So I really appreciate you being here, I know you had a long drive.
It's alright. I pretty much sleep in the back and play video games on my iPad. It's not really a grueling schedule for me. It's a real good gig. (laughs)
Your last album, This is our Science, came out almost a year ago exactly. So, fill us in on what you've been up to since then.
Touring a lot. I've done, in that year's span, three full American tours and two European tours. A trip to Russia. I'm working on a new record and I'm almost finished with a couple of side projects too. Yeah, it's been productive.
I was going to say it seemed like between Pomagranate and this record (This is our Science) you did the Seven Freestyles [In Seven Days] EP and a mixtape but it seems like since this album you've been incredibly busy between touring and side projects.
It's weird because normally there is a creative hangover. Where you labor on the record so long and hard. I was in this conversation with a friend the other day, for me and many of my friends making records isn't necessarily fun. It's challenging and it's rewarding but it's really emotionally and mentally exhausting and when it's done you're just like, "Wow, I don't want to create shit!" So, touring is great because it's just, "I'm so fried, let's just all drink and hang out for the next year." With this record, I didn't have that draught afterwards. So I just dove back in with a bunch of different side projects and I've already started shaping up for my own record. I've got four songs for my own record and I'm going to play a new one tonight. So, I've just kind of been slammed the whole time. Which is good for me, I like being busy. I'm not really good at sleeping, so it works out well for me.
On the topic of your latest album, it's not the only thing you've done that's autobiographical but it's the most completely autobiographical. Was that a conscious effort to write more about yourself and was the difficult process?
It was a change of pace, for sure. I sort of actively decided not to write about myself, because I feel in indie music and especially in indie rap music, it's just so megalomaniacal and egocentric. There's so many records about middle class, angsty, art school white kids talking about themselves. So I was just like, "Cool, let's try and focus on something else." So I did that for two records.
I didn't really want to start writing about myself until I felt that there was a point. I wanted to stories about myself to have some sort of reward for the listener, as opposed to just making them be my therapist. Once I got this thesis about myself and my friends and the lives that we've chosen to live, outside of the normal bounds of getting a job and raising a family, it felt like my life had something to contribute to the record. Beyond that, it was definitely challenging at times because it was like, "Wow, you're really going to talk about how you're kind of a dirt bag? *Sigh* Alright." And there a times where you would just sit there and stare at those songs and think, "Do I really want everyone out there to know I'm a dirtbag? Okay, fuck it." (laughs) And by everyone I mean my mom.
Does your mom listen to your stuff?
Oh yeah, totally. My mom's really cool, she's a big fan. My entire life she has always listened to the music me and my brothers listened to. I remember, quite distinctly, her listening to Morrissey and the Clash. She called me up the other day and was like, "I'm so excited!" I was working on a project with Justin Vernon of Bon Iver and POLIÇA and she says, "The only artists I have on my phone are Bon Iver, POLIÇA and you!" It was just like, "Oh, that's perfect, mom." She's a cool lady.
I did want to ask about the side project, because that originally hit publications back in April of this year. How is that going?
It's going quite well. I can't divulge too much information, right now. See, I've never been in a band before, so when someone's like, "You want to do an interview," I never have to consult with other people. Especially someone like Justin, who's an artist of pretty high stature, with like a management team.
He's got a Grammy.
He's got two of them! I ain't got shit for Grammys. The City Pages, a local Minneapolis paper, was like, "Wanna do an interview," and I said, "sure!" Afterwards I was like, "Ah, shit!" I was texting everyone like, "Hey, I just did this interview and I probably should have asked you." Then it just blew up and it was NME. I've never been in NME or Pitchfork before. Their management called me up and was like, "Yeah…maybe we shouldn't talk about this anymore." I was just like, "Haha, yeah, sorry [shrugs]. It's my first time being in a band." It's going quite well and it's pretty close to being finished. That's about all I can say.
That's fair. I was going to say, that was the first I had heard you appeared in all these different publications. Like, I'm pretty sure Perez Hilton reported on it.
Perez Hilton did report on it. (laughs) That is so fucking surreal. The New Yorker wrote about it and I've never been in the New Yorker either. The thing about it was, I had never gotten that kind of press coverage. The original interview was like, "I am in this band with these other guys." By the time that statement got picked up by this blogs report, and that report got picked up by these blogs and by the time it got covered by outlets a week later the band wasn't a thing anymore [in their story]. It was just, "Justin Vernon works with a rapper." They completely cut out any mention of the other band members. The audacity and widespread laziness of the general press was kind of hilarious at that moment.
I was noticing that over the time as the stories kept popping up they were becoming derivative, where one would have nine sentences and one would have five and one would have three. It just kept getting whittled down to like, "Justin Vernon and rapper."
Eventually it was just Justin Vernon with gold teeth. That's it, done.
One of the things that came out of those stories is that you seem to have been nicknamed, "Astro." I didn't know if I had just not heard that or if that was brand new.
It was pretty brand new that people just started abbreviating my name. It's funny, because the act of a nickname suggests a familiarity and there is nobody less familiar with me than Perez Hilton. That guy doesn't know me at all. But, thanks for the coverage and thanks for the nickname, I guess. It's kind of my fault for having kind of a stupid, long and uncontrollable name.
Stef (P.O.S.) and I we have a group together and we were laughing about what we were going to call it. I said, "We have two of the worst rap names, ever. We're not allowed to name this god damn band. We don't have the potential to have this end well." So, we went to our friends and got some advice.
Now the project with you and Stef, I've heard about that for a couple of years now. [Punknews] ran an interview with him a few years ago and he was talking about it.
It started out as an idea in like 2004. Right when he was touring on his Rhymesayers' releases. 2004 was when I had first met him and I think it was about 2005 when we first started talking about making music together. Those first two songs were going to be for the projected and we ended up using them as the secret songs on each other's releases, Never Better and Pomegranate. So it's been in the works for a while. We both have really busy schedules and when we have time to sit down and work on two songs we do it. When we don't, we don't. So it gets done, much to the chagrin of fans everywhere. It's probably the question I get asked more than any other topic is, "When is The Four Fists [the tentative name] coming out." It's just like, "you'll know."
We're pretty close. It's just that I started working on my record and he started working on his record. Then I started touring my record. It's just a battle of overlap sometimes. I think if we could just sit alone, uninterrupted for a week, in the woods we'd knock the god damn thing out. It's hard to pull that together. We need a week but it's hard to pull that together. I think, maybe, this winter might provide the time. It might be good to just be locked in a cabin in Minnesota and either go crazy and kill each other or make an album.
You're a bit of a history buff and it's intertwined throughout a lot of your work. It's not something people would typically consider and if they were it would probably seem really corny, maybe like "School House Rocks," but it's not.
(Laughs) Thanks. I've been interested in history pretty much my entire life. It's partially a familial thing, my father kind of imparted that on us and my brothers are interested in it as well. I toyed with the idea of becoming a professor in college. Thank god I didn't. I would have probably dropped out and be working at a Starbucks now.
It's always been a part of my, even before music. Like I said, I've never been in a band, so I never just hung out in a garage and jammed. I went to school for theater to be a lighting designer and director for theater. That's what I ended up getting my degree in and that's sort of how I was taught to make art. The directing process is like the academic process, it's a lot of library work and research to develop a thesis. It's pounding knowledge into your brain.
For making a record I approach it kind of the same way, academically. I need a thesis for the album, before I make the album. I need to develop the language of the album, before I make the album. Even when I write songs it's sort of like an argument. I start with a thesis and that's the point and I have to use evidence to support that point. Sometimes I use evidence from my personal life and emotions and sometimes there's situations where I use pieces of history as literal evidence or reference points. The thing that's always exciting to me about learning about history is the context that it gives to my own life and the focus and scope it gives to my place in history. That's sort of an overarching theme in all of my work, is your place in the universe and your place in time. I think it ties it all together pretty neatly.
It's interesting that you approach your albums so methodically, constructing the language and concepts in advance. You're also known for your freestyling, and obviously you don't have hours to sit around and work on it. Do you approach that differently?
Completely. The way that I often describe it is that they are both like a painter's medium. Freestyle is like abstract expressionism. It's like Jackson Pollock. Whereas the way that I write my songs is pointillism. It's Chuck Close. It's photo realism. It's just really minutia and detailed oriented.
I'll pour over two sentences for a year. Like I wrote the song "The Wondersmith and His Sons" in a week and the last two lines took me almost two years. I couldn't figure out how I wanted to end the story and figure out the language and it just wasn't coming. It has to be just right. Whereas the freestyle is just cut your guys open and let it all fall out. Both have merit and have a leg to stand on, but it's fun to exercise both parts of my brain.
I'm starting to incorporate more elements of my freestyle into my recorded tracks. I'm hoping to do like a shaped freestyle, the way that Jay-Z or Lil' Wayne writes. They freestyle but they go back and the tweak things. That has proven to be a lot of fun. Especially because the language of the next album is a much more casual language. Where as Pomegranate was a super heightened literary language and it was sort of stepped down for This is Our Science. This next record is really slang driven and so it'll kind of lend itself to that process and shape. Ultimately, I might freestyle to get an idea but I'll still sit there and tweak and move things around for hours.
You mention Lil' Wayne and Jay-Z and even though you're an underground artist you've expressed enjoyment and admiration for certain larger, commercial artists. Has that ever surprised people or do you ever have a need to explain it?
I think people are often surprised by it. Fans often listen to indie music as sort of a dogma. As much as it's a musical choice, it's a political choice. What I think they don't often understand is that all of my friends who are indie musicians listen to pop music. We listen to indie music too. We listen to tons of weird stuff all over the place, but we all listen to Young Jeezy.
For me, part of it is nostalgia. I grew up listening to gangster rap, I love it. Part of it is technical stuff. Ludacris and Eminem are amazing tacticians. Part of it is, there is something to be learned from pop music. For me, my content isn't poppy but my focus on chorus and hooks is definitely poppy. My influences…even growing up because I listened to The Clash and The Buzzcocks, which is super chorus driven. Like I don't listen to Lady Gaga, but I feel you can learn a lot by listening to "Poker Face" because that song is six choruses. I have a hard time writing one chorus and she just knocked out six really catchy choruses and was like, "That's my song," and I'm like, "You son of a bitch." (Laughs) It's so fucking impressive. I don't own a copy of it. I don't listen to it regularly but when I first heard it, I just felt like, "Wow, that's amazing." So, there's stuff to be learned from it. I feel like artists who completely ignore pop music, I feel their naive and they're doomed to fail. It's important to learn from every aspect of our medium. You should research. You should work. There's something to be learned from all of it.
Before we wrap out, is there anything you want to include or throw out?
If anyone out here has access to the German drink Club Mate soda and can bring it to any of my shows, at any time ever, I'll get you on the guest list for free. Alright, thank you.