By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
To call Astronautalis a local product is a dubious statement. The rapper is considered a local in no fewer than three other markets: Jacksonville, Florida, where he was raised; Seattle, where he recently lived for a spell; and Minneapolis, where he's based. Dallas owns the following distinctions: Andy Bothwell, the man behind the moniker, graduated from Southern Methodist University with a degree in theater directing and lighting design; he performs around the region regularly enough that many fans still consider him a local; and, if recent history is any indication, he's a good bet to return to town every few years for a week or so to record an album in the recording studio led by Oak Cliff-based producer John Congleton (acclaimed for his work with St. Vincent, The Walkmen, This Will Destroy You, Sarah Jaffe and others).
Such is the nature of Astronautalis. Not a lot about the 29-year-old rapper is easy to describe.
Take, for instance, his just-released full-length, This Is Our Science, an 11-track masterpiece of introspection and concentrated bursts of energy. Its name and repeated use of scientific boom and bust stories as allegory would have you believe it's an album rooted in a single theme. Maybe it is — in the same way that his 2008 release, Pomegranate, was an album about history because of its references to the American Revolution and, specifically, the Battle of Trenton. This Is Our Science references plenty of scientific topics, among them astronomical phenomena, early forays into geography and the scientist Dmitri Mendeleev, the man who created the first periodic table of the elements; Mendeleev is given the honor of having a whole song named after him. But here's the thing about that song: Lest you're specifically seeking out the clues Bothwell drops about the song's titular figure, you're likely to miss them. They're not integral to the overall arch of the album, nor its message.
"It isn't some noble goal to bring science to the indie hip-hop community," Bothwell says over the phone from Portland, Maine, where his band is rehearsing for their current tour. "That's certainly not the goal. It's just a constant theme in all of my records. Whether they're about science or about history or about the kids that I grew up with or whatever, the constant theme is people with passion and people with drive — people that are impassioned about something and maybe even fail at it. Those are the things and the kinds of people that I'll always be fascinated with, and, to be frank, as someone who enjoys telling a good story, those are the people who make good stories. I certainly don't hope that someone will listen to this album and say, 'Oh, man, I've got to read up on this scientist.' I hope what they notice is that there's passion in everything, whether music or history or skateboarding or theater or discovering chemical elements."
That is the prevailing takeaway from the album, as Astronautalis champions the underdogs and their mentalities in overcoming obstacles. But right there with that thread is another interesting one that can again be chalked up to Astronautalis' indefinable nature: This Is Our Science is only vaguely a rap album.
Make no mistake: It's not rap-rock, either. Rather, it's almost post-rap: Bothwell sings as much as he raps, and there's a darker, more rock-oriented vibe throughout the album — much more so than the traditional backpacker hip-hop tone proffered by some many of Astronautalis' contemporaries. There's also the musicianship heard throughout the disc; very little of the album is sample- or even electronically based, thanks to the string of musicians who came through Congleton's studio throughout the recording process.
This Is Our Science was hardly created in the vein of a traditional rap album, in which tracks were simply provided, rapped over and then mixed and mastered in post-production. Members of Midlake and other performers, including Congleton and his Paper Chase bandmate Sean Kirkpatrick (currently of Nervous Curtains), recorded their parts live based off of the song skeletons that Astronautalis accrued and the arrangements Congleton helped configure.
That's the main reason Astronautalis has enlisted a backing band while on tour, a relatively new addition to his already impressive, if logistically simple, live show. He wants to be able to properly present this collection of songs in a live setting, so his live band has been configured to resemble a traditional rock set-up more than a funked-up hip-hop one.
"It's definitely not hip-hop," Bothwell says. "The goal is not to be The Roots. What the world needs ten thousand less of is white kids trying to be The Roots. It's the most annoying thing in the world. And, having come up in a time when The Roots really changed the whole community of rap bands, it's terrible. Some of them really pull it off, but most of them don't. The difference is that, for one thing, I don't have a trombone in my band. It's definitely more punk rock. It borrows a lot more from The Hold Steady than it does from The Roots."
He says he likes the flexibility he gains in combining the genres. It affords him the chance to experiment — on stage and live, sure, but certainly in the studio.
"The beauty of making music these days is Apple-Z," he says, referring the Apple computer shortcut command for undoing an action. "You can try whatever you want, and if you're just like, 'Wow, that sounds terrible!' you can just undo it with Apple-Z and try something new."
Mostly, he says, his desire to experiment and explore is what inspired both This Is Our Science and Pomegranate. Each album's theme was the direct result of an interesting fact he'd heard fast becoming an obsession.
"When I make a record, I look at it as a big cork board in my mind," Bothwell says. "I read all these books, I check Wikipedia pages. Something registers with me in a book and I go look it up online and I read about it and I listen to radio shows and watch television and listen to audiobooks — I just immerse myself in it. When I'm making a record, I don't read other things. I just get so excited."
"Now, I'm excited not to read science books anymore."
So what's next then? What's his obsession now?
"Pretty much after drilling myself with science books for the last couple of years, as soon as it was done, I started diving into fantasy novels," Bothwell says. "I'm halfway through Book Four of A Song of Ice and Fire, which is the book that the TV show Game of Thrones is based off of. It's called A Feast For Crows. And, man, it's good."
It'd be an interesting direction for Astronautalis to take, perhaps. Just another wrinkle in his already tough-to-describe ways.
And, hey, it might happen.
Or maybe not: "Oh, heaven help me if I make a fantasy novel record," Bothwell says with a laugh.
What's the big worry? Worst case scenario, if it sucks, there's always Apple-Z.