By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
With beats that include everything from beatboxing to banjo, and a story-telling flow that varies from gruff rasping to dramatic singing, rapper Astronautalis has always been difficult to classify.
He's not making the pigeonholing any easier on his upcoming album, which will include sea chanteys and a song about the American Revolution.
Astronautalis (Andy Bothwell) performs in the area so frequently that it's easy to forget that the former SMU theater student moved back to his native Jacksonville, Florida, after graduating in 2003. He'll be around even more as he works with Dallas producer John Congleton to finish his new album. It features a DFW all-star lineup of guests, including Midlake drummer McKenzie Smith, pianist Sean Kirkpatrick, Polyphonic Spree flutist Audrey Easley and violinist Tamara Cauble, and Sarah Jaffe. Bothwell described the production as more dynamic and melodramatic, downplaying the country influence so noticeable on 2006's The Mighty Ocean and Nine Dark Theaters.
He's hoping to finish it by spring to give New Jersey's Eyeball Records plenty of time to promote it for a fall release.
Tell me about the new album.
Making records with all my friends, it was kind of more just like playing around. We all came from a real makeshift, do-it-yourself indie-rock background. If we wanted some funky-sounding drums, we would just record it through the shittiest microphone we could find in a trash heap. Or if we wanted reverb, we would just record it in a back alley. It was a lot more goofing off and having fun, and the process was a lot longer. Working with John, it's a lot more efficient. A lot more work, a lot less play.
One thing your Web site mentions is some of the new songs are sea chanteys.
My last record was entirely about me. It was really inwardly focused and was about my life growing up in Florida...For this next record, I want it to be really opposite. So I had a couple rules for all 12 songs. I didn't want to have any true stories about me. I wanted them to be all fictional and outwardly focused. So a couple of them turned into sea chanteys.
There's one that's probably my favorite song, "The Secrets of the Undersea Bell," about a diving bell that goes down underwater with a man that never comes back up and kills them all. Yeah. Definitely classic sea chantey material.
I've been writing most of my songs in the library or researching on Wikipedia.
Can you tell me about the song that's about the American Revolution?
It's about the Battle of Trenton...There was a whole garrison of Hessian forces, and the Americans had a spy inside the Hessian forces who basically pumped them full of false information that the Americans were coming from the north and wouldn't attack until after Christmas. So the Hessians were off their guard, and Christmas night, the Americans came from the South and captured the whole fort. They came and showed everybody up, and it was a big turning point—not necessarily militarily, but in the confidence of the U.S. Army.
That's an interesting approach now, at such a difficult time, when so many people are just embarrassed to be American.
I would be lying if I said that wasn't part of the motive for me. I do catch a lot of shit, because I am a pretty patriotic guy. I've been doing a lot of research for this, and I've always been pretty obsessed with American history. One of the things I've learned in the past few years is that it's a much more complicated issue than people in our generation make it out to be. It's so easy for people to write off Andrew Jackson, because of the horrible genocide against the Indians, which is just awful and terrible. But at the same time, he made a lot of steps for civil rights of black citizens in America. So it's a complex issue...I think it's interesting to look at these men and realize that they are great men, but they are just men.
How are you doing your backing music on this tour?
I always controlled a lot of music from my laptop with turntables and drum machines. Now it's kind of a middle ground where it's just me onstage with a laptop. When you've got a backing band, it gets expensive.
I'm trying to figure out ways to make the show new and interesting for myself and everyone involved but still keep it a solo show. I think it's going to take a more theatrical route in the fall. Right now it's more of a standard rap show, but hopefully by the fall I can launch the vision that I have of it being more like a self-help meeting gone horribly awry or a church rally with booze.