Im sitting with Andy Bothwell, better known as Astronautalis, at the Whiskey Tavern on Baxter Street in downtown Manhattan. Both of us are marveling at the wonderful creation on the menu: a bowl of bacon. It’s the perfect cure for the hangover the rapper built up after celebrating his concert in Brooklyn. The restaurant sits just a couple blocks away from Santos Party House, where hell perform his second show in New York City before moving on to Philadelphia. Within minutes, Bothwell proves that his gift for storytelling isnt limited to just his lyrics. With a new band, new single, and a new album on the way, there certainly are a lot of tales to tell.
By now, youve probably heard Astronautalis latest song, the electronic, fuzzed-out Midday Moon. (If you havent, do so immediately. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200.) Like many tracks from his third record, Pomegranate, the single was influenced by a historical event. Specifically, it found its basis in Robert Nelson, a scientist who founded the Cryonics Society of California. His goal was to cryogenically freeze a person until society found a cure for death. Unfortunately, since he was the first to attempt this experiment and didnt really know what he was doing, it ended in disaster with the bodies thawing and his system crashing down around him.
I really like the idea of him and all these people so hoping that they could be frozen until they found a cure for death. I really like that foolish hope they have. Its something very endearing and commendable, said Bothwell, discussing his influences for the song. A lot of the music Ive been listening to is electronic-based. Electronic has become such an integral part in most music, especially rap music. Its really simple music, but its so effective to just have a huge wall of five synths playing at once.
Besides being a fascinating single, Midday Moon is also an example of how Astronautalis thought process for writing works. Its not a simple process with throwaway lines quickly scrawled together. Instead, months of research are put into each verse, chorus, and bridge. Books are read, images put together, and eventually the words come out. Bothwell compared the process to writing an academic paper rather than writing based in raw emotion.
Ever since I was a little kid, I always remember seeing that little sliver of white across the sky when the moon is out during the day. I liked the idea of the moon coming out too early, and I didnt know how to make it into a song. Id always include the phrase midday moon into the lyrics that I was writing, but its never made it to the actual song. I just pushed and pushed until one day the chorus came to me. ‘You came to me too soon/like the midday moon.’ From there, it just built and built, and I tied it in with the cryonic story I was so excited about. I have a big bulletin board in my mind where I pin all these ideas to. When it comes time to write a song, I pull one thing off, and I take a few more things with it and push them together.
While fans may be preparing for a synth-based affair given the first track released, that wont be the case. The music on his still-untitled album will be wildly divergent, making Midday Moon a classic fake-out. One thing that will be consistent, though, is the theme. Unlike the historical fiction of Pomegranate, the new LP will be completely based on Bothwells own life. Science will be a key component, with parallels being drawn between scientific history (specifically the Age of Enlightenment) and his recent experiences.
Producer John Congleton, who did his last full-length, will be back at the helm along with loads of guest appearances. While Sarah Jaffe and P.O.S showed up last time around, this time, prepare for collaborations with Sims and Lazerbeak from Doomtree, Radical Faith, Maker, and Ted Gowans from Tegan and Saras band. Talk about a full house!
Ive been really drawn to scientific history lately. The idea of experimentation in pursuit of some kind of insane theory felt like a natural parallel between that and people who decide to be a professional musician. Im getting songs from hip-hop producers, songs from folk musicians. Im getting it all over from people Ive met over the last seven years of touring. When I sit down with John and try to mash it together, its going to be a really interesting process to make these divergent elements fit.
If the album is as varied as Bothwell says itll be, his band will certainly have their work cut out for them. Yes, you read right. Astronautalis has a band now. After years on the road with just a laptop and backing to support his vocals, 2011 counts as the first year that he has other musicians helping him reproduce his tracks live. The change is a huge addition to his already energetic concerts, especially given how much more intense the shows have gotten. The quartet sounded incredibly tight at Santos, ripping flawlessly through both old and new songs alike. Having a live band has not only been a welcome change for the audience but for Bothwell, too.
Its like a whole new world. I started to feel myself approaching a creative wall with my live shows a few years ago. I felt there was nothing else I could do with the formula I had set up for myself. So Ive been dreaming about having a band forever. Now that its actually happened, its so much better than I ever thought it would be. Its so new for me at this point that I have a hard time completely understanding why it is what it is, but its probably one of the best things to ever happen in my career.
While having a band has changed the structure of a few of his live songs, the one area of the show that hasnt changed is Astronautalis freestyle segments. These arent your typical, mainstream raps about cars, girls, weed, or money. Instead, suggestions come from the audience, with topics ranging from the surreal to the absurd. You might expect the shouts for subjects like Odd Future, Charlie Sheen, or even The Twilight Zone, but there are also calls for freestyles on dead chimpanzees, a day in the life of Gary Busey, and stalking Whitney Houstons pets. However, as odd as these are, he still ties them all together into one incredible segment thatll leave you stunned. Even with these oddball topics, Bothwell feels it may soon be time for a change.
Im kind of at a point where Im struggling to find a new way to do the freestyling. Its been this for years and years. It needs to be something new because part of the magic is proving to everybody that its freestyle and getting topics from people. Its the thing that makes it but also the thing that limits it. Sometimes I feel that the freestyle would be better if I just did it on what I was thinking. I think thats the next hurdle I have to personally overcome where I no longer care if people think its freestyle or not. I dont need to try to make myself a credible rapper anymore. I just need to make the best art I can.
Given the quality of the new songs hes playing on tour, along with Midday Moon, it looks like Astronautalis wont only be making the best art he can but also some of the best music to look forward to this year. With fans everywhere anticipating what he’ll do and where he’ll go from here, Bothwell feels that the fact hes doing it the way he wants is the biggest achievement of all.
Im going to get to tour the way Ive always wanted to tour. Im going to get to release a record and promote the way Ive always wanted to put out a record and never gotten the chance to. Im really looking forward to doing everything the way that I want to do it this year.
Heading to Austin, TX for SXSW? Be sure to see Astronautalis when he performs with P.O.S. at Axis of Audio’s fiesta on Saturday, March 19th at The Rumbler Lounge. RSVP here!