With the initial intention of just making another EP, Sisyphus has jumped into the spotlight with both a name change and the release of a full length debut LP. This supergroup trio, consisting of Sufjan Stevens, Son Lux (Ryan Lott), and Serengeti (David Cohn), previously released the EP Beak & Claw under the name S/S/S in March 2012. Two years later, these three have come together under a unique premise: the artwork of Jim Hodges in conjunction with the exhibition Jim Hodges: Give More Than You Take currently on view at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.
The self-titled LP was co-commissioned by the Walker and SPCO’s Liquid Music series, and the limited-edition album has been available exclusively at the Walker until now. Their name change came partly from the desire to avoid the negative references that S/S/S might evoke in the long run, as well as inspiration from Hodge's steel-clad boulders on the Walker lawn, which reference the myth of Sisyphus. With three of the letter "s," the name stuck, and this album and re-branding will forever be a marker of their Minneapolis connection. In commenting on this unusual collaboration between the members of Sisyphus, Stevens made some sense of all the musicians and elements involved: “We have so little in common but we have deep love for each other... And we are pushing that stone together.”
The album first dropped on February 14th, during the Walker Art Center's opening night for the exhibition, a fitting day considering how many artworks of Hodges' are focused on the concept of love and well, it was a Friday. Sisyphus made a special appearance upstairs to perform several songs from the album, and I happened to be right next to the stage as assistant to the Walker's photographer for the evening. I walked right by all three of them backstage, rather nonchalantly. (If any of them are reading this, I was in the red dress.) The access I had to this show gave me an intimate perspective on what the guys in Sisyphus were all about. While the fans up front were borderline obsessive (almost terrifying with their enthusiasm dancing on stage), the men performing were all casual and cool. It honestly looked like these three were just having a good time, no pressure, and in it together. I think it surprised them how intense their fan base was at this one-time show at an art museum of all places, but in Minneapolis, the art and music scenes regularly overlap and blur. And in a day when indie musicians are often revered as mysterious creatures and moody geniuses, expected to present a certain perfected persona at all times, the disguise of Sisyphus allowed for some freedom. With the focus on the music and the art, these musicians were able to perform as someone else, and take themselves less seriously on stage.
The focus on the art is evident: the cover art is a piece of Hodges' and in My Oh My, the lyrics proclaim "give it more than you can take," directly referencing the title of the Hodge's retrospective. So much about the album is based on Hodges, but then what is Sisyphus trying to present itself as? Geti answered this perfectly, speaking up the next day during the opening day talk: "Party. It's like a party. Disco. Good times. Have a time, you know what I'm sayin'?" Despite this fun facade however, there are some really deep concepts executed through simple lyrics. The album starts out slow, draws you in with Calm It Down, with beats that are specifically chosen and minimalist. Each artist plays to their strength, Stevens vocally blending with Serengeti at times and Son Lux carrying the rhythm throughout. It requires a through listen (at least once or twice), as the flow between songs is purposely crafted. Booty Call ends with the theme of the previous track, Take Me, and the end of My Oh My foreshadows the main beat later in Alcohol. Hardly Hanging On even flat-lines into Alcohol (pun not intended). The drawback of the final product is that several singles carry the album: Calm It Down, Rhythm of Devotion, and Alcohol (the latter my two favorites).
Hodges admits that one of his methods as an artist, which I can personally attest to, is listening to certain music over and over in the studio - even one track for an entire week. He was actually on a Sufjan Stevens kick at the time the collaboration was initially proposed. Sisyphus' Alcohol is that kind of track for me, a flowing rap that feels effortless, weightless on top of repetitive driving beats. After hearing it begin the talk on Sunday (which shut everyone up fast), I went home, found the video, and listened to it ten times straight. It's dirty, it's rough, it's real, it's egotistical, it's assertive, and it's the best track on the album. I don't know what the reasoning is for Untitled (Side D), track 12, being there afterwards, but it could easily have been left out. As Geti and Stevens describe in the Sunday talk, consider the worst listening conditions at a party and then as Geti says, "don't make 'em turn," and Stevens agreed, "yeah don't make them turn your song off." While not every track holds its own as a single, track 12 is the only tune that violates that rule.
At this opening day talk the afternoon after the show, Bill Arning, director of Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, sat down with Sisyphus and Hodges to discuss the exhibition and the resulting music that Sisyphus created from it. They discussed among other things, an interesting parallel between the party culture of gay men in the 80's and Hodges' work and the musician’s own styles. This "party album" concept kept coming up, and after being in the exhibition the entire evening before, it wasn't making sense to me why with members such as Sufjan, with the ability to make such lush and beautiful songs - which would have made more sense with the artwork - that this group went and made, what they call a party album.
But Stevens brought up a point that stayed with me. When talking about the concept for the album, he said, "there's a kind of unique earnestness in Jim's work that seems very real and sentimental and pure and unafraid of exploring the self and your story and intimacy, things like that, like love." He noted specifically Hodges' ability to reference love (a cliche) directly in his visual work without irony. That, that lack of irony in addressing subjects such as "sex, AIDS, drugs, fear of death, loneliness, love, and beauty" allows Sisyphus to create, as Stevens said, "ear candy—catchy raps, pop songs, and sad ballads." They aimed to create a party album that was honest and earnest, and as strange of a concept as that is, they did a pretty good job of it.
Before they were Sisyphus, Paste Magazine described S/S/S as “music’s least likely supergroup," and struggled to make sense of the combination. Supergroups and mixed collaborations are on the rise though, with many groups such as Broken Bells - the successful combo of James Mercer (The Shins) and Brian Burton (Danger Mouse) - in the indie mainstream. Yet this focus on a specific subject matter has helped make sense of the unlikely trio, even if while halfway through the album I'm never quite sure what genre I am listening to. As this genre-defying (cliche, I know) supergroup however, they actually avoid the pitfalls of certain niche genres and critique is suspended to allow for the experimental.
So will Sisyphus return, will they last? They mentioned that there were more songs created than made it on the album, but that's no guarantee. There are many factors to consider besides the success of the album, but what they have done here in collaboration with not only a visual artist, but a museum and a city, is a new thing, a first. And while visual artists and musicians have always been in collaboration, I believe that this type of relationship, this intimate and commissioned type of experience, has only begun.
Watch Calm It Down and Alcohol or visit Sisyphus' website.
Watch the full opening day talk at the Walker Art Center, with Jim Hodges and all three members of Sisyphus. Or read the Walker's interview with the musicians.