CAMBRIDGE – Out of the darkness from the back of T.T. the Bear’s, Chris Ewen looks like a beacon in the bright light of the DJ booth. He plays music here on Saturdays at a popular dance night called “Heroes,” spinning everything from Blondie and Bauhaus to Michael Jackson and modern indie rock.
He’s the rare DJ who welcomes requests, no matter how mundane. When someone asks for a Soft Cell obscurity, Ewen politely jots it down on a piece of paper. Once he’s alone again with a reporter, he cracks a joke: “Trying to stump me with a Soft Cell song — that ain’t gonna happen.”
What no one seems to realize at T.T.’s on this summer night in late May is that Ewen is about to be busier than ever, well beyond the local nightlife scene where he has been a beloved fixture for more than two decades. He’s also a member of Future Bible Heroes, the synth-pop trio that includes Stephin Merritt and Claudia Gonson, both of the Magnet-ic Fields.
FUTURE BIBLE HEROES, With Luxury Liners
Last month, Future Bible Heroes released “Partygoing,” only its third full-length album since its 1997 debut, and a cross-country tour brings the band to the Sinclair in Cambridge on Sunday.
He’s far too modest to admit it — God bless his Midwestern upbringing in Michigan — but Ewen is the group’s most underrated member. Merritt writes the lyrics and vocal melodies, Gonson sings them (along with Merritt), and Ewen composes the music. Even the new album’s promotional sticker on the cover inadvertently plays up his underdog role: “Sung by Claudia Gonson & Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields,” it reads in all caps.
“Personally, I feel Chris is unsung in general for his musical genius,” Gonson says. “I wish that Chris had Mazda commercials and Disney soundtracks and video games galore, because he’s a great talent. He’s kind of a gentler person than Stephin and I are, and he doesn’t take a lot of credit for what he does.”
That’s a grand understatement. Ewen, who turned 53 last month, is the perennial character almost every city has: the exceedingly nice guy everyone seems to know and respect but also the last person to toot his own horn. He doesn’t need to, though, at least not among his colleagues.
“Certainly Stephin and I recognize the immensity of his contributions to the band. The songs are composed by Stephin, but all of the instrumentation, except for the very few instrumental sections that Stephin does, is done by Chris,” Gonson says. “He’s really quite foundational to the Future Bible Heroes.”
Ewen and Merritt have dueling takes on how they met before starting the band with Gonson around 1995. Merritt thinks it was at a party thrown by a bartender at ManRay, the long-gone Central Square club where Ewen used to DJ and made his name with various Goth, fetish, and gay dance nights. Ewen, however, says it was at a defunct gay bar called Sporters.
Either way, they were lovers before they were bandmates, and Ewen was immediately taken by Merritt’s burgeoning talent.
“When I very first met him, he gave me a cassette of his music he was doing under the name Buffalo Rome,” Ewen says. “It was he and Shirley Simms back then, and it really blew me away. There was something about the way his words worked with the arrangements that was really interesting.”
At the time, Ewen was still playing with Figures on a Beach, a rock band that had started in Detroit and migrated to Boston in the mid ’80s with the idea of growing the modest success it had nurtured in the Midwest.
After the group disbanded, Ewen was working on instrumental music when Merritt suggested his songs would be even better with lyrics and vocals. “I said, ‘I love your lyrics, so why don’t you write some?’” Ewen remembers telling Merritt. “I couldn’t imagine working with any other lyricist. So we did it.”
Ewen says this recently in the living room of his Central Square apartment, which he once shared with Merritt when they were dating. His bedroom is also his home studio, and it is almost comically true to what you’d imagine for an independent musician and DJ. There’s hardly an inch of free space. Amid microphones and an array of equipment, a handful of synthesizers are strewn about, including one that separates his bed from his computer. An ashtray is lined with four cigarette butts, and at 2 p.m. on a sunny day, hardly any light streams in through the covered windows.
Ewen moved to Boston at the end of 1985, and in a surreal twist of fate, the first time he ever stepped inside ManRay, the DJ was playing a Figures on a Beach song. “That warmed my heart,” he says, and soon after Ewen was spinning records at the club and stayed until it shuttered its doors in 2005.
With Future Bible Heroes on a decade-long hiatus after 2002’s “Eternal Youth,” Ewen kept busy as a DJ and continued to work on music at home. Their new record gave him a renewed sense of purpose and vitality to his own writing. “When you’re writing music for Stephin Merritt, it has to be good,” Ewen says.
Their chemistry as musicians feeds off their differences. It’s the only one of Merritt’s various projects in which he’s not responsible for the instrumentation. They are – and they aren’t – kindred spirits, they both say.
“In some ways yes, in other ways he’s my opposite,” Merritt says. “I always want to use fewer chords, and he always wants to use more. I want the songs to be one-minute long, and he wants them to be five. I want things to be playable in the background if you feel like going to sleep, and he wants them to be danceable.”
“We have a lot of fruitful oppositions, which makes Future Bible Heroes, in some ways, more interesting than the Magnetic Fields,” Merritt adds. “In the Magnetic Fields, there’s not someone telling me that I can’t do certain things. In Future Bible Heroes, I have someone to work against.”
Merritt, by the way, is not touring with Future Bible Heroes, citing his ongoing ear problems, specifically a sensitivity that makes loud noises painful. Instead the touring lineup includes Ewen, Gonson, Simms, and Anthony Kaczynski, one of Ewen’s old bandmates from Figures on a Beach. (Merritt will, however, join the band for a few songs at the Sinclair, since he’ll already be in town for an event at the Institute of Contemporary Art.)
That give-and-take between Merritt and Ewen is at the heart of what makes Future Bible Heroes so compelling. Ewen clearly understands the wry humor of Merritt’s lyrics and plays off that. From the new album, “Keep Your Children in a Coma” is a collision of playful beats and a chorus that warns about the dangers of the modern world. Merritt mentions “I’m Lonely (And I Love It)” as another example where there’s a disconnect between the despondent words and the tone of the music.
“There have been quite a lot of songs like that,” Ewen concedes. “I don’t think the mood of the music necessarily has to match the mood of the lyrics all the time. I think that makes songs a little one-dimensional, and I like the fact that he can take some of my poppy, exuberant tracks and turn them into melancholy things like ‘Real Summer.’ His lyric writing and his vocal melodies give the music a lot more poignancy than it would normally have.”
Ewen talks about the band’s early years, and particularly his relationship with Merritt, with only a trace of nostalgia. Reflecting on why he and Merritt split up romantically, he’s to the point.
“He really wanted to move to New York, and I didn’t,” Ewen says. “I was comfortable here, and my career as a DJ was going well. He thought it was a logical move for the Magnetic Fields, and it obviously was. He’s a sharp guy like that.”
“Who knows, if I had moved to New York, maybe I would be as renowned as Stephin Merritt,” he adds, and once again that mix of modesty and politeness is at play. “But I’m very happy with my legacy and what I have in Boston now.”