A few weeks ago we wrote about Time Without Measure, the latest album by Philadelphia’s indie rock band The Chairman Dances. If the review seems a bit like overkill in terms of explanation and context, then we’d pass all the blame onto the band themselves, because this is an ambitious, special record which focuses on ten ambitious, special figures from history, thereby opening up thought and discussion on themes seldom touched by modern music.
“The Chairman Dances succeed in bringing characters to life in three dimensions, though on Time Without Measure the feat is even more impressive as the roster of figures are not only numerous but also known to history in decidedly superhuman terms. Now more than ever we should remember that activists and political heroes, for all of their spirit and unimaginable resolve, are as prone to doubt and death as anyone, and not half as powerful without our support and belief”
We were lucky enough to get the opportunity to put a few questions to lead Eric Krewson to see just how such an album comes into being.
Hi Eric, thanks for taking the time to speak with us. How’s life been since the release of Time Without Measure?
Hello, Jon. My pleasure. Much of the past month has been taken up with performances and preparation for those performances. This past Friday, for instance, we gave a talk and played at Dorothy Day’s Maryhouse in NYC, which was a real thrill for me. Dorothy writes about life in that community in The Long Loneliness. We stayed overnight at Maryhouse and, walking down the stairs to breakfast the next morning, I felt as though I had walked into her text: the radio flooded the room with WNYC’s classical music programming, there was plenty of food and many demands on my attention—to do this please, move that please—all of which precluded the reading I had hoped to do, just as these exact things (Rossini on WNYC, etc.) interrupted Dorothy’s reading over half a century earlier. It was a surreal experience.
Each track on the album is about a different person (or several people) from history. Were they figures you were familiar with before sitting down to write the record? How did you go about selecting/researching them?
I was familiar with Dorothy Day and Augustine only. I thought the record—once I knew what it was—would be a good opportunity for me to explore my religious tradition. The research I did turned out to be a great history lesson as well. I was surprised and heartened to read about the many peaceful religious protests in the 1960s and 70s. I read with awe about the Baltimore 4, the Catonville 9, the Camden 28. I’m progressive and live across the river from Camden, NJ, and yet I had never heard of the Camden 28. Progressive religious history has no share in our collective memory.
I picked the record’s protagonists somewhat arbitrarily. One person often led to another. At all points, I tried to be aware of the emerging narrative, the effect that a person included or excluded would have. Representation was an important concern.
While the album is entirely historical in its focus, I was struck by just how relevant it felt to our times. Did you pursue the themes of activism in response to any particular modern movement or event? Is protest in the air in contemporary America?
In some ways, the United States was at a different place when I started writing the album. News outlets were not sharing footage of men being murdered in the streets as often as they are now, and I am glad they’re reporting this news, even as they need to spotlight the causes, not just the effects. Subaltern groups—black men, especially, but also Native Americans, those with disabilities—have always been killed by the state, both physically and spiritually (byway of incarceration). Now we are seeing the desolation with our own eyes and being made aware of these issues by protests. The state has responded to the collective outcry with more violence toward these marginalized groups.
I could go on at length, but suffice it to say this is an evil time in America. It is heartbreaking.
I’ve used this quote before but it’s something I think about a lot. David Foster Wallace once said “there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.” For me, Time Without Measure is almost an attempt to give us something meaningful to worship, an alternative to cheering a racist politician or lining up all night for the latest smartphone. Does this align with your motives at all?
Those are wise words. Nietzsche says something similar in his On the Genealogy of Morality. (While, as a twenty-year-old, I was enamored with that text, as a thirty-year-old, I don’t recommend it.) Lots of other non-religious thinkers have come to that conclusion and in fact the New Testament bears witness to it when it denounces greed as idolatrous. I recently read a helpful gloss on the Epistle to the Colossians by Brian J. Walsh. Walsh calls the letter “seditious” in that it “demythologiz[es]… the empire” by asking its readers to cease its worship of the state, of the principalities, of Cesar. Psalm 146 warns “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help.”
Yes, one of my aims was to provide an alternative narrative. As I mentioned, progressive religious history has been forgotten (including, sadly, religion’s role in the abolition of U.S. slavery). As a result, even the most well meaning journalists, artists, etc., fail to adequately represent religion. Every time NPR or the New York Times mentions faith, I cringe.
The record deals with special people in a particularly real way, so they aren’t quite mere mortals but not saints or angels either, sort of meeting us halfway in a place we can reach (or aspire to). You did a great job humanizing these figures, but I was wondering if there were any individuals you wanted to include but couldn’t? Was there a person impossible to reanimate convincingly?
I’ve very glad you feel that way. For most of the people included, it took roughly two tries to get a text I felt I could work with. Yes, there were some I felt I couldn’t represent adequately. Takashi Nagai, who miraculously survived the United State’s atomic bombing of Nagasaki, wrote a memoir, The Bells of Nagasaki, which should be required reading for all. I would have liked to throw some light on his story but ultimately I couldn’t. All of that death—it doesn’t lend itself to anything but grief. There is a work by Hildegard of Bingen wherein all of the characters sing except for the devil—he speaks. It is hard to sing evil.
I would have also liked to include a song for Marilynne Robinson, but I know her work too well. It’s difficult to frame my admiration and gratitude for her thought.
What do you consider your biggest influences as a songwriter? Are there any musicians/authors/artists who really stand out? Do you draw upon the other members of The Chairman Dances?
I’ve come to embrace the very full life I lead, my more-or-less two full-time jobs and home life, thus I try to learn what I can from whatever I come across. If I hear spirituals or Messiaen, and I listen to both gladly, then I try to glean something from that experience. In terms of intentional listening, I remember hearing the Magnetic Fields 69 Love Songs and Springsteen’s Born to Run prior to recording the album. Both were influential.
The band arranges the songs together, as a group. Absolutely, each individual’s playing informs everyone else’s, including mine. Additionally, a few Chairman Dancers are involved in other projects. (Kevin plays in a band called Man Illuminated. Luke and Ashley perform as September. Ben Rosen plays bass in Bird Watcher; he’s also a great composer.) All of what we do, both in other groups and in our own study, affects the music we make together in some way.
Of course, the writing of and about those included in the album (Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison, Daniel Berrigan’s play The Trial of the Catonsville Nine, etc.) were all influential.
Finally, could you name 4-5 acts you think we should be listening to, be they old, new, popular or obscure?
I feel obliged to mention artists unknown in our sphere, thus I recommend Even Oxen; the young and gifted producer Corey Smith West; Anonymous 4 (stars in the classical music world); and the author William Stringfellow.
Time Without Measure is out now via Black Rd. Records and you can buy it from the Chairman Dances Bandcamp page. Also, why not check out a feature Krewson wrote for us earlier in the year, detailing the genius of Marilynne Robinson?
Photo by Jonathan Brown