It was 2009 and I drove three and a half hours (by myself) to see Sole and The Skyrider Band play Missoula, MT. I arrived as the doors opened—second or third one there. I waited and waited drinking two dollar PBRs and expecting a big crowd — never panned out. It was not a sold out show, and it definitely wasn’t New York. It was turning out to be like most hip-hop shows I’ve seen: good but not great. That all changed when a lean, blonde-haired, blued-eyed man took the stage rocking skinny jeans and a back pocket handkerchief. I didn’t think he was a rapper, maybe a soundman. I’ve never been so happy to be wrong.
He blew me away from the first song. He rapped with this intense (borderline crazy) look in his eyes and his legs moved like earthquakes. His words hit me in the way I imagine the words of Ray Lewis hit teammates during a pregame speech. In a matter of minutes he captivated the crowd. He killed every track — non-stop energy and passion for 45 minutes. When it was over all I could think was man this guy just rapped his ass off.
Did I mention his mid-set freestyle? He grabbed five ideas from the crowd, threw on a Bob Dylan beat, and took off creating a story that must have lasted four minutes. Shit, how do you even remember the five things? I remember dope double rhymes, an interesting plot, and that it was hilarious — everyone was laughing; even Astronautalis couldn’t help himself at times. I left thinking that it was hands down the best freestyle I’d ever heard. I’ve now watched him perform a handful of times and he kills a freestyle every time.
I was a broke college student at the time so I bought as much merch as I could. I asked his manager, Harpoon Larry, which cd I should get if I could only get one. He turned me to The Mighty Ocean & Nine Dark Theaters. Made me really wish my ’89 Camry had a cd player; it was a long lonely ride home with a cd I couldn’t wait to session riding shotgun. I loved that album and played it over and over.
So who the hell is Astronautalis? Three years after that first show I had the privilege of sitting down with the man to find out for myself. He was dead sick and NyQuil’ed up, but still wanted to do the interview. What a boss.
Can we start by having you introduce yourself?
My names Andy Bothell. People call me Astronautalis.
You’re living in Minneapolis right now, what brought you out there?
I was actually living in Seattle for about three years and I was traveling out to Minneapolis all the time to work on music. The music scene there is, in my opinion, one of the most exciting in America. Seattle has a good scene but what was going on in Minneapolis was a really collaborative nature. The healthy competition that goes on in Minneapolis is something I was really drawn to. I was going there more and more and finally it got to the point where I’m like I should really just move there. It’s silly that I’m spending all this money on plane tickets when I could be paying rent. But yeah almost two years ago I moved out there and it’s been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
What is The Four Fists?
It’s a project with myself and P.O.S from Doomtree. It’s about half-way done. It will get done… eventually. There’s a lot of circumstantial stuff that has to be taken care of in order to get it done. Our own releases and Stef’s health as well. But we’ll get it done. (Donate using the link below).
Bleubird mentioned you’ve moved onto greener more “Bon Iver” pasture. Can you tell us what happened one weekend in Wisconsin?
Last time I told people about it, it became a very big thing. Bigger than I was used to. Then I got contact from Justin (Vernon)’s management and they’re like, “Yeah you probably shouldn’t do anymore interviews about this”. And I’m like, “Yeah that’s probably a good idea.” I’m a little outta my league. I’ve never been in a band before. As soon as I did it I was like “Oh my god I probably shoulda told everybody; I should of asked about this.” It’s really different from what anyone expects. I can’t tell you when it’s gonna come out I can’t tell you what it’s called. And that’s pretty much all I can tell you.
I heard “Top Down” by Marijuana Deathsquads and was instantly like “I think this might be my summer jam for at least the next 5 years.” How did that song and album get put together?
Yeah, Ryan (Olson) who makes the music for Marijuana Deathsquads–who is part of my band with Justin (Vernon) as well–he lives down the street from me. He’ll just call me up at like three in the morning and tell me, “Hey man I need you to come to the house I need you to freestyle for me”. And I’m like, “Nah man I’m in bed.” “Get outta bed, get outta bed”. When I walked in at three in the morning he gave me a bottle of whiskey and I freestyled for about eight hours. About six months later he sent me Top Down and then about 8 months after that the mixtape came out. There was a bunch of stuff on there I had no recollection of making cause I just freestyled all of that. It was a very surreal, exciting, experience. It was almost like an out-of-body experience to know this was a song that I made, but I have no memory of making it because freestyles just sorta disappear outta your brain when your done. You hear them made into full structured songs and it’s a pretty surreal thing.
Is that how all the artists perform for Ryan?
Ryan has a really funny way of… making music. He sorta just gets a bazillion musicians to come over and just piles stuff on. He basically sorta has parties at his house with different musicians and microphones and we just sorta work. He does pretty rough mixes and recordings and stuff. He is then constantly working on like 10 different projects at any given time. Metal band, country band, electronic group, noise band, rap groups—always kinda working and tinkering. It’s one of the things when you’ll be like, “What’s this for?” He’ll be like, “Aww don’t worry about it, don’t worry about it.” Like eight months later you’ll get a track and you’re like, “Oh that’s pretty good actually…word up! That’s pretty awesome”.
You were also involved in making one of my favorite albums of 2012: Bleubird’s Cannonball!!!. What was it like working with him and helping bring that masterpiece to life?
Thanks man. I’m really proud of that record. I felt that with Jacques I got really fortunate cause when I started making one of my first records, I got a lot of instruction from my friend Radical Face from Florida, who made a lot of the other beats on Cannonball!!! When I started making my second record I switched producers to my friend John Congleton (Explosions In The Sky, The Polyphonic Spree, Modest Mouse) from Texas. He sort of let me take the reigns on things, but also gave it insight. I feel like I’ve been taught really well and I take to art education really well. I’ve always had a great amount of respect for Jacques albums, but felt they always lacked a coherency that comes from a little more education, a little reassurance to push yourself a little further. So we set out to make a record that’s not like anything he’s ever made before. Definitely more coherent and pushed him into territories he wasn’t really comfortable with… the singing, and melody and simplicity in verses. I’m really pleased with the result, and how it came out, and I think he is too. It didn’t get the recognition, but I’m really proud of the way it turned out.
Athletes train and get coached to get better. In other professions you get educated or experience. How do you try to improve as a rapper?
Well there’s definitely like technical stuff. The mistake indie rappers make is that they don’t listen to pop rap music, where a lot of the best technicians in rap music are—like Ludicris and Eminem and the guys whose content you may not love but they are the best technical rappers out there. They crush people. I mean I could listen to Ludacris verses all day long and Eminem when he works is amazing. When he’s lazy he’s garbage, but when he works he’s amazing. I think that’s a big thing for a lot of rappers and musicians in general. It’s really easy to exist in a bubble and I feel it’s important to listen to stuff that you normally wouldn’t listen to and listen to stuff that you don’t make. Other than the music my friends make, I don’t listen to a lot of underground music or indie rap music. I listen to a lot of other kinds of music. That gives me far more insight because you start to get in a bit of a fucking endless cycle where you listen to the same kind of music that you make. I feel that’s kind of where indie rap music sort of fails itself in the last like ten years… where everybody became incestuous and making the same style of records. It’s just now starting to break outta that in the last two-three years.
What are some things you strive for?
I wanna be like terrified of my work. I wanna finish a song and think, “God, that’s exactly what I wanted”. Everyone’s gonna fucking hate this (laughing). I’ve found the songs that have that sort of terror around them end up being the most popular songs on the record. The songs that scare me the most started with “Oceanwalk” and then it went to “My Dinner with Andy”, “Meet Me Here Later” and I thought people were going to hate those songs. They became the biggest songs on that record. For Pomegranate, “Trouble Hunters” and “The Wondersmith and His Sons”, I thought people were gonna hate this. People aren’t gonna get this at all cause it’s so different from the previous record. Then again with This is our Science the songs “Secrets on Our Lips” and “How To Measure The Globe”. I was like, “Wow I thought people were literally going to hate this.” And they didn’t. They really liked it. I started to recognize when I push myself beyond my own level of comfort that I feel confident in the product. It doesn’t matter if I’m scared. The public reaction doesn’t matter if I feel confident in the product… it’s gonna be okay. That starts to get back to the bigger point: I feel like there are two different kinds of bands. People listen to certain kinds of bands because they never change. They’re like familiar friends, ya know. AC/DC made the same song a fucking 150 times and when Bon Scott was interviewed about how he feels making the same song over and over again he’s answer was, “It’s a pretty fucking good song.” There are the bands you love cause they never change and then there are bands you love that are dynamic, that are always pushing forward and always changing. When any band breaks from that… personally a lot of my friends kind of got bored with Beck when Beck put out Guero. It felt like a throwback to Odelay. It felt like a rehash of this nice beautiful ever-changing progression and he sorta went stagnant for an album. It’s probably a really good record but I have a hard time getting into it. So my goal ultimately with my work is that I establish a reputation for change. The only expectation is change; that I can ultimately do whatever I want with my next record. People might be jarred by it like when Radiohead came out with Kid A and everyone lost their fucking minds when they heard “Idioteque” and their like, “Wow why’s this dance song on here? There’s no rock music on this record”. But eventually everyone listened to it five times and they gave it a fucking chance and they’re like, “Oh this is brilliant… this is something new”. That’s the goal to have people prepared for change.
You used old ass history books to help inspire This Is Our Science. Does the process then change for your next album?
I tend to try to change gears from the way that records are inspired and the language that I use and kind of erase everything. I’m still getting more inspiration from places and cultures on this record than the previous record, whereas the previous records are more like concepts or ideas and sort of legends and memories. This is more general watching impressions of places and cultures and the people that are sort of surviving and making the best out of a terrible situation.
How did your manager get the name Harpoon Larry? And can you tell us about how he’s been all in on Astronautalis since day once.
He was a buddy of mine in Texas and he was just part of the Dallas hip-hop community. Him and a dude—who’s actually gonna be here tonight funny enough—from Dallas who was a syndicate radio DJ in Atlanta. He’s a rapper named Headcrack [Ha that’s so funny that Crack’s gonna be here tonight] He has a rap group called Bodega Brovas and they’ll be playing tomorrow and they came in early. Crack back in the nineties, I heard him on these really amazing like New York City rap shows. In my opinion, he was one of the best freestyle rappers ever and I didn’t know he lived in Dallas. At that time Headcrack was just going around to every open mic battle in Dallas and just taking the prize money. Nobody was fucking with him. I watched him freestyle and was like, “Wow this guys fucking amazing…this is the dude”. He was watching me like, “Who the fuck is this white kid with long hair and a beard?” I’m looking fucking crazy cause I’m going to theatre school. I’m dressed super weird and he’s like, “Who the fuck is this white dude?” We ended up meeting in the finals. I think Crack beat me, Crack says that I beat him. But yeah, from that I met Headcrack and I met Brock that night. They both sort of took me under their wing in Dallas and shepherd me around like, “Go to this battle… go to this battle”. They got me nights hosting gigs and gigs pretty much opening up for every band, every rap group that came to Dallas. We made a bunch of connections through people while I was still going to school and by the time I graduated Brock was pretty much done working his real job. He was fucking over it and decided we needed to go out on the fucking road and give it a whirl. We got offered the Vans Warped Tour. We did the Vans Warped Tour and he quit his job he’d worked for like nine years. We bought a Hyundai and pretty much just drove around the country fucking nonstop for like ten years. Almost ten years in June, but that nickname Harpoon Larry came from the first Warped Tour when we were in Norfolk, Virginia. We got really drunk the night before, it was a hilarious party, and we were so hung-over driving around Norfolk to find Advil. We saw this restaurant there called Harpoon Larry’s and he’s like, “That’s the best name ever! I want to be called Harpoon Larry”. That’s your name man, and it’s been that way ever since.
What can we expect from Astronautalis in 2013?
A bunch of side projects. I’ll be on tour with Why?. I’ll be taking the full band with me to Europe, which will be great cause it’s the first time bringing the full band to Europe. Maybe working on a mixtape, maybe start bringing out more new music. I’ll be playing one new song tonight… just trying it out live. I really enjoy trying out new music live. Bunch of new music. I’m taking time off the road this year. Probably the most time I’ve ever taken off the road in ten years.
Cause you’ve been touring the majority of the year.
I would say 8-10 months a year for almost 10 years straight. I’m pretty fried. I get my first full month break in January. No shows for a full month, which will be the first time in about four years or something like that… so I’m pretty stoked about that.
What do you want for Christmas?
I want a really big map. A really big map of the world, like huge, super detailed, with a foam backing and a nice frame around it so I can start to put pins in all the places that I’ve been. I’m finally like starting to have a “place” in Minneapolis… I’m gonna be there for a really long time. It’s the first place I’ve lived where I’ve been like, “Yes, this is home.” I wanna start establishing a home. My birthday is coming up next week and Christmas is coming up after so I’m probably gonna claim that as my one present.
And everyone’s gonna come to your place thinking you’re tracking a serial killer or something.
Ha exactly. It all makes sense [creepy voice followed by laughter].
Any last words, thoughts, shoutouts?
Shout out to y’alls stuff, man. I’ve always enjoyed everything you guys have done. All my friends have enjoyed every interview they’ve ever done. Like it was no big deal to crawl out of my sick bed to do this interview. You guys do good work.