14 min read

Getting It Together with Bartees Strange

I wanna be freakin’ Radiohead...Let's dress for the job we want.
Photo by Farrah Skeiky

This newsletter is an outlet for demystifying process amongst friends. I want it to be whatever the opposite of a dismissive sound guy is. The opposite of that bandmate who thinks your guitar tone is always wrong. The opposite of that teacher that tells you that you shouldn't be an artist. The opposite of the people who assume you don't know how to use your own gear. The conversation I'm sharing this week made me certain of that mission.

Orbiting the DIY scene, Bartees Strange grew up listening to a blend of bands like At the Drive In, Bright Eyes, Bloc Party, TV on the Radio (i.e. the same as a lot of my friends). Apparently a punk-indie-adjacent sleeper cell, he released his debut album Live Forever in 2020 at age 31 and it took the fuck off. It felt like a level-up for more than just him. It felt like a door opening for folks who grew up listening to bands that don't look like them, or that don't come from the same background - and you know I'm all about that. Bartees entered the fray of the music industry as a Black artist resisting compartmentalization with a genre blending record that garnered well deserved attention.

He spun his influences into a genuinely ambitious record that instantly received Best New Music on Pitchfork. I talk shit about that website sometimes but I still think that's cool. The record blends genres, pushes boundaries, and was self-recorded in a barn in the Hudson Valley. In the interview below we talk about learning production skills, discovering synthesizers, and needing to take matters into your own hands. I spent most of our conversation yelling YES, EXACTLY in my head, and hope you will too.

You can listen to Live Forever here.

I was reading that your timeline for making Live Forever included having to learn ProTools and learn to play the piano, etc. Part of putting the record out when you did was learning a lot of the technical things. I’m curious about how you approached that and what that experience was like for you?

My mom was a musician, so I grew up with music around me. Mostly singing though, so I was a singer. I sang in church, in choirs and opera camp and all that stuff. As I got a little older, I fell in love with Rock music and was like, I really want to learn how to play guitar, but I was 16 or 17 years old at that point, so I was a little older than some of my friends who had been playing a lot of guitar. But I just started messing around in my room.

But with Live Forever, I think the thing that was the challenge and the liberating moment of that entire process was I was in many bands before that and I remember feeling hamstrung because every time I’d go to record I could never get things to sound like I wanted in my head. I could never explain it, you know? Also, always being condescended to in studios, ‘cause I was the only Black person there, and no one thought I knew what I was talking about at all, no one thought I had any vision. Or, frankly, I think they might have been jealous of me and didn’t want to help me at all. So, I had some challenges there. And I was like, well, I need to teach myself how to do this stuff or it’s never gonna work out! [laughs] That’s kind of what it was.

I honestly started hitting up my friends. I had a buddy named Brian D’Amelio who I had a really good experience with in the studio. I reached out to him, and I was like, hey, would you be down to show me things? Anything? What is compression? How do you make a guitar sound good? What microphones should I use? How do I make it sound like this record? He gave me a lot of advice. A lot of other friends along the way gave me some tips but when I started really understanding it was when I honestly just started going on huge YouTube deep dives and just reading books about it.

There’s a book called Mixing With Your Mind that I read that really just changed how I thought about sound in general. It gave me a lot of tips for how to listen to music and how to hear different things in music. It also showed me that the secret to making a great record isn’t gear or even personnel, it’s really time, and being like, ok, if I have one microphone and a good room and a lot of time, I can make a pretty good record. So that’s how I approached Live Forever. I used a lot of stuff that I bought off Craigslist and a bunch of friends’ gear that was loaned to me and a buddy’s barn and we just posted up in there and I recorded it with my buddies. It was the guys that helped me learn how to do the thing, and it was a good learning experience for me as well. Now I produce bands It’s so crazy!

That rules, though. Everything you’re saying I feel so hard, because I feel like my experience, when I was younger and first in a band, it was a lot of people thinking I didn't know what I wanted. Being condescended to, now trying to learn a lot more of it to be able to make those sounds myself.

You made Live Forever before your covers EP of songs by The National. I’ve talked to other friends and artists about that DIY background of making the funny things happen. Talking to your friends, wouldn’t it be neat if we made this thing, and then just making it happen because you don’t have fancy resources so you just go do it yourself. I’d love to hear your perspective on that feeling of not asking for permission, and whether or not you had that before that EP.

I mean, it was liberating. I honestly felt like once I realized that I could make everything myself, at least get a good version of things myself. I still collaborate a lot, even if I make something myself I rarely do everything alone. I’m always asking someone for something. But once I realized I could do a lot of it alone, I felt free. The only thing stopping me is really me. If I want to do it, I’ll just do it. I don’t need anyone to do it. As a Black person, a person that is making music in a space where not everyone looks like you, or is coming from where you’re coming from, that was the cheat code for me. It was an ultimate DIY thing where I was like I can do it all by myself and make it sound just like me, and that was huge for me to be able to actualize.

I love hearing that. Following that timeline, what was quitting your job like?

Oh my god, Lauren, it’s still wild. I’m 32 years old. I’ve been working very 9-5 jobs since college and in college, always. I’ve always been working many jobs! Like many of us, that’s what we do. Right before Live Forever came out, I literally hit that moment where I have too much music stuff going on to do my job, I just can’t do both anymore. I physically cannot, there are not enough hours in the day. And I am definitely a burn the midnight oil, overcommitter, will make it work even if I can’t make it work kind of person, but I really hit a wall. And I was like, I think it might be time for me to move out to the suburbs, make my rent cheap and quit my job.

Which brings me to another point that I think is super important, and I don’t think a lot of musicians or artists realize. I was in New York for 5 and a half, 6 years making music and it was a formative time in my life. But I was somewhere on tour, I think I was in Nashville seeing some bands play, and I remember thinking that these bands would kick the shit out of any band in New York. And it was because they weren’t in New York! It was because they were just working on their music all the time and they weren’t trying to just be the hottest band in Brooklyn. They were just trying to be the best band they could be. And I felt like damn, they really tapped into something. I felt like they were building their lives around the music, instead of hoping that if they’re in the right place someone will just pick them. They were like, you know what, I might get picked, I might not, but if I’m gonna get picked it’s gonna be because I’m making the best music I can possibly make. And the only way I can do that is if I can afford to work 20 hours a week and spend the other 40 hours in my basement working on songs. Building your life around the music instead of hoping shit just works out for you because you’re cool and you play in Brooklyn and you have a sickass haircut. That’s not the way. So that’s why I live in Falls Church, VA, ‘cause I can focus. I can do the music the way that I want to do it and I’m not stressed for money, which is a big insecurity in my life. That’s real.

That’s such an important point. It doesn’t get said enough, keep your overhead low! If you can’t afford to live in New York, don’t live in New York.

And just because you can pay rent doesn’t mean you can afford to live in New York!

Yes! As someone who also lived in New York for a decade, yes. And when touring got to be a certain percentage of my time, that’s when I moved to Philly.

Another question I had was especially now that music is your livelihood, if that has changed your projects at all, especially since you do play around with genre so much. Do you feel like there’s more pressure now?

Someone did ask me, do you feel that you have to make a great sophomore album? And I was like, I guess? But I dunno, I feel like I kind of proved it. Yeah, I’m good. I’m good at making music. I believe in this. If I’m myself, things will be what they should be. One thing that’s been a challenge, like I said, I’m definitely an overcommitter. This being the first year that I’ve been doing music full-time, I’ve had to really learn what can I actually do in a day? Musically, for a client, for a friend. Can I actually mix two songs in a day? In a way that I want them to sound? Does it really take me a day to mix a song in the way that I want to mix, at this point in my life? There’s been a lot of trial and error, figuring out what I can actually do for people, so I can accurately describe what I can do.

Then when it comes to my stuff, I just set blocks. It’s not too different from when I had a full-time job. I would just be like ok, I have 20 days of vacation, I’m going to use at least 10 of those recording an album, so I’m just going to put those days in the calendar. They may be four months in the future but they’re there, and I work up to them. I do the same thing now. Over the pandemic we had two-week pre-production sessions that I booked. One in Maine and one in Vermont at Airbnbs. Everyone drove up and brought their gear and we just shedded for two weeks. It was great. In the meantime I’m writing all the time so I would just bring my songs up and we’d go through ‘em.

I’m gonna go to LA next month for two and a half weeks to start recording the next album. So I’m about to shift from doing a lot of production work to only doing my stuff for maybe the next three or four months. That’ll be new. I’ve never been able to focus on just my stuff for more than ten days. This will be my first time to really just make music, my own stuff, and not be broke somehow. I’m curious, am I gonna suck at this when I’m not broke? Is brokenness why I was good? I hope that’s not the case, but I’ll find out!

Do you have other artists who you admire or look up to in the way that they operate in their career or their practice, not even so much musically?

I’ve talked about this band a lot because of this, but The National. I remember when I was just starting to get serious about music. Everyone always has these preconceived notions of what you can and cannot do as an artist. Like you’re not going to be able to be stable, you won’t have any money, you won’t be able to get married, you won’t be able to afford kids, everyone is just like why would you put yourself through this when you could just work and be happy and have a normal life? I realized in my mid-20s that I couldn’t just do that. I tried it and I was never happy with not just doing music, I always thought that I had to go for it. At least try it and if I fail, at least I went for it. Awesome. But with the National, I feel like they got everything. They have great relationships, great friendships, they all got married, they have many records over many years, tour the world. They did it without any radio play. Aaron Dessner does not live in Los Angeles, he has a little place in the Hudson Valley. They built something that was built fan by fan over a decade that is now sustaining their lives. And honestly, they could never have a song play on the radio again and they can always sell 2,000 tickets and live. I was always like, that’s the blueprint! It was a prime example of we’re just going to build this shit fan by fan and it’s going to work because we’re not going away. That always resonated with me because it was like, I can’t control if people like my stuff or not but I can always keep making things, and just build it slowly over time.

I was really shocked that Live Forever did what it did because to me it was like, cool, this will be the record that introduces me to people and then I can make another one and another one and another one. That’s kind of what I planned to do. But it moved a little quicker than I thought it would.

In terms of really doing It on your own terms – and you’re someone who has been in more traditional bands – did you think about what it would be like to perform these songs live?

Yeah. I wrote them because I wanted people to see this. My whole thing was like, I hate how separate everything is. Rap stuff, Noise stuff, Rock stuff, when we’re all listening to it all the time. And I was like, yo it’d be lit, I want to go see a band that plays a rock song then flies right into a rap song then flies right into a noise song and show me how it’s all connected and it’s all awesome and we can all just like it.

I’m really excited to do Mustang into Boomer into Mossblerd and then come out of it and play Fallen for You and keep going and going into a country song. That shit makes me so excited because I feel like that’s something that I do very well, that I enjoy doing, and I want people to see it because I want other kids who look like me who are interested in all those things to feel like they can do it too. Kind of like how when I saw TV on the Radio and Bloc Party I was like, yo, that’s ME! [laughs] You know, hitting so hard I’d never forget it. That’s the real reason. I can’t wait to do these things live because I know people will see it and be like, oh I can one-up that. I got something for that, you know. That’s exciting for me, seeing how it can grow.

It’s additionally an ambitious move to arrange things in such a way that instrumentation isn’t a traditional two guitars bass drums and maybe some samples, haha. Was that a concern at all? Logistically doing it?

So this all came together in learning about gear. I hit a point where I was buying lots of synthesizers and buying drum machines and sampler pads and I was fascinated by it. You’re telling me I can do all this shit by myself? This is crazy! It’s like when you first get a synthesizer and you play one key and you’re like, oh, that’s the song! I can do everything with this one note. If you’ve been playing guitar your whole life you’re just like, yo, time the fuck out. Synthesizers, WHOAH. It blows your shit!

Yes, yes!

When I started thinking about the show, I’ll be honest, I’m a pretty competitive person. I was like, I want to fuck everybody up. I want to write something hard. I want people to hear it and be like how is he gonna do this? And I’m proud to say that I can do it very well with all the people I have around me. The four people I play with are exceptional, athletic musicians. Jordyn Blakely, she’s an incredible drummer, percussionist, Berkeley kid. Dan Kleederman, Graham Richman, John Daise. I just believe in them so much and they make the music work so well. I honestly could not do it without them. The logistical challenge was really interesting to me. And also, everyone talks about their favorite bands like Menzingers, Bloc Party, TV on the Radio, I was always like, I wanna be freakin’ Radiohead. If you’ve ever been to a Radiohead show, it’s like, y’all are behemoths. And I want that! So I was like, ok let’s dress for the job we want!

That’s such a good point.

So that’s what I did. I made a record for the places I want to play. That’s who I want to be seen as.

As you should! I’m also in a place of writing where I finally don’t care how we’re going to play it live, so I feel that. And also playing a synthesizer is great!

Like, you’re telling me this is an arpeggiator? WHOAH, haha.

With that in mind, are there other formats that you want to work in? Or since we’re talking about gear, are there other pieces of equipment that you want to surprise folks with?

I’m a songwriter but I love beat-making. I feel like I’m a pretty great DJ. I write House beats and I just kinda stack them up. I dunno what I’m going to do with these House beats one day. But I definitely envision a two-piece project of me and another synth nerd doing the deepest House record of all time. House and Disco and I just sing over it, like float, and just give people the best 42 minutes of their life, put all my stuff in a backpack and walk away.

I love that.

That’s my dream. Go see Bartees Strange, we’re gonna go play the show and an after party, I just want to do a bruiser boiler-room set.

The “after-party” where people think it’s just going to be you at St. Vitus but it’s actually that set.

Yeah we pull up and OH, part two. NOW let’s have some fun.

I was going to ask if you have a creative practice that you don’t share with anyone but I guess it’s that!

Yeah. A lot of my remixes become pretty House-y and funky, but that’s probably it. My other one is, I’m a save for later kind of person. I write pieces and just stash ‘em. And just set a date on the calendar to go through the pieces. That’s how I’ve always been. I think people put a lot of pressure on themselves to finish everything today, whereas I’m like, it’ll be there. It’s all good.

My buddy Jason Hawke Harris is a country musician who lives in LA. He did this thing one summer where he wrote a song every day in the morning. I thought it was an awesome exercise and I was kinda jealous of him. I wish I had the music theory knowledge where I could just be like, ok, in the key of G these chords work. I’ll just do a song like that. I can’t do that. More power to those people! I feel like songs for me are like, it’s raining and I have a bucket and I’m trying to catch ‘em all. And then sometimes it’s not raining and it’s like, well, it’s just me and my bucket. I’m gonna hit the bucket today.

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