Proof of the Vision: An interview with Bartees Strange

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Bartees Strange interview

Bartees Strange has a simple message to share with his music: Do whatever you want. The Washington, D.C. singer/songwriter, born Bartees Cox Jr., didn’t always subscribe to an anything-goes philosophy when it came to his music. Inspired by seeing TV on the Radio perform on The Late Show with David Letterman as a teenager, Cox found himself wanting to take on more musical directions than he had any practical application for. Until the revelation hit him: What if they all intersected into one unique, personal outlet that made room enough to follow where his eclectic muse led him?

Live Forever, released earlier this month via Will Yip’s Memory Music, finds Bartees Strange seeing that idea to fruition. As much a deeply personal reflection on moments from his own upbringing—from growing up in a small town in Oklahoma to moving to the East Coast and bonding with his dad—as well as an expression of pure joy in the possibilities of music and songwriting, Live Forever breaks a lot of rules that are meant to be broken. It’s also a statement of confidence and assuredness in the midst of an industry whose outdated rules about genre marketing simply don’t—or at least shouldn’t—apply anymore. But mostly, it’s honest and hopeful—a feeling that Cox hopes carries through the experience of hearing it.

“We live in a time when things are so increasingly dire and I think there’s a lot of power in recognizing how many things you can control,” he says. “With this record, it’s the first time I’ve been able to express something that for my whole life I’ve struggled with. And it’s important to do things that feel good. It means the world to me that people are interested in it, and that people connect to it. I just want more people like me to have a piece.”

We spoke to Bartees Strange about Live Forever, flunking seventh-grade band, and creating your own space.

Treble: How old were you when you started playing music?

BS: Music’s always been a part of my life. My mom’s a singer and I grew up around her, she’s an opera singer, and church, I was singing and playing instruments. Since I was five or six years old, I’ve always been doing music in some capacity. But as far as recording or picking up guitar, probably around high school. I was kind of a late bloomer, I guess, instrumentally. I played horn in seventh grade band. My teacher flunked me out of band. And my mom went to the school and just about burned the place to the ground. “How could you fail a seventh grader in band, he goes to class every day, what’s the problem?!” But I made the band so much worse. So that was discouraging. I didn’t really want to play anything after that. But then I saw a bunch of bands, and to be honest, TV on the Radio’s Letterman performance, I remember watching that and thinking “I wanna do that.” So I bought a guitar and got together with some friends and everything clicked.

Treble: How much of the instrumentation on the record is you?

BS: Quite a bit. If I were to give you a percentage I’d say, 60? 70? All of the drums are by Carter (Zumtobel), my drummer. And when I demoed everything out, I was doing synth patches and got a lot of sounds I liked, then my synth player Graham (Richman), was like this is how you can make all of these better. So the part was by me, but the tone was made by Graham. So you know, most of it was demoed out by me, but a lot of it could not have happened at all if not for the people in the band who know the instruments. I’ll be like “hey, I wrote this drum part,” and then Carter will be like, “yeah, that’s good, but this is a way better version of it.”

Treble: Did you have a specific vision for Live Forever?

BS: I’ve played in so many bands. And as much as I loved those bands, I was kind of unfulfilled. I needed to play in four bands to do everything I wanted to do. And I was writing songs that people would say, “oh that’s like a mix of Bon Iver and a TV on the Radio song,” all the references people were catching what I was referencing through songs I was writing by myself. And I guess I never really felt comfortable writing these songs and doing anything with them because I felt like honestly it would be too much. Nobody wants to hear a song like “Boomer.” I remember saying that while we were recording, “This is too much. Nobody wants to hear this.” Like it’s not going to be cool to anyone else. It’ll be corny or something. But I was wrong! I’ve always loved how genres converge. I’ve always been a fan of the idea that Black people are the foundation of so many of these sounds. Country, hip-hop, blues, soul, funk, pop. Even rock music. It’s interesting to me that there’s so many little invisible walls that try to keep Black people in boxes. They tie you to a genre so you can’t tell the secret that it’s all the same. I kinda wanted to show that with the record, and make all the songs different, and show that they all make sense because they came out of me. They’re my experiences and the things that I like. When I listened to the record, I thought “I love this, but nobody’s gonna like it.” It’s a lot. But I was wrong. People have been more receptive than I thought they would be. It’s exciting that the possibilities in indie rock, Black people in this space and how we can take up more of it.

Treble: There’s a line on “Mossblerd” where you sing, “Genres keep us in our boxes,” and that’s still such a blind spot in the music industry. A Black artist who plays rock will still somehow end up being described as “R&B.”

BS: Yeah, all the time. One of my favorite artists, Tyler the Creator, he put out Flower Boy and IGOR and I was like “goddamn! These are pop albums, all the way.” The song choices, the arrangements, he’s not even rapping on most of it. For people to call it “rap” or “urban,” that’s just horrible. That’s just a micro example. I think Lil Nas X is the clearest example. People want everything to be black or white, a yes or a no, but everything is kind of in the middle. Everything is everything. I say in the first song, “Jealousy,” “come to a place where everything is everything.” All these things are related to each other, and it’s way more interesting when you combine it. It’s almost easier to do that than to keep it straight. The racial implication of genre is damaging. It fucks everything up and not just for black people. I think that’s why we’ve seen hip-hop take off and rock stagnate, culturally over the last 10 years, because it’s hard for the genre to move forward when it doesn’t bring people like me in. That’s something I wanted to address with the record.

Treble: There are moments on this record, like “Mustang,” that deal directly with your upbringing. How much of Live Forever is autobiographical?

BS: All of it is about things that I’ve faced growing up over the past 14 years, from Mustang to the East Coast, finding my way and becoming more comfortable with myself. Finding myself. And how powerful I felt after I realized what I was and what I represent, as a Black person, as a member of my family, as a descendant of slaves. What I bring to music and the role it plays in my life, is undeniable. I remember when I had that realization, I was like “oh, I’m starting my own thing.” I know what I want to do. And the record is a record of actualization. Realizing those things and how powerful it is to be in your own skin comfortably. I remember when I had that realization, I was like “I want to call it ‘Live Forever’, because it feels so immovable.” I had this clarity that I never had before. 

Treble: Earlier this year, you released the Say Goodbye to Pretty Boy EP, which was all covers of songs by The National, which is an unconventional choice for a debut. But in making that choice, are you still revealing something about yourself to listeners?

BS: Yeah, 100 percent. Also, keep in mind, when we put out Say Goodbye, we still didn’t have a label to put out Live Forever. But I had been in so many bands, and I’m friends with so many bands, and I’ve worked on so many records, that were so good and just didn’t have the right infrastructure to be heard. So I wanted to have the infrastructure around it, but I also knew that what I was trying to talk about was ambitious, and I didn’t want to have to waste my debut record explaining myself all the time. So Say Goodbye to Pretty Boy was a good way to introduce myself and also what I’m all about. That frame was a really good way to do that and onboard people to what I’m trying to do. Say Goodbye to Pretty Boy asked the questions: what would it be like if there were more big, Black awesome indie rock bands? And more bands were in this space, period. And Live Forever is the answer of what things could be like, a proof of the vision.

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