Interview: Astronautalis Honed His Wandering Hip-Hop Skills in Dallas, A City He Still Loves

If you cracked open Andy Bothwell’s head, you would likely be overwhelmed with the volume of content spilling out: clippings from People magazine, Bill Murray’s scotch glass, a dozen pulp novels, a handbook on bloodletting.  In my interview with Andy, who performs under the name Astronautalis, I accused him of being an insatiable information junkie.  “Inspiration junkie,” he politely corrects me, “I’m constantly inspired by little facts and tidbits.  It’s a game of collect and store it.  You research fighter pilots, war bonds and put it on a thumbtack board in your brain.  Then you synthesize that into a greater thesis or a goal.”

The fascination with history, with arcane facts, with pop culture, is well-understood by those who have seen Astronautalis live.  From Jacksonville by way of Maryland, the wandering rapper has gathered a steadily increasing discipleship by being a thorough artist and a freakishly adept, free-styling phenomenon.  In addition to what he calls his “tent revival meets carnival barker” stage act, Astronautalis has built his live show around his stupefying ability to take five topics at random from the audience and rap for minutes on end without stopping, stuttering, or repeating himself.

What people might not know about the man who goes by the moniker Astronautalis, is that he came to Dallas, sight unseen, in 1999 to spend four years at Southern Methodist University studying theater.  “I went out [to Texas] and just really fell in love with it.  Particularly Dallas.  Dallas and Denton.”

Texas as a whole is often the brunt of hipster ire, a foil of mythically large hair, bulging wallets, and Porsches.  But where your average American hipster sees a land of oil-slick grins, Astronautalis, the non-native, sees a heap of virtue.  “Texas has been independent and been locally focused since way before it was cool to be independent and locally focused.  It’s amazing to me that there is this push and support for Texans to support Texans.  I think that the beauty that goes on inside the state is quite often overlooked.  And what I think is more amazing about that is that Texas doesn’t really care that nobody cares. ”

Getting kicked out of Trees only to catch Slick Rick at the Tea Room, making the trek North to Rubber Gloves when it was still a rehearsal studio, Andy found more than an armful of North Texas to embrace.  A theater director by study, Andy Bothwell spent his free time in Dallas developing his verbal attack, entering and subsequently dismantling challengers in rap battles.  By the time his academic career at SMU had ended, his musical career began with the self-released You and Yer Good Ideas.  Seven years and thousands of shows and 5,000 topics worth of freestyling later, Astronautalis has built a name for himself in both rap and indie circles.  Now based out of Seattle, he has never forgotten his Texas affection and appreciation for Dallas’ oft-overlooked art and theater culture.

“Dallas is written off by a lot of people because of that concept that Dallas has bought off its magic with oil money.  Part of Dallas’ magic is money.  Money is a really easy demon to cast stones at, but that money enabled Dallas to do stuff that other places don’t do.”  The “stuff” Astronautalis has in view is The Kitchen Dog Theater, The Public Trust, the developing art neighborhood of Oak Cliff.  “I think it’s radical.  It’s oil money and corporate, Pizza Hut money, but people do stuff with it.  And that, to me, is really exciting.   Dallas could very easily be the decadent stereotype that it is, but it’s not just jewelry shops.”

Having toured for two years on 2008’s Pomegranate, which included several stops in Texas, Astronautalis is looking ahead.  “I’m going to write and record [a new album] by the end of the year.  I’m now officially at the point where I’m done touring for Pomegranate.  I’m gonna do this Australian tour, which is going to be amazing, but I couldn’t possibly do another headlining tour while maintaining my sanity.”

In a music community that is too often wrapped around its own discontent, it would be good for Dallas music fans, still writing and rewriting Deep Ellum’s epitaph, to consider Andy Bothwell’s forward outlook.  A Southern gentleman who has seen the world, Andy knows that there is a complex soul at the core of Texas’ sturdy presence.  Ultimately, he wants to live in that complexity.

“I wasn’t born in Texas, but, by God, I plan on dying here,” Astronautalis once announced from the stage of the Granada.  He says this is still true, but, “I would like to live [in New Orleans] for a while.  I have a couple more stops in me before I finally rest my head in Texas.  There are things I don’t like, but I’ve been to almost twenty countries now and I’ve been to every state in America now except for Alaska and Hawaii and Texas is still my favorite place in the world.”

Astronautalis freestyling: “The Death of Deep Ellum”

Astronautalis freestyling: “Kanye West’s Mother”

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