Photo by Julia Leiby
Bartees Strange On 'Live Forever' & Why "It Shouldn't Be Weird To See Black Rock Bands"
Bartees Strange is clearly a student of all things indie rock, and that was clear as soon as his introductory EP, the National covers project Say Goodbye To Pretty Boy. Inspired by a concert where he was one of the only Black audience members, he wanted to re-interpret their catalog and connect it to his own experience. While working on the project, he would slip in references to Bryce Dessner’s project Clogs or even other National songs he didn’t cover. A close listen to "Mr. November" reveals the chord progression of Sleep Well Beast highlight "I’ll Still Destroy You."
You just need to hear "Mustang" to understand how versatile Bartees Strange is, but also where his primary loves lie. "Mustang" started as a country song but evolved into something that takes inspiration from 2000s rock like the Walkmen’s "The Rat," while introducing unexpected time signature changes and glimmering synths. Then an unexpected hardcore breakdown at the end of the track hints at the chaos to come over the next half hour. Live Forever, his debut album releasing via Memory Music on Oct. 2, pulls together elements of country, rap, IDM and rock into something unlike any record out this year. Despite comparisons to TV on the Radio, his eccentric approach puts him just as much in line with iconoclasts like St. Lenox and Young Fathers.
The references to indie rock continue: "Mustang" quotes the Antlers' "Epilogue" ("you’re screaming and cursing")—but it’s more an album about Bartees’ personal journey. Growing up in Oklahoma, Bartees worked for non-profit organizations while moonlighting as a drummer in various bands. Second single "Boomer" documents the moment when he finally felt at home in Brooklyn, the title not referring to the oft-mocked generational term but a period of time Bartees felt like he was "booming." Other songs like "Mossblerd" directly address his status as a Black man operating in a space dominated by white men—that title is a combination of "Mossberg" and "blerd," itself a portmanteau of "black" and "nerd," over a heavily compressed noise collage. It’s fitting, because Live Forever is essentially a series of musical portmanteaus.
Speaking to GRAMMY.com over the phone, Bartees discusses his musical upbringing, his journey towards making Live Forever and his suspicion of labels.
How are you holding up? You just got a new job at a studio? And I remember hearing that you were working on a new record with Will Yip producing?
Will and I are talking about doing our next record together, and I'm going to pre-produce it in October and just see what I pull out. But I finished a bunch of it already, I’m just trying to see what the next one will be like. I'm excited about it. I just moved out of my old spot, which was my apartment. It’s been really cool to have bands reach out and want to work with me. I’ll be producing a bunch of bands and artists through the year while keeping up with my stuff. I always wanted to do this so I think it will be fun.
How did you discover music was a passion of yours?
I found music through my parents. My mom's a singer and my dad is a really avid music collector and like speakers and record players and he really liked that kind of stuff, even though he wasn’t a musical person. I got to hear a lot of interesting things that way, but my personal journey with music and being able to really seek it out and buy the things I want probably started when I was in middle school. I was one of the only Black people in my school where I was going. There were a bunch of people that were into heavier music, they were into Glassjaw and a bunch of Christian hardcore bands, all the Tooth & Nail bands and As Cities Burn. They also looked different, they were like a little bit more diverse [of a] crowd. And then all the white people looked really f**king weird and I felt like I could kind of slide into that crew and kinda be a little more anonymous. I was just kind of sick of sticking out all the time. But it was through that, that I found At The Drive In and a ton of other bands that really changed my life.
I read that your mother was a Jubilee singer. If at all, how does what your parents grew up listening to (and performing) inform the music you’re making now?
Legacy is something that weighs heavy on me. Like, I always grew up hearing about my mom singing when she was younger and all over North Carolina. Everyone knew my mother, and I would remember being a kid and every time we go home in North Carolina, I was listening to her sing in all these huge churches. As I got older, I learned more about my mom's side of the family, and all of these people who were tremendous singers and vocalists and guitar players and bass players, and all the way back as far as like anyone can think. And this is like Chitlin' Circuit, era, Black music in the South.
My first solo project I ever put out was a six-song folk album that was all about just connecting country music and blues and all of these like super Black sounds together. It's definitely in the backdrop of the music I make.
Before we get to the full-length, I want to ask about the National EP for a second, Say Goodbye to Pretty Boy. On "Lemonworld," you changed the line from "I was a comfortable kid" to "I'm an uncomfortable kid, but I don't think about it much anymore." Can you talk about that change and those kinds of easter eggs?
The EP is called Say Goodbye To Pretty Boy and in my theme of the record is like, I felt like I had always been precious in my previous life. Like before I really started taking music seriously, I was very precious. And I felt like I was trying to be this person that I really didn't like. And a lot of the record was about saying goodbye to that. It's like me sneaking in saying that I'm growing, I'm moving on, and I'm feeling better about who I am and I'm more comfortable now.
It's just fun songwriting to put your own kind of feel into it and to reference things. I always kind of think of it as like sending smoke signals up to people that I want to work with one day, like there's shit that I did in the National record purely because I wanted Aaron Dessner to hear it. I was like, “Yo Graham, we should do this, it's a Clogs reference." It's just nerdy shit that I enjoy. I guess subconsciously, I want people to catch t, but I don't plan for that, you know?
Have you thought about making a record with Aaron?
Oh, I'd love to. I mean, I just don't think Aaron has ever considered doing that with me. She probably would imagine he's pretty busy, but I would love to work with him.
Tell me about the timeline of recording and releasing Live Forever.
In December, 2018, I hit up [No Earbuds founder and indie publicist] Jamie Coletta and I was like, "Hey, I have this song, but I also am about to go and record an album. Would you be down to work with me? Like at all?" She was like, "I don't want to commit to the album, Let's just see how this single goes." And so we released that single ["In A Cab"] and then I went and recorded the album. I went for like almost two weeks in February and recorded 17 songs. And then me and Brian DiMeglio started mixing it right after that. And he and I shot a bunch of versions back and forth, like over the next month, probably a month and a half. And then we got it mastered by Jesse Cannon, who's in New York and he's a great engineer. It's a cool studio up there.
And then, I circled back up with Jamie and we were like, cool, we've got a record. Let's see if we can build a team around it and see if we can find the label. We shopped it for a long time and no one really was that into it, to be honest. Like, I think people thought it was cool, but maybe it just wasn't the right time or something. And then we just kept on going and we got some booking help and eventually like we got it to Will and then he was really, really into it, like super pumped. And that was honestly like right before we put out Pretty Boy. So we were shopping the album around for almost a year.
It must have been frustrating to have this whole album ready to go without actually releasing it!
I really felt like I wanted to take the time, I know I've seen a lot of bands release music and I've been in a lot of bands that released music and we always did it way too fast. And Jamie gave me great advice. She was like, "We should take our time. Like if it takes a year, like it takes a year. They're like, we're gonna just get it to as many people as we possibly can." And it worked. Eventually, we found somebody, but I think in that year I also locked down the Pretty Boy project and recorded it. So, we had a label to do one release and I think that was like a really great thing to happen. I think it was like a good way to introduce my music. So it all worked out somehow.
There are several left-field experiments like "Flagey God" and "Mossblerd." Can you talk about that song in particular?
I really wanted the album to be like an exploration of sounds. And I feel like I naturally am writing a lot of different things all the time. Like it's always been hard for me to just be write hardcore songs or just punk songs or whatever. I felt like with songs like "Kelly Rowland" and "Mossblerd" and some of the more beat-driven ones, it's hard for me to say that there's like a through line between those and like the rock songs. But I remember looking back at the projects and saying, "I don't have to be afraid that all these songs sound different" because the through line I think is just me, just that I made them. And that it's my story and my voice and my experiences. I think beyond that, there's no sonic element that makes everything similar. I'm just kinda pulling it together.
One of the differences I noticed between you and a comparison point like TV on the Radio is that their lyrics are less directly about Tunde Adebimpe’s life and more conceptual. Meanwhile, on Live Forever, there’s an in-joke about your PR work ("I lie for a living now that’s why I can’t tell you stuff"), there’s an Antlers reference, there’s even a reference to the Hershey Relays. That kind of storytelling about your own life is very rooted in rap. Was that contrast deliberate?
Yes. I think that was very deliberate. One thing that I love about hip-hop for me is, I know what's going on. Like, shit is very clear. All of the messages are sharp and succinct and clear and if you're not familiar with the lexicon, I guess that's a barrier, but if you are familiar, you can know what's happening. And I feel like in rock music, you could be talking about anything in a rock song, but if it's arranged right, it can just be great.
And I wanted to bring that type of approach that's normally used in hip-hop with writing lyrics and making things super clear and concise. "Boomer" starts like a DaBaby song, like right on beat one. Like there's no intros, it's just like, boom, like we're in the song [and] I'm rapping, you know? That was something I wanted to do a lot. I did it on "Mossblerd" too. Cause I thought that shit was genius. Like those DaBaby songs are so simple and they start so fast and so quickly, it's like a freight train. And I was like, "How can we do that in a pop punk format?” Which in my mind is like a freight train, but just in a different way. Those were some ways that I was like, "Maybe I can smash these two ideas together." And I liked how it sounded.
When you're writing, are you thinking in terms of "this is my National song, this is my weird trap song?" Or is it just like, "I'm going to make a loop or a piano part and just see what happens?"
So I normally start with a loop or a piano part. Once I work that section, I just start collecting sections, like, so like literally in project files. Then, once I like have as many sections and ideas collected, I just start arranging them and when I can hear it and I can look at it and say like, "Oh, it would be sick if I was rapping. Or if there was a drum and bass beat here." I go through incrementally like that. But I definitely don't think like, "Oh, let me make [this kind of] song." I'll just think like, "I love when DaBaby does this, I want to try and find a way to do that on a song."
You’ve spoken extensively about how your race informs your songwriting; what does it mean to you for someone to "sound Black"?
It’s hard not to say that most Western music doesn’t sound Black. Many of our most popular forms, pop-rock-dance-soul-funk-gospel-country-folk-blues, hip-hop, all seem to be rooted in Black people. Or at least shaped by formative Black artists.
I think that it's kind of strange and impossible to be expected to stay within a genre. And I feel like genres, and how they've played out, just in the categorization for Black artists, it's all just kind of set up so we'll lose. When Tyler, the Creator put out Flower Boy and Igor, I remember listening to them and being like, Whoa, these are pop records. Like, these are huge, super future-facing pop records, you know? I don't see how naming them all Urban [helps]. I think that Black people that are just, you know, the shit and it shouldn't be weird to see Black rock bands. Like, there should be tons of them. It shouldn't be weird for them to also have hip-hop influences.
That sounds like it ties into "Mossblerd."
And also just like how genres grow to impact your life and how you see yourself and the contributions that your community makes. I ended the song talking about my nephew who is a pretty outstanding rapper. But I remember being 16 and Black, and I know a lot of young Black guys that all thought they were going to be rappers and we were just going to sell drugs and just be rappers you get that from the shit you see on TV. And it's all tied back to genres and what we're telling people that they can accomplish. So it can be kind of dangerous.
That's why when people ask me, Oh, what's it like making "genre-defying rock music." I'm like “All that is just Black music and I'm Black," and that's it, that’s the whole thing.
So someone wants to get into playing music—maybe they’re also into the National and those kinds of bands but don’t see themselves in it. Do you have a message for them, the kind of thing you wish you heard when you were 16 and thinking you were going to be a rapper?
I didn't know what I could do or become until I saw it.
And I remember seeing Bloc Party and TV on the Radio and bands that had people that looked like me and how much it meant to me. And I think that was really important and something I've just learned in making music is that sometimes you just have to be your own biggest fan, and you have to build the thing that no one else knows is real yet. You might be the only one for a while that knows that you have something special to offer. And that doesn't mean that you're wrong. I spent a lot of time, in my teens and 20s, playing in all sorts of bands, trying to fulfill myself because I didn't trust myself.
And I didn't believe that my music was worth making because I didn't look like other people. And my voice was so resonant. And I just sounded like a church kid in a hardcore band, which is weird to hear my Black voice over these riffs. You just feel like you can't do it cause no one has seen it, but you might just be on some shit that other people can't do. And you have to learn to trust yourself and really learn to go with your gut early. And then people will just form around you because you'll be doing something that is genuine and from the heart. And that's the hardest thing, to create things that actually connect with people.
Is there anyone you want to shout out?
Melanie Charles. I think she's the best vocalist and hip-hop producer... ever in New York. I would want to shout her out. Taja Cheek and her band, L’Rain. I really loved their music. Felicia Douglas. Felicia is in Dirty Projectors, but she's got two side projects that are amazing. I look up to those people quite a bit and their music is always super tasteful and excellent. I’m loving everything Dancer is putting out, I’m loving everything Pinkshift from Maryland is putting out. I'm not sure if there are [more Black bands] now or if people are just elevating those people more. But I do know that there have always been people of color and Black people in rock bands and they just didn't always get the same opportunities. So, maybe it's like a little bit of everything.