Fictionist has mostly kept a low profile since its 2014 debut LP. But that doesn't mean that the brothers behind the band—lead singer Stuart Maxfield and his songwriting partner and Fictionist's erstwhile manager Andrew Maxfield—haven't been busy.
The Maxfields have spent the past year preparing a musical retelling of a story that takes place during the Civil War—an ambitious departure from the taut electro-pop Fictionist is known for.
But Andrew Maxfield, the show's producer and co-songwriter, makes clear that this is not a Fictionist project. It's a collaboration that he and his brother have wanted to do ever since the full-time job of Fictionist made working together on their own music more difficult. "It's been 10 years since we have really done something together," Andrew says.
The project, titled The Bridge, is based on the 1890 Ambrose Bierce short story "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge." The production includes an orchestra, video projections, actors and Stuart Maxfield at center stage serving as a musical narrator. The show, Andrew hopes, will provide a kind of concert hall experience that has the energy of a rock show.
Andrew admits he had the idea for how the show should feel long before he had settled on what it would be. It started in late 2014, when Mark Ammons, the jazz ensemble director at Brigham Young University, asked Fictionist to collaborate for a live jazz show. "Something kind of fun and unexpected happened," Andrew says. "When I sat down in the concert hall, I realized I was having this cool musical experience that really worked."
When Ammons asked if they wanted to do something else together, he became obsessed with trying to re-create that experience. Andrew and Stuart decided to dive into the project without the rest of Fictionist, and they spent the rest of 2015 figuring it out from there. "The thing I knew, kind of at an instinct level, is I wanted to do a show that is story-based," Andrew says. "What I did not want to do was have characters on stage singing in first person."
So while The Bridge is a story told through music, it stops short of being a musical in the traditional sense. The music, a cold electronic dirge that captures the impending death and dark irony described in Bierce's story, is the main character, supported by a small cast of silent actors. "Thematically, I was trying to strike a balance between creating music that sounded end-to-end like an album ... and making coherent storytelling," Andrew says. Most of the show's lyrics were written by him.
To match with the austerity in the music, Andrew's lyrics took some inspiration from Bierce's writing style. "He has this very terse, declamatory, undecorated style," Andrew says. "I think it works really well in this particular story. He doles out his words like little bullets or something." The lyrics to the song "It Becomes You" don't tell a full story as much as they hint at one. "Stitch of cotton in a crimson sash, it becomes you/ Ankle lines, burlap and ash, it becomes you."
The story itself intrigued Andrew because the Civil War setting stuck out to him as "particularly rock 'n' roll." Wartime stories, Andrew says, "are really intriguing because they ... dig into what people are willing to do and say in extenuating circumstances."
There's a universality in those themes, even if the setting is 150 years old. One song, "So," extracts the inner conflicts of protagonist Peyton Farquhar, a promising young Confederate about to be hanged by Union soldiers. But lines such as "This wasn't in the blueprint/ Somehow, I was gifted/ I was destined" could be uttered just as easily by anyone in any time period coming to terms with life's disappointing endings.
The task of translating his songs visually was a new challenge. Neither of them had ever tried to translate their work like this before. "I think the best thing I can say about it is instead of trying to solve those puzzles ourselves, we recruited a really great team of collaborators who are all good at those kinds of things," Andrew says.
Despite the show's initial hurdles, Andrew Maxfield seems to have caught on to something that excites him. While he tries to stay focused on the show, he can't help jotting down what the next production might be. "I've got notebooks full of ideas."