I’m 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 he’ll perform his second show in New York City before moving on to Philadelphia. Within minutes, Bothwell proves that his gift for storytelling isn’t 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, you’ve probably heard Astronautalis’ latest song, the electronic, fuzzed-out “Midday Moon”. (If you haven’t, 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 didn’t 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. It’s something very endearing and commendable,” said Bothwell, discussing his influences for the song. “A lot of the music I’ve been listening to is electronic-based. Electronic has become such an integral part in most music, especially rap music. It’s really simple music, but it’s 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. It’s 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 didn’t know how to make it into a song. I’d always include the phrase “midday moon” into the lyrics that I was writing, but it’s 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 won’t 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 Bothwell’s 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 Sara’s band. Talk about a full house!
“I’ve 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. I’m getting songs from hip-hop producers, songs from folk musicians. I’m getting it all over from people I’ve met over the last seven years of touring. When I sit down with John and try to mash it together, it’s going to be a really interesting process to make these divergent elements fit.”
If the album is as varied as Bothwell says it’ll 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.
“It’s 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 I’ve been dreaming about having a band forever. Now that it’s actually happened, it’s so much better than I ever thought it would be. It’s so new for me at this point that I have a hard time completely understanding why it is what it is, but it’s 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 hasn’t changed is Astronautalis’ freestyle segments. These aren’t 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 Houston’s pets. However, as odd as these are, he still ties them all together into one incredible segment that’ll leave you stunned. Even with these oddball topics, Bothwell feels it may soon be time for a change.
“I’m kind of at a point where I’m struggling to find a new way to do the freestyling. It’s been this for years and years. It needs to be something new because part of the magic is proving to everybody that it’s freestyle and getting topics from people. It’s 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 that’s the next hurdle I have to personally overcome where I no longer care if people think it’s freestyle or not. I don’t 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 he’s playing on tour, along with “Midday Moon”, it looks like Astronautalis won’t 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 he’s doing it the way he wants is the biggest achievement of all.
“I’m going to get to tour the way I’ve always wanted to tour. I’m going to get to release a record and promote the way I’ve always wanted to put out a record and never gotten the chance to. I’m 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!