Aesop Rock

Aesop Rock
Brendan Murphy spoke to Aesop Rock about his big move from NYC to San Fran and how it affected his new album, None Shall Pass.

What are you up today?
So far a bunch of sitting around and emailing and my manager is coming by later…

So, you’re just coming back from a tour in Europe?
I was on a press junket tour: seven days of interviews all day, every day. Two days in London, two in Paris… Basically wake up, do ten interviews, go to sleep, get on a plane…

When you were first coming up, was the press junket tour something that you foresaw?
No. [Laughs.] It’s still not something I even want to foresee. I mean, I recognise the purpose of them, but that doesn’t make me not squirm the whole way through.

Does that mean you have some time off until the big fall push?
Well, in August the album comes out, then we tour September, October, November in the U.S., and then December we go to Europe. Pretty much when the album comes out, it’s non-stop till the end of the year.

On the advance copy I have of the album, three times on every song a voice comes in saying "This album belongs to James Keast,” which was a new way of doing the advance for me. I was sort of waiting for the voice to come in and go: "We’re watching you, don’t burn this album…”
Well, it’s too late, someone already has.

Have you had leaks on any of your previous albums?
Yeah, yeah, every album, including this one. All the last ones we used to the regular advance CDs, but those would get leaked literally right away, so this time with El-P’s album we started doing individual albums with people’s names and it held people off for a while. But his got leaked with some dude’s name on it, and mine got leaked last week with some French journalist woman’s name on it.

That’s insane! This copy has my editor’s name on it, so it would be pretty clear who leaked it. It doesn’t seem worth leaking it versus never getting an advance album again…
There’s always a bunch of finger pointing that goes down, like, "My intern took it!”

Oh! That’s why I need an intern…
[Laughs.] Guess so, I mean, there’s nothing else for us to do, this way so far is the best we can do. It leaks about a month before, when it used to be three or four months…

I guess with all this, and the state of the music biz in general, it really puts the emphasis on touring…
Yeah, I mean, it’ll be interesting to see what the album sales are. Most of the money, especially the instant money, meaning when you’re touring and you do a show you get paid that night. This one is probably my biggest and best tour, I mean, the most preparation went into it, it should go well if everyone doesn’t start hating me over night.

Fast Cars, Danger, Fire and Knives had an amazing 88-page booklet and I remember thinking that must have broken the bank…
Oh yeah, at that point the album before it was the best-selling album that the label had put out, so basically when it came time for that one, I wanted to do something different and we said let’s just try to break even on it. It was something for hardcore fans, because no one needs five albums of lyrics if they don’t really give a fuck.

I wonder if details like that actually push people to buy the physical CD?
It definitely is a trend. A while ago people were doing enhanced CDs, which to me was pretty stupid - I’d never put a CD in my computer to see two live songs or whatever. I guess they’re trying to put anything on the CD to make people buy it. The booklet thing to me was interesting just to do the project of making the book. I try to put time into the packaging, but rap packaging – well, music in general, but especially rap packaging - is possibly the worst shit ever. Someone spends a couple years making an album, then they shoot a black and white cover photo in an hour, throw it together in Photoshop and then there it is. So I try to take a little time to start planning months in advance, try to get some interesting artwork that makes for a good visual representation of what I’m trying to do and… I probably think about it too much you know, but it means a lot, I did spend a lot of time on the record, so it makes sense that the rest.

It’s been several years since you put out a full-length album, but it’s not like you haven’t been releasing other stuff…
Right, yeah, I mean, what happened was we did the EP, which ended up being eight songs, which is relatively long for an EP. Then we did a video for it, and normally we wouldn’t do one, but this guy pitched us a great idea and so we did it; it basically came out of pocket, and it was really well received, so once the single from the EP started getting some play, we kind of decided we might as well tour because it is almost as long as an album.

What is the EP/LP cut-off? Eight songs?
Well, Wham’s first album had 8 songs. [Laughs.] I don’t think there’s a clear cut-off. Nas’ first album had nine. I would say eight is a long EP, I always figure you have to break ten for an album. But yeah, we ended up touring for that and I ended up moving from New York and I got married and had to re-set up my studio in California, did a couple side-projects with some people and did that Nike project, and basically kept working on the album the whole time. I’m not one of these dudes that records three songs a day and then picks the best ten after I have 80 tracks recorded, I don’t know…

Yeah, I get suspicious when I hear about someone having like 150 songs in the bank.
Yeah man, Snoop Dogg. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of shit leftover, but if I'm not going to use it, I'm not going to finish it. If it has potential, I’ll go back and fix the good parts, throw out some of the rhymes and rewrite part of it, go change the beat and try to create something interesting out of it. I like working on music, it’s not like hit or miss. The way I work, I’ll write four or five lines and I’ll go and record them and sit on them and see if the thing is going anywhere. Sometimes I’ll drop it there if it seems like it’s a lost cause, sometimes I give up at that point, or I’ll try to add some more and see if it turns into anything.

With the Nike Mix that you did, I can imagine they gave you pretty strict parameters of what it was supposed to be.
They didn’t really give me that much. The parameters were pretty loose, the label sort of let’s me do my own thing, so I’m not really prepared for strict parameters, but I am receptive to some direction and found it sort of refreshing. I did some music for a couple short films in the last year and having a starting point is sort of fun and turns it into - its not an Aesop Rock album - but it’s like this puzzle that I have to figure out. With the Nike thing it had to be 45 minutes, with a seven- to eight-minute warm up and a seven- to eight-minute cool down, and the body can sound however you want, it just has to work and inspire an athlete to run.

Did you check with any athletes to see if you were on the right track?
Yeah, my wife runs almost every day and she was checking it, and towards the end when I had a large chunk of it done, I handed it in to Nike and they have their little lab rat team of runners that gave comments that I could take or leave, and some people gave comments. I wanted to make something that worked; some made sense, while others were like, "I think you should have some breaks here.”

So you think that this move to San Francisco from New York has changed your music? You and El-P are two people very much associated with New York…
I was in New York for the better part of 29 years, so yeah, but I think what had the greatest effect was that I just wasn’t in New York, I don’t think that it had to do with being in California. I was out of my comfort zone, which I said I would never do. Anyone who lives in a bigger city says, "I'm never leaving here, these are my stomping grounds,” which was the attitude I always had. Then I stumbled into this opportunity to move and it seemed like a good thing to do, and I was still nervous up until I got out here. Even living here for over a year and a half, I still don’t know that much. But all those things that I was nervous about, like not knowing that many people, and I still print out Mapquests to get anywhere. There’s a weird comfort and it caters to being creative when there are no distractions. I think the long-run plan is to move back east to New York or the area around New York, but I don’t know. I came across an opportunity to take this long field trip and I took it as a chance to stop being a baby.

A lot of None Shall Pass has a feeling of looking back. I just turned 30 myself and I get the urge to do that, but you seem to have done it without having a "back in the day” or "30 is the new 20” vibe, which happens so often. How do you that?
Well, first, thank you. That’s kind of what I was going for. I didn’t want to make some "back in the day I wore Pumas” bullshit, and I don’t want an, "I'm 30 so I’m better than you” thing. I guess it was combination of those things: turning 30, getting married and leaving New York, all at the same time; all that adult-y shit happening. I’m probably more like a large child than anything, but that being said, at the risk of being corny, it was a reflective year and I did want to try to capture parts of growing up - being a toddler, being in junior high, high school, these different time periods - without hitting on the "back in the day” cliché. I didn’t want it to be story-specific, more like a snapshot. I remember you used to buy a rap album in the early ’90s and it used to be all battle songs, except for the girl song, the weed song and the "back in the day” song.

Exactly!
Which, don’t get me wrong, I lived for all that shit, and still when I pop in one of those albums, that’s what I want to hear. But I don’t want to hear or make that right now. So yeah, rap music is so confined that it makes it pretty easy to do something different, technically. The album is about a lot of "back in the day” shit, but you have pull it off in a way that hasn’t been done a thousand ways before. You’re trying to not be a second rate version of something that’s already existed for a decade or two.

I wanted to ask about the collaboration with John Darnielle (of the Mountain Goats). You’ve known him for a couple years at this point?
I knew about his music since about 1994, no, exactly 1994, because that was the year that I went to college and the year that my older brother, who introduced me to the Mountain Goats, was a senior in college and when I got there he was playing the Mountain Goats. Around that time they were buzzing on this very independent level and I knew him to be this super prolific and very lyric-heavy guy and I immediately… I don’t know, there’s something about when I play one of their records for people they either tend to become instant mega-fans or they completely don’t get it and they hate it. I took a liking to it for years, then 9 years later, after having seen them live five or six times, I think in 2003, I read that John had put Bazooka Tooth - my record in 2003 - on some year-end list as one of his top ten favourites. I was like "Holy shit, I had no idea he knew who I was!” And this was fully a guy I had looked up to in the world of writing lyrics and I’d been proclaiming for years that this guy was one of the greatest lyric writers of our generation, so to hear that he knew my stuff, I was shocked. So yeah, I had gone to another one of their shows in New York, at the Knitting Factory I think, and I was like, "Do I introduce myself or is that a corny move?” But I said fuck it and introduced myself and we were instantly kind of friends. He was a super guy and over the course of the last few years we became closer and we’ve always talked about collaborating and kind of tried a couple things before. He recorded a song at my house a few years ago and it didn’t pan out. And I was supposed to do something on his record and that didn’t pan out. This time around, I kind of said, "You’re getting on this record at some point, somehow.” When I was doing the song that ended up being the one that he’s on, I was halfway through doing it and I had this really shitty demo version and I had probably had 50 or 60 percent of my lyrics and the general idea for the song, so I sent it to him and said, "If you’re into this, sing on it, do whatever you want, send it back and we’ll arrange the rest of the song around what you do and that’ll be the easiest thing possible.” And that’s how it went down.

Yeah, I read somewhere that you were trying to not make it sound too "Judgment Night-y”, which I thought was great.
Yeah, that was my main concern. When you look at the history of rap and rock together, they haven’t really -

Oil and water.
Yeah, there’s maybe one or two.

Like on El-P’s album. When I read about some of the collaborations, I thought, "Fuck, that’s going to be a car crash.” But they work, they fit.
I think the idea is to not make it sound like a collaboration. The things in the past have been, you know, "This is Biohazard and this is Onyx!” and "Here we are together!” And you’re just like "Jesus!” You get bowled over. The idea of the collaboration is way bigger and more important than the actual song. But someone like El, who knows how to produce a record and has an idea before he goes into it. The song calls for it and so you get in touch with that person and say I have an idea already, and it needs your voice in it and I want you to work with me. Then it’s not so much two forces out of nowhere colliding in some shitty rap rock thing.

And working with your wife (guitarist Allyson Baker, of the now defunct Parchman Farms), was that natural, you know, in the home studio?
Yeah, it was all very easy, but occasionally [laughs] I’ll treat it like a session with a guitarist. But she’s an awesome songwriter in her own right and sometimes when I'm stuck, she helps climb me out of the hole.

Her band makes very different music than yours…
Yeah, that band was a lot of ’70s influenced rock stuff, guitar heavy. She’s onto a new project that isn’t named right now, with a lot of the same members - kind of the same vibe but a little more funk influenced and experimental. It’s good because she knows what’s she’s doing and she’s been playing guitar and writing for a long time, so it’s not like I'm collaborating because she’s my wife. I'm collaborating because I have really good guitar player at my disposal.

Blockhead’s production is all over this album, as always he’s got some great stuff on there. At this point you guys must be pretty comfortable working together…
He and I have known each other since before either of us even owned samplers. We met in about 1993 or ’94 when we both went to college together. He kind of immediately flunked out and I stuck around, but we were friends. He was actually rapping at the time - really, really terribly. At this point it’s humorous to us that we have music careers, it’s kind of just like breathing. Before anything we were making hundreds of four-track songs every day - that was how we had fun was tp get our friends, who didn’t even rap, to rap on them. Now we’re going on tour, he’s one of the opening acts and it’s just funny that it’s all gone the way it has.

One final question: I know you’re biased, but why do you think Def Jux has managed to outlast labels like Rawkus and Fondle ’Em?
When it started I trusted it because: a) I was a fan of Company Flow and they’d been successful and b) I know El had been fucked over in the record business, so when your owner is an artist, you have a better chance of not getting fucked and a better chance of being allowed to do what you want to do. That being said, nobody on the team knew how to run a record label when they started. It was just like, "Let’s get a little roster together,” which in the first year was El, me, RJD2, Cannibal Ox, Mr. Lif and Murs, and I think they just based it on having good artists. And, you know, if we don’t know how to file the right paper work in the beginning in the correct way, we can learn. If our office is small, we can expand. You know, there have definitely been bumps in the road and from the outside it can look a lot bigger than it is. I guess that is kind of the magic of running a record label. I personally stay out of the business side because I've seen the headaches, I would never start a label. Some years are off and it’s hard, hard to get good people. It takes a good team that’s willing to not make much money for a while, but ultimately it comes back to believing in the music you’re putting out. Not reading blogs to find out who’s hot and signing them. It’s sitting with people, learning their attitude. Can you make an album, not just a single, but an album front and back? Can you perform? Do a tour? It takes as much from the artists on an indie as it does the label.