Planting the Seeds: An Interview with Astronautalis
In keeping with the ongoing debate about the current state of hip-hop, this week I offer evidence of the genre’s strength and relevance. 2009 was an interesting year for music all around. But it was the smaller hip-hop labels in particular that put out some of the best records of the year, records that expanded the scope of the genre. The best example of this is “Pomegranate,” the third LP from Seattle rapper Astronautalis (aka Andy Bothwell).
Astronautalis’ earlier records were more in the vein of familiar underground hip-hop acts like Atmosphere and Aesop Rock—metaphor-rich and tending toward the old school. But Bothwell’s style hinted at something richer. Stepped in American folklore and with a deep, gravelly voice and expert flow, Astro is the kind of larger-than-life character you’d expect to find in a Tom Waits tune.
Astronautalis has also gained notoriety for turning his ample freestyling skills into something more akin to improv comedy. At shows, Astro takes subject suggestions from the audience, usually four or five, and stipulates that they should have nothing to do with hip-hop or common hip-hop topics—things like cars, girls, money and the lack thereof. The result is a freestyle performance with no canned lines, and lots of surprises for both the crowd and the MC.
On “Pomegranate,” Bothwell somehow manages to evoke Waits, Dylan and Andre 3000 all on the same album. Dominated by old saloon style piano, strings and an underlying layer of electronica reminiscent of early Portishead, Astro’s latest is a hip-hop masterpiece that, along with recent work by P.O.S., WHY? and Sole, points to a potential hip-hop renaissance.
Watch this video for Astro’s “Trouble Hunters,” a single off “Pomegranate,” to get an idea of what I’m talking about, and then read below to find out where Astronautalis thinks hip-hop is headed in 2010.
Tell me about your musical journey? What brought you to hip-hop?
When I was 12, my older brother gave me a tape with Lord Finesse’s “Return of The Funky Man” on the B-side and Guru’s “Jazzamatazz Vol. 1″ on the A-side. Hearing that, coupled with Gang Starr’s “Hard to Earn” and all the De La Soul records, I fell in love. I always listened to American indie rock and Brit-pop, but rap got thrown in there in 8th grade and it changed everything.
More important than that, I was a skateboard kid, and I hung out with skateboard kids, and that culture in the ’90s was amazing. Watch any of the old Spike Jonze skate videos or the Transworld videos and just listen to the music, see the style. It was so diverse. It was cool to be into everything back then—it was OK to be a part of anything. And here I am trying to make music that is anything and everything. If it wasn’t for growing up in that culture, I am sure I would have picked a scene and narrowed my scope considerably.
What goes into being a good freestyler? How did you develop the skill?
Practice. When I started out rapping at age 13, I was as bad as any other white boy, but I just worked harder at it than any other white boy. This was, in fact, the only thing I ever really worked hard at. My use of topics on stage today was taken from a rapper named Supernatural, who would have people pull things out of their pockets and he would fit the item into his flow. I took that concept and really tried to push it as far as possible by doing more than just inserting the item into the freestyle, but by making the freestyle about the item, or even rapping from the perspective of the item. My friends would have me do things like battle myself, or perform both sides of a battle between wood and water. I grew up around wildly creative people—hey pushed me and I worked my ass off for almost 15 years now. That’s what it takes.
How did you end up working with John Congelton? Are you a Paper Chase fan?
I went to college in Dallas, and I started getting serious about music in (nearby) Denton and Dallas. I had worked with almost every member of The Paper Chase in some capacity, except John. But really it was all the work of Kris Youmans. Kris does the string arrangements for The Paper Chase (and played cello on “Pomegranate”) and serves as a sort of cultural king of Dallas. He insisted that we work together, he said it would be great—he was right. John and I are like kindred spirits; anyone can listen to our respective works and can see that. I remember right when I heard (The Paper Chase’s) “Said the Spider to the Fly,” I was hooked. I can’t wait to work with him again.
What do you think about the current state of hip-hop?
I think, with a few notable exceptions, the indie rappers are terrifically boring and the pop rappers are inventive and exciting, which is a total role reversal from a few years ago. If indie rappers want to continue to try and distinguish themselves from the mainstream with artistic credibility, then they need to work harder on their art form. In the meantime, I’ll take Rap-A-Lot over Def Jux any day of the week.
You appeared on Sole’s “Nuclear Winter” album. How did that come about?
Sole is the homey, and a longtime supporter of my work. He is also one of the rappers whose early work really spawned a sea change within me as a rapper. So when he asked me to work with him-especially on a project like that-I didn’t hesitate. I am really proud of the result.
I’ve heard you’re doing an album with P.O.S.? When can we expect a release? What else is in store for Astro’s future?
P.O.S and I have started and finished the first release from our new group, The Four Fists. It is a short EP based on the short stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald, and it should be out before the end of the year.
As for myself, I am working on another side project called Maxx Moon. It’s a group made up of myself, and an amazing producer out of Dallas named Picnic Time. He has done work for Erykah Badu, Kid Cudi and Devin the Dude. His music sounds nothing like mine and mine sounds nothing like his. We wanted to see what would happen when we worked together. I’m really excited about the results so far. In between all this, I’m producing a record for my friend Bleubird and writing for my new solo record.
Who would you like to tour with?
Joanna Newsom. I could watch her perform over and over for 100 years.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about hip-hop?
That “rap” and “hip-hop” are two different genres of music, that there is any real difference between mainstream rappers and indie rappers except for the size of their crowds.
What is “Trouble Hunters” about? What made you decide to write that song?
The Battle of Trenton. I love art that is unapologetic about its sincerity, which means I end up reading a lot of old books and listening to a lot of fight songs. The American Revolution is a subject that has become absurdly disconnected from our modern lives, and I wanted to write a song that attempted to show the sort of passion that drove those people in that impossible task. I don’t think I achieved that, but I think I wrote a pretty good fight song.
What could happen that made you feel like you’ve truly succeeded as an artist?
I am really proud of what I’ve managed to pull off so far, but the day I truly succeed as an artist should be the day I quit. There is always room for improvement. I guess I feel that real success can only be achieved when you find that your work is never done.
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