Astronautalis is an expectation-challenging force in the world of rap music. Last year, his album Pomegranate blew listener’s minds with an intense and eclectic concoction of savage beats, sentimental melodies, and unique brand of lyrical storytelling that merges historical fiction and hip hop. Certainly not something you hear on an average day.
Since the album’s release, Astronautalis has been a busy man; embarking on his first European Tour, becoming an Internet mini-sensation with his side project, Boyfriends Inc. and their video for Lookin’ Kittie, wowing crowds at SXSW, he was named one of Gibson’s Five Artists to Look Out for in 2009, performed on Fearless TV, toured the US of A for his album’s release, and is now touring the States again in his America: All of Them Tour 2009. Last October, CoS writer Cap Blackard met up with Andy Bothwell, aka Astronautalis before one of his shows in Orlando at the restaurant/venue, Taste. They dug deep into the roots of Pomegranate‘s production, the unusual origin of his song titles (and the stories behind them), his collaboration with P.O.S., music videos, and his future projects. The art of Southern storytelling runs deep in Bothwell’s blood so settle down and he’ll spin you some yarns.
CoS: Things have been really busy in your life lately. You moved from Jacksonville to Seattle, you’ve got a new record label and your third album came out two months ago, now you’re on tour. How’ve you been holding up, what’s it been like?
Astronautalis: I’m excited to be back on tour. I took a five month break between when the album was done and when it came out. That’s longest break I’ve taken in five years. It was really nice to be a normal person. I bought a bed, I have my own place, I recorded stuff in my own little studio space, and it’s nice. I have a house and my roommates have two cats and a dog. It’s very domestic, I love it.
Around month four, something in me just started to really, really itch like, I’ve got to get back on tour. I started freaking out. I haven’t seen the rest of America since I moved to Seattle so it’s nice to get a little refresher course on these places that I love. There are all these cities that I grew up in, and the entire state of Texas, which I worship on high… I’d really forgotten how much I fucking love touring. Already on this tour Bleubird and I got married in Texas, last night I built a living room fort in a house full of college girls while they were out. We were staying there and the went off to work and we built the fort.
CoS: The difference between Jacksonville and Seattle is pretty severe?
Astronautalis: Ah, yeah for really good things and really bad things too. It was a huge culture shock. I’ve never lived outside of the South before and I’m very proud of being Southern. In fact, I hold that quite dear and Seattle is about as un-Southern of a city as you could possibly get. So it’s definitely an interesting bit of a culture shock. There was a lady who gave me the stink-eye when I held the door open for her at the grocery store. She looked at me like what are you trying to do? Like I was trying to pull a fast one on her, as soon a she was gone I was gonna steal her purse or something.
Pro-Grade Production: New Label, New Producer, & Nigel Godrich Fantasies
CoS: Eyeball Records is your new record label. You switched over from Fighting Records. How’d you come to switch over and what’s the change been like?
Astronautalis: The Eyeball guys I’ve know for a long time. It was after I started with Fighting that they approached me about putting out releases, but I was obligated to Fighting and I wanted to try to be as loyal as possible. They all said I’m their art crush, their other bands don’t sound anything like me. So, once my obligation was done with Fighting, and Fighting was kinda moving out of the record label business into the artist management business, I moved over to Eyeball and it’s been great so far. It’s weird- Fighting was just getting their foundation built, and building kind of on us, whereas Eyeball had been an independently functioning label for twelve years. It was really interesting to come into something that had an established system, like- “We’ll get your album out on this day, we’ll have your MySpace page change this day, we need the artwork by this day so it can be released by this day” we had our release date six months in advance.
Everything’s really structured, so there’s no room for error. If we miss one deadline it would push the record back another month and a half. It’s been really interesting. They gave us money up-front to make the record, which meant instead of me and my friends just fooling around in a studio making a record for free, recording in our bedrooms and stuff, I got to pay my friend in Texas, a producer named John Cognelton and I actually got to pay my friends to play with me. It wasn’t just like “Uh, I can buy ya beer” or sometimes not even that, not even that.
Instead of laboring for a year and a half on recording, like we did with Mighty Ocean, we recorded Pomegranate in ten days, mixed it in two. I wrote it for two years, but then I spent ten days recording it, and it was like- boom, boom, boom. It wasn’t even fourteen hour days, it was eight hour days. We’d come in and just work. It was a lot more work and a lot less play. When I recorded those other records with Radical Face we would be sitting around and would be like, “Well, what can we do with the vocals?” And one of them would be like, “Why don’t we, um, daisy chain a bunch of cables together out the window and you can record the vocals on the lawn? Or maybe in the tree!” A lot of silly, ridiculous [suggestions] like, “Let’s break into the attic and record the vocals into the AC ducts! Let’s use that washing machine as a drum!” We recorded Pomegranate in a studio, with session musicians, and they were all pros. It was totally the opposite experience. The release process has been very different too, it’s been a lot less like piecing the puzzle together as you go along and much more just falling into a channel, letting the world come to you.
CoS: You build the boat and let the ocean do the rest.
Astronautalis: Yeah, exactly. And, you know, by no means am I house shopping but, I’ve definitely sold more records than I’ve ever sold before. It’s not a ton of records, but it’s a step up.
CoS: So you’ve known John Cogelton for a while, he’s a friend of yours.
Astronautalis: I am friends with his friends and just have kinda met him in passing. He’s in this really great band called The Paper Chase. One of the guys that plays cello for the band, a good buddy of mine named Kris Youmans, had for years been like, “You and John. You and John need to work together. John wants to make a rap record so bad. You need to work with John.” He kept lobbying for it and John is really busy. Literally, the only time he took time off during the recording was when he cut into two session days because he had a tooth infection that spread to his brain and he could die. He was like, “Man, I’m really sorry but I gotta take two days off,” and I was like, “For Christ’s sake, man, you’re gonna die! Take a week off! I can come back!” He works nonstop. He’s doing a session in the morning, doing as session with another guy in the evening, flying somewhere to record for five days in, like, Iceland – he’s constantly working, really threading the needle. I don’t know what his normal rate is, but I know he took a gigantic pay cut so I could work with him. Which is the sweetest thing ever.
We had a lot of fun, we got along really well but I didn’t really know him until we started working. It was always handshakes. We’d play a show together, we’d recognize each other, but once we started working, we hit it off so fast. We’re both kind of the same obsessive little Machiavellian monsters. If you watch him play in Paper Chase you can see a quick, parallel line that can be drawn between me and my performance style and him and his performance style. We’re both very melodramatic.
CoS: What did Cogelton bring to the album?
Astronautalis: Well, let me back up. If it wasn’t for Radical Face and everything that he taught me on those first two records… I really didn’t know my ass from my elbow when it came to making music. I could rap, I could perform on stage, and that was really easy, but making an album was just the most boring thing to me. Radical Face taught me not only about writing songs, structuring songs, but recording and engineering and I learned so much from him. He really gave me a good foundation.
Over the course of two years I wrote almost all the songs for Pomegranate, so I knew what I wanted. John could see that I knew what I wanted, whereas a lot of the times when working with Radical Face, I would let Radical Face be my coach. John let me be the director of the whole operation which was really awesome, and he really enabled things. When I had some vague notion I could be like, “Uh, it doesn’t sound menacing enough or it sounds too menacing I can’t decide,” and John would say, “Okay, okay cool we’ll get the strings in here that’ll make it sound better.” So he really enabled me to realize things that were very specific about my ideas but when things were really foggy like, “I don’t really know what I want to do with this song, but it should be important,” when I would give him really ridiculous vagaries like that, he could focus them with the help of those musicians. We were just so lucky to have the musicians that we had. Man, oh man, there’s two songs specifically that were pulled out of the trash by the guy that played piano on the album. Most importantly he saved The Wondersmith and His Sons with the piano part. The Wondersmith and His Sons and Mr. Blessington’s Imperialist Plot wouldn’t be the songs that they are without his piano.
CoS: So, those were almost gone?
Astronautalis: Yeah. The Wondersmith and His Sons was the first song I started writing for the record, so it was the most important song to me. All we had was that bass sample, a live drummer played drums for it, and we had some strings- but it was just too much, it wasn’t working. It’s about this conman, so it had to be seductive and gentle in the beginning and become this really bizarre horrible, horrible thing by the end. But it was just horrible from the beginning and horrible in the middle, and horrible in the end it was too much horror. It was like the Hindenburg. All along, through the entire process, I wanted it to be the first song and I was so bummed. We were sitting there, two days before the session was done, and we’re looking at it. John and I had no idea what to do, ’cause the baseline is such a funk baseline. It’s a funk baseline from a funk record and it’s so hard sometimes when you work with funk music ’cause it kind of pigeonholes it. It’s hard to make funk music anything other than funky. I have no business making funk music. I’m not that guy; I’m not funky.
CoS: It’s a whole lifestyle choice.
Astronautalis: Exactly! I’d have to get new pants! And I can’t say the word funky without being embarrassed. So, we were just at a loss and were just staring at it forever and John was like, we should get Sean back in here. Sean Kirkpatrick’s the piano player. Sean comes in and he listens to it, and listens to it. He’s this really quiet, kinda nervous guy and he’s like, “Okay… I think, I think I know what to do.” And he just goes over to this rickety old upright piano, and just starts hammering out that piano riff, that beginning piano riff. It’s basically a match of the baseline with a little bit of a change. John and I were like, “Oh, my God, cut the baseline off. Record the piano, the piano’s it.” The baseline is now less featured in the song and the strings, which were going to be a huge part, were just pushed to the end. It’s piano, piano and drums. If it wasn’t for him coming in with the piano we wouldn’t have put that song on the record and we would’ve had a nine song record. I was really freakin’ out about that. Those were my favorite lyrics on the record. He did the piano, and literally the last day of the session I’m re-recording all the vocals for that song. We re-did everything. That song totally turned around and it was because of John having his direction and his ideas and also really listening to my directions and my ideas, and having the foresight to pull good musicians.
CoS: Who’s the producer you’d most want to work with your ultimate dream producer?
Astronautalis: Oh man. Nigel Godrich would be top of the pile. He produces all the Radiohead records, the last three Air records, two Beck records, the best Pavement record ever, Terror Twilight. He’s done some amazing, amazing work. I’m also a huge fan of Phil Elvrum, he’s a musician that performs under the name of Mount Eerie and he performs in The Microphones. He’s got the most gorgeous sound. Nigel Godrich, man would be number one, but I don’t have a hundred thousand dollars lying around. When he produces all the Radiohead records they go rent a castle in Finland or something and record their albums. Some of the stories about his albums- the first record he did with them was OK Computer, Nigel Godrich came in and took Johnny Greenwood, who writes a lot of the stuff, he’s kinda the genius behind that band, in a band of geniuses, and he took him and nurtured his weirdness. He helped him bring OK Computer out of him. OK Computer is like his record.
There’s a really good story about him recording Thom Yorke for the vocals for No Surprises in which he made Thom Yorke do something like a hundred and thirty-four vocal takes with no breaks. He wasn’t allowed to take a bathroom break, or food or anything like that. Thom literally sang and sang and sang and sang and sang and broke down and was weeping, they’d been recording forever, and he was like, “Please, please I just need a break,” and Godrich was like, “You’re not taking a fucking break ’til you get it right record it.” Tears were pouring down his face and he sings it and that’s the take they used. I would love to try that, I would love to try someone who pushes me like that, ’cause Ben, Radical Face, was like my buddy. We worked at a movie theater together, he’s one of my oldest friends. So it was like hanging out with my bro’, making an album, making all the same jokes, and we would take breaks to play Tetris Attack. And John, John was business-like, he doesn’t play games like do a hundred takes. He’s like, “You can do that better. Do it better.” And he’s a Pro Tools whiz so everything’s really quick so he can edit and make studio magic happen. I would love to work with someone who slowly drives me crazy. I want to work with everybody, not to mention the guy who makes the best records ever. Nigel Godrich hands down. That was kind of a long answer for that. I got a little excited.
Waitress: You guys doing okay?
Astronautalis: We’re doing good.
Waitress: Are you guys in the bands tonight?
Astronautalis: I am.
Waitress: Awesome, awesome and you’re what band?
Astronautalis: I perform under the name Astronautalis.
Waitress: Oh, you’re the Astronautalis group?
Astronautalis: I am the Astronautalis group. All of me.
Waitress: Very cool. Is it really just you by yourself?
Waitress: What about the other two groups, is it one person groups too? Or…
Astronautalis: Yeah we’re all just one person groups, we’re all lone rangers. Should be fun.
Waitress: The sound should be good tonight.
Astronautalis: Yeah, well, it’s the old Will’s Pub system, which made me really happy. Will’s Pub was like my home when I played in Orlando years and years ago. So, it was kinda nice to plug my stuff into old Will’s Pub. Plug into history.
Waitress: Do you guys follow him around, cheer him on and everything.
Astronautalis: They record everything I say for posterity. You too are being recorded as well, now.
The Mysteries and Secret Histories of Pomegranate
CoS: You do two duets with Sarah Jaffe. How’d you meet up with her? Did you write the songs as duets originally?
Astronautalis: The song 17 Summers, the first song that I sing with her, the slow one. She and I were in this thing called Rock Lottery in Denton Texas, which is the coolest thing ever. They started it in Denton, Texas. Now they do one in Denton and one in Seattle. At 10 A.M. All these musicians meet at the club that they’re having the event at and they all cook you breakfast. There’s twenty-five musicians, five of which are drummers, the five drummers line up and they’re the captains of each band, so each band has a drummer. Then they have a hat with everybody’s name in it and you pick the names out of the hat. The bands form and you have all day to come up with a name, write and perform three to five songs that night, so about ten to twelve hours to do it. It’s this really bizarre thing because you don’t know who you’re going to be paired up with. I ended up in this oddball group. We were all going around the room and Sarah was like, “I play guitar but I’m a vocalist mostly.“ And I was like, “I’m a rapper and I really can’t play anything,” and this other guy was like, “I’m in a band but I only do visual effects,” and there was this other girl and she was like, “I’m a lead singer and I can play harmonica and roller skate at the same time” and we were like, “Really!”, and she was like, “No, I’m just a singer.” Then there was the drummer.
We ended up having such a great time. The song 17 Summers, is based on that piano sample which is from a huge bank of samples in my laptop. We built a rough version of that song. Sarah wrote most of the lyrics and I wrote some as well. I loved it so much that after I was done I said I wanna use this on my record. We changed the lyrics up, we shifted some thing around and Sarah came in to record and when she was there John was like, “We should have her sing vocals on that other song, the song about the opium trade.” So she sang on that. She’s just amazing, her new album is coming out soon, it’s breathtakingly beautiful and it’s produced by John as well with a lot of the same musicians on it as Pomegranate.
CoS: While we’re on 17 Summers, it’s a pretty complex song given the subtext of the lyrics, which aren’t readily apparent. Can you elaborate on that?
Astronautalis: I read this book called Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell. It’s one of the best books I’ve read in my entire life. The author is obsessed with presidential assassinations and assassins in this bizarre affective way. It’s a story of her traveling around the country to visit sites that are of significance to presidential assassinations and telling stories about them. Not just going to Ford’s theater, but going to the barn where John Wilkes Booth stopped to get his leg fixed, going to this museum in Idaho that supposedly has a piece of Lincoln’s brain. She told the story of Henry Rathbone, the guy who was sitting next to Abe Lincoln when he was assassinated. Rathbone was never the same afterwards, he lost his mind and ended up killing his whole family.
The thing that was kind of an underlying theme on the whole record which will probably answer a bunch of your questions at once… The title Pomegranate is about the myth of Persephone and love in the face of obligation. Her love for her husband despite her situation. I wanted all the stories to revolve around that theme and the idea of, not the story of Abe Linclon, but the story of Henry Rathbone, and specifically the story of Henry Rathbone’s wife going to such great lengths to try and help her husband through this horrible thing. Her husband was going to become the Admiral of the US Navy, he was on the fast track to American government super-stardom, and he lost his mind. She loved him so much and she put up with so much, and kept trying to get him back on track. She encouraged him to take the ambassadorship to Germany… and she ended up dying for it. She ended up being killed by him because she stuck with him. That was an amazing, amazing love story to me. And I know a lot of people can look at it and say, “That’s insane, that’s horrifying, and really bizarre” but the fact is the woman was so hopelessly devoted to her husband that come hell or high water she stuck with him.
The song that we had originally written in the Rock Lottery had that first line, which Sarah wrote, I climb this hill to build you up and that was a beautiful line to me. I really loved it. Some of the lines got changed, some of the lines were kept and kind of molded into this and I attached the poem that I wrote that was more specifically related to the subject matter. It’s still not a nail-on-the-head as, say, Trouble Hunters is with a lot of frank and specific references, or even the storytelling in some of the other songs that aren’t necessarily historical like The Wondersmith and His Sons, but they’re still more clear as to what’s going on. This is definitely one of the more ethereal of the album’s songs. It came out good. I set out to make the songs pretty specific and that one is the least specific. It’s kind of a stretch as far as literally connecting the songs to a historical reference, but that’s what it meant for me. Everyone should read that book, Assassination Vacation. Actually you should listen to it in audio because her voice is the funniest thing ever.
CoS: I don’t want to detract from the mystique of the album, though I guess digging into 17 Summers is as dirty as we can get our hands, but there’s some songs that I couldn’t figure out where they came from. Mr. Blessington’s Imperialist Plot is the title of a 1951 novel by John Sherwood, is the song based on the book?
Astronautalis: Ah… No. This will answer a lot of questions. Two, maybe three years ago I went on a tour with this guy named Listener and he was doing this thing called the Listener Tour of Homes, which he did for two or three years. He got tired of playing club venues, so he started playing people’s houses. It was all set up with these rules and guidelines and there’d be a potluck dinner beforehand and he’d spend the night at the house. He wanted people’s friends to play stuff and do magic tricks, and whatever- it became this weird little variety show. I toured with him for two months on that. In the middle of the tour we had a show drop. I was able to get a show in El Dorado, Arkansas. El DorAdo, not El Dorado. We played at a Mexican restaurant and there was a sixty-four year old second grade teacher there that was the nature of the whole tour.
After the show in El Dorado we were driving through this town called Camden. We were told that was the best breakfast spot around. So we got breakfast and we were looking around at all these great antique stores. One of them was laid out like an old department store that they had turned into a giant antique warehouse. It was sectioned into rooms, like a dining room and a living room with books on the shelves it was really crazy to walk around in. I found this old collection of book of the month club type adventure novels, clearly printed by the same company with the same layout artist or whatever and they all had the most incredible titles. Like Mr. Blessington’s Imperialist Plot, like The Trouble Hunters, like The Wondersmith and His Sons, like Seventeen Summers, like Two Years Spent Before the Mast, like Avalanche Patrol. All the titles from that album came from those books. They were the most exciting titles, they were just so absurd and so evocative. A lot of the content of the songs is built off of specific historical instances and research but the first inspiration came from these titles. They started everything and I’d apply the historical knowledge to them. It turned out, when I was looking through it, that it was seventeen years after Lincoln was assassinated that Henry Rathbone killed his family. That was like, oh wow! There’s still around forty titles from those four bookshelves. I photographed them all and I wrote all their names down. I keep the files on my desktop and open them all the time. I ended up using just the ones you see on the album but I’ve written little tracks for tons of other ones.
It was a fun way to write a record and an infuriating way to write a record. What I would do is I would get a general idea about a song how I would want a song to go, like The Wondersmith and His Sons I wanted it to be about conmen so I started researching conmen. And that would lead to other things. Some things led to historical stuff, like Two Years Before the Mast I got really into the Opium Wars when I traveled to China to visit my brother who studies East ancient history. Mr. Blessington’s Imperialist Plot has no historical context in the discussion, I wanted that one to have a really contemporary setting whereas everything else had a Romantic, kinda Victorian setting. I really liked the idea of having this kind of Snidely Whiplash kind of scheme in a cubicle. Mr. Blessington’s Imperialist Plot is such a grand title, but he’s just taking over an office. I could’ve easily gone a more literal route on that and it still could’ve provided an interesting storyline. I was kind of trying to make the song an odd man out, kind of the way An Episode of Sparrows is a really bizarre fantastical situation.
CoS: So it was the same deal with The Secret of the Undersea Bell?
Astronautalis: Yeah! That title was, out of all the titles, the most exciting to me. There was a book that I had growing up by Chris Van Allsburg. He did Jumanji, but before he kind of got into more traditional children’s stories he did a book called The Mysteries of Harris Burdick. It’s one of the best things that an human being could buy a kid. He does these beautiful, elaborate pencil drawings. In this book each page to the right is an images and to the left is the title of the image and the first sentence of a story, and that’s it- basically a blank page. All of the images are really creepy. The one that always sticks out to me and give me goosebumps now, I still revert to being an eight-year-old kid, is this woman, horrified in a really nice suburban home beautiful china, a candelabra, a pearl bracelet, and she’s horrified because there’s this lump under the carpet that is moving and she’s holding this chair over her head and she’s about to hit it. To an eight-year-old kid it is so real and so creepy. Some of them are really funny like this house rocketing off into space, but still realistically done. We never filled them in, we’d always talk about them, but we never filled them in which never finished the book for us. We could always go back and look at it again.
With The Secrets of the Undersea Bell that book had a lot of influence on the way that I wrote stories for the album. Secrets of the Undersea Bell and The Wondersmith and His Sons have a kind of unnerving uncertainty. You never find out what the guy did in Wondersmith, you never find out what kills those people in the diving bell, you never find out what exactly happens in Avalanche Patrol you know it’s not necessarily good. I like the uncertainty of those things.
With the last album, I wanted to make an album of songs that would put on mix tapes, which is why all the songs blend together, that was the goal with the song structure and the album’s arrangement, and this album I really would hope that this album spurs discussion and debate. There’s a lot of songs like Two Years Before the Mast where you know he’s helped this girl, you know that he’s killed this man, but you don’t know why, what, and how. I have my reasoning and my belief in it, but I would hope that other people have their own. There’s a bunch of books that really had a lot to do with this album, Assassination Vacation is one of the Harris Burdick is another, it shaped the way the stories are told and the overlying theme as well.
CoS: My Old Man’s Badge is another nonspecific song.
Astronautalis: The song title was really evocative for me. I’ve already written a song about my father with Something For the Kids. I really greatly admire my father and live my life in a similar fashion. We’re very similar people. We’re both natural drifters and a bit of rapscallions. He got kicked out of college for punching a professor, he raced Porsches for a while, he drove trains for fifteen years, his nose was broken in a bar fight. He’s done his travels and he did his time running around the world and I definitely get a lot of that from him. I get all my storytelling from my father, first and foremost. I’ve had the good fortune to be surrounded by great storytellers all my life, but he’s the best. He taught me everything that I know and Something For the Kids is kind of a song written for my dad in hopes that I can live up to the bar that he set for me. My Old Man’s Badge is a song written about my dad, kind of in defense of him.
I got in an argument with my Uncle Ronny, who is also a great storyteller, and I dedicated the album to him as well. He was really drunk one Thanksgiving and he was just ranting and raving and saying some ludicrous shit trying to get rises out of people and I got in an argument with him when he said something about kids these days… Some kind of generic, cranky drunk old man statement. That’s when I wrote the opening line, you say the world’s in shambles and the kids have lost their minds. It all tied together, because I didn’t want to write a song about a cop with My Old Man’s Badge. My dad he doesn’t have a badge, he doesn’t have medals, he’s never saved anybody’s life, he’s never been on the news but he’s my hero nonetheless. Because of the way he lived his life, and the way he raised his family, and the way he provided for us, and the way that he taught me. I wanted to write something to that effect. My dad is not a decrepit sad sack, so there’s definitely a little bit of creative liberty there, but he was in the military so technically he does have a badge or two. That’s definitely the least fictional out of all the songs on the album.
CoS: From what I knew about your father, from casual discussions between us, I thought that maybe that was the case. I was able to cobble together a rough understanding of what the songs were about from information you’d breadcrumbed around. The Sounds Like section on your Myspace had these little hints in it and I was like, oh, I found the key!
Astronautalis: That was exactly the key, and you were the only person who found it and did something with it. I left it all out there, in song order and everything.
CoS: It was really helpful.
Astronautalis: That’s why I left it out there. I didn’t want to give it away to anybody, but I wanted to put it out somewhere. When I read your article that was the first thing I realized, that Cap totally got it. He saw it and he got it. That was really exciting. There’s some stuff that’s included in my silly press bio, that people had clearly drawn on, but no one’s gone as in-depth as you did.
CoS: In Pomegranate you really pour yourself into these characters. Like, in The Case of William Smith, you’re in that prison cell, you’re in that guy’s head, you’re talking about that oak tree growing up. I don’t know how much of that really happened or not, but there it is; really vivid detail. What’s your method of putting on all these different masks?
Astronautalis: I had the good fortune of going to theater school, which was the best decision of my entire life. I went to Meadows College of Art at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. I never would be where I am right now if it wasn’t for that place. I didn’t go for acting, I went for directing and I feel like that prepared me better than anything. I really miss theater and I really miss directing so I feel like I’m slowly trying to work that back into my life.
I think part of the director’s work, particularly in theater where you have such a long rehearsal process, is knowing all of the characters better than the actors do. You have to know the characters better than everybody, you have to know the answer to every question and that’s you job, so creating art based on research is a really natural thing for me. That’s how I was taught to work. A director spends more time in the library than they do in the theater and so that was really easy for me to take that research, that history, and turn it into a storyteller’s medium. You have to be able to personalize these abstract characters for the actors so they can attach themselves to them. In the same sense I was raised in a storytelling environment by storytellers so the idea of embellishment comes really naturally to me People get so mad ’cause my detail are always off in stories and I’m like, Who cares? The story was good. What does it matter if it was four mile or twenty miles?” It was twenty mile in my story and it made it better. So embellishment and adaptation is something that comes as second nature, ’cause it’s just part of the bullshit artist’s life.
CoS: The image on the cover of the album- it’s like, a pickax with some fabric floating around it. What’s behind that?
Astronautalis: The artist who did all the designs for the album is Luther Himes, a really fantastic graphic designer from Austin. I wanted to work with him on the record, ’cause I did all the designs for the last record and I almost drilled a hole in my head as a result. It was just so stressful. I was really proud that it came out the way it did, but it was a lot of work to finish the record and then go, okay, now you have to do this. It was just too much. So I contacted Luther, because I really trusted his aesthetic and he does old-timey and fancy really well and that’s the bread and butter for the album. So he listened to the album for weeks and weeks. He got a copy before anybody else, literally before family members did. I wanted to make sure he had a lot of exposure to it and saw it grow. He did a bunch of drawings that were his impressions of the songs. Most of the songs are so literal I liked the idea of the designs being more of an impression than a literal translation of everything. The image of the pickax and the fabric is an image directly relating to Avalanche Patrol and we both liked it so much that we ended up putting it on the cover.
CoS: The EP, The Very Unfortunate Affairs of Mary and Earl, is semi-historical. It’s kind of like a stepping stone between Mighty Ocean and Pomegranate, was it intended that way?
Astronautalis: I don’t think I thought, this is my training wheels to get ready for Pomegranate, but I think I was slowly exhausting one set of influences and moving on to another set. I wrote a lot of those lyrics as fragments, not exactly whole songs, but a lot of times, you know you take a chunk of lyrics and reinterpret it into a whole new song.
I was originally writing songs for Tim Armstrong, the lead singer of Rancid. He asked me to write songs for his solo record but he kind of fell off the face of the map, he’s a really flaky guy. He’s a really sweet guy, but he just disappeared for a while and I never heard back from him. I’d written all these lyrics and I was like, “Fuck, I’m not gonna hear from him I need to record these songs and I need to publish them so I can have the rights to them.” I don’t think he had any malicious intent and I don’t think he’d ever do anything shady, but I needed to cover my back. So I recorded all the lyrics and a lot of the EP’s lyrics were pieces from that. At the time I’d been really getting back into researching my family’s history, specifically this one member of my family, James Hepburn, the Fourth Earle of Bothwell, who had an affair with Mary Queen of Scots. I guess it does make sense- I’d never really thought of it, but it is kind of like a stepping stone between the two records.
CoS: Mighty Ocean was your life and your family, Pomegranate is historical fiction…
Astronautalis: Yeah, and the EP is exactly in-between them. Even the sound. There’s the country song smack-dab in the middle of there and the songs bleed together still, they’re not the concise pop songs of Pomegranate, they’ve kinda got it, but there’s still the washing in the Mighty Ocean– I never thought of that. Look at me, I’ve got a construction.
Music Videos and Future Projects.
CoS: I know that there was a music video for Mighty Ocean that got swamped with post production madness- is that ever gonna see the light of day?
Astronautalis: Maybe, who knows…maybe one day. I would hope that one day it will, maybe if I put a DVD out it’ll be in the extras. The video was for Love Song For Gary Neuman and it was on the right track but it rendered so many problems and tragedies that, who knows.
CoS: You said on Myspace that there’s going to be a video for a song from Pomegranate?
Astronautalis: The goal is to get as many videos for this album as possible. My goal would be to get the label to give me a lump sum and be able to allocate it accordingly between ten videos and make a video for each song. I have friends who work on the skate video ethic of just make it for twenty dollars, some kind of Spike Jonze shit, and I have friends that are really well trained, working professional video artists who use green screens and have budgets and stuff. The songs are so visual I feel like videos would be a natural jump for a lot of the songs. Hopefully we’ll get at least a couple. The label was pretty adamant about having a video, so there should be at least a couple and maybe I can live my dream and have one for every song.
CoS: Let’s say there were a couple, what would be your top two?
Astronautalis: I really like The Wondersmith and His Sons. We have a really good idea for The Trouble Hunters, that involves me in a Dracula costume and all of my friends from Jacksonville. Radical Face and all these kids do videos, kinda sketch comedy stuff. They told me the idea for the video a couple of days ago. Their inspiration is Prince’s video for Batdance and videos from the late 80s and early 90s that were music videos for movies and have clips from the films spliced into them. Trouble Hunters is going to be the theme song to a movie that doesn’t exist. So we’re going to film the movie, an inside joke that’s been running with us called Killer Komandoze, and I’m gonna be the bad guy who’s a Nazi vampire. The video is going to be me performing the song in full vampire regalia periodically inter spliced with the movie. I really like the idea of me in a factory setting rapping in the most stupid eight grade Dracula costume with a little drop of blood out the side of my mouth, black widow’s peak, and the super high collar. It’s gonna be so dumb, I’m really excited. I also have an idea that I’m in love with for Mister Blessington’s Imperialist Plot about a guy getting kicked out of his office. We’ll see what happens. I’ve come to the realization that every plan goes amok, for better or worse. So we’ll just sort of play it by beer and see where it all comes together.
Some things do go as planned…
CoS: Your freestyling is an immaculate and strange process. Five topics at random from the crowd, everything on the fly, but you‘re extremely good at. You’ve been doing it for a long time, so you’ve got that practice going for you, but it’s kinda like a superpower. Has it changed the way your mind works?
Astronautalis: Yeah, totally. My family puts a high price on wits. We used to get up every Saturday morning, cook pancakes, and as a family watch Mystery Science Theater 3000. I feel like a lot of my storytelling and my sense of humor comes from that show. Probably 70% of my sense of humor comes from MST3K, Simpsons are a little part and then my family is the rest. Being clever, being quick on your feet has always been top dollar. My brothers and I are brutal when it comes to making fun of each other and we try to be as fast about it as possible. All the freestyling I’ve done has certainly made me sharper. I’ve been doing it for so long that it’s kind of a second language for me. I can speak in rhyme as easy as can be. That drinking game, King’s Crown, that has the rhyming section I’m always like, “Bring it on! Nobody can beat me!” To me, the closest thing that anybody can equate it to is learning a second language. You slowly piece it together. When I started out I was just as bad as any other white kid who wanted to be a rapper. I don’t think that it’s a super power thing, I think it’s the only thing that I’ve worked hard at in my entire life, actually.
CoS: Well, you know, these days they consider Batman to be a metahuman and that’s all practice.
Astronautalis: Practice, weight-lifting, and gadgets.
CoS: You’ve been featured on a number of other artist’s songs over the last couple of years, like Brzowski, Otem Rellik, Isaiah, and you have P.O.S. rapping with you on the last track on Pomegranate– do you have any more collaborations in the works?
Astronautalis: P.O.S. and I are doing a whole record together. Story of My Life was originally supposed to be on that record. I flew up to Minneapolis and started working on the record and we got two and a half songs done. Story of My Life I made the beat for and then another song, which will be on his new record, he made the beat. It’s a very P.O.S.y beat and my beat is a very sissy Astronautalis beat. Those were originally gonna be on our joint record but we’re so swamped that we’re not going to be getting to the record for a little while. Probably in the next year we’ll be able to really sink our teeth in. I’m also doing a record with this guy named Picnic Time, who’s a producer from Dallas. He’s done songs for Paul Wall, Devin the Dude, he’s what you might call a traditional Southern hip-hop producer. He really wants to make a weird record. He’s super nerdy, you’d never guess if you’ve seen him. He’s the most fashionably dressed, super hip, super handsome dude ever and then you talk to him and he’s like, “Yeah man, I’m thinking about getting the Millennium Falcon tattooed on my forearm.” Meanwhile he’s got this gorgeous $90 baseball cap, $300 sneakers on. I may be doing a record with Mike Wiebe, who’s the lead singer of The Riverboat Gamblers. They’re some of my best friends and one of my favorite bands ever. I’m gonna be doing a remix for their new record and hopefully someday soon I’ll be doing a full johnny with ’em.
CoS: You once told me you were thinking about doing a second Dang: Seven Freestyles in Seven Days. Is that happening and if so, what’s the theme gonna be?
Astronautalis: One day it’ll happen. There’s a bunch of themes lying around: a mail order theme, a traditional rap record made by traditional rap producers, I wanna do a covers record, I wanna do an instrumental record. I don’t really know what the theme will end up being, but my rule of thumb has been that I want to wait until we’ve sold most of the Dang CDs before we make another one. Right now we’ve sold 700 out of 1,000 so a new Dang is probably gonna happen soon.
CoS: Pomegranate is a hell of an achievement, I’m really stoked about hearing the new material live.
Astronautalis: It’s been a lot of fun to play it. Some of the songs like Wondersmith and His Sons are just so much fun to do live. Trouble Hunters I’m still working out a lot of the kinks, getting there, ’cause it’s a really tough song, pushing my vocals in crazy directions. Plus, it’s a full tight song with a rock band when it was recorded, but live it’s just me with a laptop doin’ it. I definitely feel like I’m the void of the room when I’m doing that one. The Wondersmith and His Sons is probably the most fun I’ve had performing a song since My Dinner With Andy. I really love performing that song.
Astronautalis and Bleubird – “Georgia… Bush Mix Up” (Live at Taste 11/08/08)
Astronautalis “America: All of Them” 2009 Tour Dates:
05/08 – Austin, TX @ New Birds Barbershop
05/09 – Dallas, TX @ The Granada
05/10 – Charlotte, NC @ The Milestone
05/11 – Knoxville, TN @ Club Catalyst
05/12 – Atlanta, GA @ The Bleach
05/13 – Mobile, AL @ Alabama Music Box
05/14 – Pensacola, FL @ Sluggo’s
05/15 – Gainesville, FL @ 1982
05/16 – Jacksonville, FL @ Jack Rabbits
05/17 – Orlando, FL @ Will’s Pub