heroes because I perform more centrally in it. I feel very close to Magnetic Fields because, in a way, that was the first group to start it all off, the one that gets the most attention now. So we really know that's our main brand, if you want to put it callously.
How long have you and Stephin known each other?
We met in 1983. [laughs] What year were you born?
[mumbles] after that...
We're celebrating 30 years! Crazy, huh? I started officially working with him, playing music, pretty much from the day we met, but I officially started wanting to work and be his manager when I was in college. So more like 1988 or 1987.
How does the music writing process work between the three of you?
Chris makes a lot of music soundscapes. In the old days he would mail, but now he emails them to Stephin who sometimes offers some suggestions, but usually just works with them to make melodic structures. He creates melody lines and lyrics over those instrumental tracks. Then one of us, either Stephin or me, works on vocals.
With songs like "Keep Your Children in a Coma," the lyrics are really witty and humorous. How do you think these songs can be clever and funny without being categorized as comedy?
Stephin always said from his experience with '80s electro-pop that funny lyrics work best with sadder melodies and sadder lyrics work best with upbeat melodies. I always felt that's how he manages to deliver that poignant, bittersweet humor he has. When he wrote 69 Love Songs, I thought that was the funniest record I had heard in my life. I was cracking up after every song, from "I Don't Believe in the Sun" or one of the ones that people might find sad. I was like, "these songs are freaking hilarious." So not that humor needs to be about comedy -- it's not a guy on a stage with a microphone making people laugh. Even that kind of comedy walks on a bit of a fine line of being sometimes about really tragic things and so on. People make jokes out of 9/11. The nature of humor is a very complex little machine. I guess my sense is that Stephin's humor is key to what makes Stephin work, but he works it very carefully so that you're laughing, but also kind of crying. Cry while laughing and laugh while crying.
How much creative control do you have over the lyrics? Let's say Stephin wrote something and you didn't feel comfortable singing it. Would you say something?
It's funny you should ask that question, because I've almost never said that to him in my life. He uses his own inner judgment about whether or not he wants to say something to the world. So he probably wouldn't write something that I find difficult to sing if he didn't already want for the world to hear it. It is true, though, I was originally slated to sign the song "Keep Your Children in a Coma" on the new record. I did do a vocal take on it, and then that night I did request that Stephin be the lead. Because even though everyone loves the song, and my child dances around to it and thinks it's hilarious and all her friends in her preschool dance around, they don't know what a coma is because they're like three years old, they just think it's really funny and they love it. It just occured to me that in 20 years, maybe she might use it against me. So I decided not to be the lead on this one, though i sing all over the song, there's a ton of backing vocals on it. Other than that, I have never said to him, "No, I will not sing this song, I don't approve." We tend to have similar ethics and morals.
What's your favorite song on the new record?
I keep shifting. I'm very influenced by what other people are telling me. For a long time I really loved "Living Loving, Partygoing" because I liked the way it sounds. Also "Keep Your Children in a Coma" My child, who is two and three-quarters, her favorite song is "All I Care About is You." She loves to dance around to that song. Recently, a lot of people have been giving me a lot of feedback about the song "Let's Go to Sleep and Never Come Back." I've sort of fallen in more with that song now that I've been listening to people's feedback about it. I like that last song too, "When Evening Falls on Tinseltown." "Sadder Than the Moon" in my mind, is a really Magnetic Fields-y song. If you can talk about these bands being separate and different from each other, that one really strikes me as one that could have been on a Magnetic Fields record. They're all really interesting. Not to sound boasty, because I didn't write the music, but I think it's a very solid record. It's got a lot of really interesting and diverse material. "Drink Nothing But Champagne" is such a funny, strange song. Then you have more emotional songs like "Sadder Than the Moon." It's very nice.
What's it like to be a lead vocalist? Do you think having a different voice on this record changes your audience?
It's a really different hat for me to be lead singer. I'm very comfortable as someone in the background who kind of manages the band and runs the show. It's all very new for me. It's fun to have different voices on that record. It's like you're eating different food. Actually to my surprise, Future Bible Heroes sometimes appeals more to older people or really young people who just like that very pure electro-pop feeling. My parents really like Future Bible Heroes, though obviously they're biased, but they like the ease at which the music sort of just bubbles along. It's interesting how there's different ways these types of music can affect you.
What did you grow up listening to?
I was raised being a classical pianist. Honestly, because it was a pre-digital era, I can't say that I was really actively listening to much of anything until I was about 12. I kind of knew the Beatles and my parents played a lot of classical music at home. It was pretty much all the time classical. But once I became a teenager, I got a little bit more worldly. I started falling into a wide range of independent '80s music, which exploded my life. I learned about the different small fanzines and publications that were talking about the music in England, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and California. I really tried to devour the independent music scene. That wasn't more until I was like 15. So I was kind of a classical music shut-in...then suddenly I just learned about a hundred different things [laughs]. David Bowie came into my life and everything changed.
Have you always mainly lived on the East Coast then?
Yeah. It's always one of my regrets. I lived about 8-10 months in Berkeley, California, for school, which I loved, but other than that I've always been a Boston or New York person. I kind of regret that I haven't spent more time living in other places. I like Minneapolis a lot!
What did you go to school for in California?
I went to grad school for an English Ph.D., and I only made it for a year and then I transferred my credits to the city University of New York. I did four years of Ph.D. studies, but I didn't actually finish.
Do you regret that?
Yeah. You regret a lot of things in your life. When you're younger you feel like you can do a hundred things at the same time, but as you get older you just get more and more tired. When I was young, I was like, "I want to be and academic AND a rockstar AND a business person AND do a hundred things on the side." Now it's hard for me to just make breakfast.
So would you say the band takes up most of your time?
Yeah, well my child mostly takes up my time. In terms of work, yes. Right now I'm hard at work making sure we're ready for the tour, promotion, buying tickets for airplanes, and just getting us out on the road. Stephin and I are also gearing up for a lot of our usual load of stuff.
Having a child, working as a musician, managing several of Stephin's projects, and touring; how does that all balance?
It really doesn't, to be honest. It's almost impossible. I just barely figure out how to get through the next few weeks. I feel like last summer, which was the last time I tried [touring], my child was just a year and a half old and we went on the road for three months. It was just way too much for me. This Future Bible Heroes tour I feel much less worried about. It's a much smaller, more contained tour. I just have a better grip. My child is nearly three and is just a little more grown-up. This tour I'm actually kind of excited about, but it's a huge amount of work. You get tired on the road anyway, but you get really tired if you're being awakened [by a child] early after having gone to bed late. I'm just quite concerned about getting sick. It's really just a question of being incredibly careful, sleeping when I can, and letting other people take care of her so that I can take an hour here and there to nap. She will not be in Minnesota; I'm going to leave her in New York for a couple of days.
Because of Stephin's hearing condition (hyperacusis) you guys usually have to re-orchestrate your music to be toned down and acoustic. Since he won't be on the tour, can we still expect that?
No, that's what's kind of a nice thing. It's incredibly depressing for all of us that Stephin won't be there, but the one good side of this is that we can be truly electro-pop. I think that's why Stephin felt he couldn't do it. Because it was going to be hard to do this tour in a scaled-down fashion. We performed last week and people were really dancing. The crowd was going crazy and it was really fun. So I'm enjoying that aspect of it. [It's a] new feeling of really being able to cut loose and sing and play out.
Catch Future Bible Heroes at the Cedar Cultural Center Tuesday, July 16. All ages, $15/$18, 7:30 PM
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