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Astronautalis on how rappers need to kill their idols

(Photo: Cameron Wittig)

In Under The Influence, The A.V. Club asks a musician to pair three of their songs with a non-musical influence.

For over a decade, Andy Bothwell, rapping under the name Astronautalis, has worked gleefully on the fringes of genres and scenes. It also took Bothwell years to find a home that made sense for him, as he’s moved across the country time and again while jumping between record labels with seemingly each release. For now, he appears to be settled—both in Minneapolis, home to the long-running rap label Rhymesayers as well as his frequent collaborators Doomtree, and on SideOneDummy Records. Although SideOneDummy has long specialized in punk, Astronautalis makes perfect sense there, with his songs that reference punk and indie rock as quickly as rap.


Cut The Body Loose, Astronautalis’ first record in five years, is his most visceral and primal album yet. It comes on the heels of Jason Feathers, his collaboration with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, where he adopted the persona of an eccentric Southern rapper, something Bothwell’s Florida upbringing shows he was tailor made for. The A.V. Club talked to Bothwell about three tracks from Cut The Body Loose, each showing the rapper’s evolution and myriad influences.

Song: “Kurt Cobain” (Cut The Body Loose, 2016)
Influence: Terrance Hayes’ poem “What It Look Like

The A.V. Club: When did you first discover this poem?

Astronautalis (Andy Bothwell): It kind of fell in my lap in a strange way. This literary publication called Litro does this audio series where they get non-writers to read poems, and they record it. They picked that for me. One of the editors or writers for the publication was a fan, and he was like, “Are you familiar with this writer at all? I really think you should read this poem.” I think he did it because he just wanted me to hear it and wanted me to read it. I had never heard of the poet—I had never heard of the poem—and I read the poem, and it’s so, so good.


The big deal for me and my record, and the most crucial piece of any record that I make, is trying to find the language that I write in for the actual album. And I try to change it every record, and I try to make dynamic shifts in it, and it’s always the hardest thing to figure out, to find the voice for the record. But when I do find it, the record writes a lot faster. Everything starts to come really fast after I make it over that hurdle. It really sets the tone, not only musically, but content-wise. It just sort of shapes everything really quickly.

A lot of my stuff I write in linear thought and storytelling. I think very linearly, I write academically. I really wanted to break that habit for this record and focus more in the way a traditional rapper writes around a subject. It’d be more impression than actual thesis and argument and conclusion. When I read that poem, he set such an incredible tone and makes such an incredible series of points. It’s so impactful but really scattershot. What’s so beautiful to me about that poem is that, on the whole, it’s this really impressive piece of work, but you could just take two lines out of it and make these incredible little couplets, little haikus out of sections. And in that sense, it feels like rap, in that it’s almost like punchlines. But then it creates this big song. And I’m clearly someone who’s aware of that culture. Starting off with the reference to Ol’ Dirty Bastard. But it just felt like rap, it felt like, “This is the angle to think about.” So that was the seed that germinated in my head that allowed me to write “Kurt Cobain,” which really dictated and shaped the language of the rest of the record.

AVC: He has the line, “Never mistake what it is for what it looks like,” and that seems to influence a lot of the lines in “Kurt Cobain.” How he could smash all those guitars because he was “rich as fuck.” This song seems to focus on perception and the nature of authenticity. Once you found that thread, how did it all come together?


AB: That is, in a lot of ways, sort of the backbone of the entire record—when you come to the realization that our perception of things dictate so much, and what we perceive as authentic or real isn’t necessarily authentic or real, or questioning of authenticity and our questioning of authority, and all of these things.

Later on the record, I have a conversation with this girl from this squat, and then I would go into this part in that conversation when she was telling me it’s a legal venue in Switzerland that’s really famous. It’s been open for 20 years. It’s a beautiful venue. It’s a 2,000-cap main room, 250 club room, a gorgeous restaurant attached to it with artist housing, and everybody gets paid the same. If you’re a janitor but you want to be a engineer, they send you to engineering school. And it’s completely illegal. And it’s been open for 20 years. And every few years, some politician tries to shut it down. And I asked her, “What do you do? What do you do when they try to shut it down?” She’s like, “Well, we fight them. The cops come and we fight them.” And they fight the cops. They literally throw bricks at cops to keep their club open. And they continue to win for 20 years. I’m like, “That’s insane. You fight the cops?” And she goes, “Well, what do you do when the cops come to your house?” I’m like, “Everyone just gets arrested. We can’t fight them because we’ll get shot.” And she was just like, “But why?” There’s no good answer. They work for you. You paid them. Why are they shooting you? And it’s like, there’s no good answer to this. Then explaining squatters’ rights, she’s like, “I don’t get it. There’s homeless people in America, right?” I’m like, “Yeah, tons.” She’s like, “Yeah, but isn’t there all of these abandoned buildings and houses in Detroit. Can’t people just go live in those?” I mean, no! But why? And all these questions, like, why do we allow these things to happen? Why do we allow this myth to keep us in line or in order?


So that song is really about that and that line, and that poem really encapsulates that concept of “Why are we allowing ourselves to fall for these things?”—in small ways and in big ways. This is probably the most direct stand I’ve taken on any record. I try to ask more questions than give answers or solutions. While I have my own opinion on things, I try not to proselytize on a record. I think it’ll make it boring and backfire. So that line in that poem really manages to hit the nail on the head. There’s a really great line in the poem about comparing how a bandana and handkerchief are alike but not the same. I can’t remember how it goes. And he’s just like, “A handkerchief is a small-ass bandana” or something. It’s really so good. That really encapsulates that idea of, “Yeah, you think this is a bandana, but it’s actually just a useless piece of friggin’ fabric, too small to do anything with.”

AVC: Elsewhere in the song you say, that “Rap is dead / Punk is dead,” which seems to be your way of pushing back against people who claim ownership over a movement.


AB: Yeah, because ultimately, the exclamation that punk is dead or rap is dead is old people self-eulogizing. Ultimately, punk is not dead. Punk is never dead. Punk is only dead if you don’t look at it. ’Cause, the thing is, sure, it’s really easy to say punk is dead, but it’s like, it’s easy to say “Punk is dead” in London or New York City, where it’s a fashion choice. But when you go to Eastern Europe, and you have people fighting cops to start night clubs, that doesn’t get any more punk, my man. And it’s way more punk than the Sex Pistols ever fucking were. That shit is still alive and well. Nas came out with Hip Hop Is Dead a couple of years ago, and it was like, “Nah, man, rap’s not dead, dude. New York is dead. Your rap is dead.” The most exciting rap music that’s been made in decades is going on in the Midwest and the South and in places that people ignore, and no one at that time… like, L.A. has a bit of a renaissance right now, and New York kind of gets a little bit now, because of people like the A$AP Mob and stuff, but ultimately, nah, rap wasn’t dead—your rap was dead, homie. Sorry, that’s ’cause you can’t write a good chorus. Get outta here. And I love Nas, but he’s just an old man.

That same thing with Jay Z writing “D.O.A. (Death Of Auto-Tune)” but then having his song with Auto-Tune on it like fucking three years later. Get the fuck outta here, man! Grandpa! It’s cool, but you’re old. And the thing is, I am, too. There’s a line in “Kurt Cobain” about Andre 3000 saying rap is a young man’s game. I mean, that’s super interesting to me that—I couldn’t possibly worship Andre 3000 any harder. I remember reading an interview with him after Outkast broke up talking about rap is a young man’s game, like, “I don’t want to be up there being 65 telling people to put their hands in the air.” And what’s really interesting is to watch, since he’s made those comments, he has done nothing but release some of the gnarliest, most insane rap verses on rap-ass rap tracks. Just putting out guest verses on people’s songs like “Int’l Player’s Anthem.” He’s just rapping his brains out. Like, the best raps he’s ever done in his life, and he’s doing it with rappin’-ass rappers, not even weirdo rappers, like straight-up Southern gangsta rappers. And it’s a really interesting thing to see. Clearly, there’s got to be some sort of internal struggle, because at the same time while he’s doing this, while he’s dropping these amazing verses, he’s not putting out an album. You would assume there is some sort of internal struggle going on there, where he is hitting his stride as a rapper, but he probably feels awkward because he’s getting old, you know? It’s got to be a weird thing to balance. It’s a weird transition to make.


Song: “Running Away From God” (Cut The Body Loose, 2016)
Influence: Expect Resistance

AVC: “Running Away From God” is partially inspired by your experience at the aforementioned venue, but it seems similar to “Kurt Cobain” in that it rejects the way things are supposed to be.


AB: My last record was, at that point, the most autobiographical thing I had done. I strove really hard to make it autobiographical, but I kind of like looking back on it now, and I’m really proud of that record. It is autobiographical, but it’s sort of Job Interview Andy, or Dating Profile Andy—me sort of polished up and presentable. It’s me with a dress shirt on. And even when I talk about the crappy qualities about myself, I’m doing it in a wistful, romantic way. And this record is really very much me. It was allowing myself to be publicly angry and publicly frustrated, which is a thing I don’t allow myself to be very often. I try to be a nice guy. [Laughs.]

That was the challenge of the record, that was a really scary thing for me to be on a record. With that being said, I think a lot of people my age are in a bit of a limbo. It’s weird being in your 30s anyway, and halfway between having a living and having a career. And it’s a weird time to be alive. I think as a culture, we’re struggling to find our place in the world as a whole. I have the luxury of getting to travel and to tour all over. Because of the way I tour, my tours are DIY, and probably half the shows I play when I go to Europe I play for money, and there’s a big chunk of them I play because we want to go there. There’s no money for us in Romania or Slovakia or whatever. But we want to go there, and we want to explore those places. And one of the things I’ve learned going to all these places in Eastern Europe and going to Dubai and going to China and talking to people all over is that there’s just not one way anymore. I’ve been fed the American Dream, and I bought it wholeheartedly. Couldn’t possibly be more of a glowing example of the American Dream: Two parents that struck out on their own and worked really hard and raised a family, and I start my own thing and it slowly takes off while grinding it away. That’s the American Dream.


What was really interesting is that I—through a lot of experiences, with friends, with companies that I’ve worked for, on a larger whole—I look around and I don’t see a lot people in America doing that anymore. I see a lot of people sliding into complacency but then complaining about it. And then I go to Central Europe or Eastern Europe, and I go to places where people have real problems, really heavy and intense problems. And I’m not saying there aren’t people in America that don’t have problems, but by and large, our problems on the whole, the average American problem is significantly smaller than the average problem faced by some 18-year-old kid living in rural Romania. And ultimately, I go to these places and I see all of these people that aren’t asking for help, because there’s no help to give. Ultimately, they just go “Fuck it! No one’s gonna do it, so we’re gonna do it!” So they break into some old abandoned theater and decide to turn it into a night club. Or they start throwing weird little raves out in the forest. Or my friends that run a pretty famous old club in Hamburg, just by themselves—every few weeks they fill up a truck full of clothes that people donate and food and stuff and they go down to Croatia, to Macedonia, to donate clothes to all the refugees stuck at the border. It’s people that are self-reliant and self-motivated. That just sort of made me re-think things and look at things through a different lens back home. It’s not that I thought America was terrible or anything like that—it’s not that at all. I think America is still great, and I’m proud to be American. But a lot of the stuff that I have been taught my entire life—by school, by the world, by everything—all of a sudden this all has an asterisk by it now. And once you start seeing those asterisks, you start putting them on everything: from the music you listen to, from the people that you thought you would vote for, to the movies you watch, to the houses around you, to the shoes on your feet. At the core of the record is thousands of questions and skepticism about things and exercising that skepticism in public.


AVC: The song opens with a lot of references to New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina. How do you feel that that ties into the song’s general thesis, as it goes into that story about the club and that kind of resistance in a really positive, proactive way?

AB: Two of my friends were set to get married in New Orleans. One grew up in Mississippi, and all her life she wanted to get married in New Orleans. Funnily enough, they were like, “Cool, we’re getting married in New Orleans. It’s finally happening,” and then Katrina hit. I called her up and was like, “What are you gonna do?” She said, “I’m getting married in fucking New Orleans. There’s no ifs, ands, or buts about it.” This was two days after Katrina, and it wasn’t even a thing. It was like, “We’re getting married in fucking New Orleans, and that’s all there is to it. We’ll figure it out.” So they were set to get married six months to the day after Katrina in New Orleans, and they got married. I had just played a show the night before in Orlando, Florida, and me and my manager drove non-stop in our mini-van from Orlando to New Orleans, which is a long drive. We played a show, immediately got in the car, and drove off. No showers or nothing. We got to New Orleans, and this was before GPS. We were still touring with a trucker’s atlas. We get to New Orleans, and we were pretty pro. I would be the navigator and he would drive, and we were pretty pro at getting around, all around America, with that thing. It was my first time going to New Orleans, so we didn’t really know it to begin with, and all the street signs are gone. All of them. They’re all torn up and destroyed or turned the wrong way. And it’s so low on the totem pole of priorities getting street signs back together. So it took us two hours to find the place, and we get there basically 30 minutes before the ceremony and run into a grocery store bathroom, where we both get dressed, splash our face, and stumble into this really classy wedding in the arboretum. That sort of determination is uncommon, and it’s beautiful. Each phase of that story is about self-determination. That first verse is about that story and my friends being so devoted to the idea that they literally weren’t going to let fucking hell and high water hold them back.


And the second verse is about Slovakia. The first time I played there I played in a tiny town called Čadca. Čadca is a nothing town. Every Slovak says, “Why were you in Čadca?” It’s a mine town that went bust. And it’s up in the mountains. This guy wanted me to play there. He made a show happen. He made a club appear out of a coffee shop. He had some Finnish Klezmer band open up for me, and it was awesome. It was a really amazing night. For a group of people who don’t have two nickels to rub together, but still saved their money to come out and buy drinks and dance and get into it. Those people can’t buy merch. They’re not going to spend money on… What do they need an Astronautalis bandana for? It’s such a classic musician gripe about every time you post a tour. People are like, “Well, why aren’t you playing Topeka, Kansas?” And the answer is always, “Motherfucker, because no one will get me a show there.” I get that complaint all the time, very commonly from Americans. Whereas, if I head to Europe, you have people in Slovakia or Romania or fucking Dubai who are like, “I want you to play here. Let’s figure out how to do it.” And we make that shit work. And that’s such an inspiring thing. These guys don’t have any fucking money. They can’t just fly us in anywhere. But they make it all happen.

Each verse is about that notion. I’m continually inspired by people’s determination. And I see a lot of it going on in places that I think Westerners would least expect to see that. Oftentimes, the people that are the most determined are the people that are the most outwardly downtrodden. And that’s a really super inspiring thing, and a really nice thing to be reminded of when I’m sitting at home in a comfortable little apartment surrounded by Apple products.


Song: “Cut The Body Loose” (Cut The Body Loose, 2016)
Influence: New Orleans jazz funerals


AVC: The album’s title track is partially inspired by New Orleans jazz funerals. How did that tradition inspire the song and record as a whole?


AB: I got super into the ritual of jazz funerals, which is a whole grief ritual in and of itself. People all come together and they bring food and they meet at people’s houses, and it’s a really emotional experience. Then you have the funeral, which is just insane emotional catharsis. The body gets carried out of the church by the pallbearers in the casket, and a band is waiting outside. When the body leaves the church, the band starts playing all the way to the graveyard. The funeral procession and the band all walk together, slowly, weeping, crying, just running themselves ragged. Then you cut the body loose. You reach the graveyard, the band continues on with the funeral procession, and the pallbearers and the casket head off to the grave. Right at that point is when the music switches from a funeral dirge to “When The Saints Go Marching In,” and it becomes this party. The band continues on down the street and becomes this second line. You have all these people that just start following along. People in the street just join in, and it becomes this dance party down the middle of the road for however long it needs to be.

That construct was just so fascinating to me as a grief ritual, and it became the backbone of the entire record. It’s this idea that you get to a point where you cry and you cry and you cry and you cry, and you deal with so much shit, that you get to a point that you decide, “Yep, I can’t possibly deal with any more shit anymore. I’m done.” You just make this active decision that this is the point and you cut the body loose. That is such a beautiful notion to me.


After a lot of going back and forth, I need rules when I make a record, I need limitations, and I need structure—partly because I got most of my arts training in school—so I need assignments. So I started to think about the structure of the record and the themes I wanted to tackle and the stuff that I wanted to address, and after awhile it became clear that I want to model this record after a New Orleans jazz funeral. So what you have on the record is, up until “Cut The Body Loose,” it’s sort of a relentless barrage of angry songs and frustrated songs and venting and sadness. Even when songs are upbeat or positive, it’s a relentless barrage of disappointment, sadness, and frustration. Then you get “Cut The Body Loose,” and it’s this cathartic moment, and then it’s followed up by “Sike” and “Boiled Peanuts.” “Sike” is a straight-up party song, and “Boiled Peanuts” is this wistful romance of memory. That song is more crucial as an element of the album than it is as a stand-alone song. So the content of the song is semi-fictionalized ideas about someone going back to a disaster zone after it’s all said and done and sort of dealing with that. But ultimately, its most important function is its role within the framework and the context of the album, and how that shapes the record as a whole.

AVC: How important was it for you to have a moment like that on this record? Where instead of fighting or running, you just throw your hands up and let it overtake you.


AB: I think a lot of the first two-thirds of the record, while still emotionally raw, are intellectualizing a lot of those problems. A lot of it is dealing with stuff in a way that I would discuss that with my friends, you know? Going through it in that way that’s raw and emotional and the way a drunken political discussion can be, that’s still at its core. At the end of the day, if you’re really going through it, eventually you run out of the ability to do that. Those are the real breaking points—when you can’t think anymore, when you can’t try to mind your way out of a problem, when you just feel buried alive. And that’s when you do a rational thing like break the fuck down and cry. I know what that experience is like. It doesn’t happen often, but it’s happened in my life—where your emotions are out of control, when you just break the fuck down and you cry, and you really, really cry, and you cry like a little fucking baby. That was really important for me to have something that is that breaking point. If I’m going to really execute that breaking point well—and time will tell if I executed it well or not—it had to be emotional and raw. It couldn’t be intellectual anymore. It had to really be a gut punch. The goal was to make that song a funeral dirge. It has this weird D’Angelo backbeat to it, but I wanted it to be as raw as I could possibly make it. And I think I came close. I hope.

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