Astronautalis aka Andy Bothwell was born and raised as a Florida Boy and had every opportunity to become what you’d call a »respectable man«. He has a degree in arts, worked as a substitute teacher and in several other jobs, but then decided to just give a damn and live by rap music. The last 7 years he spent mostly on the road, collecting marvelous stories for his songs and putting all his heart and effort into performing his music, traveling with nothing but a a friend and a laptop with his beats on it. His new record »This is our science« just came out and hit the charts right away, not only thanks to the exceptional combination of original rap music with a wide range of genres and vividly adventurous lyrics. A few very hard working and passionate people and a huge and growing fan base made it possible to promote the record internationally without a big label or any promotion campaigns. Nadine sat down with Astronautalis the night before his show in Berlin, each in front of their laptop screens to do an interview (and a real-time transcription) about rap music, his new record and DIY-touring.
Nadine (Beatpunk Webzine): Imagine someone hasn’t heard your new record yet. What should they expect? Just give me a few catch phrases.
Andy Bothwell (Astronautalis): I wanted the record to sound like I was talking to an old friend, someone I haven’t seen in a decade. We are sitting on the front porch of my brother’s old house in Gainesville, Florida, sipping whiskey on a warm Florida night, and I am telling you what I have been doing with my life for the last 10 years. Which is, mostly touring, sweating, collecting tattoos, and making marvelous mistakes.
I always heard those stories that you recorded your first record in a bathroom. Tell me about that.
That is true. In my parent’s bathroom actually. It was the autumn after I finished college and my first tour, and we had booked a solo tour to follow it up…but I didn’t have a real album… just some bedroom demos and live freestyles recorded. So, my friend Radical Face and I set out to knock out an album of everything I had written thus far in time for the tour…on a $150 mic, a broken 8 track, and in the only studio space we could find… my parent’s bathroom. That produced my first record, »You And Yer Good Ideas« …those are roots to be proud of, I think?
So while your first records were more self-made, on your new one you’ve collabos with P.O.S, Sims, Tegan Quin and many more, and you chose the name »This is our science« because there were so many people involved. On the other hand, you have written very personal lyrics for this one. How did that feel to you, wasn’t that some kind of paradox?
The record is basically an explanation as to how I have become the person I am today, and how I have made the choice to live very far outside the normal lines of an »american life«. I live on the road, I get dumb tattoos in visible places, I don’t know if I will ever be able to buy a house, or live what has become the »american dream« and I am okay with that. While the choices that have lead me here where all mine, I was inspired and encouraged by many friends, family members, and total strangers, so it was very important to include them not only in the content of the album but in the creation of the songs as well. This album is filled with stories from my life…but the science belongs to all of us.
So it actually does make a lot of sense.
I like to think so.
One of the trademarks of your last records was that you’ve processed your massive knowledge about pretty much everything into your lyrics, referring to literature or dead people. You still did that on the new record, but mixed it with your personal lyrics. How do you put those things together? Do you imagine someone else in your shoes or mix your own thoughts with the ones of a fictitious personality?
I think with the previous record, »Pomegranate«, I put myself in other people’s lives, projecting my emotions on to the facts of history. With the new record, I used history more as evidence to prove a point, or in some cases, to leave the the listener a trail of inspiration to follow between the beginning of my life on tour and where I am today. The references to historical figures and stories through out »This Is Our Science« serve more as footnotes to my own life, as opposed to films which I project my own emotions through …if that makes sense.
You’ve mostly toured DIY in the past, played in squats, youth centers and punks clubs. How did that happen?
I was not raised in the politics of DIY, we just DIY’d because no one else would »D« it for me, you know? We had no other options, and a burning desire to create and tour. So we just did it our damn selves. Which lead us to other people who were doing it themselves as well, and from there I learned more and more about the culture of DIY in America and found it to be something that really inspired me. But all of that was blown out of the water by the European DIY and squat scene. Seeing what squatters and devoted folks can achieve, that was truly inspiring. We started out touring this way because these were the only people that would have us but in that, we found a home. It is an exciting thing.
So you feel a connection to your personal background there. But what about your music, did you ever feel like it »didn’t fit in« in that scene?
I tend to genre-hop so much in my music, it doesn’t totally fit in anywhere. It isn’t hip hop enough for some rap fans, it is too hip hop for some indie kids. It is too poppy for the punks, and too punk for pop. So, it doesn’t really have a home in the traditional sense. However, the thing I like the most about DIY scenes worldwide, is that the need to get things done often transcends scenes and genres, so often times, the crowds and the organizations attending and putting on my shows are as weird and diverse as the songs on my records. My music fits in best with motivated weirdos.
You’ve been on tour with Tegan & Sara once, that was quite a difference experience I guess?
TOTALLY! Those two women have done SO much to help my career and my art… in ways much bigger than just letting me open up for them in front of crowds of thousands. My music and show is so different from theirs, it says a lot that they would come out of their own pockets to put me on stage in front of their teenage girl audience and let me yell in their faces every night for several tours. While 90 % of those shows were amazing… you haven’t really lived until you have made 2000 teenage girls recoil in terror at once.
And now that you hit the charts with the new record, been on MTV, do you think you could get used to that?
There are parts of it that I could get used to. Having shows packed full of people who sing every word of my songs, that is something I could get used to. There is an increase of stress that comes with that shit… I worry a lot and when the stakes get increased like that, I worry more. I tour with a full band now in America, I have employees, there is more riding on this than just my ability to get free drinks, you know? I want it to work, and it can stress me out when it doesn’t. But when I get too stressed out, I hire 2000 girls to yell at me. Then I am relaxed in no time.
Your music is mostly described as indie-rap, in Germany you probably heard alternative hip-hop a lot, too. How do you feel towards the mainstream hip-hop or those rappers in particular? How do you (try to) distinguish yourself from that?
I love rap music, in all genres and styles. I am a rapper by trade, but I got into that because I was a rap fan first. Many »indie-rap« fans will not understand this, but most of the »indie-rappers« they love, don’t listen to much »indie rap«. I listen to the music my friends make, and southern gangster rap… this is the stuff that excites me. As for trying to distinguish myself, that is something I tried to do actively when I was younger, but now, I just try to make the most honest music I can, and trust that putting myself and my tastes out there in the song will be more than enough to separate me from everyone else. I hope.
And you made this awesome record »dancehallhornsound!«, your gangsta-rap record.
Yes! Expect a second one of those this year!
You’ve moved from Seattle to Minneapolis last year, which could be claimed as the capital of alternative hip-hop with Rhymesayers and Doomtree. Did that influence your new record a lot?
I actually moved to Minneapolis AFTER I finished my record, but my trips to visit there before moving were very influential in the direction of my latest record. Travelling to Minneapolis a lot to work on my side project with P.O.S introduced me to that amazing city and those amazing circles of musicians and the thing that inspired me most was this city wide support for music. But it wasn’t just blind localism, people make great work and the great work gets heralded greatly. On top of all of that, Minneapolis is not a city people often think about in the world, and there is this beautiful attitude in that city where they know they will never be NYC or L.A., and they don’t give a fuck. MSP always seems to think, »Why would we want to be NYC or LA, when our city is way better than those places? Fuck them«. If that doesn’t inspire and excite you then you are dead inside.
The song »This is our science« is also about personal progress, being restless and driven in one’s personal life. Do you think you’ll get to a point in your life/career where you’ll feel settled?
God, I hope not. I think that I am actually pushing myself over that cliff right now. It may be too far to turn back. One of the darker undercurrents in the album is the fear that my devotion to my work might make me a better artist, but a worse friend. I doubt I will ever settle in my work, the worry is that I may abandon a lot of other parts of my life in the process.
Has DIY-touring ever brought you into an awkward situation you didn’t wanna be in? Maybe one of the marvelous mistakes you’ve mentioned?
Many times! All the time! For better and for worse, DIY touring leaves you hopelessly dependent on the kindness of strangers and the mercy of the universe. Sometimes, that can all blow up in your face when you find yourself sleeping in the car in some strange parking lot in the middle of the winter. But most times, I find myself meeting new, and marvelous people from all over the damn world who love nothing more than good music, late nights, and marvelous stories. Problems will come… but they’re always pale next to the rest.
Your live shows are usually quite intense and energetic, you’ve always used your entertaining skills to make up for the lack of a whole band. Now that you’re on tour with your buddy BLEUBIRD, what can we expect? And most important: Will there be kittens on stage?
There will be no kittens on stage… the stage will BE kittens! Yes! The whole stage! Made all out of kittens! We will not perform any songs, we will just roll around in a sea of kittens, wearing bow ties for about an hour or so. Sorry if this disappoints people who want to hear songs and see raps, but we didn’t spend 345 million dollars smuggling 8,956,576 kittens into the EU just to rap some songs about girls, whiskey, and american history.
So your last answer here will be, no matter what, kittens will always be better than anything else?
That isn’t just my last answer… it is what I want engraved into my tombstone, when I die and turn into an angel.