Astronautalis is a man in high demand. It has been just over a year since the release of his first autobiographical album, This Is Our Science and his managed to cram in at least three full tours, a project with Bon Iver's Justin Vernon and relocate to Minneapolis. Somewhere between juggling a million things he found time to sit down with Punknews Editor Rich Verducci and talk about his upcoming side projects, freestyling and his respect for Lady Gaga.
So I really appreciate you being here, I know you had a long drive.
Itâs alright. I pretty much sleep in the back and play video games on my iPad. Itâs not really a grueling schedule for me. Itâs 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 youâve been up to since then.
Touring a lot. Iâve done, in that yearâs span, three full American tours and two European tours. A trip to Russia. Iâm working on a new record and Iâm almost finished with a couple of side projects too. Yeah, itâs 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 youâve been incredibly busy between touring and side projects.
Itâs 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 isnât necessarily fun. Itâs challenging and itâs rewarding but itâs really emotionally and mentally exhausting and when itâs done youâre just like, "Wow, I donât want to create shit!" So, touring is great because itâs just, "Iâm so fried, letâs just all drink and hang out for the next year." With this record, I didnât have that draught afterwards. So I just dove back in with a bunch of different side projects and Iâve already started shaping up for my own record. Iâve got four songs for my own record and Iâm going to play a new one tonight. So, Iâve just kind of been slammed the whole time. Which is good for me, I like being busy. Iâm not really good at sleeping, so it works out well for me.
On the topic of your latest album, itâs not the only thing youâve done thatâs autobiographical but itâs 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, itâs just so megalomaniacal and egocentric. Thereâs so many records about middle class, angsty, art school white kids talking about themselves. So I was just like, "Cool, letâs try and focus on something else." So I did that for two records.
I didnât 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 weâve 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, youâre really going to talk about how youâre 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 Iâm a dirtbag? Okay, fuck it." (laughs) And by everyone I mean my mom.
Does your mom listen to your stuff?
Oh yeah, totally. My momâs really cool, sheâs 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, "Iâm so excited!" I was working on a project with Justin Vernon of Bon Iver and POLIÃA and she says, "The only artists I have on my phone are Bon Iver, POLIÃA and you!" It was just like, "Oh, thatâs perfect, mom." Sheâs 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?
Itâs going quite well. I canât divulge too much information, right now. See, Iâve never been in a band before, so when someoneâs like, "You want to do an interview," I never have to consult with other people. Especially someone like Justin, whoâs an artist of pretty high stature, with like a management team.
Heâs got a Grammy.
Heâs got two of them! I ainât 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. Iâve never been in NME or Pitchfork before. Their management called me up and was like, "Yeahâ¦maybe we shouldnât talk about this anymore." I was just like, "Haha, yeah, sorry [shrugs]. Itâs my first time being in a band." Itâs going quite well and itâs pretty close to being finished. Thatâs about all I can say.
Thatâs fair. I was going to say, that was the first I had heard you appeared in all these different publications. Like, Iâm 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 Iâve 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 wasnât 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. Thatâs it, done.
One of the things that came out of those stories is that you seem to have been nicknamed, "Astro." I didnât 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. Itâs funny, because the act of a nickname suggests a familiarity and there is nobody less familiar with me than Perez Hilton. That guy doesnât know me at all. But, thanks for the coverage and thanks for the nickname, I guess. Itâs 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. Weâre not allowed to name this god damn band. We donât 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, Iâve 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 Rhymesayersâ 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 otherâs releases, Never Better and Pomegranate. So itâs 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 donât, we donât. So it gets done, much to the chagrin of fans everywhere. Itâs probably the question I get asked more than any other topic is, "When is The Four Fists [the tentative name] coming out." Itâs just like, "youâll know."
Weâre pretty close. Itâs just that I started working on my record and he started working on his record. Then I started touring my record. Itâs just a battle of overlap sometimes. I think if we could just sit alone, uninterrupted for a week, in the woods weâd knock the god damn thing out. Itâs hard to pull that together. We need a week but itâs 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.
Youâre a bit of a history buff and itâs intertwined throughout a lot of your work. Itâs not something people would typically consider and if they were it would probably seem really corny, maybe like "School House Rocks," but itâs not.
(Laughs) Thanks. Iâve been interested in history pretty much my entire life. Itâs 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 didnât. I would have probably dropped out and be working at a Starbucks now.
Itâs always been a part of my, even before music. Like I said, Iâve 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. Thatâs what I ended up getting my degree in and thatâs sort of how I was taught to make art. The directing process is like the academic process, itâs a lot of library work and research to develop a thesis. Itâs 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 itâs sort of like an argument. I start with a thesis and thatâs the point and I have to use evidence to support that point. Sometimes I use evidence from my personal life and emotions and sometimes thereâs situations where I use pieces of history as literal evidence or reference points. The thing thatâs 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. Thatâs 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.
Itâs interesting that you approach your albums so methodically, constructing the language and concepts in advance. Youâre also known for your freestyling, and obviously you donât 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 painterâs medium. Freestyle is like abstract expressionism. Itâs like Jackson Pollock. Whereas the way that I write my songs is pointillism. Itâs Chuck Close. Itâs photo realism. Itâs just really minutia and detailed oriented.
Iâll 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 couldnât figure out how I wanted to end the story and figure out the language and it just wasnât 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 itâs fun to exercise both parts of my brain.
Iâm starting to incorporate more elements of my freestyle into my recorded tracks. Iâm hoping to do like a shaped freestyle, the way that Jay-Z or Lilâ 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 itâll kind of lend itself to that process and shape. Ultimately, I might freestyle to get an idea but Iâll still sit there and tweak and move things around for hours.
You mention Lilâ Wayne and Jay-Z and even though youâre an underground artist youâve 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 itâs a musical choice, itâs a political choice. What I think they donât 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 isnât poppy but my focus on chorus and hooks is definitely poppy. My influencesâ¦even growing up because I listened to The Clash and The Buzzcocks, which is super chorus driven. Like I donât 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, "Thatâs my song," and Iâm like, "You son of a bitch." (Laughs) Itâs so fucking impressive. I donât own a copy of it. I donât listen to it regularly but when I first heard it, I just felt like, "Wow, thatâs amazing." So, thereâs stuff to be learned from it. I feel like artists who completely ignore pop music, I feel their naive and theyâre doomed to fail. Itâs important to learn from every aspect of our medium. You should research. You should work. Thereâs 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, Iâll get you on the guest list for free. Alright, thank you.