ASTRONAUTALIS - Interview
"Astronautalis is definitely a rapper who sings the occasional chorus, as opposed to a singer who dabbles in rap". This is the much relevant way the Floridian guy is introduced in a review from the All Music Guide. This difference may seem subtle, but it is capital. This is the key explanation of the personal music our Floridian guy makes. In this interview, Andy Bothwell tells us how the white battle MC he is has become the author of one of this year’s best albums.
I was not able to find that much information about you when I prepared this interview. Can you provide us with a short biography of you?
I am the son of a railway man and a artistic woman, born in the south, and raised on country, folk, and southern soul music. My older brother was a hip hop dj and he introduced me to rap music when I was 12 in the form a tape dub, with Lord Finesse: Return of the Funky Man on the a-side and Guru’s Jazzamatazz: volume one on the b-side. This set a high standard for me in hip hop - part of which was actually set by MC Solaar! After I heard his track on Jazzmatazz I went out and searched for weeks for a copy of Prose Combat...when I found it, it blew me away! That was a golden time for creativity and openness in rap music. I don’t think there is any coincidence that the rap music at time that drew in a lot of white kids like myself, who (up to that point) had been listening to more indie rock and punk. From that moment on I knew I wanted to be a rapper... So I started by freestyling every night while I walked my dog and worked my way up to battling in the lunch line at school. From there it all compounded into a full time hobby, but it wasn’t until I heard the work of people like the Anticon artists that I gained the courage to really make the music that was reflective of me personally...Instead of blindly aping the lives of the New York city hardcore hip hop scene. While I was listening to Mobb Deep and Diggin’ in the Crates all of my friends were indie and punk kids who had me listening to Neutral Milk Hotel and the Halo Benders... After hearing the work of people like Dose One, Josh Martinez, and Aesop Rock I realized I could do whatever I wanted. It didn’t seem like such a far stretch to connect these two formerly polar aspects of my life. I know it seems like a simple thing... but for anyone who makes music (or any art for that matter) to gain that courage is big breakthrough. It is the revelation that frees you from imitation and opens you up to creation. So now I am tackling that monster everyday. All I do is work on my music... when I am not touring and playing live (I tour 8 months out of the year) I am recording... I make my best stuff when I am running myself ragged.
Apparently, you started as a battle MC. Is there any record available with you rapping on it?
Yes, there is footage and little bootlegs of me battling floating about out there... I still freestyle a lot at shows so there is plenty of that available... Battle footage and audio is a bit harder to come by though.
How have you abandoned battling for this kind of crossover songs you're doing now?
I will always love battle rappers, it is in my blood and I could never fully abandon my roots however, I realized I reached my peak in battling and my heart was no longer in it. When I was battling seriously I was hopelessly devoted to the sport of it all... Then it just became about prize money and recognition as opposed to the craft of it all. That is a dangerous reason to be involved in anything... And for a while I rested on my laurels and could win battles without even thinking... But then I started to lose. That was when I realized it was over for me... And I decided to make music.
What about Model Citizens? Is this your band? Have they released anything?
Modelcitizens is just our umbrella company that we created when we (myself, my manager Harpoon Larry, and my DJ Rerog) decided to quit our real lives and try making it as musicians. That was three years ago and now it has evolved into whatever we need it to be; a record label (when we have stuff to put out on our own), a management company, a whiffle ball team, a group of drunken southern boys. No band... just three friends who would rather sleep in a van and travel the world than ever set foot into a “real job” again.
There is "Oceanwalk" on your first album and now this Mighty Ocean record. It seems that the ocean has a specific meaning from you. Where does this come from?
I have spent a great deal of my life growing up next to the Atlantic Ocean. The town I am from, Jacksonville Beach, is a very gritty and sad little beach town in north Florida, it is not like the outside world’s impression of Florida (Miami’s south beach), it is very southern and without any superficial merit. However, you can’t live there without having the ocean make a tangible impact on your life. When I was growing up, the ocean is where I spent my days surfing and swimming. The beach is where I lost my virginity, where I first got drunk and high, and where I go to cause trouble and hide out. Now that I am older it is still active in my life but it has taken on new meaning for me, it is where I go to think and be alone, it has become my confidant... Where it used to be my accomplice. At this point in my life... I have a hard time living without it, that salt air stays on your skin for as long as you live... You can never get away from it.
I've read – and did myself – comparisons between Buck 65 and you. I guess comparisons are always frustrating. How do you react to that?
Comparisons are natural, people need to qualify and categorize new things in their life, until they are so comfortable with these new things they will take on a category of their own. As I write this I am listening to a record that Alias gave me to listen to and tell him what I thought, and I felt myself drawing lines between the album and those who came before it. I try not to, I would like to judge an album on its own merit, but we are all victims of our own history...it is sometimes unavoidable. Being compared to Buck doesn’t bother me, he is a talented musician who influenced me greatly in my formative years. Buck caught a lot of the same grief when he started putting out his more inventive records, those great records will forever sit in the shadow of Tom Waits and Woody Guthrie... And I would hope one day they would rise above that. We all have influences, we all have people we steal from (especially hip hop artists...our music is built on the theft of samples), there a lot of people who influence me on a much greater level than Buck but don’t ever come up in reviews. I really don’t care what people think I sound like...as long as they enjoy what they hear.
Bleubird, the Sol.iLLaquists of Sound, and now yourself: several interesting hip hop artists emerged from Florida recently. Are these people more or less part of the same scene?
Yes. We are all friends and fans of each other’s work. It is nice to see all the people around you gain the recognition the really deserve. There are other greats coming out of Florida too: Electric President (Morr Music), Skyrider (Endemik Records), Intelleckt (Arc the Finger). Electric President is Radical Face’s band with a friend of ours named Alex Kane... Beautiful electronic pop. Skyrider is busy working on their second record while producing Sole’s (Anticon) new record... They also played all over my latest record. Intelleckt makes much more traditional indie hip hop but it’s rather solid... Not music I would normally be drawn to but he puts a lot of blood and guts into his work, which makes it undeniable.
Judging by the packaging of The Mighty Ocean…, the time Radical Face and you took preparing it and it being a kind of concept album, I have the feeling you really wanted this record to be a milestone. Am I right? Have you the feeling of having achieved this?
I suppose so. The first record was something Radical Face and I knocked out in my bedroom in three weeks, and was really just a collection of all the songs I had up to that point. There are things I am proud of on that record but as a whole album it is a disappointment to me... After looking back at that record... I promised myself I would never rush an album again. You say milestone like I expected this album be the next “OK Computer” but really I just wanted to make something I was proud of from beginning to end; from concept, to execution, to final packaging. I wanted to make a piece of work... Not just a collection of songs... And that takes a lot of time.
Speaking about Radical Face, I've been told he's releasing his new album for Morr Music very soon. Will you feature on it?
No. Ben doesn’t really work with many people on music and certainly not on his solo records... And to be honest... he is a much better musician than I am and I would only detract from his work. I have heard the record and it is beautiful... Describing his album would be a good time to use a word like "milestone".
How have Radical Face and you met with each other?
I met Radical Face when I was 16, we had many common friends, but never officially met until I started working at the Pablo 9 Movie Theaters, which was the movie theater that I worked at with damn near every one of my friends, and is part of the title of the new record.
What are your own forthcoming projects?
I have a split LP coming out on Subversive Records in Germany. I wrote a 4 song story about my ancestor, The Fourth Earl of Bothwell and his rather unfortunate affair with Mary Queen of Scots. It is a true story that I have taken some liberty with. The B-side is done by a really great rapper from Houston, Texas named Babel Fish. I haven’t heard his stuff for that record, but I hope it is about Texas... He has a marvellous way of summing up my images and love of Texas in very simple and funny ways. I might be working on some music with some other talented folks if we can find time in our lives. I think Alias (Anticon) and I might try to dig into an EP together. P.O.S. (Rhymesayers) and I have talked about meeting in a motel halfway between our two homes and knocking out some songs. I also have plans to work on a few songs with people from this amazing band called The Paperchase (killrockstars). I am trying to fill my life with as many side projects as possible before I sink my teeth into a new album... The last one took a lot out of me... I am not sure if I am ready for that again.
And what about concerts, what kind of people come to listen to Astronautalis?
We get a nice mix of every walk of life, that is the way I like it. I did a lot of time playing punk shows so I get old school punks and emo kids, because I rap I will always get hip hop kids, indie kids always like to come out and stand with their arms crossed, hippies like to dance to my words, and every so often (more often in the last year) I get someone’s parents. I like seeing older generations listen to my music... I have a lot of admiration for my parent’s thoughts on my songs... and I guess that translates to everyone. I hope I never find myself in a scene. I would rather be defined by my songs... Not my haircut.
By the way, have you planned any concert in Europe sooner or later?
I think I might be over there in March. A great little Italian Label called Ghost has taken a shining to my music and they want me to come tour over there... Not to miss a chance for free road trips... I will make sure to turn it into a full European invasion.
Have you any final message to end this interview with?
I am out of clean laundry...again.
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