Interview: The Songwriting Trio Behind Of Great and Mortal Men: 43 Songs for 43 U.S. Presidencies

(the presidential trio)

With the 2008 presidental election rapidly approaching, it's entirely appropriate that a trio of songwriters -- Christian Kiefer, J. Matthew Gerken and Jefferson Pitcher -- has collaborated on an ambitious project: a three-CD boxed set featuring a song about each U.S. president. (Move over, Sufjan Stevens and your state project!)

Called Of Great and Mortal Men: 43 Songs for 43 U.S. Presidencies, the collection is admittedly a dense body of work, something to digest slowly and carefully over time, rather than absorbing in one sitting. However, Songs stands out due to the staggering amount of guests on board as collaborators: Mark Kozelek (Sun Kil Moon/Red House Painters), Alan Sparhawk (Low/Retribution Gospel Choir), Califone, Vince DiFiore (Cake), Bill Callahan (Smog), Xiu Xiu's Jamie Stewart, the Radar Brothers, Marla Hansen, Denison Witmer, Rosie Thomas and Tom Brousseau.

There's also a solid St. Louis connection: Magnolia Summer is featured on one of the songs (see this blogpost), while Monahans and Steve Dawson of Dolly Varden -- who have released albums with Undertow -- also appear. (Kiefer as well released an album, Dogs & Donkeys, with Undertow.)

In honor of one of most patriotic holidays, Flag Day, here's an interview with Kiefer, Pitcher and Gerken, where they talk about inspiration, their favorite parts of the collection and reveal which president liked to go skinny-dipping in the Potomac. (No, really.) Be sure to check out the project's blog as well, for updates on all things presidential.

MP3: James Monroe: The Last Cocked Hat (Feat. Marla Hansen)

(Interview by Annie Zaleski)

How did the idea to do this project, a song for each president, come about?

Jefferson Pitcher: The year previous to writing these songs, I was living in a small town in Ontario, Canada, experiencing more snow and less sun than I knew was possible.Kiefer turned me onto this thing called FAWM, which stands for February Album Writing Month. The idea for FAWM is that one writes and records an album in the month of February, posting the songs on a community Web site as they are “finished.” I suppose the idea here is to abandon to some degree one’s inner critic and to develop a sense of community. In short, I was ripe for both.

I’ve had a longstanding interest in both songwriting and improvisation, so this seemed an interesting way to let them leak together a bit. So I did it, and I enjoyed the process immensely. The following year I had moved back to California, and as February was approaching found myself longing to do the exercise again. The problem was I felt completely dry in terms of songwriting material. My work has often explored themes or even direct plot lines in fiction, and while the autobiographical spills in here and there, I was really looking for something else to work with.

I don’t remember exactly how the idea came about, but I pretty quickly decided that it could be a really interesting project. So I asked Kiefer if he wanted to join, he asked Gerken, and we were on our way. The project became increasingly more interesting to us all, the deeper we went with it.

What sort of research was involved in crafting these songs? How long did it take to construct the songs/lyrics? How did the three of you divide duties/collaborate?

Christian Kiefer: Indeed, we did a fair amount of research, although time was so short (on account of FAWM) that we didn’t have the luxury of getting too bogged down in it. I know I’ve done more research after the songs were written than before or during their development. In the Internet age there are plenty of sites out there on Presidential history, perhaps the best being at the Miller Center. That’s a fine starting point for any inquiry into Presidential history. Also valuable have been the American Experience documentaries that PBS produces and Kunhardt’s The American President book.

Those are all general texts, of course. There are more specific works that we’ve read since too, and there’s the ongoing inquiry into what’s happening in America that is likely similar for most interested Americans these days -- what’s happening with the economy, why is gasoline so expensive, what’s the current state of the environment and how do we reverse it, etc. These are civic questions in the sense that we all have a civic responsibility to understand where we are and how we got to our current impasse.

At least for me, hearing them made me want to hit the encyclopedia to brush up on my American history and help the lyrics make contextual sense. Still, I can imagine that you guys didn’t want to be too textbook-like. How did you balance being educational and informative without being too pedantic or dry?

J. Matthew Gerken: Thank you for assuming that the project is not dry or pedantic! I think the songwriting process was a bit different for each of us. Jefferson, Christian and I have pretty different academic and musical backgrounds, and took varied approaches in tackling each of our presidents. I for one ended up thinking a lot about how the presidency at hand fit into the historic context, then sort of personifying the nation in the body of the president, constructing a little story with the president as a lead character. Other songs seem to focus on a funny little trait, character flaw, or particular important (or not important) event. Christian and Jefferson often started with the personal and set to music a colorful (and many times humorous) tale that started and ended with these presidents as very mortal people rather than larger-than-life figures or symbols of their time. I think the great diversity of topic matter keeps it interesting. I think that the economy of language inherent in song lyrics also automatically prevents against a textbook-like approach. I have noticed that our interview answers have a greater risk in being pedantic than the project itself! Oops!

It’s funny to me, some of these songs perhaps play up the humor in each president’s life (James Madison’s “Zinger” – is that about Dolly Madison?; George W. Bush’s “Though the Night”), while other songs underscore the more somber, if not tragic, elements. (William Henry Harrison’s song especially has melancholy which befits his 31-day presidency). Others have a sinister edge, which in some cases can be construed about the challenges of being in power during wartime (Jamie Wilson of Xiu Xiu singing about Woodrow Wilson). Another – like Califone singing about Ronald Reagan – are heart-breaking. I imagine balancing the different genres/moods/subject matters could be somewhat challenging.

Kiefer:At some level this was a response to trying to avoid the obvious. It’s easy enough to damn a president like Jackson, because hindsight allows us a long telescope by which to view the past. There’s much more to a President and a period of time than a view that necessarily positions us in our present with its various concerns, images, and ideas. It’s much more interesting to try to work around that position—find the oddity or the strangely heartbreaking elements or, in the case of Wilson, to use the voices of the various players around the President during that very difficult time. And indeed, Madison’s “Zinger” is about how much more famous Dolley (now known by sweet munchers as “Dolly”) is than James. Oh the bitter – no, make that sweet -- pill!

Many of the guest stars, for lack of a better term, have authoritative voices that fit the subject matter. (I’m thinking of Bill Callahan’s rich, deep song about John Tyler, for starters, as well as Mark Kozelek and Alan Sparhawk’s song about Eisenhower). How were people chosen to sing about particular presidents, what sort of process was involved? Were certain people hand-picked for certain songs? Did some express interest in singing about a particular president?

Kiefer:We got who we could and there were many that “got away.” If there’s one regret I have on this project is that people of color and women are vastly underrepresented (in terms of art), but on the other hand that likely means it’s a better representation of the history of the Presidency (hence, in terms of politics).

Having gotten that out of the way, the guests were chosen based on song and based on availability. There were many “high level” artists that we just couldn’t get to: David Crosby, Joni Mitchell, Stevie Nicks, etc. And a few touring indie rock bands that were just too busy to be a part of it but expressed their regrets. It all worked out, though, because those who had time and inclination to be a part of the project are simply amazing. I almost weep for joy when I hear Bill Callahan’s voice singing a song I wrote! I feel like the luckiest man alive. Or Alan Sparhawk’s voice and Mark Kozelek’s guitar on Eisenhower. These are moments that are stunning to me and humble me as a songwriter and as a human being. I truly feel that these are some of the most incredible musical voices of our time and I very much feel blessed that they’re on this project.

What was the biggest thrill for you after hearing the completed project?

Gerken:Jeff Alkire’s saxophone solos on my song about John Kennedy (“There Is No Plan”) absolutely blows me away. Hearing Christian’s arrangement (re-arrangement) of my tune about Gerald Ford was a big highlight, too. It was also fun actually signing the record label contract. The Presidents played South by Southwest this year in Austin. One day during the festival, Christian and I (Jefferson was home with a newborn) met Mark Latta from Standard Recording at the Lyndon Baines Johnson presidential library, went up to the replica oval office, and signed the documents and had a little photo shoot with the president’s desk behind us. That was a nice little moment, too.

Who was your favorite president going into this? Did that change at all after the project was complete?

Pitcher:I can’t say that I had a favorite president going into this, though I have been interested in the Founding Fathers for some time. Those first six presidents embody to me much of what a truly brilliant society could be. They all had their contradictions and corruptions, of course, but many of Thomas Jefferson’s ideas about agriculture, business, education, corporations, law, democracy, etc. are still quite relevant today. Of course, he also had slaves, so we have to look at these men understanding the depth of their complexity.

In some way though, my perception has changed. I became especially interested in both Truman and Coolidge. Truman, I read, never really wanted to be president, but instead wanted to own and operate a menswear store. He did this for a decade before going bankrupt, and sort of stumbled into politics by accident. I’m very attracted to (and frightened by) the idea that our lives are so out of our control, that we could “stumble into” becoming the president. What a strange notion. Coolidge on the other hand, represents to me a part of these president’s lives that we never really hear about. His son died suddenly at a young age, just a week or so before Coolidge’s inauguration, which sent him into a deep depression for the rest of his life. This illustrates so well to me, how these men are like the rest of humanity, but have just all sort of “stumbled” into a weird place in the world. Both of these mostly forgotten stories about these men’s lives made me think quite a bit about the humanity in them.

What was the most surprising thing you learned about a president?

Pitcher:This may sound absurd, but I was quite surprised to learn that John Quincy Adams used to swim naked in the Potomac every day before the sunrise. I suppose it seems so unimaginable that a current president would do this, that it is symbolic of a completely different time. It’s also pretty insane and seems really tough. It is an inescapably impressive detail about this man’s life, that suggests a great deal about his character. He did this in the winter too. Although maybe it is quite sane. I imagine it would keep you feeling very alive. I guess it’s just something I wouldn’t expect, which makes it interesting to me. Then again, most of these men are certainly not average, so perhaps that explains it.

Have you guys thought of any song ideas yet for either of the two likely 2008 presidential nominees?

Gerken:It is very intimidating to think about trying to do a President Obama justice. He is such a brilliant and inspiring man, that I am afraid it will be difficult to do him justice. I know that the minute that the electoral math is finalized, and the last required state is called for him, I will just erupt in tears of joy. It would be nice to start a song for him with a sort of solitary theme that builds until a huge chorus of people is vamping on the same theme at the end. Lyrically, it might be nice to write from the perspective of the world looking in at the United States, relieved. Shucks, I dunno. I haven’t thought that much about it yet. Don’t want jinx it, you know.

Pitcher:I have some musical ideas as I’ve been writing songs for a new record, but nothing concrete. In terms of subject matter, a number of things are floating around in my head, but I haven’t sat down to dig into it yet. I will say that it is fairly difficult to ignore the extremity of McCain’s experience as a prisoner of war. I watched a documentary recently by Werner Herzog called Little Dieter Needs to Fly, which made me look at McCain in a different light. The film is about a prisoner of war in Vietnam, and is harrowing beyond belief. It still gives me the chills.

What do you hope to achieve with this collection? Kiefer:I hope that this collection allows the listener a doorway into a larger inquiry into history and culture and, ultimately, what makes us American. For me, America still holds a dream-like quality; it still embodies hope and the idea of freedom. Unfortunately, this is a nation that is in significant ways mismanaging its position on the global stage. History tells us that America regularly makes stupendously bad decisions and then later feels bad about them and makes attempts to rectify. In fact, if there’s one thing we can learn from history it’s that we do repeatedly make the same mistakes over and over again. One hopes that we try to make smaller footprints each time, but sadly that isn’t usually the case. I hope this music can help people ponder how we got to where we are, and, by extension, where we’re going. I know that’s optimistic, but there it is.

Meanwhile, who knew Chester A. Arthur could rock so hard? That’s information you won’t find anywhere but here!