005: Bartees Strange
An interview with musician Bartees Strange
Welcome to Tune Glue, a newsletter that’s run in conjunction with Tone Glow. While the latter is dedicated to presenting interviews and reviews related to experimental music, Tune Glue is a space for interviews with artists of any kind. These interviews could be with filmmakers, video game designers, perfumers, or musicians who aren’t aligned with what Tone Glow typically covers. Thanks for reading.
Bartees Strange is a producer and songwriter who was born in Ipswich, England but grew up in various states across America before settling in Mustang, Oklahoma. While initially playing in various rock bands, 2020 has seen the release of two solo albums: Say Goodbye to Pretty Boy, an album featuring covers of The National, and Live Forever. Joshua Minsoo Kim talked with Bartees Strange on October 7th, 2020 to discuss growing up in the church, imposter syndrome, finding freedom in life, and more.
Photo by Julia Leiby
Joshua Minsoo Kim: Hey Bartees, how has your day been so far?
Bartees Strange: Pretty good, me and the band are in Maine, working on some songs. It’s nice to be away from D.C. and be out in the woods with my friends, working on some music and not reading the news—it’s nice (laughter).
Oh, I’m sure. Being away from everything is sort of a necessity right now.
Are you the kind of person who likes going out into the woods, to just be in nature?
Yeah, I like to get out of the city. I grew up in the country, so I think that’s kind of my natural habitat. Getting away is nice.
I wanted to say congrats on the album [Live Forever]. It’s been getting a lot of buzz, it got Best New Music on Pitchfork yesterday. That’s exciting!
I know you used to work in PR too. What was your initial response to seeing that?
I never thought I would ever get that (laughter). I never planned for that, I never expected that—I didn’t even think they’d review the music. It’s weird. Pitchfork is… you know, I’m Black and they reviewed my record. I know a lot of Black people who have great records but for some reason they don’t make the cut over there. I felt super seen. A bunch of my friends called me and were like, “Bro, you broke the color wall!” (laughter). For rock music that is. Of course they review rap and deep jazz acts like Jeff Parker. For up-and-comers, it’s kind of hard so I was very honored and very appreciative.
Yeah. And I know what it’s like to work in media. I worked in the media space my whole life so I understand how hard it is and how many considerations there are—I get it. Like I said, I was very surprised.
Do you feel like the release of this new album and its critical reception is the biggest achievement you’ve had in your life? Or the thing you’re most proud of? And if not, what would that be?
The thing I’m most proud of is that I recorded it. Before all of this, nobody knew my music. I just played in bands. I’d like to think that I’m a hard worker, but I never believed in myself to make something like this, and I had a lot of really close friends who pushed me to do this. I remember recording it, I remember being so proud that I went with my gut for once in my life. Just doing it at all—I’m more excited that I built this thing for myself. The Pitchfork thing is amazing but I was going to do this whether it was 5000 people or 5 people, you know? (laughter). I’m always gonna do it.
That’s the best mentality for sure. You mentioned how you had friends supporting you. Can you name two or three people in your life who have been super supportive? And this doesn’t have to be about music specifically—it can be about your growth as a person.
My parents. My mom’s an opera singer. She never pressured me to do music but it was always around, and she’d always remind me and say, “Hey, make time to do this.” And my dad too. In terms of my friends, there’s this guy named Sam Stuckey. I played in his band called See Evil around five years ago and we were in the studio one day, doing some overdubs. I was singing my part and he was like, “Dude, you need to quit this band and start your own band.” (laughter). I remember being like, “No, I’m so happy being in this band” and he was like “Fuck my band. Start a band.” Three years later, I was at a party and he was there. We were just jamming and he was like “You’ve gotta start a band. What are you doing? You’re wasting your time.” (laughter).
So there’s Sam, my buddy Carter Zumtobel, and my friend Brian DiMeglio, who engineered and mixed the record—we’ve had many conversations about how there’s no set path to this. You have to build it; you have to build your own thing. No one’s gonna give it to you. They really helped me do it. So it’s all those people for sure.
Thanks for sharing that, I really appreciate it. Do you mind sharing a memory of your parents that’s really emblematic of who they are?
Yeah, my god (laughter). Like I said, my mom’s an opera singer so I sat in a lot of opera houses and churches my whole life. Me and my brother and sister used to get dragged around, listening to the best singers in the world. And then my mom would come back and sit down and critique the shit out of them. “That’s flat, that’s flat, that’s sharp.” It made me the most critical music listener ever. I feel bad for all singers who come into my studio because I’m always like, “Okay there was this and this and this!” (laughter).
My dad, he was in the military for 20 years. He’s an engineer but he’s a super powerful dude. He can just do whatever—nothing can stop him from doing what he wants to do, it’s really inspiring. He teaches himself everything. He’s like, “Okay let’s build a house in the woods” and he builds it (laughter). He’s just one of these people who does everything. My mom is super Christian and we would go to church but I never felt that my dad was super into it. One day, we were working on a car and I was like, “Dad, do you believe in God?” and he said, “I believe that I’m God. I can do whatever I want.” (laughter). I was in like 6th grade and was like holy shit. You can do whatever you want, even if you’re a Black dude from the South. You can’t control anything else but the things you do. I think that describes my dad.
That’s an incredible story. Especially since you were a kid.
Yeah, exactly! You’re just in church every day and then he’s like, “Nah, fuck that, I’m God.” (laughter). It’s amazing.
So you’re mom’s still Christian, then?
Yeah, she still goes to church all the time.
Are you Christian?
I don’t think I am. I do believe there’s something happening, that there’s a God, I just don’t know what one it is. I think they all exist, that they’re all real.
One of my friends interviewed you and in the interview you mentioned [Christian post-hardcore and indie rock band] As Cities Burn. I think it’s fun listening to Christian hardcore music, especially that first As Cities Burn album [Son, I Loved You at Your Darkest] because there’s such a distinct vibe there. It has that awkward, American Christian vibe that reminds me of youth group. The lyrics and the language they use, the things they’re talking about, even the vocals… there’s something there.
Oh man. I was in a band in high school and we loved As Cities Burn and we loved “Timothy” a lot too. From your experiences of growing up in the church, is there anything that sticks out in terms of how it all affected you? This can be positive or negative.
I remember that my favorite thing about church was the music. When we were younger, I didn’t get to listen to the radio that much. The music I had access to was church stuff, gospel, and stuff my dad listened to from the ’70s, ’80s, and early ’90s, like Erykah Badu. That’s all we had. I remember at church we would move into these jams and I fell into these moments when “the Spirit is moving.”
I remember I went to my first heavier show. My buddy had a car and we drove to, I think, the Green Room, which was a small club in Oklahoma City. We saw this band play and they were super loud, hardcore, thrashy. It reminded me of church. I remember being like, “Oh my god, this feels like, in my body, when the Spirit is moving when I’m in church.” The room was heavy—you could feel it—and it was addicting. I realized then it wasn’t Jesus (laughter).
I know this exact experience, and I’ve literally never heard anyone talk about it in this way before.
Yeah, that shit hit me. “Maybe it is God?”—I remember thinking that. It felt the same, and I wanted to feel it even more. I was like, “Is that God?” That’s kind of the backdrop to all of my musical understanding, in a way.
It makes a lot of sense. When you’re in church and the worship band is playing, and especially if they go into extended instrumental passages and are into it, you really learn something from it. There’s like an innate perceived sacredness because of what it’s meant to be, so you take it seriously. And then there’s the participatory aspect that heightens everything—the congregation feels as important to the whole thing as the band.
Church is also feel over theory. When the pastor’s talking and the band is punching in, it’s not because it’s on a one or a two. The vibe is there. I don’t have a good understanding of music theory—I don’t know how to read music, I didn’t go to school for it, I don’t know any of that shit—so my music is all feel. That’s definitely from church. There’s eye contact, and you know, “Okay, this is happening now.” (laughter). That’s all church stuff.
Ah man, thanks for sharing all of that. I’m really happy that you shared something I could resonate with so strongly.
You’re talking about this idea of feel being how you approach songwriting, so I kind of want to talk about it from this angle: What was the most difficult song to write from Live Forever? What took the most out of you?
I am really bad at writing lyrics. I don’t like to commit to lyrics—I literally record lyrics like Future records lyrics. I’ll arrange the music and have melodies and then do a bunch of freestyles. This is so corny but the music inspires the lyrics. I feel like I’m finding out the story I’m telling as I’m writing the song, and the music is telling me what to say. I don’t know what the song’s going to be about until I’m done with the music. And then I’m freestyling over it and picking stuff out and being like, “Okay that fits, that fits, and that fits. We have a frame here, let’s fill in the gaps.” That’s kind of how I’ve always written. The hardest song for me to write on the record was “Ghostly.”
Why was that?
I didn’t know what I wanted it to sound like. I tried so many things with that song; there are so many demos. It was two separate songs and then I decided to smash those songs together. I was inspired to do that by “White Ferrari” from Frank Ocean. That song is split right down the middle. I was fucking with all these arrangements and I was like, “Oh, I don’t need to impress anyone with these arrangements. The voice sounds good. The guitar sounds good. Everything here is fine. Just lean on the strength of the performance and tell the story.” I was just too in my head.
Doing the two-part song thing goes along with things you’ve talked about a lot in other interviews, just with how you don’t want to limit yourself in terms of genre. With that, throughout your life—beyond the music you were making—were there aspects of who you are that you put in a box, be it self-imposed or from others?
That’s kind of what the record is about, just breaking out and doing my own thing. I remember my whole life growing up, I was like, “Oh god, I gotta bust my ass to get out of Oklahoma.” I didn’t feel like there were a lot of opportunities for me there. All the things I wanted to do weren’t there. My parents were professionals and they wanted us to all do well. We all went to college, I interned a lot, worked really hard. I was really going on the path—I was that Black, successful, Howard University working-on-the-hill Black guy.
I worked on the Obama administration—I was the press secretary there. That was my dream job. Obama was the first person I voted for, and I remember getting that job at the FCC and thinking that I made it. I was 24 years old and I exceeded all expectations for myself, but I hated it. I hated it! As soon as I got the job I was like, “I seriously fucking hate what I’ve become and I don’t even know who I am.” For my whole life, I was always trying to be what people wanted me to be, and I didn’t even know what I liked anymore. I had to come all the way back to finding myself again.
Me and my girlfriend came back to New York because I wanted to play in bands. I started gigging hard and that’s how I refound myself (laughs). That’s how I broke away from being afraid, how I started just going with my gut. I feel like there are two chapters of my life. I felt that my parents worked so hard and my grandparents went through so much so I could be the press secretary at the FCC. But really, they went through all that so I could be free, so I could do what I want. When I realized that, I was like, “What the hell? What am I doing?” I just wanted to make music and be creative and build things.
That was a huge shift in my life, and it didn’t happen overnight. The last 12 years of my life I worked 40 hours a week, I worked full time jobs. It’s only two months ago that I got a job in the studio and got clients—this is all relatively new. It’s a long time coming.
I love what you said about your parents and grandparents. I think about that a lot with my parents being immigrants. I felt pressure to be a certain type of person. I’m a high school teacher right now but I was considering a career in dentistry for a long time. I was in a program for a bit but then I realized I couldn’t do it, that it wasn’t what I wanted to do.
My partner is a first generation immigrant and she’s from China. She’s a lawyer. We talk about this stuff all the time. I feel you, it’s a thing.
When you worked at the FCC, was it the actual work you didn’t like, or was it just the fact that you didn’t like how it wasn’t who you really were, or was it both? Was there anything you took away from your time there?
I didn’t want anything that anyone had.
What does that mean? (laughter).
I looked up to a lot of people and thought I wanted the life they had until I got closer to it. I realized I didn’t want to be like them at all. It wasn’t fulfilling for me. It was cool for them but not for me. I just saw myself trading pieces of myself in to be this thing that I didn’t even recognize. It wasn’t worth my life—I was literally giving my life to this (laughter). I couldn’t do this for the majority of it.
Photo by Julia Leiby
I’m really happy that you came to a point where you recognized that. I know way too many people who are just sticking with a job they hate despite it making them feel miserable. They’re scared—it’s scary!
I’m still scared (laughter).
What’s the fear? Just in terms of security?
Yeah, I’m like, “Am I gonna fuck up? Am I ever gonna write another song again? Is Pitchfork gonna take the thing down?” There are people from Oklahoma who are sending me mean messages because I’ve been talking about how racist things were. It’s weird, it’s very different. But I’m literally in Maine right now writing another record and it’s quelling my fears.
What ideas and plans do you have for this new record?
I’ve proven to the world, or at least to critics and to fans, that I deserve to be here. Now I just need to prove it to myself (laughter). You know? I feel like I’ve faked it until I’ve made it, and now I need to prove to myself that I belong here, which is classic imposter syndrome stuff. Whenever I write a song I go, “Yes, this is better than the last song! You are good at this!” (laughter). There’s a lot of that.
Do you know what it would take for you to feel like you’ve proven it to yourself.
A fat check would be nice. If I got paid a lot of money to make music, I’d be like “Whoa, you did something with this.” (laughter). But I don’t know. My dream is to write songs and to make a living doing that. I want mobility. I want my kids to have an international passport. I want to be a mobile, creative person who does whatever the fuck they want to do. If I got to that point—where I was not worried about money at all—I’d be like, “We’re in!” But I’d still be worried about losing it. “How do I keep this! Ahh!”
Is there a time when you were a child and had imposter syndrome but went over that hump? Where you did something for yourself and were happy with it? Or is this all sort of a recent thing?
It’s definitely recent. As a kid I was definitely a high-achieving person. I played sports at a pretty high level, I went to college, I had a football scholarship. But I never liked it, I only did it because I thought it was what I needed to do (laughter). I don’t really count those things. I didn’t really have imposter syndrome because I just became the people around me—I was a shapeshifter.
I used to talk about this with my brother and sister. We grew up on Air Force bases and we’d move all the time. I remember we’d land somewhere new and I’d absorb everything, be like, “Okay, I’m like you now. I’ve got the accent, I’ve got the clothes, I’ve got the haircut, I’m you.” I was good at doing that, I was like an X-Man (laughter). I thought it was cool how she [Mystique] could turn into people, and I’d tell my dad, “That’s what we do!” It’s almost like a poem: you turn into so many people that you lose yourself. And then you wake up and you’re like, “Who the fuck am I? I miss myself.” And, yeah, that’s what the record’s about.
How old are your siblings?
Well, I have two older half-brothers, but we didn’t really grow up together. I have a brother who’s two years younger than me, and a sister who’s four years younger than me. So we’re 31, 29, and 27 right now.
How do you feel about your 30s so far?
Ah man. My 30th birthday… I did not enjoy it.
It was the year I moved back to D.C. from Brooklyn and I missed all my friends from Brooklyn. I was like, “Damn, I’m back in D.C., a place I told myself I’d never come back to, and none of my friends are here.” It was really sad. But then I fell in love with it—I met some new people, I dove into my music. D.C. gave me an opportunity that I couldn’t have in New York; it’s hard to be seen in New York. It’s tough. I love D.C.—it gave me a lot.
Otherwise, my 30s have been fun. I have a better grip on life. My 20s were a rush—I was just trying to get by—but with my 30s, I’m comfortable. I know how to navigate things a little better. I’m not as scared.
You talked about how you were absorbing the identities of different people. Were there any people, though, who really inspired you to be yourself? And these could be artists.
Yes. The first one was 100% At the Drive-In. They were just a bunch of Mexican kids from El Paso and I was like, “What? Are you serious?” (laughter). It was like, “Whoa, these guys look like me, and they’re speaking Spanish on stage! And they’re heavy! All these white boys are afraid of them!” (laughter). They are just the most intimidating, fast, talented, musically-gifted, amazing group. It floored me. Omar [Rodríguez-López]’s guitar playing… the combo of him and Cedric [Bixler-Zavala] was incredible.
And then when I saw TV on the Radio, I literally was like, “Yo, that’s me.” I felt connected to Tunde [Adebimpe]. I remember seeing “Wolf Like Me” and being like, “This is everything.” It was a really big moment. Those two bands really got me thinking about what I wanted to do with my life. And then Bloc Party and hearing “Helicopter.” I was starting to get into rock music at the time and seeing Kele [Okereke], I was like, “Whoa, I’ve gotta be this. I’ve gotta do this.” And then I found a guitar and just taught myself. I was in high school, 16-ish.
You play a lot of other instruments, but is the guitar the instrument you feel closest with?
Yeah, by far. Like everything else, I might play bass in someone’s band if they ask me to but I definitely play it like a guitar player. I’m not a piano player but I play piano on my stuff sometimes. I can write with synths on my stuff, I can play drums on my stuff, but… I’m a guitar player (laughter).
Do you feel like being a guitar player shaped your approach to music and songwriting in general?
It definitely had an impact on my influences because I loved guitar players. I was always looking for guitar-playing songwriters. I loved country music because of the guitars, and that was the first bucket of music I dove into. I learned how to play country songs and how to use my fingers. I still don’t like to use picks that much; I’m very much a fingerstyle player. I also thought the voicings were incredible—the harmonies you could create with it were incredible. It felt very physical—I love doing things with my hands—so it just fit for me.
What country artists were you really into?
I think most Oklahomans would say Woody Guthrie (laughter). I love him, I love Joan Baez, I love José González—that song “Crosses” fucked me up (laughter). I was like, “This is so simple and gorgeous… how do you do this?” The Tallest Man on Earth, a lot of his voicings on that first record were really inspiring. And of course I love Hank Williams. Him, Brad Paisley—those guys are nasty guitar players. [John] Prine. Love that shit.
And then there were all these people I was around in college who were exceptional guitar players. Samantha Crain, John Calvin Abney—these people are doing big things now with their music, but I remember sitting in during college and being like, “Yikes, this is deep. This is some real deep shit.” I learned so much from watching them play.
There’s only one more question I wanted to ask you, and it’s something I always ask people. Do you mind sharing one thing you love about your girlfriend and yourself?
I think it’s cool that my girlfriend’s never impressed (laughter) and I’m still figuring her out. It’s been six years and I’m still like, “Do you like this?”
Is this specifically with music or in general with life?
In general, in life. Her bar is high. A lot of people I’ve dated have been into my music, and those relationships didn’t work out. It’s nice to be with someone who… she’s a labor lawyer, she’s part of the labor movement—she’s doing important shit, you know? I’m humbled by her. She is also brilliant. The smartest person I’ve ever met and the best writer I’ve ever read. Period. And she just entertains herself by reading and doodling. She just doodles all day. It’s the cutest little doodles.
I’m amazed by how fulfilled she is by doing so few things. I’ve always been such a busybody—football camp, opera camp, basketball camp, running track, playing guitar, “When am I gonna learn this instrument?”, “I wanna write a song!”, “Let’s learn how to record and produce!” I’m afraid of doing nothing, but she’s so comfortable with silence and it shows me how comfortable she is in her own skin, and how good she is with herself. I aspire to be that okay with myself. I think she’s on a different plane sometimes, I think she’s special.
With myself, I like that I’m resilient. I have a saying that I say all the time and in every situation: “Can’t let these fuckers win.” (laughter). And that could be anybody. Throughout my life, people have always tried to downplay me or put me in the back or not give me something I was owed, and that has always made me a very intense worker. I will outwork anybody. I never stop. And it’s because of where I grew up and the stuff that me and my family went through. I don’t take no for an answer, I will always get what I want. There’s no question; I won’t accept anything else. That’s my best quality (laughs). I never stop trying.
Right now, right there—you sounded a bit like your dad.
(laughs). Yeah, I will never lose. Time is so powerful and I have so much of it. I don’t have to have anything today, but I know that I’m gonna get everything I want because I’m not stopping. I’ll get it eventually.
Your girlfriend sounds like such a nice person to be around because all of who she is will naturally overflow into yourself and who you want to be.
It’s also nice to be around someone who’ll tell you that you ain’t shit. Like, “It’s your turn to cook, I’ve cooked the last three days. You’ve been working on beats for five weeks. Who gives a fuck, who cares about your stupid beats.” (laughter). That’s a good thing to have. I just get in the tunnel when I start working on something. She’ll get me out. “You need to eat… something… today.” (laughter). “You need to go outside this week.” Stuff like that.
Is there anything you’ve wanted to talk about in an interview that you haven’t had the chance to do?
I’ve said a lot and have done a lot of interviews recently. One thing I don’t think people understand is how much work went into putting the music in this situation where it could be heard.
Like press-wise? Backend stuff?
All of it. I’ve gotten a lot of not-great messages from people who are like, “Oh, who’s your publicist?” They’re kind of assuming things are happening now because I have a great publicist. It’s important to build a team around your music, and you have to have people with you who aren’t in the band but believe in you. That’s more important than anything—people who will just evangelize. People like Jamie [Coletta] and Tim [Zahodski] and Will Yip—I just love them. They are every bit as responsible for this record doing well as me and my band. They are the band. I think of all of us as a singular team that believes in this thing. I’ve been trying to explain to people that you have to build a team up. Every label in the world passed on my record last year, and I was sure no one was gonna give a shit about this record.
Can you share what those record labels were? Totally understand if not.
No, because I really want them to sign me this time (laughter).
But even if they don’t, I feel like I’ve proven it to myself. It all has to start with you and the people who believe in you. It all comes back to you; it’s not someone just giving you something. You can carry that into many walks of life—it’s up to you, so what are you gonna do?
Do you feel like you’re that supportive person in other people’s lives?
Yeah, definitely. I feel like I’m always hyping up my friends. I’m a part of the community. There are tons of musicians I’ve been playing with for years and we all are always building each other up. Melanie Charles, Felicia Douglass, Taja Cheek—I could go on and on. We all play a role in each other’s lives and we’re always there for each other and sharing information.
One thing among Black, Brown, and non-white people in the professional and musical world is that we’re always in uncharted territory. There are very few examples of what to do next, and the only way around that is to share information. It’s almost like unionizing (laughs). You get something, then you go back and you’re like, “This is how it works for me, you should do this.” The white kids already have that shit, or they have money, or they have both. That’s why things don’t work out sometimes—we have great products but we don’t know the process.
Helping each other that way is really important, and I had a lot of help like that from people who were Black. Shout out to those people. Blake from Fusilier, his manager Terrance. These people really put me on; they told me what to do, what not to do, who not to talk to. That stuff is really important and I try to share that with as many people as I can in our circle.
Purchase Live Forever at Bandcamp.
Photo by Julia Leiby
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