Last Thursday, I posted an interview I did with SIMS—a rapper and member of the Minneapolis-based Doomtree collective. Then over the weekend, I had the pleasure of seeing him perform alongside another of my favorites, Astronautalis. And as luck would have it, the other half of the ‘AstroSims’ duo allowed me to take up a few moments of his time as well.
For those who don’t know, Astronautalis is an extremely gifted rapper, unlike any other talent in the genre. He’s also an avid traveler, having circumnavigated the globe, playing countless shows along the way. Much like SIMS, he’s forging his own path in life and doing things his own way. That’s why it was a true honor to sit down with him backstage at First Avenue, before he had to sound check for what turned out to be another beautifully chaotic performance.
Whenever I talk to a fellow writer, I’m always curious… where do you normally draw your influences?
To be honest, it changes with each record. I tend to work differently than a lot of people, because I’m not in a band. I can’t go jam in my garage until I find the right tune. It’s much more research oriented. For me—my creative background is in theater. I trained to be a director and lighting designer, which are both very library heavy exercises. So, that’s allowed me to approach my songs and records as if I’m directing a play. I think of the songs as scenes and then it’s all about finding the overarching objective.
You can also think of it in the academic sense as a thesis and each song would be an argument for that thesis. Ultimately, I’m a super curious person and sort of an inspiration junky. So, a lot of times my inspiration comes from various disparate elements. When I’m gearing up for a new record and looking at all the things I’m interested in, I try to think of the through line between them all.
So, there’s usually two years in between albums, when I’m pinning everything to the corkboard of my brain. Then, I’ll just have that ‘Usual Suspects’ moment and step back to see I’ve got it all figured out—the piece that connects all of the other pieces. Once I have that, it’s go time.
As someone who loves music and used to be in a few bands, I see that in both our professional worlds there’s always a give and take when it comes to the business end and the creative end. From your experience is that something you commonly see?
Oh, absolutely. I think most musicians who say, “I’m just doing this for myself,” are lying. Most people are very aware they have an audience and that’s especially true, the more successful you become. The whole situation is an anchor on your arm so to speak. In a good way, it can motivate you, but it can also drag you down. You have to find the right balance of letting the audience inform your moves, without letting them dictate your choices. You have to constantly be aware of your business.
Where some people have a pitfall is when they transform from being just artists into being artists and businesses. They either become hyper aware of the business, which causes the art to suffer or they become hyper aware of the art and ignore the business. In the end though, there are times when you just have to say, “Fuck it.” I mean, if I always wanted to make the best business decisions, I wouldn’t have become a musician. Sometimes you have to take it on the chin and say, “I should probably be doing something more productive with my time, but this is what’s productive for my heart.”
Exactly. I think every musician is their own brand and they have to build that brand to help it stand out. I’m trying to do the same thing in my work, except I’m doing it for other people’s brands most of the time.
Yeah! Most importantly, you have to stay true to what your about; but ‘brand’ isn’t a very sexy notion. Ultimately, as artists, we would prefer to use the term ‘voice’. But it’s two sides to the same coin. You have to be aware of these things—not only in your public brand, but also in how you hope your business is run and what you want it to be. There were times when I first started making music professionally that I’d just look around at other people—other musicians—to see how they ran their businesses. Then I started to go, “that’s how I want to do it,” and now those are the people I continually use as my barometer. I have artists who are musical influences and those who are business influences. And they’re both equally as important.
So, I know you just finished recording your upcoming album. When you’re in the studio, do you always give yourself a deadline? And do you prefer the stress that comes with a deadline?
I don’t really give myself a deadline for writing a record. I let it come together naturally. That’s why I don’t really write in the studio. I write at home. I always get the same feeling when I know it’s ready. At that point, I talk to John Congleton, who’s produced my last three records and I see when we can meet up and record.
I do like a deadline though. When I was working on my second album, The Mighty Ocean, I had the keys to a local studio and I could go there any time I wanted. I ended up spending a year and a half on that album. I mean, it’s awesome to a point, but it’s also terrible. By the end of it, I had lost my mind. I look at the record and there are great moments on it, but there are also moments that are wandering and overthought. So, after I did that, I said, “Well, I never want to do that again.” It’s no fun for me, because the limits are important.
I mean, for all the advantages of snyths and sound software, the limitless aspects of it also create a huge problem for a lot of people. You can spend all day playing around with sounds, because you literally have a billion options—and that’s really counterproductive. Look at the Beatles, they had a guitar, a bass, drums and some mics and they made absolutely incredible records. They didn’t need much more.
On the new album I just finished recording—there’s no guitar, no piano. It’s mostly just horns, bass and drums; and it was all intentional. I’ve worked with this one sound kit for the last two records, because that’s what I wanted to do. I had a desire to make these big lush records and then I realized I couldn’t do it anymore. I just wanted everything to be simpler. It’s like setting content laws with a thesis. If I can write about anything, I’m going to write about anything. You have to set guidelines, limitations and deadlines or else you’ll just stand and stare at a piece of paper for a hundred years, constantly editing yourself until it’s no longer your original idea.
Yeah, it’s like the less you have available, the more creative you have to be with it.
Exactly. I came from an art school environment where we were working on 30 projects at once, all due tomorrow. Those are the times you grab a cup of coffee and just go to it. And, honestly, some of the best work comes about that way.
Do you have any methods or tactics you use when dealing with writer’s block?
I just kind of inspire it out. If you can’t figure out what to write about, then read someone else’s writing, watch movies, listen to music. The solutions to most of my problems are found in travel. When I’m stuck emotionally, musically or artistically, I just go somewhere else. Even going 200 miles away and coming back the same day on my motorcycle. All the things clear out and a lot gets done when I’m in a new place.
I know you’ve had a very unique career path, so I have to ask, what advice would you give to someone out there still trying to find his or her way?
I think the best advice you can give someone is—just go do it. If you aren’t happy with where you are and you want to do something else, go for it. For as unique and difficult as my career path as been, scratching and clawing for every fan I have, the hardest part of it all was initially leaving. That’s why I think it’s more of a fall than it is a climb. Once you’re falling down the side of the mountain, it’s really easy to keep tumbling. The most difficult part is just stepping off the ledge.
How much of a role does social media play in your career?
Oh, it’s huge! I mean; we booked our first tours through Myspace. We’d play a show in Kent, Ohio for like 12 people and someone there would tell us to go meet this other guy and it continued on and on. That’s how we booked shows for 4 years, until we got a booking agent. And more than anything, file sharing was huge. Piracy was instrumental for my music, because although I’d prefer people paid for it, I wouldn’t have a career if it weren’t for file sharing—like guys putting my songs on mix tapes for girls. It wasn’t anything I strategized either. When someone wrote me, “Hey great record,” I always wrote them back, because I needed that person to be at my show. I needed them to support my record. So, back then it was a necessity. Now, I’m starting to back track a bit and learn more about it, so I can do it more effectively.
When you go to a place you’ve never been, do you have any particular methods for finding those cool, relatively unknown, hangouts?
Well, it’s sort of a weird thing, because am I touring or traveling? A luxury of touring is that you’re never a tourist. When you show up to a town there’s any number of people that are really pumped you’re there. So, if you ever want to do anything, you can just say, “Hey guys, let’s go do something,” and there ya go. It’s that simple.
But, when I’m traveling and not playing shows, it’s different. I was camping by myself in New Zealand and I bought a travel guide that I didn’t even look at it until I was on the plane. All I knew was I wanted to go to the furthest point north and see volcanoes. The rest of it, I just figured out as I went. You have to just bounce around and meet people. Ultimately, the best stuff will always present itself to you in one way or another. You just have to be out there to do it.
Have there been any commonalities amongst people that have really surprised you on your travels?
What I find so interesting is that even in developing and failing nations—where people have real problems—at the end of the day, they just want to listen to music, dance, make out with cute girls, eat food and have a good time. You know, be with their friends and family. They want the same thing we all want. It’s really inspiring to see that after all of they’ve been through, they don’t need an iPhone 6 or anything. They just need supportive people and maybe a guitar and some beer.
One of the reasons I wanted to stop in Minneapolis is the robust hip-hop scene. It seems everyone here is all about helping each other succeed. Why do you think the music community is so supportive of each other like that?
It’s not just the hip-hop scene actually; it’s the music scene as a whole. That’s the reason I moved here. Everyone here works together. Honestly, no one in America works together like they do here—not cross-genre, cross-scene. It’s amazing what goes on here. There’s this mentality that if we don’t support ourselves, no one else will do it for us. You can even bring up the brutal weather having something to do with it, because if we don’t go do things together, we’ll just go crazy. I mean there’s a lot of things I can add up; but the sum doesn’t equal the whole. There’s something inherently magical beyond all of that.
Truly, from the bottom of my heart, I want to thank Astronautalis for taking the time to speak with me. It was really important to me to end my month here with this interview. He, along with many other musicians, drew me here and I can’t describe how grateful I am to have penetrated their circle—even for a brief moment. I’m really looking forward to seeing what this city introduces to the world next.
See you in Austin,