At first glance, Futurity seems like an intriguing idea that runs a serious risk of capsizing under the weight of some striking contradictions. Described in the press release as an “indie rock musical”, Futurity is an epistolary science fiction story that is set in rural 19th-century Virginia, set to music that is a mix of experimental pop and down-home American folk and blues. But though it sounds like a lot to pull off, the show is scrappily engaging and surprisingly cohesive, no doubt because the work is the result not of a team of writing partners and producers, but rather The Lisps, a Brooklyn-based indie-rock band that has been touring and recording together for over three years.
In the current music climate of 30-second samples and mp3 singles leaked to the blogosphere, it would seem that a work with such a complex narrative, demanding more than an hour of the listener’s time would be exactly the wrong step to make for a young band on the make. We spoke about this issue with César Alvarez, the principal songwriter of Futurity and member of The Lisps, along with the troubled history of the rock musical and why science fiction and music are a natural match.
Alvarez has also been kind enough to share “Thinking”, an admittedly rough recording from the show’s debut at the Zipper Factory, posted below. While it’s low-fi, it should be enough to whet your appetite for the show’s upcoming run at Joe’s Pub in New York, and tide you over until a more official release by the band (or at least until it gets unofficially leaked to the music blogs.)
“Thinking” – The Lisps (from Futurity, recorded live at the Zipper Factory)
(Right Click on link to save to your computer. Listen to more music from The Lisps at the band’s MySpace page.)
At Length: How did this whole project come into existence?
César Alvarez: I was driving down to North Carolina, which is where I’m from, and we had just finished our first album, Country Doctor Museum. We were in the process of figuring out how to describe what we were doing, talking about how our music is like being in a museum looking at something really old behind glass, and simultaneously seeing your reflection in the glass. Like looking backward and looking at yourself at the same time. We’re a rock band, but we use all these old formats – vaudeville and kitsch, old waltzes and all this different old folk music. We’re very contemporary and outdated at the same time. So I was driving – and when I drive in the South I always think about the Civil War – and I had this idea about a Civil War soldier who was a science fiction writer, and it made me chuckle. And I immediately thought, “Wow, this would be a good concept album for the Lisps,” because that was what we were talking about, linking the past and the future. Also, I had a conversation with Peter Evans, a friend of mine (and a fantastic trumpet player) and he said, “Wouldn’t it be funny if you started out as an old-timey band, but by the time you made ten albums you were a sci-fi band?” And I liked that idea and it stuck with me. On the way back from North Carolina, with this concept album idea still in my head, I saw an exit for Black Lick somewhere in Virginia, and I started singing this song that I just completely made up called “Black Lick Creek,” which isn’t a real creek in Virginia, it’s just something I made up.
For the next 6 months I started working on my thesis project to finish up my MFA at Bard, and I was thinking about this thing and thought it would be even more ridiculous to make it a musical instead of a concept album. So I started doing research about the Civil War, and about the area around Black Lick in Wythe County, Virginia and the project started taking shape. I found out there was a general in action there who was actually an inventor, and it’s also the birthplace of William Gibson, who helped to found the steampunk genre, and ending up doing a 45-minute workshop of it as my thesis presentation this past summer and it’s been building ever since. And it’s been great because it’s given new life to the band. You know, we’re all artists in our own right – Sammy’s [Sammy Tunis, vocals] an actress, I’m a composer and do other sorts of music, Jeremy [Hoevenaar, bass] is a poet and Eric [Farber] is a drummer who’s in all sorts of projects, and this gives us all the feeling that we’re doing something fundamentally different. Being in a rock band can be a lot of drudgery, rolling around the country, playing tour after tour and waiting for things to happen. And also it’s been cool because so many people who love our band now get to work with our band, which is really interesting.
AL: A musical is a much more collaborative art than four or so people in a band in a rehearsal space cranking out tunes. Was it significantly different for you bringing in actors and a director and a stage manager and all these different people to have their own input into what this was to become instead of just the band?
CA: It’s been hugely different. I’ve never acted in anything, and on top of that, I’ve never really written a play. I’ve tried. I’ve written a one-act and a few little things, so I was out of my element in like five different ways at the same time. That’s been really shocking. We’ve made a lot of mistakes and done a lot of things right, but it’s been a real learning experience because there’s not a real template for what we’re doing. We’re not just writing a play, or even writing a musical, but rather reframing our whole band, which has been around for three-and-a-half years, into a completely new thing. It’s confusing – are we in a band? Are we in a theater group? Are we in a performance art ensemble? It’s exciting because we’re in between stages and it’s in those in between spaces where interesting things happen, because you have to create your own gravitational forces. We’ve been doing the standard indie rock thing for three years – we’ve been touring, we’ve been to SxSW, we’ve been doing albums – and this is a different concept, and I feel like we’re doing something interesting and people are really gravitating toward it.
AL: You’re principal songwriter for Futurity, but it also seems like you never really conceived of this outside of something that the Lisps were undertaking. Did you ever think to pursue this as more of a traditional musical, where you write the book and the libretto, and go to a director and find that, as opposed to making this a project for the Lisps?
CA: I definitely thought of that. When it first started, it was a real question. I would bring these songs to rehearsal that were so weird and they didn’t really seem quite like Lisps songs. At one point Sammy was like, “I don’t know if this feels like a Lisps musical.” But that was really early on, and what’s been clear to me all along was that this is a musical that has really come out of the musical language created by the Lisps. This band of four people has created a kind of music that we play and I wrote the musical using that language. I had never thought of myself as someone who would write a musical, but now that I have, it’s crossed my mind that maybe I should write another musical, and that I should pursue that option. And maybe it should be with the Lisps or maybe it shouldn’t be. But this piece itself has always been linked with the Lisps because the original spark of the idea was always connected to what we were doing musically and I wanted to stay true to that.
AL: Speaking of sparks, the subject matter of this piece is science fiction, which is something that musicals and theater don’t often deal with, though rock music doesn’t shy away at all from science fiction concepts. Did you even think about that as a barrier when you were approaching this project?
CA: I want to get a little metaphysical: I think music is science fiction. A lot of what this piece is about, and a lot of what I’ve been pursuing intellectually is an idea that imagination and music are like science fiction in that they create structures of thought that are new and more powerful than the old structures. I think the reason science fiction seems so natural to what we’re doing is because it really wraps up with my idea about art, the power that we have as creators of our own destiny and our own world. There might not be a lot of science fiction theater, but it makes complete sense to me that there’s so music about science fiction, because music is science fiction. Especially a lot of the American music and a lot of the black music, because music has always been a place of other consciousness, and other realities – the unsensed world – because it’s about vibrations and an element of consciousness and community which is fundamental and pre-linguistic. I’m really not a huge science fiction buff, but I’m much more now than I was a year ago, and it’s great because it’s given me a lot of language of the ways that people are conceiving the future and I’m really interested in that, both in the destructive and generative qualities that that can have. There are a lot of interesting politics in science fiction, for example, the portrayal of women. You know, William Gibson said that science fiction isn’t about the future, it’s about now, and I believe that, as well. But another thing that makes science fiction so rich is how it envisions the past. That’s the interesting thing about steampunk, though it has plenty of hang-ups. Speaking of [William Gibson's book] The Difference Engine, I don’t know if you’ve read that novel…
AL: I have, and it features Ada Lovelace as a character, who is a character in your work as well.
CA: Totally. What’s interesting about that novel is that it calls into question who creates history and what is history and what does a real reverence for history mean. I just saw 1984, which is a play Sammy is in right now off Broadway, where Big Brother is who creates history and controls people’s minds. With Futurity, we’re the people that control the stories, the written word, so we’re really creating history, and I think that’s really interesting. So art is really a reclaiming of history.
AL: So many musicals these days are very backwards focused and playing on history themselves. Jersey Boys and Mamma Mia, while using rock idioms, mostly trade on nostalgia. Were you a fan of musicals before entertaining the idea of creating one yourself?
CA: I had a little bit of a love/hate relationship to musicals. Almost every musical I’ve ever seen has given me the willies when people break into song – there’s something about it that just makes me go crazy. One of my big justifications for writing a musical is that I’ve disliked almost every musical I’ve ever seen because of that moment, because of the way the narrative relates to the song. That said, Threepenny Opera is kind of the touchstone for this piece. When I saw that – the movie, particularly – I realized that was the narrative-musical relationship I wanted in my piece. I actually ended up conducting my high school musical, which was a crazy experience because I got thrown into that whole world, so there was something a little natural coming back to it, though at the time it seemed totally bizarre. So I’ve been involved in musicals here and there, and I’ve played saxophone in Grease and things like, but no, I was not really a musical theater buff at all. And rock musicals, while I think they’re interesting, tend to leave me a little cold. I see them and think, “God I could do this. I could write a musical for people like me.” And it’s interesting because having now written a musical, you still get sucked into some of those clichés and tropes, and I am so inside my musical that it’s hard to know where I am now in relationship to it. But we’re really thinking a lot about that, about the relationships between the songs, about how they work. What’s happening in that moment when the dialogue blooms into song? That’s a really crucial moment. My line was always, “I hated musicals. That’s why I wrote one.” But then Sammy was like, “You don’t know anything about musicals.” (Laughs.)
AL: This show has a director and other actors that are not members of the Lisps who have come on to do this. Do you find that these people are more familiar with the musical and have informed the direction of the show as it has taken shape?
CA: We really went out of our way to not get musical theater actors because in the Lisps we’re not professionally trained singers, and that’s a really important part of our sound. There’s something about our music – even though I’m a conservatory-trained composer – that’s very pedestrian and sort of routine and we really wanted to preserve that. When we talked to Tom Hulce about Spring Awakening, he said the same thing happened there. They didn’t want musical theater actors, but they got forced into it because once you reach a certain level, it’s hard not to work with professional musical theater actors because they know what to do.
AL: When people are paying these steep ticket prices for Broadway and Off-Broadway shows, there’s a certain expectation people have about the kind of entertainment they’re going to be receiving.
CA: Exactly. I think it’s interesting in Passing Strange that Stew isn’t a Broadway singer and I think that came through, but a lot of his cast clearly were, and they clearly put it together in that way which I think is fine for Broadway, but I think what we’re doing is really looking for a new direction for musical theater, which like you said has gotten a little wrapped up in nostalgia. I think the place of song and lyric in pop culture is really fascinating, and I think there’s a lot going on there right now, with rock bands that are really interested in turning their music into a fully visual and narrative spectacle. A lot of rock bands are making musicals, though I’m sure they’d rather just be making films. I know I would love to turn Futurity into a film, because that’s where I think it would live the best.
AL: There are so many boundaries falling in general, so many people willing to not only cross genres but cross entire art forms and just go wherever things take them.
CA: I think you’re right. We’re getting a pretty mish-mash situation. People love their boundaries. Spring Awakening, for whatever boundary pushing was done, was used to keep the status-quo pretty heavy duty intact. I’m confused about what would happen if Futurity were on Broadway. Would that mean that Broadway were to be fundamentally changed, or would we have to change this piece to put it on Broadway? I hope it’s the first one. I’m interested in that.
AL: It would definitely not resemble much else that was on Broadway right now.
CA: Not that I can think of. I unfortunately missed The Adding Machine, which I think had a similar kind of twist to it. I think you’re right. It would definitely be a new enchilada.
AL: Speaking of moving the show, you had a short but very successful run at the Zipper Factory shortly before they closed for good, and you have four shows next month at Joe’s Pub here in New York. What should people expect from these new shows? Will it be a full theatrical production? Will it be different from the Zipper Factory show?
CA: Yeah, it’s going to be different. Joe’s is a much smaller venue than the Zipper Factory, so it will be more like a concert. You could call it a staged reading, but we don’t like to advertise it that way, because non-theater people don’t necessarily know what that means. It’s more of an oratorio, in a way, as we’re going to be acting out our parts, but there won’t be any scenery, or staged like it was at Zipper. There aren’t going to be any costumes. There are going to be costumes.* We’re going to tell the story in a very vivid way, but it’s going to be a little bit more of a concert, which is going to be really nice, because what you’re going to get is a very detailed and exciting take on the music. A lot of what happened at the Zipper was that the music was a little blurry and not quite as arranged, and you’re going to get a much more elaborate arrangement of the music. You know, a play like Spring Awakening went to seven workshops before it went on Broadway, and we’re on number two right now. I think ultimately we’d really like to be on Broadway with it, and I think we’re in a really good place right now. Being at Joe’s Pub and performing is a really great place to be.
AL: Because the Lisps are also a band, do you see this also existing as the next Lisps album?
CA: We want to release the Futurity concept album, which won’t be a cast album, and the music won’t be perfectly true to what’s going on on-stage. It’s going to be a full-on Lisps album where we produce the music in a special way. But at the same time we’re working on another album that will just be another Lisps album. It’s important to keep both fires burning at once, where we’re still writing songs, we’re still touring and recording — outside of Futurity — because that’s really part of what we do that we love. We’re taking a long view of Futurity because these things take a long time to develop, and we don’t want to put our band on hold. We want to keep both things going at the same time.
AL: I guess that makes sense that with a play about the future that you’d be focused on the future in developing it.
CA: We’re taking the long view, definitely. This is the sort of thing that can take years to develop, but we feel like we’ve made a lot of quick progress. If we had taken a musical down to a director and tried to workshop it, who would’ve come to it? The exciting thing about our situation is that we’ve already got a fan base. We have a whole bunch of people who are already interested in it, and we’ve been able to go a lot quicker than if we’d just started cold, I think.
AL: The Lisps have definitely gotten some attention on the music blogs. Do you see music blogs as being interested in this project and being a good match for trying to get the word out and turn people on to it?
CA: I think so. Some of them don’t know what to do with it and some of them are just eating it up. I think it’s cool that with Futurity we’ve gotten some attention from new people. As a band, there were bloggers that loved us and bloggers that were sort of indifferent to us. And now with Futurity there are all these new bloggers coming out of the woodwork that we don’t know who are like, “Wow, we’re really interested in what you’re doing.” And then some of our old buddies who are bloggers have a harder time with it, but we appreciate all of that feedback. It’s interesting with a piece like this because some people watch it and don’t really enter into it, they just listen to the music and don’t really get that into the narrative. So it’s interesting to see with the bloggers what they get out of it. Do they focus on the music, or do they actually get the narrative? A lot of people watch this thing… I mean, it’s a lot clearer than it was at the Zipper, but it’s still pretty weird. I mean, we’re talking about artificial intelligence and the Civil War at the same time. Some people say, “I don’t want to go there.”
AL: It’s like indie rock and musicals, the two worlds seem very separate a lot of the time, but it looks like things are changing.
CA: Absolutely. And it’s weird for us. A lot of our fans are like, “We don’t go to musicals.” Well, we don’t really either. It’s uncharted territory for us.
*When this interview was first printed, Alvarez was misquoted as saying that there would be no costumes at their Joe’s Pub shows, though it will in fact be a full-dress production.