Interview: Astronautalis

Astronautalis - Photo by Kris Krug

Astronautalis - Photo by Kris Krug

It’s Valentine’s Day, and Andy Bothwell – better known in some circles as indie hip-hopper Astronautalis – is in Berlin.

For him, it can’t get much better than visiting Germany’s capital city – a place that reminds him in many ways of his current base of Minneapolis – on an admittedly commercialized but still endearing holiday.

Well, there is one thing that could make it better: a good scotch.

“I’m a scotch drinker by trade and by preference, but unfortunately, not always by wallet,” the 30-year-old said with a laugh. “And, you know, if I were to have like any drink, you know, kind of taken to a desert island right now, it would definitely be the Balvenie Doublewood.”

Of course, Bothwell is famous in certain circles, but hasn’t yet attained the kind of celebrity that would merit dropping too much money on whiskey, so he does his best to remain realistic about his drinking habits.

“When it comes down to it, my day-to-day drinking is Jim Beam. I’m a Jim Beam, rocks, water guy,” he said, admitting that beggars can’t be choosers, particularly as it pertains to a backstage rider. “As long as it’s not Jack Daniels or Johnnie Walker, I’m generally pretty interested in it. I just can’t handle either of those goddamn batches of swill.”

Bothwell is currently in the midst of a European tour with Bleubird, and undoubtedly drinking all the scotch or bourbon he can get his hands on. But whereas the last two tours in the United States have consisted of a full band, touring outside the country with an entourage isn’t necessarily monetarily viable, something which admittedly bums him out.

“I totally miss my dudes…it’s not as much fun to play without the band. The band’s the best. They’re the most fun and they make the show awesome and I would prefer to play with the band always and forever, but it’s just, unfortunately it’s the financial issue more than anything,” he said. “If I were to bring the band on tour to Europe, I would lose money, and I’m not in a position to lose money on a tour. I’m not that financially secure. So this is the glory of being indie as fuck.”

Yet even without an entourage in tow, Bothwell admitted he enjoys the challenge of having to capture and keep the attention of an audience when it’s just him on stage.

“It’s me and a laptop…it’s a lot of space to fill…it’s a lot of energy to kind of keep up,” he said, explaining the setup of his live show on this side of the Atlantic. “It’s much more like a traditional rap show as [far] as, like, arrangement goes, but then, you know, I still kind of tend to put the same sort of energy into it. It’s definitely a lot of sweat and whiskey.”

Bothwell is in Europe to support his fourth full-length, “This Is Our Science,” which was released in September of last year on Connecticut-based indie label Fake Four, Inc.

The album is unique for a handful of reasons. One is that it has not had a polarizing effect on listeners; in fact, the exact opposite can be said, with the release bridging the old fans with the new ones.

“There’s been a huge, really, you know, organic, like, word-of-mouth fan base that I’ve had for years and years and years that [knows] my music and [loves] my music,” he said. “And it was really nice to see with this record that a lot of people heard this record and they were like, ‘Holy crap! Who is this guy? Oh holy crap, He’s got four albums out?! Like, why do I not know about this guy?’ And it’s been the most exciting response from this record, more than anything.”

Another facet of “This Is Our Science” is the autobiographical aspect of the content, something which Bothwell both strived toward and struggled with during the writing.

“I definitely pushed myself to not censor myself…and there [are] moments on the record where I really feel like I hit my goal really hard, like right on the head, where I really opened up,” he said of the process. “The trick of being honest and being autobiographical and opening up is, like, you can kind of teeter on the edge of being self-indulgent and you know, just make it like a therapy session, [but] I don’t wanna just spill my guts on a record. I want it to be interesting for people and I want the problems to be universal, like I want people to listen to my problems and feel like they’re their problems as well too. I don’t want it to be therapy.”

In spite of his fears and cautions, or perhaps because of them, Bothwell feels relatively certain that he was able to walk the line in between those two extremes quite well. While he made himself vulnerable, he said it’s in a way that doesn’t alienate others, but instead allows them to latch on to the relevant parts of his lyrics and re-appropriate them accordingly.

“I’ll never get into Bright Eyes because of that reason,” he said, citing singer-songwriter Conor Oberst as someone who crosses into too-personal territory far too often. “Bright Eyes writes some brilliant songs, and there are songs that I hear that I’m just like, ‘this is amazing.’ I get so excited about individual songs, but the whole album is just like ‘oh God, cry me a river.’ It’s not his feelings are invalid or anything, it’s just like, I don’t want to hear all about your problems, you know? If I wanted to hear about your problems, you know, I would move to Omaha and try to be your friend.”

These personal triumphs – winning new fans and pleasing the old while remaining honest with himself – are the reason why Bothwell feels that “This Is Our Science” has surpassed any and all of his past releases.

“And that’s the goal,” he said. “I mean, for like an indie artist, you know, you can’t really expect, you know, a rocket to the moon with a release like this…you just can hope that the escalator that you’re on that’s taking you to the moon is speeding up and speeding up and speeding up.”

Although Bothwell is something of a poster child for the indie hip-hop world, he wasn’t always so involved in the underground, minimalist rap scene. In fact, he traced his musical-esque beginnings back to when he lived in Jacksonville, Fla., and began experimenting as a freestyle battle rapper.

“I sort of treated rap back then like a craft. It was sort of a skill to hone, you know. It wasn’t like an art to dive into and develop and build,” he said. “And it was all about being the best at it as opposed to, you know, pushing yourself and pushing things creatively. Like, the goal of the artist isn’t necessarily to be the best. Like, that’s sort of a, kind of a ridiculous notion…it’s not a competition you know?”

With nearly a decade under his musical career belt, Bothwell said that looking back, he can see how, in this way, he has become more serious about his craft. In turn, this has molded him into a better musician. The downside, however, is that he sees himself as a bit of a workaholic, and that balance is something he currently struggles with.

“I’m better at being a musician, I’m better at being an artist, and better at being a businessman, than I am a lot of times at being a person, or a friend,” he said, referencing his tendency to mis-prioritize what really matters.

Even so, he’s still proud of the progress he made, for once Bothwell set aside notions of being the best is when he began to see himself as making the transformation from rapper to musician. Even so, he hesitates to label himself as such, admitting that he hardly plays any instruments or writes songs in a traditional method.

“I certainly don’t sit down with a guitar…and my sorrows and hammer out a song,” he said of his writing process. “It’s much more like building a house than, like, making a dinner.”

Astronautalis plays tonight at About Blank in Berlin. The show begins at 21.00.

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