Austronautilus: Falling in love with rap all over again
On his fall tour, Astronautalis will play at least one show in each of the 50 states, including Alaska and Hawaii. Earlier this year, the socially conscious rapper released his fifth studio album, the eclectic Cut the Body Loose. Produced by John Congleton (St. Vincent, Modest Mouse, Bill Calahan), the album features a bit of everything as it starts with the hard-hitting hip-hop number “Kurt Cobain” and then delves into electro-pop with “Kudzu,” a song with percolating percussion and gruff vocals. We spoke to Astronautilus while was in his kitchen drawing a map of America that on which he intended to trace the tour’s route.
What inspired you to want to play a show in each of the 50 states?
It’s something I wanted to do forever. When I first started touring, the best part of touring was that you get to see so much. I was fortunate that I’ve seen 48 out of 50 states. I just have to check off Hawaii and Alaska. As you get closer to the end of that list, it becomes a compulsion to fill that list. Some of these states, you won’t play unless you make a concerted effort to play — places like Delaware and Mississippi. It was a dream years and years ago when I was still sleeping in a Honda. I thought one day I would do a tour of all 50 states. It took a while to get enough of a name that it could be done. I’m at the nice crossroads of having enough of a name to make it happen and still having enough energy to want to do it. I figured that if I didn’t do it now, I’m getting older and I might not want to endeavor this insanity much longer. Now seemed to be the right time.
Do you have a live band?
I’ll have two guys backing me up. One is an amazing DJ who will be doing DJ stuff and playing the drum machine. The other guy has been with me for a few years playing synthesizers, singing backup vocals, drumming and playing some acoustic guitar.
How did you start writing rhymes and rapping?
My older brother gave me a tape with Lord Finesse on it. It had his album Return of the Funky Man on the A side and that flowed over to the B side. The rest of the tape was filled with songs from Jazzmatazz Vol. 1, an album by Guru of Gang Starr. This wasn’t music you could just stumble across in Jacksonville, Florida. You had to seek this out. At the time, rap music was outlaw culture. It wasn’t pop music. The rap that was pop music was the most inane stuff in a lot of ways. It took me years to understand the West Coast G-funk sound. America was coming off the heels of MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice. For me, I was a big grunge kid and I was really into British punk and the rebellious nature of that music defined what I looked for in music. Then, I got interested in the New York underground rap scene. It seemed like a natural next step from the rebellious nature of punk and grunge into this rebellious anti-pop and anti-mainstream music that was coming out of New York City in the early to mid-’90s.
Isn’t the hip-hop world still that way — with a divide between the mainstream and the underground?
I beg to differ. Some of the most interesting rap music is coming from the mainstream. The fact that Kendrick Lamar just put out To Pimp a Butterfly, and it stopped the world is a telling thing about what sophisticated ears rap listeners have. Drawing a line in the sand between indie and mainstream is a young man’s game. It’s an important procedure to go through, but as you get older, especially as someone who writes songs, you have to realize there is a significance to pop music. This time right now is the most exciting for rap music because you have those mainstream guys working with those indie guys and the line is really blurred. Young dudes are making super weird music and super creative music. I’m not the biggest Drake fan in the world but he draws from young and wildly creative people to shape his sound. That’s the thing that is super exciting. Everybody is checking for everybody. There’s a bit of posturing that goes on between indie and mainstream but that plays into rap characters more than rap realities. People who grew up listening to Eyedea are listening to Future now. That’s a real wild and exciting paradigm to live in.
When did you develop your interest in history?
Since I was pretty much born. My father loves talking about history and teaching us about history. I come from a family of storytellers. The art of storytelling is nothing more than small-scale history. Once you make that realization, then history becomes fascinating because it’s less about memorizing dates and more about understanding a context of a story within a bigger story. Millions and millions of little stories impact the larger story of man as a whole. It’s an exciting to wormhole to fall through. If you can make that correction in your head, it’s hard to not be interested in history.
Are you a fan of Drunk History?
Yeah, when it first came out, it was completely mind-blowing. I really truly love it. What they do is really awesome.
How did you end up embracing so many different styles of music?
That’s from skateboarding. Growing up in Jacksonville Florida — that isn’t exactly a cultural mecca. At the time skateboarding was starting to hit its stride not just a thing that punk teenagers did but it was becoming a cultural determinant. Skate videos started to become works of art. Spike Jonze was making his mark stylistically. One of the things that was most interesting thing about those videos was the diversity of music. You’d have a Wu-Tang Clan song go into Polvo song go into an Aphex Twin song. For a teenager that was really impactful. You had all these people you idolized for their prowess and clothing and style making mixtapes for you every month or so. As a result, if you talk to anyone who’s my age give or take and grew up watching those videos, we took away the same thing that it wasn’t cool to be a punk kid or rap kid but it was cool to be a skateboard kid. As a result, it was cool to into all that shit. I came into that scene with a cursory knowledge of old punk and grunge. From that, I made friends with kids who grew up in the golden era of indie rock with labels such as K Records and Kill Rock Stars, and with the Chapel Hill and Athens scenes. As a result, I was learning all these different things and then got into bizarre electronic music like Autechre and Aphex Twin. It’s the end of the mixtape culture and that went into the mix CD culture. For people who made tapes for each other, it was cooler when you could come with diversity. There was this currency of being diverse and knowing a little bit about everything. That’s what I came up in with in high school. It’s something that I’ve never been able to shake. You talk to anyone who watched those old videos, we all still have the same taste in music. You might lean more rap or more punk or more indie rock, but everyone knew Wu-Tang Clan and Elephant 6. That’s such a wildly diverse spectrum to exist in and that’s such a cool thing.
How did the songs for Cut the Body Loose start to come together?
Slowly over time on the road. I wrote this record as I was starting to tour in Europe and push deeper into Central Europe and Eastern Europe. I stopped touring as heavily in America. I started the writing process in that era when I was having my mind blown by the things I was seeing in the second world where there was this rebellious anarchist and squatter culture. Having toured in America for six years at that point, you’d go to Europe and you’d see a different system of art support and political action. It will throw you for a curve ball.
The opening track “Kurt Cobain” features horns. Talk about your approach on that song.
There’s a line about being robbed by four kids in Atlanta with guns. When I was 17, I was stopped by a cop for speeding and had a gun pointed at me. I was thinking about those experiences and if you hang out with enough squatters and anarchists, you think about authoritarian structures. The interesting thing about that is that both conversations started the same way. Both of them started with both parties shouting, “Put up your hands.” I thought that was funny. That’s shouted a lot in rap music. In thinking about it in those terms, I wanted to put a clown nose on them by thinking of them as another silly rap group and use that as a background. I hemmed and hawed on how to make it into a song. I had chunks of it for years but couldn’t make it into a song until I started to realize that the song wasn’t about that event but looking back on the power structures established around us all. At the end of the day, we chose to accept the power structures because we choose to give into power. We believe Kurt is punk because he’s smashing guitars but he’s really doing it because he gets free guitars all the time. You look at all these things and the power given to everything makes less and less sense.
What’s the message of “Running Away from God”?
I think that on a record that can be perceived as a critical record, that song is the most positive and romantic. Instead of focusing on the shit that led to adversity, I was inspired by watching people not dwell on the shit. To me, it’s common more and more to dwell on the shit. I had the opportunity to go to Slovakia and New Orleans after Katrina and see this squat-and-burn system. These people went, “This is fucked, so fuck ‘em.” They took a different path. That’s not a thing that everyone can see. That attitude is the backbone of the record.
I like the textures in “Kudzu.” What’s the story behind that tune?
It’s built out of a beat from a producer from New York. It came pretty basic. It had these 808 drums and spooky synths and we tour the brains out of it. The song ended up being about this shitty relationship used as an allegory for bigger things. It’s a based on a relationship you see in the American South with people who are on the margins . . . people who keep trying to claw their way out of the margins but keep sliding back. I wanted to talk about this kind of thing as an allegory for larger stuff. I wanted to use the sound of that community. Growing up in the South, in my youth and now more so, it doesn’t matter if you’re in communities of poor whites or poor blacks, the soundtrack is the same. Everyone is listening to rap music. I think that’s an interesting dynamic. Poor white people and black people are going through some of the same struggles and are drawn to the same music. I have this 808 trunk rattling bass that I’m sort of borrowing from Young Jeezy. It’s like a horror movie synth sound. One of the inspirations for the song that there’s a Yelawolf lyric off his first mix tape song where he has this great line about white guys driving around with the confederate flags listening to gangsta music. It goes, “Confederate flags, I see ’em/In a truck with the windows down/Why is he playing Beanie Siegel?/Cause his daddy was a dope man/Lynyrd Skynyrd didn’t talk about/Moving keys of coke man/Ain’t no such thing as a free bird.” That’s an impressive and savvy line. It’s easy to take a myopic view of the South as a black versus white but it’s not like that. It’s much blurrier. Growing up, I was middle class, so this is not my story but you get bussed from one neighborhood to intermingle and force integration. You have this cross-pollination of cultures. You would go to high school parties, and there would be these redneck white boy crackers wearing camo with sleeves cut off hanging out with black dudes wearing beanies and everyone was singing to Biggie Smalls. That’s not often portrayed. I think it’s an interesting thing that both sides of the opposite ends of the spectrum could identify with the message of a black rapper from Brooklyn. All that piles into the gumbo of that track.
Is that Allen Iverson on “Sike!”
Who’s asking? Is this the NBA? Let’s just leave it at that.
It must be great to play these new tracks live.
Yes, this record was made to play live in a lot of ways. This is a wonderful and exciting time to be involved with rap music. It’s made me fall back in love with rap music. I love the language and the technical trappings that come with that. It’s fun to play live and the new live show around this album is more rap-influenced. There’s singing and prettiness but it’s bass heavy and I’m working my ass off to turn this fanbase of white indie kids that I’ve fostered over the years and into dance machines.