A Few Words with Astronautalis, Playing Vera Project on Friday

With his incredibly high-energy sets, impressive lyrical skills and the unexpected subject matter of his songs, Andy Bothwell has been steadily amassing fans for the past seven years as Astronautalis. Having only been familiar with his songs as Myspace clips and YouTube excerpts, we were blown away by his Bumbershoot set last month. Weeks after that Seattle Center set, Astronautalis released This Is Our Science, which among other accomplishments, debuted on the Billboard Charts at #41 on Hip Hop albums, at #03 on the CMJ Hip Hop Charts and at #09 on the iTunes Hip Hop Charts, rocketing Bothwell and his backing band to the next level.

Again, this might all sound like a nice case of a hard-working musician finally breaking through, but when you factor in Astronautalis’ subject matter ranges topics as broad as Russian chemist Dimitri Mendeleev and American hero Thomas Jefferson, you realize that this is anything but your typical hip-hop success story. We were lucky enough to get some time with Bothwell in advance of his much-anticipated return to Seattle this Friday at the Vera Project. As always, scroll on to keep reading and be sure to let us know your thoughts below.

A lot of your subject matter is what one might expect to hear on a They Might Be Giants album and not an indie hip hop album. What musicians do you look up to when it comes to writing intelligent lyrics?

Funny you mention They Might Be Giants, while they are not a band I listen to much at all anymore, I recall hearing their music on their music on WHFS in Maryland at a young age and being aware of how different their lyrics were from everything else I heard on 80s alternative radio.

While, I am sure that has some deep seated influence, I am more directly influenced by folks like: Bill Callahan, The Clash, Joanna Newsom, Van Morrison, The Band, The National, Ghostface Killah, The Thermals, Tom Waits, and P.O.S.

Speaking of fleshing out subjects, is there a usual process, or maybe even a few processes, that an idea goes from being just that to becoming part of a song?

My song writing process and my album creation process are pretty closely linked, and draw a lot from my training to be a director in theater. I was never in a garage band or anything, so, the idea of just jamming from a raw emotional state is very foreign to me. While I am pretty self-taught in the craft of music, I learned most of my creative process from directing.

I often spend months and years immersing myself in research before I ever start on songs. I am a hopeless nerd that way, I need a thesis or an objective (to use theater speak) in order to focus the scope of the song. Once I feel like I have a corkboard full of inspiration and research in my mind, and an objective to funnel it through, the songs tend to come pretty quickly from then on.

At what point do you (presumably) just give up on a song if its feeling too forced or just isn’t working for one reason or another?

I never really give up on songs, if I hit a wall, I will push for a few hours more, but after I have stayed up all night, I just stop and let it rest. I am often working on 10-12 songs at once. I almost never finish a song in one sitting. So, if a song isn’t working, and I still believe in the concept or the story, I just put it to the back burner and pick it up another time. From start to finish, it probably takes me one to three months to really say a song is done…but a few have taken years.

Your set at Bumbershoot had some of the best energy we saw the entire weekend. How do you get ready to go on stage and what in your mind makes a great Astronautalis show?

Again, a lot of theater comes into play, and it really comes down to just knowing what I am there for. Rap music is tough to convey live, the combination of huge bass tones, and dense lyrics often make it impossible to really communicate specific song details, so I try to work in broad strokes of emotion. I don’t expect the crowd to catch every detail and turn of phrase, but I know the heart of the song, and nail it…they should get it. Like watching a foreign movie with the subtitles off, you may miss some nuance, but you can still be emotionally invested. With all that being said…I know a show is great when it is like evangelical snake handler church service…with more whiskey.

Of the hundreds of acts at Bumbershoot, did your touring and festival schedule allow you to see any on your list? Anyone impress you in particular?

While Phantogram was my favorite new discovery, (good lord that band is sexy as all get out), and I want Dam Funk to DJ every party I ever host…including my funeral, watching the homie Macklemore play to a packed out basketball arena was something I’ll never forget. Seeing him grasp the enormity of his accomplishments, and watching him be empowered and shocked by that reality…that was pure magic. I get goosebumps just thinking about it.

As a Seattle based blog, we have to ask… what prompted you to leave and what’s the chance of your return?

I had been in Seattle for three years, and it had a been a great home for me, but I am not very good at sitting still and repeated trips Minneapolis compelled me to pack up and head east. I can’t say if I would ever move back, but I have returned several times since I moved, so it seems I am not very good at staying gone either. The siren song of Vivace Coffee, The Redwood, and Imperial Foot Massage will always have me crawling back to haunt your hills.

Congrats on all of the success of This Is Our Science. Has this tour been different from past as result of the album’s critical acclaim, impressive downloads and response from fans?

Yes! The cities that are traditionally rough shows have quickly become fruitful, and the cities that have always been good, have become astoundingly great. It is a pretty mind blowing wave of affirmation to have grinded for seven years on tour and to finally see all that effort, all those miles in the van, and all those nights on couches and floors finally pay off. I haven’t had to eat ramen once on this tour, people sing a long every night, and when it is all done, I don’t have to sleep in the car. I am as happy as can be.

Anything in particular you’re looking to see or do in Seattle?

Vivace, Redwood, Imperial Foot massage.

Any Seattle musicians or bands that you’re particularly enjoying at the moment?

I just played in a different room in the same venue as The Head and The Heart last night and I am really impressed by their work. I am sucker for a four part harmony. I regularly revisit the Dark Time Sunshine album from Chicago beat maker Zavala and Seattle’s Onry Ozzborne, and i will always be ready for a new Love As Laughter album.

What’s next through the end of the year and beyond?

Finishing the album for my band with P.O.S called “Four Fists”, making a new mixed tape, touring endlessly, and of course: Vivace, Redwood, and Imperial Foot Massage.

10/7 Astronautalis @ Vera Project :: Doors at 7:30 PM :: Tickets are $11 :: All Ages

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