Don’t Hold Nothing Back

Suggested Track: "Mustang" or "Boomer"nFans Also Like: TV On The Radio, The National, Flying LotusnYou May Have Seen Him: on Late Night with Seth Meyers or NPR's "Tiny Desk Concert" Series.
With Live Forever, one of the most critically-acclaimed albums of 2020, DC-based Bartees Strange’s unique and complex sound blends influences and bends genres with lyrics charged by politics and feelings. Vanessa Dumais spoke with Bartees via Zoom to chat about the future of America.
  • Vanessa Dumais: I really love your album Live Forever. One of the highlights from my list of 2020. I understand your second album is already written. Is it inspired by the happenings of the world going on or has it been more of an escape where you can write and explore ideas that get you away from the news?

    Bartees Strange: I don't feel like I can really process everything happening right now because I'm too in it, you know? I'm literally too close to it. I live in DC, I can't zoom out and see it. So it's more writing about the size of the whale from inside the whale. But most of the songs are escapes from that.

  • VD: Living in DC, you've certainly had an eventful year. What's the energy there now that you have a new president?

    BS: I think people are apprehensive obviously about going outside. We just had a 50,000 person Klan rally that I think all of us are still processing. DC is one of the last majority Black cities in America. I remember when all that was happening, I was like, “there's not a lot of reporting about how the Blackest city in America is dealing with the largest Klan rally we've ever had.”

  • VD: Was your move from Oklahoma to DC for professional reasons? I know that you were working in politics when Obama was president—or was it more driven by your ambitions in the world of music?

    BS: Both. I was at the University of Oklahoma and I was interning a lot so I could find a way out. I wanted to go somewhere where I could play music and be closer to all the bands that I admired growing up. I worked in DC for a little while and I really didn't enjoy it at first and had a hard time finding people to play with, and eventually moved to New York. Everything sort of sped up. I found a bunch of bands to play in and got a little more comfortable with the music I was writing and wrote Live Forever in New York. Then I moved back to DC. My parents ended up moving here from Oklahoma. So, we're here for now. Toronto looks like it's next though. I love Toronto, like a lot. So I'm excited about that chapter of our lives, if it goes there.

  • VD: You were just talking about DC and moving to a city that has so many bands that you grew up listening to. I assume that you're talking about the early hardcore days, is that movement still felt in DC? Is that scene still alive?

    BS: I think that energy pervades every type of music that's made here, whether you're making punk music or not, there's always this ethos to how music is approached in DC that is uniquely punk.

There's always this ethos to how music is approached in DC that is uniquely punk.
  • VD: I know that you came from a very musical family. I think you said that you started recording your friends when you were about 12.

    BS: One of my favourite toys when I was a kid was a TalkBoy. I used to record everything with it. At the time I wanted to be a weatherman. I would do the weather into the TalkBoy and then play it back in slow-mo, play it in fast forward, I was in love with that I could record things. I wasn't recording jams when I was 12, but I could record church services, the radio, my mom practicing, everything. I would just listen to it in my little headphones and go to sleep every night. As I got older, I got a little port, my first multi-track thing, and I would record little ideas there. And when I was in high school, me and my buddy recorded my first little band.

  • VD: The US has a new president, which is awesome. Along with all of these new changes, I wanted to know how you feel about the US turning into a more cannabis-positive country.

  • VD: The US has a new president, which is awesome. Along with all of these new changes, I wanted to know how you feel about the US turning into a more cannabis-positive country.

    BS: Long overdue. I feel like whether you believe in weed being legal or not, there's just such a huge problem with overcriminalization in this country and the fact that there are millions of people, mostly who look like me, who are in prison for extremely long periods of time for weed is reprehensible. It's beyond evil. Anything that can go towards freeing more of these people is something that we should be moving towards as fast as we humanly can. Of course I’m cannabis-friendly and I smoke and eat it and use it, but beyond the recreational and health benefits of it, the societal impact of opening up and changing those laws is going to be tremendous. So, you know, change the laws.

whether you believe in weed being legal or not, there's just such a huge problem with overcriminalization.
  • VD: What other laws would you change?

    BS: Labour issues. Obviously right now a lot of people are having a hard time finding work or having steady paycheck, especially in America where there's very little…what's the right word…

  • VD: Empathy?

    BS: Don't feel bad for poor people in America. You know, people treat being poor like it's something you did to yourself. People treat people that don’t have things as if they've done something wrong.

  • VD: Like a personal problem, not a larger systemic issue.

    BS: Yeah. I feel like in America, we've taken such a huge step away from unions. As we look towards a world where we're getting more people working gig economy jobs than ever before, there need to be protections for those people and they need to be making a lot more money. People are like, “Why would you give a fast food worker $15 an hour when I only make $50K at my IT job?” And my answer to them would be: “Well, they should pay you more too!” Everyone should be making more money and everyone should have way more rights on the job.

  • VD: Explain.

    BS: Right now we're seeing what happens when you have a society that has no protections. We have people delivering groceries who are going to die for it, or people who were tapped to drive cabs right now, and they're going to die for it. And it's a shame that we can say we live in the greatest country on earth, but the people who keep the country going are the least protected people. I worked on the “Fight for 15” campaign for years here in the States. The next step is to reinvigorate our call for more unions in workplaces across the country.

  • VD: What albums are you most looking forward to in 2021?

    BS: I don't want to fuck up anybody’s schedule that nobody knows, but there are some artists that IF they were to have music come out, I would be very excited, like Yves Tumor. They put out a record last year that is probably my favourite record that has come out in the last five years: Heaven For A Tortured Mind. Another group that I'm excited about is my homie’s band called Pom Pom Squad. Her name's Mia Barron and I think she's brilliant. I know Mitski doesn't make music anymore, but every year I'm like, “Will I get a Mitski record?” So I look to the stars at night, a single tear rolls down from my eye and I say, “Will I get one more Mitski record?” The heavens are silent, which isn’t a no!

  • VD: It’s not a no! I was going to say it would be very “Mitski” if one day you wake up and there's a brand new record waiting for you.

    BS: Yeah. Just bending from heaven on a chariot: the album. And we'll be like, “yeah, this is the rapture.” This is the actual pasture. It's just Mitski records.

  • VD: Not the worst way to go, really.

    BS: I love Japanese Breakfast too. I know she just put out a book, so I'm sure she's busy, but I would love for another record from her too. So there: those are the records I hope come out this year, even though I have no idea if they're coming out.

  • VD: It's awesome that you're staying so active and busy with writing during everything.

    BS: Yeah. I think I’ve got to kind of chill out though. Cause I’ve got to start getting my head together for my own stuff. I’ve got to start saying “no” to people, which is always very hard for me.

  • VD: A few months ago you were speaking about how the bandcamp ecosystem is probably a good thing for the music industry.

    BS: Bandcamp Day is really cool. The fact that there's a site that’s breaking down the wall between a buyer and an artist is really important. I feel like a lot of people want to support artists. They understand that artists don't make a lot of money and that Spotify doesn't really pay much. It’s a very considerate and smart thing to do on bandcamp’s side to make it easier for people to have those interactions with artists and be able to really contribute directly to people. I also love how bandcamp has so many features for artists to interact with their fans. Not only can a fan buy something, but I can also send them a note. Anything that can encourage more of those interactions is really great, especially now when people are starving for any type of interaction.

Check out Bartees' 2020 album Live Forever where you get your music.