Songs of great & mortal men

Local musicians enlist hundreds of artists to write 43 songs for 43 U.S. presidents

Left to right: Jefferson Pitcher, Christian Kiefer and Matthew Gerken.

Left to right: Jefferson Pitcher, Christian Kiefer and Matthew Gerken.

It started as a challenge: write one song for every U.S. president in just one month—February, no less. Forty-three songs in 28 days.

Local songwriter-producer Christian Kiefer first heard the “presidents” dare from Jefferson Pitcher, an experimental artist in upstate New York by way of Berkeley’s 924 Gilman punk scene. Pitcher had challenged himself to compose 14 songs about the first 14 U.S. presidents for FAWM, or February Album Writing Month, an online songwriting project where musicians have 28 days to scribe half as many tunes. Kiefer, a former SN&R music columnist, joined his ticket, agreeing to do 14 more presidents. The Pitcher-Kiefer duo, which released the post-indie folk album To All Dead Sailors last year, wanted a third songwriter to tackle the final 15 presidents. Enter Matthew Gerken, of local indie outfit Nice Monster, to finish the songwriting triumvirate.

There were some ground rules going into the 28-day challenge. Songs must be, as Gerken puts it, “not ranty” and nonpartisan—though Kiefer assured the other guys that “nobody’s ever going to mistake us for Republicans.” The trio would alternate presidents: Kiefer starting with George Washington; Gerken taking John Adams; Pitcher doing Thomas Jefferson, his namesake; and so on. Pitcher swore he wouldn’t use guitar effects—a promise he’d eventually break. Everyone would need to upload demo tracks to the FTP site at February’s end for the project to be considered a success.

Forty-three songs in 28 days.

“It almost kills you it’s so hard. It’s like running a marathon,” says Kiefer, now almost three years removed from the original gauntlet. He’s sipping a Pilsner with Gerken at Midtown’s Rubicon Brewing Company on a recent Wednesday night, the pair’s first interview together after weeks of Q-and-As with out-of-town press. Of Great and Mortal Men’s timely release—the final leg of the presidential election is here already—and the scope of its collaboration—hundreds of artists from all over the world, including many in Sacramento—have earned the release national attention. And rightly so: It’s an epic, three-hours-plus, very Howard Zinn Songwriter’s History of the United States, an academic but playful look at our country’s commanders-in-chief, who, as it turns out, many of us would know very little about.

For example, most Americans don’t know that George Washington had hippopotamus teeth.

Of Great and Mortal men opens with a Revolutionary War drum cadence and accompanying flute melody, which cuts away to “Washington Dreams of the Hippopotamus,” a folk-rock tale on our most famous founding father. Kiefer depicts Washington on his deathbed, laughing about lying through his famous dentures—“I gnashed my hippo teeth and smiled, believe me,” he sings. Cake’s Vince DiFiore delivers a regal, pulsing trumpet solo, which transitions to a pop-rock bridge, which crescendos before mellowing into a smooth, horn-heavy outro. It’s a clever, catchy opener that neither deifies nor disrespects our first president. It just nibbles at him.

And it almost wasn’t written. The hippopotamus-teeth analogy was the kicker for Kiefer; he says it’s what kept him from quitting FAWM out the gate. “That made me go ‘Wow, I got a really great song with a really great metaphor about George Washington’s teeth!’” he remembers laughingly.

Gerken’s songs are more pensive, constructed, academic. He writes emotionless folk-rock tunes with ambling lyrics that Kiefer likens to the prose of Portuguese author José Saramago. An environmental advocate by day, Gerken spends hours poring over data at work, and that’s reflected in his lyrics, which are like a glossary of presidential-history Jeopardy questions—“What is the Monroe Doctrine?” The song “The Sherman Act Does Not Care,” a gloomy math-rock puzzler that mourns Teddy Roosevelt’s trust-busting ways, is a tragic tale of policy left in the dust. His George H.W. Bush song hints at the beginnings of the Project for the New American Century neoconservative agenda well before the fall of the Soviet Union. His style nicely sets apart Kiefer’s post-rock balladeering and Pitcher’s rock and ambient experimentation.

After the February challenge was met, Kiefer put on his executive-producer hat and began soliciting artists to collaborate on the project. The response was overwhelmingly enthusiastic. Cake’s DiFiore was just one of more than 40 local artists—including Greg Aaron, Garin Casaleggio, Chip Conrad, Mike Curry, James Finch Jr., John Gutenberger, Dean Haakenson, Jeremy Hughes, Jeff Kapellas, Frank Mironchik, Heather Phillips, Jason Roberts, Damien Sol, Chad Wilson—who appear on Of Great and Mortal Men. Kiefer also enlisted numerous out-of-towners, including Alan Sparhawk of Low, singer-songwriter Rosie Thomas, and San Francisco’s Monahans, whose commitment to the project at times was unexpectedly fierce. DiFiore, for example, was willing to lay down five different solos on “Washington.”

Califone, an experimental-folk quartet based out of Chicago who plays on “Such a Marvelous Dream,” Ronald Reagan’s track, woke Kiefer late one night. “‘Hey man, we’re attacking Reagan with Casio keyboards, and we’ve been at it for, like, nine hours. It’s gonna take some more time; I just want to make sure that that’s going to be OK and you’re not going to freak out,’” Kiefer recalls of his “It’s 3 a.m. …” emergency phone call.

“Hell yes, man. Break out the Casios!” Kiefer intones, obviously stoked that Califone had been stoked to work on his track. “I couldn’t believe they were doing this to begin with.

“When listening to the final product, it’s hard to believe we wrote this in 28 days,” says Kiefer, who’s grown a very presidential wooly beard of his own.

Of Great and Mortal Men’s presidencies theme begs comparison to indie artist Sufjan Stevens’ “50 States” concept albums, Greetings From Michigan and Illinoise, records that drew huge critical praise for their cool Esquivelian free-for-alls and unnerving ballads. Gerken, Kiefer and Pitcher’s record has similar moments, but generally speaking is more dynamic, both stylistically and thematically, exploring ambient, prog and funk while portending a darker view of U.S. history.

“I wouldn’t change a thing. / Why would I? When everything I did was blessed by God?” Kiefer sings on “Benevolence,” about Andrew Jackson, who, having a lot in common with President Bush, according to Kiefer, illustrates the dangers of executive power. “‘You’re either with us or you’re against us.’ That wasn’t political rhetoric, that—according to [Bob] Woodward’s book—is actually the way Bush thinks,” Kiefer argues, almost unfortunately so, that every president thinks they’re pivotal and every president thinks they’re right.

In Washington’s 1796 farewell address, he warned a young nation to avoid partisanship and foreign wars. Now, more than two centuries later, party politics is worse than ever, and we’re still in Iraq. If it were up to old Hippo Teeth, we’d be making some major changes.

So, do Gerken and Kiefer think Barack Obama’s the man for the job?

“Given the choices, how can a reasonable human being not?” Kiefer laughs. Regardless who wins in November, the three musicians’ songwriting challenge officially will end. They’ll record one last track, a song about president No. 44, and they’ll release it free online.

An Obama one would definitely get more downloads.