Genre-defying songwriter Andy Bothwell is better known as Astronautalis. In December 2014 as part of a Clif Bar GreenNotes grant, he performed in concert at The Food Group, a non-profit organization that has a particular focus on healthy food access. Andy talked to us his about views on hunger in the United States, how growing up as a “skateboard kid” taught him the importance of local community, and the important connection between social justice and social media.
GreenNotes: Tell me about Astronautalis.
Astronautalis: I’m originally from Florida, and I am based out of Minneapolis, MN. I didn’t make music originally; I started out [doing] battle raps. After I graduated from Southern Methodist University, I got asked to go on the Vans Warped Tour. At the time I didn’t even have an album. I’d just freestyle at shows. I just wanted to see—if something cool happens from this then great, and if nothing cool happens, then it turns into a really great story, and I’ll go on with my life. That was my first tour, almost 12 years ago, and it went really well. I sort of just haven’t stopped since.
GN: You started as a battle rapper, but there are other influences in your music too. Where did those influences come from?
A: I grew up in a really musical household. None of my family members really were musicians, but we were constantly listening to music. My father introduced me to The Rolling Stones, Sammy Dave [Jr.], and a lot of soul music, and my mother introduced me to Van Morrison and Bob Dylan. I also had the very good fortune of having an older brother who had excellent taste in music, so when all the kids my age were listening to New Kids on the Block and MC Hammer, he had me listen to The Clash and The Smiths and stuff like that. That was the early wave of my musical taste. But then I also grew up in the skateboarder community of the mid-to-late 90’s, which was a golden era for skateboarding culture. I probably got the better part of my musical influence from skate videos. One second you had a skateboarder skateboarding to Modest Mouse, and then another second they’d be skating to Three 6 Mafia. So you kind of got exposed to everything. It wasn’t about identifying as like, “I’m a rap guy”, or “I’m a punk kid”. You’re just a skateboarder and you listen to everything.
A: The idea of doing something that is inherently musical but also beneficial in a larger sense was a really exciting prospect. After a while, I’ve become more established in my work and my career, and I would hope to not only use that establishment for advancement of my own art, but also advancement of the world and the community around me. The GreenNotes project seemed really great, because it’s saying that the bridge between music and public service is a really exciting thing. Oftentimes you have the problem of musicians who really want to help but don’t know how to connect to programs that could use help. So [GreenNotes] and I brainstormed community projects and non-profit organizations that I felt personally connected to, and when they talked to me about The Food Group it just really hit home. What they are doing there is not only a really important thing, but the way they’re thinking about it I really, really admire. It’s good to see someone who knows that just giving aid is not enough. Because it’s not just enough to provide the food. You have to teach people and really help people. So the way The Food Group is approaching food aid is something really revolutionary, really beautiful, and really important.
GN: How did you settle on the particular issue of hunger as your focus?
A: I think it’s often overlooked in our country. I think people are aware of hunger and poverty but aren’t aware of the wide scope of it all. I think people often assume that the issues of hunger and malnutrition end with the unemployed and the homeless. And, while we are pulling out of our nationwide recession, what people don’t necessarily realize is that the falling unemployment rate is sort of a façade. People who are no longer unemployed are now underemployed. Someone who used to have a high-paying full-time job with benefits is now oftentimes forced to work a minimum wage job, and it’s impossible to support a family on minimum wage in this day and age in America, you know? I mean, to successfully support a family. We’re not out of the woods—we’re just sort of papering up nice wallpaper around the place to make it look better. And then, even more importantly, the overall health and nutrition of our country is something that I find at times upsetting and—worse—embarrassing. The food we’re given is sub-par, and we oftentimes don’t have the money to take care of ourselves in a way that we would like to. So the way The Food Group has said that it’s not enough to supply food, but that people need to be educated, people need good food, people need nutrition—that really hit home. Also, it’s not just people at the bottom. People in the middle also need help, and The Food Group really works hard to do that. It’s a really beautiful and commendable thing.
Ultimately, for me, the most valuable means to pass a political message on is not by telling, but by doing.
GN: Do you think there’s a connection between the skateboard community and social or cultural revolution?
A: I think it’s like any alternative sub-culture. At the time, it wasn’t inherently political. If anything, it was mostly apolitical. People weren’t starting revolutions. Their revolution was ignoring the government around them and the control around them. But what’s really interesting about that culture that still dictates my life today is that the focus was on your friends, it was on your community around you, it was on your crew. It was that “crew culture”—the same with rap music—where the focus is more on the self-determination of a small group of people: you cared about the crew around you, and about yourself.
GN: Did that type of “crew culture” help develop your sense of how important community is?
A: Yeah, I think it helped with how important local community is. More and more, we are aware of the day-to-day events in foreign countries. And, at times, it can be very daunting knowing all the bad things that are happening. It can cause you to get overwhelmed and feel like, “there’s nothing I can do to fix it.” Because realistically, I can’t solve things in the Middle East, I can’t cure world hunger, I can’t give clean water to everybody. I mean, not one person can do that. But I don’t think that’s how you change the world. I think you change the world by focusing on the people around you, really working to make the world around you a better place and the people around you better people. In the end, I believe that branches out. So, yeah, I think that the sense of community that I got from my friends growing up influences me to get over that overwhelming feeling of worthlessness when you understand, “What could I possibly do as one person?” and I can redouble my efforts and realize, “It starts here.” It starts in Minnesota or in Florida; it doesn’t start in Syria, necessarily. With a lot of my feelings about social action, I tend to focus more locally, because I think you solve the huge problems in the world by solving your own problems, and letting your neighbors solve theirs, and their neighbors solve theirs, until eventually it branches out.
GN: There is a strong history of activists and musicians working together. Do you feel like that is still happening to the same degree that it was in the 60’s?
A: Yeah, I think it’s happening more so! What’s changed with technology today is that you can really pinpoint everything. An organization like GreenNotes can find a musician that wants to be active and the exact right organization for them to be involved with, the one that speaks to them. So I think that activism is even larger than it was in the 60’s and 70’s, and it’s because of organizations like GreenNotes and because of how technology has allowed us to increase our connectivity to everything that’s going on in the world around us.
GN: As a musician, what is the best way to get the word out about a cause? Is the stage an appropriate place for that?
A: I think there are times when it’s appropriate to bring it up on stage, but live shows are also entertainment. People aren’t coming to my show to be preached at. Ultimately, for me, the most valuable means to pass a political message on is not by telling, but by doing. I’ve had more success getting people to chase a dream and live a life they imagine by just being that person, and by living that life. People see that and they go, “That’s something that I want!” That’s all it is. If I sat there and made a post that was just like, “I think The Food Group is great!” a hundred people would tune it out in favor of a cat picture. But by incorporating actual musical performance, and interviews, and video that’s really eye-catching and beautiful, it makes for compelling stuff that can compete against a cat riding a bicycle. To see how exciting it is, and how excited I am by it, is going to do a lot for people. Social media’s great, but you still have to make something that people want to watch, and engage with them.
GN: So, what’s next for you project-wise? You’re working on an album with P.O.S., right?
A: Yeah, yeah, we’re slowly chipping away at that whenever we can. I just finished recording my new record, and I go to mix it the first week in January, so you should start hearing tunes from that. Otherwise it’s more touring, always working on more music, working on some more projects. Just trying to stay as busy as possible. Busy and happy.
GN: That’s the goal, right?
A: Always and forever, man.
Follow Astronautalis on Twitter @astronautalis.