There’s a reason Andy Bothwell describes his work as Astronautalis as “rap… plus everything else.” The Minneapolis artist stands firmly in hip-hop, but ever since his debut release in 2003, he’s been making it a curiosity-filled, folklore-spinning, alternative-rooted endeavor. Two years ago, he released the heated Cut the Body Loose, but it was a decade ago to this exact year that he put his name on the national map with Pomegranate, an album of brooding and experimental tricks.
Looking back, Bothwell realizes Pomegranate was a foundational step in establishing what would become his trademark creativity, singular style, and a wider creative process. Though he wrote everything on the album, he’s adamant about calling the record a collaborative effort. “I wrote all the songs,” says Bothwell, “but to say I wrote all that music would be disingenuous.” Most days, he entered the studio with a notepad full of sketches, and other artists came in with the paint brushes. A song like opener “The Wondersmith and His Sons” didn’t come together until the final day of recording, where lackluster music undersold his lyrical story—until one of the musicians messed around on piano, came up with a new melody, and they rerecorded the entire thing.
“For the first time in my life, I felt like I made an album that was me—not me trying to sound like musicians I liked,” says Bothwell. “It was my third record and, honestly, it was the first record I made that didn’t sound like anything else, in rap music or in my music. I was into the idea of having grand piano and lush string arrangements, but not in the traditional ways where it’s usually a short loop. Instead, it was heavily influenced by people in the studio who work with chamber music. I loved having that simplicity in the music. The other cohesion came from [producer] John Congleton, who essentially pushed me up. When I look back on that album, I see how much of it was a happy accident, and I’m a little surprised it worked.”
To revisit the grandiosity of the album that put Astronautalis on the map, we interviewed Bothwell for a round of Wheel of Tunes, a series where we ask bands questions inspired by their song titles. True to his album, the answers snake out of shadows to reveal a contagious energy—though it’s nothing compared to what he will bring to the stage at Brighton Music Hall this Thursday.
1) “The Wondersmith and His Sons”
DIGBOSTON: What’s a question you often wonder about but don’t know the answer to?
BOTHWELL: My mind instantly goes less specific, it goes to things that aren’t possible to look up. I’m a human being, so I ruminate on myself a lot. It’s like buying an old car. When you see it at the dealership, it looks great for an old car, but when you look around you realize how much is wrong with it. The older I get, the more I ruminate on and recognize my flaws. Those are things you can’t find the answers to. I don’t know what makes me the deeply flawed person I am. Now that I’m married, it intensifies. My wife is wonderful. When you’re married, you want to do right by the partnership, this person, and yourself. They don’t have to point anything out about you, but when you do anything weird you notice it because you see yourself through their eyes. The older I get, the more I feel myself peeling back these layers. I ruminate more than anything about why I do the things I do, why I think this way, and why am I competent this way.
2) “17 Summers”
DIGBOSTON: What’s been on your summer to-do list for years now but you’ve still never done?
BOTHWELL: For years now, it’s been to travel with my girl. She’s been my girl for a while and now she’s my wife. We dated long distance, so all of our travels were spent seeing each other. It would be going to see her in Germany or her coming to America. You find some things here and there, you explore, but I really want to travel properly with her. All of my free-time goals are traveling, which is insane since my job is partially that, but traveling on tour is a specific type of travel. Now that I’ve started to travel with my wife, it’s such a fun, enjoyable thing that I love. We’re about to go on our first vacation as a married couple and I’m already so excited about it. We’re going to Mexico.
3) “Secrets of the Undersea Bell”
DIGBOSTON: Are there any secrets you’ve clung to even though sharing them wouldn’t be detrimental?
BOTHWELL: For a long time, yeah. I was a super private person who compartmentalized my life. Getting married, you can’t do that anymore. That was really hard for me to learn. I had to share myself with my wife, and that was fortunately okay because she is a patient woman and knew it was worth pushing on me for. I feel so much more comfortable now, even with her knowing everything, and that took a long time.
4) “My Old Man’s Badge”
DIGBOSTON: If you had to guess, what do you think your father’s proudest achievement is?
BOTHWELL: I think my father’s proudest achievement is, classically, us. My dad worked his ass off. He just retired last year. He lived a very full, wild, and beautiful life. I think he would honestly say it’s being married to my mother and raising sons. I think there’s other stuff he should mention that he would fail to mention because he’s a modest guy, but I think his answer would be this family.
5) “Two Years Before the Mast”
DIGBOSTON: When is the last time you were on a boat?
BOTHWELL: I don’t think it was that long. Maybe I took the ferry in Europe? I’ve probably been on a boat within the last year. I pride myself on taking all manners of transportation for my job. The last time I specifically remember, though, was a ferry between England and Ireland, about this time last year.
6) “Mr. Blessington’s Imperialist Plot”
DIGBOSTON: Can you think of a benefit and a detriment of American imperialism?
BOTHWELL: The benefit is that our country takes this mythology far and wide. As a result, it has made us the most desirable place for to live for a long time. All climates considered, it still is, which is odd. We’ve benefited greatly from people seeing our country from afar this way. They bring their country and themselves with it, which has made America a really wonderful, vibrant place. I feel so lucky to have been raised here.
And a detriment? Jeez. This interview is not long enough to talk about the terrible parts of it [laughs].
7) “An Episode of Sparrows”
DIGBOSTON: Have you ever gone bird-watching?
BOTHWELL: Not in the traditional sense, but I love looking at animals. I live in Minneapolis, and if you drive 45 minutes east to Wisconsin, the river that separates the two states has this road called Great River Road. It has a giant limestone wall—we don’t really have hills—and along those bluffs are tons of bald eagles. Whenever I tell people to drive there, I tell them to look at bald eagles.
Last Christmas, I gave my parents a bird feeder that you put on the window so you can see them eat food. I’m jealous and want it for myself. This woman in Maine makes them by hand. Whenever she puts them up on Etsy, they sell out in 30 minutes. I’ve been trying to get one for over a year, so I was so proud of getting it for them. Best Christmas present. Hopefully I can get one for myself. But yeah. Wow. [laughs] I guess I’m really into birds, I just didn’t realize it until right now.
8) “The Case of William Smith”
DIGBOSTON: What’s your favorite western film?
BOTHWELL: We were just talking about this in the car! The two black dudes said they don’t fuck with westerns, and I was confused until I realized it’s just some white people shit. I love them. Spaghetti westerns, the classic Ennio Morricone, are just amazing. I’ve been watching them since I was a little kid. I love all of that stuff: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly; Hang ’Em High; Guns of the Timberland. Even Unforgiven is really great, which is a pulpy modern one. I’m a huge fan of all things western, which really shows in the song.
9) “Trouble Hunters”
DIGBOSTON: Are you the type of person who seeks out trouble to revel in it or to defeat it?
BOTHWELL: Revel in it, totally. I’m never interested in defeating it. I’m an old skateboard kid, so I’m just interested in participating and then laughing about it the next day. I grew up on Jackass and shit. Skateboard videos were my life. The genre diversity in my taste has all come from skate videos. The most important one of all times is Goldfish. Spike Jonze directed that and it was the beginning of skateboard videos becoming creative endeavors, not just tricks spliced together. They’re amazing, and they still have a level of nostalgia and cultural impact. You can see how those videos made people my age make weird art. All of my friends, every single person I’m on tour with now, will credit the music in skate videos for inspiring the music they make now.
10) “Avalanche Patrol”
DIGBOSTON: When it feels like your troubles snowball and everything starts to spiral in your life, how do you regain stability?
BOTHWELL: For the longest time, I didn’t. I would write or play shows, but then I would also engage in classic late-20s destructive behavior. I would destruct my way out of it, which goes back to that engaging in trouble answer. Now, I talk to my wife and my friends. It’s a hard thing to talk about your problems, but I’ve been trying harder and harder to do that with people I love. Once I start talking about it with them, I realize we all have problems, and the problems become less scary. It doesn’t solve them, of course, but you feel less alone, and I’m lucky to have that support. It gets easier each year. Being an adult is hard, man, and it gets harder every year.
11) “The Most Important Track on the Album”
DIGBOSTON: In your opinion, what’s the most important song on an unimportant album—particularly one that left an impression on you?
BOTHWELL: This is a tough one. Well, the album is brilliant, but in my opinion it’s by Smog—Bill Callahan is his real name—and the song is called “To Be of Use.” I can never remember if it’s on Red Apple Falls or Knock Knock. He plays the same three notes for like five minutes. It’s so minimal and simple. The whole song is about being useful. The chorus is, “Like a spindle / Like a candle / Like a horse shoe / Like a corkscrew.” This is a passionate lust for him. He even talks about it even in a sexual way. It’s such a deep, true concept that’s so simply put over three notes. Probably 45 words total. At the end of the day, all we really want is to be useful to someone. That touches on so much: to be desired, to be important, to be flexible, to be helpful. It’s one of the most important songs in my life and might be one of the most simple things I’ve ever heard.
12) “The Story of My Life”
DIGBOSTON: In the story of your life, how would you describe the prologue and the epilogue?
BOTHWELL: I can’t take this too seriously because I’m too shy to talk about myself that seriously. But the prologue is “A very shy boy learns how to talk to a very large group of people” because I’ve gotten really good at talking to a bunch of people. And I don’t know the epilogue, but I really hope it has something to do with raising a beautiful family and dying happy. At this age, my goals lean more towards that.
SHREDDERS, ASTRONAUTALIS, ESH. THU 2.8. BRIGHTON MUSIC HALL, 156 BRIGHTON AVE., ALLSTON. 8PM/18+/$16. CROSSROADSPRESENTS.COM