Chris Ewen is a Boston music scene mainstay. For over 3 decades the keyboardist, composer, and superstar DJ has been an important part of Beantown’s club and concert scene, first, as the secret weapon in Figures on a Beach, then as a nightlife impresario both spinning and hosting packed nights at 90’s hotspots Ground Zero, ManRay and later “Heroes” and “X-Mortis” nights at TT the Bears. Currently, as the creative genius behind the electro pop trio Future Bible Heroes, Ewen continues bringing vibrant music and inspiring joy in the place he calls home. Rockerzine’s West Coast Bureau Chief caught up with his longtime friend/ the keyboard mastermind to talk about the future of Future Bible Heroes, his illustrious past, a possible Figures On A Beach reunion, and where to get Falafel in Boston at 2am.
Rocker: For those not familiar with the band Future Bible Heroes give us a little history about how you, Claudia (Gonson) and Stephin (Merritt) came together.
Chris: That’s all a little bit up for speculation these days… We all agree it was some time in the late 80s. The rumor is that we met on a miniature golf course. Stephin says we that he and I met at a party thrown by a mutual friend, and I think we met at a bar we both occasionally frequented. Stephin and I started dating, and I met Claudia through him. Eventually Stephin and I moved in together, and by around 1991, when Figures On A Beach broke up, he was recording Magnetic Fields albums in our apartment studio, and I was writing instrumental tracks, just to keep playing around with electronics. He suggested that I should find someone to add vocals and lyrics to these song ideas, and I suggested that he do it, because I loved his voice and his lyrics. He agreed, and we started working on music together.
Rocker: What is the collaborative process between the 3 of you?
Chris: In the past, I would come up with these fully realized and arranged instrumental pieces, and he would write the lyrics to them; either around what I had written, or along with the melodies I had put into the tracks. I was pretty limited by my recording technology at the time, and would program everything, and then mix all of the synths live to a 2 track DAT. He and Claudia would then sing over them. We like to set up “rules”, or constraints when we write songs together, and Stephin would say things like “write a song with only two chords”, or “write a song that’s less than two minutes long”, or “write a loop song”… things like that. We still do that today. Claudia usually arranges all of the backing vocals after we’ve written the song.
Rocker: Has it changed from album to album?
Chris: Yes, definitely. Since the technology available to us was also a determining factor in how we put things together, each album has had its own unique method.
Rocker: What was the recording process like for your third, and latest, album “Living, Loving, Party Going?”
Chris: This album was a lot more of a collaborative effort between Stephin and me. Instead of sending him completed songs, I sent him what I called “sketches”, basically demos of different ideas I had come up with. If he liked them, we would talk about their arrangements, key, etc. He was a lot more involved in shaping the final structures of the songs, and I was able to arrange the music with a clearer idea of how the song was going to turn out. In the past, we were limited in what we could do because of the way I recorded the instrumental tracks, but also by distance. He was in New York (he still is), I was in Boston (I still am), and we did everything by mail and communicated mostly by phone. Simple changes could take days. This time around we were able to streamline the way we worked together, and since we both have multi-track studios, it made making changes to works in progress a lot easier. I think it made the whole process easier, and it was fun because we had never worked together in that way before.
Rocker: One of the things I love about your music if the way that the depressing lyrics mesh with the happy pop electronic sounds so unexpectedly. How did that come about?
Chris: Thank you! I think we both feel that happy music with happy lyrics, or sad music and lyrics together produce somewhat one-dimensional results. We’ve definitely been very conscious of that dichotomy in our songs from early on, and love to play around with it. I think it makes people listen to the lyrics more attentively, and allows humor or pathos to exist where it wouldn’t be otherwise. I remember wondering what Stephin would come up with for some of the perkier instrumental tracks I sent him this time around, and was thrilled when I heard the results!
Rocker: You just finished a tour. How was it?
Chris: 12 shows in the US in July. But it was incredibly fun, and a lot of very enjoyable work. I haven’t played music live on a stage in about a decade, so I put a lot of effort into creating a live show we could all be proud of. The crowd’s reaction to them was really rewarding, and I would love to go out and play more dates.
Rocker: Why didn’t Stephin Merritt join you guys for the live shows?
Chris: Stephin has medical issues with his ears, making loud and high-pitched sounds very painful to him. When we were recording “Partygoing”, it was clear that he wouldn’t be touring for this album. I realize that it’s highly unlikely that he will ever tour with Future Bible Heroes, and quite honestly, I’d rather have the opportunity to make more albums with him. I’d like Stephin to be able to write and record more music, and I think that takes priority over a few weeks of live shows that would be medically damaging to his hearing.
Rocker: Was it hard doing the tour without him?
Chris: When we were booking the tour, I’d have to say that in some ways, yes. I think not having Stephin as part of the tour initially put some doubts in people’s minds about how successful it was going to be, or how we were even going to do it. The last time we toured, back in 2002 and 2003, it was just the three of us – Stephin, Claudia and myself. We arranged the songs so they could be played on piano, one synth, either guitar or ukelele and some incidental exotic percussion, and we played everything live except for a couple of songs that included a drum machine. This time around, Claudia and I were able to recruit The Magnetic Fields’ Shirley Simms to play uke, Omnichord (an electric autoharp) and sing, and Anthony Kaczynski from my Figures On A Beach days to sing as well as play guitar and bass. It gave us the opportunity to present the songs with fuller arrangements, more like the albums. And it allowed us to play with a bit more volume than we had in the past, which was a good thing, as we were playing in clubs.
Stephin did attend our first two New York shows, in Brooklyn and Hudson, and joined us for a couple of songs at our Boston and New York Bowery shows. He played two songs accompanying himself on the ukelele. And he also joined us when we did our live radio broadcasts at WNYC and WFMU. Our live recording on “100% Whatever with Mary Wing” on WFMU is archived for streaming, and can be heard here: http://wfmu.org/playlists/shows/51645. So, Stephin’s been incredibly involved in every aspect of this record, even if he wasn’t with us on most of the tour dates. The three of us also shot our first video for our lead single from “Partygoing”, “Living, Loving, Partygoing”, with Naomi Yang (of Damon & Naomi, formerly of Galaxie 500). It was an incredible action-packed day, Naomi was wonderful, and we all really love the video. You can watch it here: http://vimeo.com/69885516
Rocker: Often people refer to Future Bible Heroes, I think unfairly. As a Stephin Merritt side project, does that bother you?
Chris: Honestly, I used to feel a little bothered by it, but got over that a long time ago! I think it’s a point of reference for a lot of people, and possibly some critics, but I don’t think they realize how collaborative a musical entity Future Bible Heroes actually is – the fact that it’s not all Stephin at the helm. I don’t think some people can wrap their heads around that, but it’s what makes Future Bible Heroes different from The Magnetic Fields and all of his other side projects. I think Stephin enjoys it because of that collaborative aspect, which is something he rarely does otherwise.
Rocker: What are your favorite cities to play and why?
Chris: It’s really hard to choose, since we really didn’t play that many shows on this past tour. I enjoyed pretty much everywhere we played. I loved San Francisco. I love that city in general. Portland, Oregon was a huge amount of fun, and it was my first time there. It’s just a great place. If there was a wish-list of cities I would love to play, it would include Copenhagen, London, Lisbon, Barcelona, Sydney…which means that I’m subtly pushing for some international dates! Our last London shows a decade ago were pretty amazing to me. We’ll see.
Rocker: With the third CD out and tour done what is the future of Future Bible Heroes?
Chris: The future is not predictable at this time. I’m writing some new tracks that could be considered right for a new Future Bible Heroes album, and I’d like to get some remixes done for tracks from “Partygoing”. We could conceivably put out an EP…I’d like to keep Future Bible Heroes active this time, and at least not have a decade long gap between albums!
Rocker: What else are you working on musically?
Chris: I started a project called The Hidden Variable a few years ago, and then put it aside to start reactivating Future Bible Heroes. It’s also a collaborative effort, with music written and performed by me, and lyrics written by some celebrated dark fiction authors, like Neil Gaiman, Peter Straub, Charles de Lint, Caitlin Kiernan, Gahan Wilson…the list goes on. I’m in the process of re-recording and remixing all but a couple of the already completed tracks. I also have a couple of producing and remixing projects coming up, which I’m very much looking forward to diving into.
Rocker: Which bands influenced you to make the electronic based music you love?
Chris: When I was a lot younger and a lot more pretentious, I used to feel that musical influences were things people just wanted to copy and absorb into their own work, and used to tell people that I was inspired by non-musical influences, things like Bauhaus architecture and older Sci-fi books & movies. That sounds really precious now, but it was actually true. Now, I’ve realized that some of the artists and music I’ve loved over the years have seeped into my subconscious and also inform what I come up with today. I’d say definitely the Yellow Magic Orchestra family, John Foxx, Andreas Dorau, Cluster, the Throbbing Gristle family, Can, David Sylvian, Der Plan, Brian Eno, Martin Denny and a lot of other “exotica” artists, Erik Satie, Bowie’s Berlin period, the New Romantics, Joe Meek, Kraftwerk, lots of modern electronic classical/experimental music… just to scratch the surface. I’ve listened to a lot of music over the years!
Rocker: As you mentioned, on tour, your former Figures On A Beach bandmate, Anthony Kaczynski filled Stephin’s place. What was it like playing with him again?
Chris: It was really incredible. We keep in touch, so it really wasn’t that far of a stretch for me to ask him to be a part of our live band. He’s incredibly talented and has such expansive music interests. Even though he’s involved with more guitar based rock bands these days, I thought he’d be perfect, and he was.
Rocker: Any chance this may trigger a Figures On A Beach reunion?
Chris: I don’t know about that, but I have a feeling that Tony and I will work together again in the not too distant future. Tony already has his band Fireking with Michael Smith, who was Figures’ drummer, and is involved with a few other bands as well. There would have to be a reason for it, like the re-issue of our albums, or something like that, some galvanizing factor that would make it interesting and rewarding for all of us. I would like to play with Rik Rolski at some point again, I always thought he was a great guitarist.
Rocker: You are a lifelong Boston Music guy, how has the town and the music scene changed over the years?
Chris: When I was interviewed for the “Strange Powers” documentary about Stephin and The Magnetic Fields, one of the questions I was asked was about where Stephin and I used to go when we lived together. I realized that almost all of those places are sadly gone now. I suppose you don’t realize that things are changing so dramatically when you’re living in the middle of them. I think Boston grown a lot in terms of size, but that the music scene has become a lot more fractured, on both the live and dance-club fronts. It used to be a lot more all-inclusive, at least it seemed that way to me. I suppose technology has played a part in that – now that lots of people download music illegally and can be laptop “DJs”, and every corner bar can be a “nightclub”, it was bound to happen. As far as live music goes, there are quite a few venues here, so I can’t complain too much – we get lots of really great bands here. But the venues are mostly controlled by two large corporate booking entities, and there seems to be something sterile about the scene. I miss that scrappy DIY attitude.
Rocker: Favorite clubs then and now?
Chris: I still miss ManRay, and I used to go to Spit and Axis back in the day as well as Buddies,and the 1270. I’m sure there were others, I used to go out a lot. These days, there are some dance nights here and there that I enjoy… The Pill is still going strong, Bollocks, which is a gay punk night that happens once in a while at The Alley Bar in Boston, Ceremony (a weekly goth/industrial Monday night event)…there aren’t a lot of other nights that I go to, and there aren’t very many full-on 7 nights a week dance clubs like there used to be. It’s all become a lot more boutique-y.
Rocker: So many of the clubs have closed or gone corporate. Plus the late night hang spots. I miss Sami’s Falafel and Charlie’s Cafeteria. Where is a rock fan in Boston supposed to get eggs and french fries at 2am?
Chris: I miss the Deli Haus. The Blue Diner is now the South Street Diner and is still open late in Boston, but I never go there. My late night go-to place is Moody’s Falafel Palace in Central Square.
Rocker: You still have weekly DJ gigs in Cambridge and Boston right?
Chris: Yes, I do my 80s night “Heroes” every Saturday, and am the resident DJ at a monthly goth/industrial event called X-Mortis, both at TT The Bear’s in Cambridge. I also do occasional guest DJ spots at other events around town like Ceremony. And I occasionally put together ManRay Reunion nights – my “Heroes” partner in crime Terri (who used to bartend at ManRay and now works with me at “Heroes” and X-Mortis) are putting together a ManRay Halloween Reunion party this year at the Paradise Rock Club. That should be incredible!
Rocker: Where can people get info on the band, buy the CD and pick up one of those fabulous Future Bible Heroes tote bags I saw you selling on tour?
Chris: We have a website, and we’re on Facebook
And you can pick up our CDs/records at Amazon, iTunes, through the Merge Records store
Basically anywhere fine music is sold these days. I recommend checking out your local music emporium. As far as those swank Future Bible Heroes tote bags go, I think we sold all of them out on the tour. Hopefully we’ll be making some more intriguing merchandise soon!