“It’s All Just a Pile of Scraps for a Long Time”: An Interview with Aesop Rock

Julian Brimmers and Aesop Rock talk about rapping at 50, making music in a barn, and the merits of keeping a tight creative circle.
By    April 18, 2016

aesop rockPhoto by Ben Colen

Okay, so, here’s the type of short story opening that any self-respecting (if there are such creatures) creative writing tutor rejects as “too loaded”:

Right at the start of the new millennium, an art-school grad (for painting) and aspiring underground rapper is down on his luck. He loses his apartment, a long-term relationship goes down the shitter, and the thought of embarking on his first major tour has him surrender to the medical prescription he’d been keeping in his drawer. One morning, he heads to the pharmacy, intending to purchase a product that would ultimately alter his perception of the world for the next 15 years. The date is September 11, 2001.*

For underground rap mainstay Aesop Rock, this certified stranger-than-fiction episode marked a turning point in his career. Labor Days, widely regarded as one of the most important records of the Def Jux era, got released just one week later. For the better part of the 2000s, Aesop honed his convoluted, wordy style of rap over Blockhead’s trademark sampledelics, becoming the blueprint for a heady indie rap aesthetic in the process. After leaving New York for the West Coast and finding new inspiration in the Bay Area and Portland, Aesop fully emancipated himself from the indie rap stigma with the self-produced Skelethon, an album that managed to seamlessly switch between hilarity and heart-felt meditations on death — not just between songs, but sometimes within the same sentence.

The Impossible Kid, his latest solo full-length for Rhymesayers, was partially written and produced in self-imposed isolation in a barn in Washington. At its finest moments, the album sees him stray slightly from his mosaic micro-level observations and obscure imagery, in favor of a more direct style and universally relatable narratives. We caught up with Aesop to discuss arts and comedy, the benefits of isolation, and how kicking medication has affected his creative routines. – Julian Brimmers

*Make sure to check out Open Mike Eagle’s podcast episode with Aesop. It’s full of gems like this.

What’s the most impressive piece of art you’ve encountered recently?

Aesop Rock: I like Dan Christofferson’s illustrations a bunch, they just feel nice to me. I like those animations that Marty Cooper makes—super fun and weird. I loved the movie The Witch, just love that time period and witch lore in general, and the mood the whole movie created. My old friend Coro has been doing a series of super amazing oil paintings of wooded landscapes and such, really just awesome. I just watched season 1 of Black Sails and thought it was fun.

And what’s the best piece of art you have produced yourself lately?

Aesop Rock: I dunno—I don’t really think of myself as having made the best anything. If I bother finishing it, it just means it passed some sort of test that takes place in my mind. It’s all just forward motion, I don’t really like to stop and congratulate myself. I don’t really think I’m qualified to do much beyond make songs, so while I like drawing sometimes, I’m not really that good at it. I’m pretty bad on a skateboard too, but just love doing it.

 Last year, you spoke with Open Mike Eagle in Portland about relocating back to New York but you had difficulties finding a place. Before that you lived in a barn for a while, how was that?

Aesop Rock: I lived in a barn in Washington for one year a couple years ago, and got a decent start on some beats and ideas for the new album. We also finished the last Hail Mary Mallon album there. I then relocated to Portland and have been here since—where I finished what I had started in the barn, and then wrote some new stuff.

I was gonna head back to NY but ultimately got caught up finishing the record—and then was asked to score this feature film, Bushwick, which I’m working on now. I figured since I’d be traveling and touring for much of this year anyway, I’d stick here where the rent is cheaper, work on the album and this movie, hit the road, and then maybe try to head east later this year or something.

In our last interview we spoke quite a bit about your writing technique and you mentioned how you keep jotting down small ideas and observations throughout the day. How did that evolve in the barn, with your immediate surroundings changing from the surplus of information in the city to that rural lifestyle?

Aesop Rock: There’s always a surplus of information. The barn was just an opportunity to get away for a minute and work on some stuff somewhere different—but there’s never not stuff to take in. It also served as a nice starting point for some ideas, and a fun concept to exaggerate and romanticize.

My technique has always been some form of note-taking that eventually gets expanded upon and turned into longer passages once songs start taking shape. But I’ve been back in an urban environment for going on two years now. I don’t only take notes when I’m walking around a city—I do so if I’m reading or watching a movie or taking in some art or talking on the phone or whatever. I just tend to write down what I think is cool because I always find myself thinking, “I’m gonna need that later.”

They say isolation does strange things to a man…Well, does it? Also, does “strange [really] beat normal”?

Aesop Rock: It wasn’t really total isolation, but certainly more so than anywhere else I had lived. I’ve never really been comfortable in settings with a lot of people, or in a social arena where everyone is jockeying for position. If I ever feel like I have to prove my worth in a crowded room I’d rather sit in the corner and draw on a napkin—that’s just how I’ve been forever. Being strange kinda all depends on your definition of normal.

In the song you’re referring too (“So Strange Here” with Homeboy Sandman), I think we’re just embracing the idea that sometimes being out of your comfort zone can provide an experience different from what you’re used to, for better or worse. For me personally, I guess I like going that route—so perhaps it “beats” it in that way. You kinda get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

One could get the impression that being by yourself led you to write more direct, less coded lyrics about personal issues. But how much of these songs did you actually produce in the barn?

Aesop Rock: The barn was basically during the initial stages of trying to get a project to take shape. I just sat and made a ton of beats, a bunch of which ended up on the record in some form. I also wrote a bunch of words and demo’d up some things. I dunno—it’s tough to quantify how much, but it was a productive time for me.
I just worked a ton, and many of the beats that didn’t make it to my solo record have been and will continue to find outlets. A lot of the initial stuff for me is just like finding the main groove, then maybe writing a piece of a song, and moving on. It’s all just a pile of scraps for a long time. Then at some point I go through it all and decide what’s worth finishing—much of that was done post-barn.

One of your old collaborators, John Darnielle, once spoke about how hard it was to transition from writing metaphorical lyrics to writing openly about personal issues. It’s not like it’s that obvious on your new record (nor am I saying your older records are less personal) but it seems you’re more at ease with writing accessible lyrics and narratives. How was that for you?

Aesop Rock: I don’t really notice during the process. I just kinda do my thing, and sometimes it’s drenched in metaphor, and other times it’s very linear and clear. I didn’t realize I had been as straightforward on a lot of the new stuff until a couple people told me later. Barely anyone heard the project until it was done—maybe 2-3 people would hear it along the way. But eventually I played it for some folks, and the comments leaned towards the whole thing being more direct than ever before. But I don’t think I realized that when I was doing it.

I like both things honestly, being cryptic can be super fun because you can talk about shit you don’t really wanna talk about. Being direct has an instant gratification that isn’t as apparent when you’re drenching everything in many layers of metaphor and such.

You just dropped the video for “Blood Sandwich”. This really is the core track of the new album, is it not? What was your personal “I am willing to die to see Ministry”-moment?

Aesop Rock: I personally wouldn’t say there’s a core track on the record for me. It’s all just part of the phase I was in, so in a lot of ways they all seem equally relevant. I think witnessing my older brother’s “I am willing to die for this” was my moment too. I just remember sitting there thinking, here is this dude who, at the age I was at I probably looked up to more than anyone else in the world, and he is yelling that he is ready to die for this concert.

My young mind was completely blown—enough so that the rest of my life has been a gigantic art-based tantrum. My older brother always was into art and music and cool shit, and I basically copied everything he did—so to see him reach that level of passion over a band had a major lasting impression on me.

Why exactly is it “hard to admit that {you} used to draw”, as you say on “Rings?” Does it feel like you’ve abandoned a talent?

Aesop Rock: Not a talent, but a passion I guess. Something I loved to do regardless of whether or not I was good. I put so much work in in that arena during the first half of my life and it was based on nothing but a love for trying and doing. So when I think about it I just kinda think man, I loved that shit, it was my whole life—more than that it was how I identified—and in many ways in my mind it was what I was supposed to do. Not that I was good enough to be successful, just that it was what I wanted and loved. I just kinda lost touch with it as my life unfolded.

You’ve openly discussed being off medication for the first time in 15 years. Many artists seem to have anxieties about how getting on OR off medication will alter their creative routines. How has this play out for you so far (and how—if at all—did it affect your feelings about being a touring artist)?

Aesop Rock: Well I went on meds literally the month I was supposed to head out on my first tour ever. I had been no stranger to depression, but that was when I had first experienced anxiety to the point that it was crippling my life. Mentally and emotionally I have been all over the map for my whole life, I really can’t pinpoint how my creativity was effected specifically by the different medications and such. Being creative was a necessity no matter what—I had to do it. Whether I felt good or bad, or whether the fruit of my labor was terrible or successful, it was always there.

When people and life failed me, or I failed it, I always had art and music. So in a lot of ways, while I’m sure these drugs had real and direct effects on my creativity, I was too obsessed with needing an outlet to really let it stop me. I’ve certainly had periods where I was less and more productive, but I can’t clearly relate them to the medications I was on.

Between “Get A Dog” on the Lice EP and “Kirby” on the new record I’m a bit confused…So I should get a dog if I’m scared and a kitten when I’m…lonely?

Aesop Rock: Yes.

 Speaking of cats – do you listen to Marc Maron’s WTF podcast? I just revisited your podcast with Open Mike Eagle, then listened back to his conversation with Maron. The cats, the self-deprecating humor, the layers of misery that you derive your moments of comedy from (be it in your writing or in the Funny Or Die bits)—I just felt like there might be shared sensibilities between your art and what Maron does.

Aesop Rock: Yeah, I like Maron’s podcast a lot. I like his comedy, but for me, talking to people in exactly that capacity is what he was put here to do.

How did these “Funny or Die” bits actually come about?

Aesop Rock: They’ve worked with me before—I believe they premiered the “Whales” video for Hail Mary Mallon. We just put feelers out to see who would be interested in taking all the episodes and they jumped on it. I dunno—it doesn’t seem that weird to me. Maybe I’m not a comedian, but I don’t really see those episodes as sad or depressing or any of that. To me they are kind of funny. Perhaps not in an SNL skit way, but there is a surreality to it, I hope, and an ability to laugh at it all. I think after this many years of seeing doctors and therapists and pharmacists and moving around a bunch in my life—seeing a cartoon bear in the woods for therapy seemed just as accurate as it is absurd.

Can you compare working on the Lice EP to your new solo record?

Aesop Rock: I love Sandman’s music—for me his rapping is something special. We spoke about doing some songs together but we work pretty differently. I have only ever really worked with a few producers, Blockhead, Rob Sonic on the Mallon stuff, and myself. A few other beats here and there, but ultimately I keep it all close to me—that’s how I like to do it. Sandman is the opposite—whereas at any given moment he has hundreds of beats from different people in his email or on his laptop. For him, he’s looking for the flyest shit from whoever has it.

I had been producing a lot of stuff for myself in the last bunch of years, and I think I was just ready to not have to deal with that part of the project. I just wanted to write, and I told myself I’d just go with the flow and let myself enjoy it all without micro-managing every single sound on the there. So we just started going through beats and they were all selected based off the immediate vibe—do I feel this, can I rock to this—let’s go. I just wanted to rap.

The scratched hooks, psych guitars, breakbeats, the arpeggios and organs—do you sometimes feel like you don’t get enough credit as a producer and for the distinct musical formula you’ve developed for yourself and others?

Aesop Rock: Not really—or maybe I just don’t think like that. I like the sound I’ve been getting for myself as of late—probably starting with Skelethon. In a lot of ways these last few years I kinda feel like I’ve found a sound that’s distinctly me in regards to my production. But I just never look at it in the light that I deserve more credit for what I do. It’s out there, and if people want to big it up they can.

We recently spoke to Pusha T about how Timbaland beats are the ultimate challenge, rhythmically. Why did you pick “Untouchable” for your latest free track? Busdriver hipped you to the beat, is that right?

Aesop Rock: I mean, I knew the beat and love what Pusha does, so I was well aware of the song and record. Obviously Timbaland is amazing. I was just writing some bars and wanted to pick a current popular beat to go in on, and was talking to Bus, and he was like “how about that Pusha T joint?” It made sense and I felt like the vibe of the beat was in my wheelhouse, so I went with it.

Push is one of the great punchline rappers of our time. What is the value of a punchline when it comes to your style? Are “here’s how the great escape goes, when you can’t take your dead friends names out your phone” (“Cycles to Gehenna”) or “This is something I’m willing to die for” (“Blood Sandwiches”) not punchlines when they seem so clearly at the core of the whole track?

Aesop Rock: I think those are punchlines sure, not really because they are the “core” of the track for me, just because they serve as a kinda zinger in the moment. I mean, punchlines are great—really it just means a standout line—or an impactful line that was hopefully set up in a way where you can get the most out of it. Shit, I’d like it to all be punchlines, so even the set-ups carry weight. In a lot of ways writing rhymes and rap music really caters to a setting-em-up-and-knocking-em-down thing, and when you get it to all work well it can be magical. That’s both the fun and the challenge. So much of how impactful what we say as rappers depends on the setup.

It’s funny man, just yesterday I was at the skate park and people always blast all types of current rap in there, so I was listening to a current rap song, and a line went by, and I found myself thinking about it a few minutes later. It was interesting to me because I was like, man, that line should have been completely amazing—it was like potentially a powerful line, but it was kinda set up in this way that completely didn’t do it justice—so it just kinda went by.

I don’t really wanna say what it was because I’m not trying to diss nothing, and honestly the song was way more successful than anything I’ve done anyway, so what do I know, but I was just thinking how for me, this particular line could’ve been a verse-ender. You can make a half-ass line sound better if you set it up right, and a good line sound phenomenal. Or you can put a great line in the wrong place, or with the wrong inflection, and it just fades away.

You’ve lived on the West Coast for a decade, the Bay Area, Portland…Now you’re thinking of heading back East. Do you tend to glorify the places you leave behind in retrospect, or is it more “thank god I’m out of there” situation?

Aesop Rock: I try to take it all as life experience. I was in NY basically until I was 30, minus some college years in Boston. I’ve lived a handful of places on both coasts at this point—some I’ve liked more than others, but I dunno—as a person who has made a life out of soaking in the world and spitting it back out, I try to look at each of these places like it has something to teach me.

New York has a giant presence in this country—in the world really—as well as a personal relationship with me and my history, so it’d be very easy to go anywhere with the attitude that I’m from NY and it’s the best and anything else is subpar. And I love NY to the point that after a decade-long adventure, I plan on returning there because it’s where I am most comfortable, where the people and environments make the most sense to me. But I still have always tried to the best of my ability to soak in these other places and see what it’s really about. I want to give them a chance to be themselves and affect me when I don’t have some guard or bias up.

Nothing will ever be what NY is for me, so I don’t really look for that relationship when I’m elsewhere. In the last couple years and for the first time ever in my life I actually find myself entertaining the thought of leaving the country and just going to live some completely other life—somewhere far away. Just go try some shit and see what happens. We’ll see.

I guess by now it’s inevitable to say that you are living a life in music. You’ve established a proper rap career and a discography that people use as a reference point for something. From a business perspective it seems that you have that sort of fan base that is pretty much immune to trends and changing forms of distribution. Can you paint a picture of how your job has changed over the years?

Aesop Rock: I wish I could say that with the ease that you seem to. I just have never felt stable in this. I guess I’ve had some longevity, but I wonder how much of that is just stubborn persistence, not actual success. My fans have been amazing, but I never get comfortable with it. Rap and music in general is just fickle, and I’m the kinda guy that takes my time with these solo albums. I go away and try not to come back until I think I really have something to show. But literally every single time I just never know, and I always convince myself it’s over. I think for me, drawing and painting was always a super solo endeavor, and my music stuff was somewhat a social endeavor. Rap really caters to the posse, the crew, showing and proving, getting out there, etc. And for some years I did my best to cater to that with my music at least on some level.

But as I’ve gotten older, and much of the visual art got sorta left behind, rap kinda took that place for me. Music has become a super personal endeavor. My records don’t feature 100 other vocalists, and I have produced the last couple entirely. I get people to play on them, but it’s largely me doing me. It’s a private mission, and I forget that people will even hear this music one day. I think that the fans that have stuck around maybe see that—and in some ways that’s why they come back. I don’t get on stage to be cooler than anybody in the room. I am lucky people even give a shit at this point. I realize that.

What’s scarier: the perspective of rapping on a stage at 50, or taking up a day job?

Aesop Rock: You’re talking to a guy who is scared of everything always. It’s weird—the idea of being a musician at 50 isn’t that scary—but rap is odd, and most rappers can’t manage to stay fresh for that long. Nothing is worse than watching a rapper who is obviously out of steam think they’re not out of steam. The thing is—they don’t know, you know? Like everyone else will notice that the ship has sailed except them. So I sit and ask myself daily—did that happen and I just don’t know it? Did I hit that point? I don’t personally feel I have, but I also know enough to know that I don’t think I’d even be aware if I did. And that horrifies me.

I talk to Sandman about that and he thinks I’m nuts. I just say “man, the odds are against us,” I just try to be aware of that. I’m not saying it’s impossible to be a great rapper until you’re old and gray, but the odds are against us. He’s pretty much like, “nah kid I’ll be fresh forever,” haha. Maybe he’s right. As for a day job—that’s not that scary. I mean it’s what most people do, so it can’t be that scary. To be honest, there are things I envy about people who have a nice routine to follow. I guess the grass is always greener.

Lastly, not trying to be all meta and shit but I’m seriously wondering – why would you bother answering all these things?

Aesop Rock: I do interviews when I have a record to promote. If I could have it my way I’d probably only make the music, and let that speak entirely for me. But that’s just not how it works. In fact at times it feels like the actual music is the least important part—and that gets difficult. There’s social media and press and all this shit I’m supposed to take advantage of all in an effort to get people to listen to the 15 songs on my new album. Like, for some reason the fact that I made them combined with my track record just isn’t enough. I’m not new, I’m not young, and I try to take what I can get in regards to being spotlighted anywhere, unless I’m just wholly uncomfortable with it. I am lucky people even give a shit at this point—I realize that.

As for my listenership, the best thing I can possibly do is create a solid track record. The best way I can show that I appreciate their dollars is by continuing to make records that clearly take time and heart and hard work. I take my records very seriously—it’s a lifeline for me. I think if people see that, they know it’s not a bunk purchase, and hopefully that leads to a long and trusting relationship between the fans and I.

We rely on your support to keep POW alive. Please take a second to donate on Patreon!