Q + A with Astronautalis

Rapper Andy Bothwell, better known for his stage name of Astronautalis, had an idea to visit all fifty states for a tour. Twelve years later, he and his crew are making that idea a reality. Astronautlis will tour every state in the U.S in just three months. Indiana was state number six as they headlined at the Hi-Fi September 14th following the Oxymorons and Yoni Wolf. PATTERN had a chat with Bothwell about his childhood, writing style, and of course, science.

Aubrey Smith:  Would you credit your hip-hop roots to growing up being exposed to urban culture in Jacksonville?

Andy Bothwell: I certainly wouldn’t be a rapper today if I didn’t grow up in and around a black community. I was born in the D.C./Maryland area, and I lived in a tiny middle-of-nowhere country town in the middle of Maryland. If I had stayed there, my life would have been completely different. I moved to Jacksonville and went to a school in the inner city. I was thrown into the deep-end of southern black culture. That was a huge influence for me.

AS: So it was a complete culture shock…

AB: F*ck yeah! It was terrifying. I went to this school called Maple Middle School. The year before they had a riot in the lunchroom. I went to this cute little country day school in Maryland, the easiest little thing in the world. The ideal public school. And then I went to Maple Middle and there was a student day-care for students with kids. I’m talking 12 and 13-year-olds with kids. The first day I was there, this huge black kid just slammed me up against the locker and was like, ‘what’s up white boy?’ I was f*cking terrified. But ultimately, that was one of the best things that ever happened to me. I’m infinitely thankful for that experience. It was a crazy culture shock at first. I know the kind of person I would have become if I had stayed in that homogenous community in Maryland, and I’m not sure I would have liked that person. I like the way I turned out.

AS: How would you have turned out? Less exposed…?

AB: Yeah. I would have just known less about the world. I come from a really nice family; we’re really close. My life has been relatively stable. I saw a whole different side of the world from a first-hand personal basis at a young age. That is something that has built an empathy and understanding in me that I don’t think I would have necessarily had. I think being immersed into a different culture at that age made it a lot easier for me to travel. That has been a continuing thing in my life now; I get off on that. I like going and being out of place. I like traveling to countries where I stand out.

AS: I remember the first time I realized I was a minority in a setting. It’s strange but a comforting feeling.

AB: Yeah you have to figure it out. It’s important because we’re normally not. Normally, we’re very comfortable in existence. Especially being Americans. Especially being white Americans. So it’s really important to get your f*cking teeth kicked in every once in a while and realize you’re way out of your comfort zone. You have to figure it out. I feel really lucky to have been able to do that.

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AS: So you freestyled every day from age 12 to 18. Can you recall some of the topics you rapped about?

AB: I would freestyle along to songs and emulate other rappers when I first started out. But then it got to the point where my friends would point at things and say – ‘rap about that,’ ‘now rap about that.’ As it got more ridiculous and abstract, they would have me battle myself. Like one guy is wood and one guy is water. They would tell me to ‘battle each other’ and then do it over this weird beat. I would hang out and skateboard or graffiti with my friends, but I wasn’t good at skateboarding or graffiti. But they recognized I was good at this. So when we were tired of skating, they would have me freestyle. They would jump in every once in a while for me to catch my breath. It was them that constantly pushed me. It’s like if you didn’t know you had legs and you learned how to walk. You would just walk all the time. You know? It was something that I didn’t know I could do. Once I figured out how to do it, I just wanted to do it all the time. It felt great. It’s exciting when you get over the initial hump of learning a new thing. You realize that you’re progressing really fast with this. Every day that I worked on this, I got better at it. Which is a really satisfying sensation. I got to a point in the first few years where it felt like every time I did it, I got better. So I wanted to do it all the time and see how good I could get at it.

AS: Was it your friends that pushed you into making this a career?

AB: Well it was my friend, who is now my manager, Brock. He was my roommate in Texas. I was going to school for theater to be a director and lighting designer for theater, opera, and ballet. So I was doing music just for fun. We were booking shows together just for fun. He was the one who saw something in my work that was something more. He pushed me to play in shows. When I graduated, I got offered to do the Warped Tour in 2003. He said to try it because even if we didn’t like it, whatever. He was about to quit his job anyway and I could go back to school for theater. And since 2003, we haven’t stopped.

AS: Where did the interest in opera come from?

AB: Just from being in an arts school. I went to a school in a theater conservatory, so you worked from 9 a.m. or earlier until midnight when they closed the building. Then you would go home and work on other projects. It was non-stop. It was 18 to 22 credit hours per semester. It was a super intense schedule. When you weren’t working on your own classwork, you were working on your own stuff. I was doing work-studies on light engineering. I was hanging lights for the ballet and opera pieces as well as doing stage management when I could to earn extra money. We were all sharing spaces, so I got to know these people and work on their projects. So as a result, I became interested in anything performance. When I was young, I was really into free and beat poetry. Anything that was without form – kind of post-modern. As I got older, I grew to respect the traditional form. I became much more interested in classical theater, opera and ballet. Or really anything that is strict in form.

C32A9907AS: So hard work is definitely a common theme in your key to success. Do you believe that’s your biggest attribute in your musical career?

AB: I think I work harder than most people, but I don’t think I work as hard as others. I work hard at things I like doing, but it is a real pain to get me to do stuff I don’t like doing. Fortunately I like doing most of the stuff that circle in and around my job. My success is a partnership. It’s me and Brock. The things that I don’t want to work hard at, he is really good at. I wouldn’t have even gotten off the starting block if it weren’t for him. There are other things that I think are uniquely me, but ultimately I think the reality of the situation is the balance that we struck between us.

AS: Did your theater studies in college push you further in a certain musical direction?

AB: It definitely made me less afraid to push myself creatively. It made me chase that high. The high that you get from really pushing yourself mentally and emotionally in the process of creation is a real singular joy. Creation isn’t fun necessarily; it’s like an exercise. But you get a runner’s high after you break through the pain. When things start to come together, it’s an incredible euphoria. That was something I learned in theater and then applied to my music later after I graduated from my university. There’s performance theory and vocal training that I apply to the shows. I taught myself how to sing through theater speech training. But I think the biggest thing to take away from all of it is the process of a product environment I was around in theater. It was about pushing your boundaries and being OK with failure. It’s a little different now because my music is inherently a commercial business. If someone is touring, selling records, making t-shirts, don’t let them fool you. It’s commercial. Any person that gets on a pulpit in an interview and says it’s not about the money but is selling t-shirts is a liar. And they’re lying to themselves more than anything. It is a business, and I want to be making songs for an audience. There are other things that factor into this. I want to sleep at night; I want to be happy with myself. I want to make songs I’m proud of. I want to make songs that explore things within me that push myself and the audience. But at the end of the day, I am making songs for an audience. Whether the impact of the audience is to make them have a great time, feel terribly sad, or to make them think about the world at large, the goal is the audience. That’s something that I took from theater training.

C32A9951AS: Some of your lyrics are reflective in the balance of science and religion. Are there particular scientists or religious leaders you follow or study?

AB: I really like Isaac Newton, not particularly because of the incredible myriad of discoveries he made. But the thing that’s super cool to me about Isaac Newton is that in addition to all of the legitimate discoveries that he made, he is a host of hundreds and hundreds of insane crackpot theories of Christian numerology and alchemy that were completely wrong and not based on any science but on complete pseudo-science. To me, that shows a compulsion or desperation for further understanding. His mind is shooting out harpoons in every direction, and some of them are actually hitting things. And what’s not, he’s sort of making up ideas and reasons. He’s the quintessential scientist of the Enlightenment Age, so I really love any scientist that has a desire to push their imagination. In the Age of Enlightenment, it was chemists that were doing that. Chemistry was at its golden age. Right now it’s physicists and cosmologists that are doing that. It’s exciting for me because they feel like creative explorations or exercises in religious faith. Where you have an element of knowledge: you know how to play guitar, you know how your voice and words work. But then there is a step beyond strumming your guitar or having words come out of your mouth in a melodic pattern. It’s something that’s an indefinable canyon between that and art. That’s the same thing that Newton was doing to fill the holes in the gaps of knowledge. That’s something that also goes on in religious theory too where you believe in this book or series of books or you believe in these miracles or this oral tradition that is passed down. This is your base knowledge, and then you go beyond that and fill in holes. You ask ‘what did God mean when he said that?’ And then you sit and talk about it for a thousand years.

AS: Sounds like you have already put a lot of thought into it.

AB: I have a lot of time in the van.

AS: How would you describe your writing style and how has it progressed over the years?

AB: I try to change it for each record. I try to think of each record as a different language. Some records have been more formal in a literary style. This is the most conversational. The current way that I’m writing for my latest record is how I write when I’m drunk with my rap friends. It’s the language that I use with a certain set of friends. It’s a brash tone I can use with a certain set of friends. I can be kind of be a dick with my friends because they know I’m not a dick. Currently I’m writing in the most private version of myself. It’s the least polite and formal version of myself. It’s the most rash version of myself. That’s definitely the kind of tone and lexicon that I’m working right now. To piggyback off of the fact that I’m being the most unapologetic, I’m being full-Andy with all of the ugly bits as well. At the time, ‘This Is Our Science’ was the most open and honest thing I’ve ever made. But it was still a polished up, dating profile version of me. Now you’re getting husband Andy. The real Sunday afternoon version of me. That’s where I’m at right now. I don’t know how long I’ll be writing like this, but we’ll see where it goes.

AS: How do you feel about being so exposed and vulnerable to your audience? Are they ready for it? Are you ready for it?

AB: I think some people get really into it and some people don’t. That’s the risk you run every time. Like I said previously, I am making this for an audience, but there’s also a point where you say ‘f*ck what they think.’ I’m at a point where I have to go where this album is taking me and trust my gut.

AS: Your performances are described as complex, energetic, and whimsical. Is that your intention?

AB: Sweaty and drunk is probably more what I’m going for. It’s should be a cathartic experience for the crowd. For my records, I want them to read the lyrics. But at the show, I don’t give a sh*t. I don’t care if you know the lyrics or not. Sing along, dance, sweat, and have fun. It’s should be a live, communal experience.

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Photography by Jacob Click.

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