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A Collaborative Calling 

Sufjan Stevens, Son Lux and Serengeti make up the dynamic trio of musical architects known as Sisyphus, and on March 18 they will unveil their latest collaborative creation for all to experience. Inspired by the vibrant work of artist Jon Hodges, the group's first full-length will be co-released on Joyful Noise Recordings and Asthmatic Kitty Records, two Indy-based record labels that have likewise combined their strategic strengths to put out the group's debut full-length. Recently, Sky Blue Window had the opportunity to chat with Joyful Noise Owner/Curator Karl Hofstetter and Asthmatic Kitty Project Manager John Beeler, taking an in-depth look at the familial tendencies of the two labels, Jon Hodges' inspiration on the Sisyphus trio, and the enriching challenges that accompany collaboration.

click to enlarge Sisyphus has several different vinyl versions, including this sold-out limited edition, gold and clear double album. Specialty formats, packaging and pressings are common among Joyful Noise releases. - COURTESY OF JOYFUL NOISE RECORDINGS
  • Courtesy of Joyful Noise Recordings
  • Sisyphus has several different vinyl versions, including this sold-out limited edition, gold and clear double album. Specialty formats, packaging and pressings are common among Joyful Noise releases.

Sky Blue Window: I know that the first Sisyphus release (s / s / s at the time) was not released by either of your labels. That being said, how did this collaborative album that you are preparing to release come about?

John Beeler: I think Michael Kaufmann actually introduced Ryan [Lott, also known as Son Lux], Sufjan and Serengeti to Kate Nordstrum, who runs Liquid Music in Minneapolis. She collaborates a lot with the Walker Art Center, and she kind of just roped everybody in and did the commissioning. So it's actually a partnership of Liquid Music and the Walker Art Center that catalyzed the full-length. It's on Asthmatic Kitty and Joyful Noise just mainly because Sufjan's on Asthmatic Kitty, of course, and Son Lux has since moved from Anticon, who put out the EP, to Joyful Noise, so it just made sense to do it as a double-release.

SBW: I've been streaming the album a lot online. Can you talk to me about it and why you're excited to be releasing it?

Karl Hofstetter: I'm excited about it just because they're great songs and I am a fan of each of these three musicians on their own. In listening to these songs, you can really hear distinct parts from each. It's this really interesting blend of all three -- the best aspects of what each of them do. It sort of borrows from these musicians that I'm already fans of, but blends it into something that's new and interesting and not easily classifiable.

SBW: It's interesting to me that your two labels are collaboratively releasing this collaborative group's album. I'm interested to know -- what goes into a this type of release between labels?

KH: It's interesting to collaborate on releases. It's really great, and it's easy because we're friends and we live in the same city. We have a pretty long history with the label [Asthmatic Kitty] -- just coexisting in a synergistic way. With this release, Joyful Noise did the vinyl and that was really our domain, and Asthmatic Kitty did a lot of the higher level planning -- the distribution of the CDs and the digital, video production oversight and stuff like that. So it was like we divvied up responsibilities based on our strengths.

JB: And it's been fun too, because we work in the same building, so our teams integrate. I think with another label it'd be problematic, but Joyful Noise has been really neighborly and congenial, and more fun actually because you just have a different group of people with different ideas.

According to the ancient Greeks, Sisyphus was cursed to roll a boulder uphill forever. - BRANDON BREECY
  • Brandon Breecy
  • According to the ancient Greeks, Sisyphus was cursed to roll a boulder uphill forever.

SBW: Are there any challenges that come with doing a collaborative release?

JB: Yeah. We [Asthmatic Kitty] just messed up some timing on some album streams. If mistakes are internal and it's just your label, it's like 'Oh well. What are we gonna do.' But when it's another label involved, it feels worse and there's more at stake -- you're also kind of dragging the other label down with that mistake. So there's a little more at stake when you're doing that, but I think if you've got a good label to work with and the people on the other side are good people, you know ... Karl's been forgiving about that.

KH: Similarly, we've f------- up a couple times by not getting prior approval. We're used to running our own ship. There were a couple times over the course of the release of this record where we knee-jerked-ly acted on our own without remembering that this is a collaborative effort. I think it's just a different way of doing things, which has a learning curve.

JB: It's a little bureaucratic, but that's mostly due to the fact that there are two labels doing it, and then you have three artists in charge. If it's a band, there's usually somebody running point and they run it by five people. In this case, we've had to run everything past five different entities. That can bog things down. Sometimes it's interesting negotiating that, but so far it's turned out great. We're pre-selling and it seems like it's going to be a pretty nice release next week.

SBW: What discoveries come out of doing a collaborative release like this?

JB: For me, I like vinyl, I like listening to vinyl, but they did it a lot better than I think we could've done it, just in terms of knowing the material and how to make it look good. I'm always learning from Karl and Joyful Noise about how to make products better and how to present them better. And that additional help freed me up to do some kind of menial tasks, like we handled some of those early lyric video in-house. I never have the time to do that with another release.

KH: And I think that probably freed you up to think creatively too maybe. You had the time to approach it without being bogged down and getting the vinyl into the mix. You had time to actually think about doing things like the "Alcohol" video.

JB: Also, these videos that are going to come out over the next few weeks are certainly press. I don't know how much you spend on videos [directed toward Karl], but they're the most we've ever spent on a single music video. That kind of management, just in terms of the money and the payout, but also the quality control, demands a lot of time that I just wouldn't have had if I was managing vinyl at the same time. It does free you up to operate at a different level.

SBW: How would you say this release fits into what Joyful Noise and Asthmatic Kitty are about as labels?

KH: For Joyful Noise, I think musically this album is very hard to define. I feel like it's new in a lot of ways. It's pushing a lot of boundaries and it's blurring lines. That's the exact type of release that we want to work with musically. Also on a personal level, we do all of Son Lux's stuff, Serengeti is on our Flexi Series this year, Sufjan was on it last year. It's kind of like the whole band is in the family a little bit, ya know?

JB: For us, I think it's similar to that, but for us, it's about relationships as well. We have a relationship with Sufjan of course, but Ryan is close to us and he's close to almost everybody on the label. He's had some kind of collaboration with not just Sufjan, but My Brightest Diamond and David Stith. I actually could probably go through the entire roster. Lily & Madeleine, who are on our label, appeared on some Son Lux tracks, so there's a lot of crossover there. Serengeti has been a big fan. Actually, it was Chris Schlarb who introduced Serengeti to Anticon early on, so they signed him. Serengeti's done some remixes for us. There's a lot of carryover, so for us, this album is like the perfect encapsulation of familial-like relationships.

SBW: I know you mentioned the Walker Art Center a little bit earlier. Can you tell me more about how the events there back in February came about, and can you also elaborate on the influence of Jim Hodges on this release?

JB: They had this Jim Hodges retrospect that was coming up from Dallas. Jim Hodges has pretty close ties to the Walker. At least a couple of his pieces are on permanent exhibition at the Walker. I think they approached Sufjan, Ryan, and Serengeti about doing this, and they said yes. For them it was about looking over a lot of Jim's work and meeting Jim in person (Jim lives in New York), and being inspired by his work. There are a couple direct references in the lyrics, but a lot of it is kind of what I would call a ripple from Jim's work, where it's maybe something entirely different, but it's certainly inspired by a lot of his work.

SBW: I read a quote from Sufjan where he said, "We have so little in common but we have deep love for each other and we are pushing that stone together." I felt that fit the trio's work very well, but I was curious: do you see that quote applying to you two as labels that are working together?

JB: Yeah I think we're different. I don't think we're quite as different as Sufjan is as different from someone like Serengeti. Their skill sets are pretty different. As for the labels, I tend to be better at digital stuff, like we kind of out-Beyoncé-ed Beyoncé by releasing All Delighted People a couple years back on a Friday on Bandcamp. And, I think that Joyful Noise and Karl are really good at the physical product -- creating pretty great niche products that drive a lot of their sales. I would say that's kind of a difference, but I don't know if it's quite as pronounced as Sufjan would describe the trio. Maybe Karl feels differently.

After initially collaborating as s/s/s, Sufjan Stevens, Son Lux and Serengeti have are now performing as Sisyphus. - BRANDON BREECY
  • Brandon Breecy
  • After initially collaborating as s/s/s, Sufjan Stevens, Son Lux and Serengeti have are now performing as Sisyphus.

KH: I feel the same way. I think that stylistically, I'm a fan of every Asthmatic Kitty release, but we definitely have differences in how we operate and where our focuses are and how we run a label.

JB: But even stylistically, I think there are bands that are on Joyful Noise that would probably never be on Asthmatic Kitty. Maybe I'm wrong, but I would never see Lily & Madeleine on Joyful Noise.

KH: Yeah, David Yow [of Scratch Acid/Jesus Lizard fame] probably wouldn't belong on Asthmatic Kitty ...

JB: But yeah, there's certainly a difference in curation as well, and I think that actually complements each other when we come to a release like Sisyphus.

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About The Author

Seth Johnson

Seth Johnson

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Since high school, Seth Johnson has been drawn to telling compelling stories through the lens of journalism. A 2013 graduate from Ball State University’s News program, he has especially discovered a love for music journalism, particularly connecting to local music stories in an effort to enlighten others on Indianapolis’... more

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