INTERVIEW: ASTRONAUTALIS, PART ONE
Astronautalis (Andy Bothwell), a Jacksonville, Florida native who now calls Seattle home, is an accomplished freestyler, rapper, and cat lover. With the release of his third album, Pomegranate in 2008, the man has been on non stop tours, working on collaborations; including a pay what you want mixtapeft. Tegan and Sara, P.O.S. and others. Plus he has two upcoming albums. Somewhere between the great plains of the Nebraska/Iowa border, I chatted him up on my mobile while he was en-route to St. Paul, MN.I never expected to have so much in common with this magic creating wordsmith. We both found interests in music at a young age that helped us battle our fear and awkwardness to the opposite sex, both went to college for theatre, both are currently doing nothing with our scholarly degree, both have a found affinity for Jim Beam and a splash of water, both have a weak in the knees reaction to all things cat related. However, if Bothwell wanted to take a break from his burgeoning music career and direct a Dada-esque performance art piece I’d offer up my talent. Honestly, I could have spoken with Bothwell for hours. Perhaps I’ll once again be able to spend some quality conversation time with him, at a dive bar talking about kittens, the future direction of rap/hip hop, and our fascination with history. Until then, I give you this.
I read that what opened your eyes to hip hop was from a tape your brother gave you? Is this true?
My brother gave me a tape that had Lord Finesse‘s “Return of The Funky Man” and Guru on it. A part of it was so exotic to me, at this time super pop didn’t have any grittiness to it. The idea of inner city life was so foreign to me and ultimately cool.
How does one practice at becoming good at freestyling?
In the early 90’s if you wanted to battle you had to do it in kinda these weird impromptu places, on the street or a skate park, at lunch or a party. You’d go there with the intent of battling kids, there was no organization to it. It was almost like a fight, you had to g
o to this party because 167 was going to be there and he wanted to battle you. I was 15, I didn’t drink or do drugs and I was still pretty terrified of girls so I would go to these parties just with this intent of battling these kids. The culture in Jacksonville at the time was a little out of control where kids would battle and almost every single battle would end in a fight. I’m really skinny and not a fighting kind of guy. One time I got a knife pulled on me and this kid was gonna go to a car and get a gun and at that point it was just stupid. I just wanted to rap, I didn’t want to get my ass kicked. I just rapped all the time, when I was alone and inside my head. Not just with my friends. I was embarrassed at first. I started battling kids at lunch. If you practice anything for 10,000 hours you can be good at it. I’ve been pretty outgoing in a lot of ways, but pretty shy about a lot of things. I was worried about my parents, but they were very supportive.
So quitting was never an option?
At that point I was moving out to Texas to go to college and I ended up getting my degree in directing for theatre and at that point rap just became kinda a back burner thing. It became a thing I do at parties sort of like a parlor trick to “wow” people.
What made you decide to go to college and why for theatre?
I had the really distinct pleasure of going to this really amazing an Arts Magnet school in Jacksonville, Fl which really nurtured me and my level of rap music (Not just the location, which was pretty inner city.)I really loved theatre, I really loved acting and everything about that. I was applying for schools to go for directing in film and one day a recruiter came and auditioned me at my school. He gave me a generous amount of money to go to
their school in Dallas, Texas. It was really one of the best things that happened to me. To this day I really love making music but if I could make theatre under my terms I would. Theatre is different from music. It’s a grind you have to work with and it’s not like music. You can’t sit in your bedroom and hammer out a full opera with production. It’s more of a community based thing, there is a ritual you have to go through. You have to work your way to the top, and music isn’t like that. If you sit in your room and you write a good song and you put on a good show, with a little bit of luck and a lot of hard work you can do it by yourself. Music became much more appealing to me, but still in the end I hope to get back to theatre eventually. To me it’s such an incredible environment I’m sure that one day I will. To be honest, I certainly wouldn’t be making the music I’m making and wouldn’t taking the steps that I take to make the way that my live show is if it wasn’t for going to that University which I consider to be one of the best decisions of my entire life. I wouldn’t be the person that I am today, or the artist that I am now without that experience.
So how did you get back to rapping and freestyling?
A girl I dated talked me into doing a battle in Dallas and once I did that and saw what was going on, I went to NYC for a summer and saw a battle in New York. Dudes would get into these incredibly heated battles and at the end they would just hug and walk away, you know it was no big deal. That reopened it for me like people in Jacksonville were just totally disconnected, it’s sort of a magnified suburbanite understanding of culture. Once I went to big cities people were really into it for the culture, that re-ignited everything for me. From then I just never quit.
How did you get on board with the, Every Never is Now Tour with P.O.S. and Dessa?
I think it was just a conclusion that we were going to tour together. Never Better was a break out record for Stef. You do a lot of tours supporting other acts and finally when it came down for him to tour his last hurrah headlining tour across the country he was like, “Yeah no doubt about it. I want you on it.”. We just assumed, I didn’t really ask for it. We are friends and we love each other’s music, so we might as well tour together. There are people that I’m getting to know better and now because I’m coming to Minneapolis so often, the Doomtree guys, yeah they’re my homies. The guys from Gayngs, the guys from Building Better Bombs, that circle of people are my homies. They’re great people.
Tell me about the album with POS, “The Four Fists”
I met Stef in ’04 when he was doing merch for Atmosphere on the Warped Tour. He told me people dropped off the tour all the time and I got to see him play. He played for people on the tour an a couple of people that walked by. I mean his show was awesome-it was an amazing communal event. At the end of the set, I just wanted him to be my best friend. Since then we’ve crossed paths and a couple of years ago we thought, “Why aren’t we working on music? We should work on music.”. When we realized that we wanted to do an album, he was finishing up his Never Better album and I was finishing up Pomegranate and we decided to put secret songs on our own albums to kinda give people a preview. We wanted to wet peoples whistles. We spent two years touring our asses off, just playing for everybody and finally once our album cycle sorta settled, and in my down time I would take trips to Minneapolis to work on the record together. We had been talking about what the album would be about and how we wanted to approach the record. Stef told me he had read this collection of short stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald and thought our album should be about that. So I read The Four Fists and that laid the foundation for not only what he and I we going through personally, but we really enjoyed the morality tails. We started slowly hammering it out, it laid the artistic foundation because the way he tells stories is amazing. He and I come from completely opposite backgrounds and ended up in the same exact place and met in the middle. Me being this white indie kid who liked rap music and him being this black kid who liked punk, it sort of came together in a funny way, so working together was really easy. We would just kind of trade beats back and forth, and always we were open to each others suggestions. Working with him was about as carefree as it could possibly get I think. The Doomtree guys are my homies.
Stay tuned this week for part two of my interview with Astronautalis where we discuss touring, album themes and he answers the all important question:
Do you see yourself leaving the party at the pinnacle or do you see yourself waking up in the bathtub with one sock on, cradling a bottle of Jim Beam?