Aesop Rock on Making Skelethon Alone, Working with Kimya Dawson, and His Love-Hate Feelings For Live Shows
The last time Aesop Rock released an album, Hillary Clinton was running for president, tech nerds were lining up for a first-generation iPhone, and no one ever had to read or write headlines about Justin Bieber's hair. A lot's changed since 2007, and it's been a big half-decade for the MC as well. With Skelethon -- a 15-song exorcism of an LP -- dropping this week, Aesop's also setting out for his biggest tour in years.
We caught up with the San Francisco resident ahead of his show show at the Fillmore this Sunday, July 15, and at Amoeba Music on Monday, July 16. Check out portions of our interview with Aesop below, and read this week's print feature on him, too.
So this is your first solo record since None Shall Pass, and also the first that you've produced totally by yourself. What led to that decision?
Originally me and Blockhead were gonna do it together, like usual. I was like, maybe I'll start a bunch and then bring you out here to finish it ... and then at some point the distance was just making it harder to find a groove. After a while, it became "This is a thing I want to do, just to see if I can do it." So basically I took on way more than I usually know how to do on that end of the process. But I finished a record that I fully produced, and that feels fucking awesome. I don't even care if it's good or not. I did it.
What was the process of working by yourself like? How do you keep from feeling like you're in an echo chamber?
It wasn't necessarily fun. But I would send stuff I was working on to a few people, Rob [Sonic] and Blockhead, all the time. Probably too much. Every other day I'd be like "I added a high hat! Is this cool?" And they'd be like "Dude, you have to trust yourself, and kinda shut the fuck up."
In the music video for "ZZZ Top," you got kung fu legend Patti Li to throw a bunch of knives around in a warehouse in Oakland. Is it fair to say you try to be a little weirder and more artsy than the average hip-hop video? What's your approach?
I guess I always think videos are a pretty vital counter-piece to the music; there's always potential to do something cool. Also I can't just, like, mean mug a camera, which is what a lot of hip-hop videos are. That's not me. So you find a cool director like [San Francisco filmmaker] Pete Lee, and then you're like, "I have this much dollars, do you have ideas?"
I think it's about trying to find people who are into it -- to me, a DIY video with cool people like Patti, and a little bit of endearingness in it, is cooler than spending a bunch of money. I mean, obviously people can do rad shit with money, but like ... how important is it to have a fresh bagel on set?
How did you start working with Kimya Dawson? You're thinking early 2013 for The Uncluded album?
I was a fan of Moldy Peaches and Kimya's solo work for many years before I knew her. And then at some point I emailed her and said "Hey, I don't know if you know my music at all, but I love your records and you're awesome,"and she was like "Hey, that's awesome, and also I'm making my record in Berkeley right now and I wrote a rap song and do you wanna make a beat for it?" And I was like "Uh, fuck yeah!"
We just kept working on stuff for each other and became friends, and then at some point realized we were kind of in the same boat -- she has a ton of solo records of just her and her guitar, and she was like, "I need something new and weird." We'd be joking about it, like if we ever did a record together it would just be nonstop lyrics ... which it is. But it's also way more gentle than my songs usually are. And that kind of let me write in a way that I had never written before.
What's the response been like from your fans?
Well first, I do kind of have it in my head that every rock and rap collaboration in history has been terrible. So part of me is like, I feel like we can do something cool, but I'm well aware that a lot of people will think this is not cool at all. When we test drove it on the road, though, it went over pretty well. A lot of people were like "I didn't know what to do ... and then it worked!"
It's been a while since you did a tour this big that was all about you. Do you like touring, at this point?
Well...[laughs]. On one hand it's the exact opposite of why I started making music, which is like "I have an idea to express," alone in my room with the lights off -- this über-personal process. And then someone is like, "Guess what? I like that, and I wanna hear you do that on a stage and I'll pay you," and the next thing you know you're performing a song about being antisocial in a room full of people, and it's like, what happened? Somewhere along the line my job description got all fucked up.
But it's a love-hate thing. I mean I'm beyond overwhelmingly excited that people want to come out to see us. I can't express my gratitude, my bewilderment at that -- it's still an awesome and intense pill to swallow.
What are you listening to lately?
I have like four albums on my iPod. I like the new Tom Waits. I try to listen to new rap, I like Danny Brown. I also listen to the Mountain Goats a lot, and I like Kimya Dawson's music. I just like shit with cool lyrics, and I try to not limit that to just hip-hop. But we're in a weird time now where you can hear something just once, maybe check out a few songs online and never hear it again ... which is arguably not great for someone like me, who, you know, just spent five years making an album.
Any thoughts to share on this ASAP Rocky business?
You know ... not really. I don't think he did anything intentionally. I think he's just young and didn't know what he was doing and thought it sounded cool. Also, I'm too old to
give a fuck.
P.S. Aside from the Fillmore and Amoeba shows, be on the lookout for a show at Bob's Donuts, the next time Aesop has a good stretch of time in San Francisco. He and the owners are pals now -- they finally asked who he was after the fifth or sixth time a fellow patron asked him for an autograph at 2 a.m.
* Home Alone: Aesop Rock climbs out of solitude and back into the spotlight.
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