Joseph Arthur: He’s Your Boogie [Christ] Man
Singer-songwriter Joseph Arthur made quite an impression with his 2000 full-length debut Come to Where I’m From. One of the year’s best reviewed albums, it ended up on a number of Top 10 lists. The incredibly prolific Arthur, an indie pop singer who dabbles a bit in folk, released albums at a rapid pace throughout the 2000s. Earlier this summer, he put out The Ballad of Boogie Christ. He’ll follow the album up with a rowdier sequel The Ballad of Boogie Christ, Act 2 and has Act 3 slated for next year. We spoke to him via phone from his New York home about the album and upcoming tour.
How’d you end up recruiting former R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills for the tour?
It’s like the coolest thing ever. I’ve been lucky enough to be friends with the R.E.M. family ever since I opened for them during the Around the Sun days. Peter Buck used to see me in Seattle and I still play Peter Buck’s festival in Mexico. I see Michael [Stipe] in New York City quite a bit. Those guys all hang together. Every time I play and Mike Mills is around, he tells me that if I need a bassist I should call him. I thought he was always just saying that and that was cool and nice. I needed a bassist. I said, “Fuck it. I’ll call Mike Mills. Why not?” I wrote him and he came back with a list of serious questions. I was just throwing it out there. I didn’t think he’d say yes.
Is he singing backing vocals? He’s got a great voice.
Yeah, that band is nothing but secret weapons and he’s one of them. That background vocal thing is great. And there’s his musicality. He’s an incredible musician. It’s ridiculous that he is going to be in my band for this tour. He’s just a super nice guy too.
Talk a bit about the process of putting together The Ballad of Boogie Christ. The album started out as poems, didn’t it?
I wrote a few songs before this album. Normally, I would write from jamming on guitar and chord progressions and phonetic sounds. I would write these songs from word first. These seem to have more lyrical depth and imagery. It’s just easier to fit music around words rather than the other way around. I always wonder how Dylan or Leonard Cohen did it. It seemed like they went word first as well. I just started writing songs word first. I had a lot of poems. They seemed to fit into this theme. “The Ballad of Boogie Christ” was one of those poems. I thought that title was wrong enough. I just really liked it. It stuck out like a sore thumb, but in a good way. I thought I could build a character around it and it fit with the theme of the other poems. I decided to do that. It took forever. It was an ambitious undertaking; I kept putting it to the side. Graduation Ceremony was an album I put out two albums ago was a reaction to it. It was a simple heartbreak record with melodic songs. It was such a relief to make a record like that. Boogie Christ was like this planet where all these other moons were orbiting. And then, I put out Redemption City which was more about beats and messing around with trying to rap a bit. That felt more experimental to me and I think it turned out pretty good. I put it out for free because it felt like an experiment.
It’s a trilogy, right?
It is. It’s like Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Act I is the Father, act II is the Holy Ghost and act III is the Son. I mastered 35 songs for it. I was driving Fred Kevorkian, who mastered it, insane. I’ll make records in a vacuum and I’ll make him a de facto producer, which is not a mastering engineer’s job. I’ll get him involved and rack up insane mastering bills. I started riding my bike around the city and listening to it and put it together as a double album. Real World put it out that way. One time I listened to the first one and I thought it was a strong single record. I thought maybe put it out as a single record and then an act II later. I was pleased with that. But Real World came at me and wanted the double record. They did that. It’s a reversal. In the past, I wanted to put out double records with Real World but couldn’t. Normally, record companies will rein you into a more sane approach or an approach that more people can get with. A double record used to equal nobody wants that. They seemed to have more negative connotations in the recent past. It used to be rolling your eyes if somebody put out a double record. People don’t do that as much. It’s ironic since we’re living in a singles age. Maybe that’s why. No one is listening to records anyway so it doesn’t matter. Now, Act II will come out and Act III will come out in the spring. It’s more acoustic based and stripped down.
Are the songs all from one session?
I’ve been working on this for over five years. They come from different places but that was the thing about having this concept of Boogie Christ. It’s a great frame to hang everything around. “King of Cleveland” is the character’s high school years and “Akron Skies” is childhood. “I Miss the Zoo” is a drug addled past and “Travel as Equals” is leading toward enlightenment in later years. To me, there was always this story that I was fitting everything into. It wasn’t necessarily linear, but every song had to fit into that and every song does.
Are you playing bits and pieces of it on this tour?
I’m leaning on Boogie Christ but I’m also doing a couple of older songs. The first tour was just Ballad from beginning to end. Then I did six weeks in Europe and it was act I and act II with some older songs. People want to hear some older songs too. I like doing that.
I like the horn arrangements. Was it difficult working them into the mix?
No. My friend Scrapper is a great horn arranger in New York City. He did the whole thing. He arranged it and played all of it too. He’s like a genius. A lot of the songs are one chord progression throughout so you have a dynamic element.
Did you have a religious upbringing?
No. I had no religion at all. I would go to Akron Jewish summer camp, and I’m not Jewish. I don’t really know where all that stuff comes from. I don’t consider myself religious. I was just watching 2001: A Space Odyssey and I bring that up because I believe in some kind of divine entity or creative being or whatever you want to call it; I’m comfortable calling that God, but I don’t think any of us can define what the hell is going on. For me, there’s evidence that there’s something looking out for me and concerned for my hopes and dreams and then something like the Philippines happens. There’s inconclusive evidence and lots of paradoxes. I don’t really know. I’m on a spiritual journey and the album is about that kind of thing. The figure of Christ looms large in our culture and it’s our mythology. When you’re on that journey, it’s hard to not equate yourself on those terms and relate yourself to those sort of figures. It’s about that one some level. The Boogie Christ song is trying to humanize Christ and make him one of your bros. In a way, that brings more responsibility to it. If you can relate to that kind of figure of enlightenment, it puts more responsibility on you to rise to the occasion. If Christ is this untouchable concept, it takes the responsibility away. You can say you’re only human. I think it’s like dealing with those sorts of issues and going through insanity and enlightenment. It feels like an album that comes from my mid-thirties and I’m 42. I’m in a different, more comfortable place. I can really explore the material from a safe distance.
Are you worried you’ll experience a let down once the trilogy is finally complete?
That’s a good question. I’m super not worried about that. I have a whole something up my sleeve. I’m working again with [producer] Tchad Blake. He mixed Redemption’s Son. He’s been mixing this record and it’s so strong in a way that Boogie Christ isn’t. It’s not trying to step up to Boogie Christ. It’s more going back to a more modern sound and an approach like I did on my earlier records. It’s also a concept record. I think if I didn’t have that going on, I would be freaked out.
Upcoming 2013 Tour Dates
Akron, OH – Tangier
Toronto, ONT – The Drake Hotel
Chicago, IL – City Winery
Boston, MA – Great Scott
Northampton, MA – Iron Horse
Sellersville, PA – Sellersville Theater
Montclair, NJ – UUCM at Montclair
Vienna, VA – Jammin’ Java
Charlottesville, VA – The Southern
Carrboro, NC – Cat’s Cradle
Atlanta, GA – Eddie’s Attic
Nashville, TN – Mercy Lounge (Communion show)
Louisville, KY – Zanzabar
Pittsburgh, PA – Altar Bar