For this month’s edition of First Look Friday, we talked to Bartees Strange about his early influences, the success of his debut album Live Forever, and how bridging the gaps between genres keeps things interesting.
It’s safe to say the pandemic had a negative impact on artists — that is, unless you’re Bartees Cox Jr., better known as Bartees Strange. Bartees didn’t rely on the artifice or resources larger bands needed to release a record during a global lockdown. Bartees simply brought some of his friends together in his own studio to record what would be his debut album, Live Forever. An album that seamlessly weaves together hip-hop, R&B, and garage rock, Live Forever not only finds Bartees achieving a distinct indie rock sound for himself, but showcasing the rebellious joy in his music, too.
You can hear it in tracks like “Boomer,” with its early aughts rock melodies sat under lyrics about being in the trap, and “woo” rap refrains. It’s also there in “Flagey God,” with its layers of distortion under soulful crooning. Bartees’ sound is one you could only make without asking for permission: a punk disposition that could only be born from being told you couldn’t make certain things, only to make what you want anyway.
Bartees seems keenly aware of his position as a Black purveyor of post-punk rock. That awareness comes with an understanding of the history that brought him to this point: his family, the places he’s lived, and even the Black artists who created rock but are often left out of its history. Now, after the success of his debut and just days before bringing his songs to life onstage — which includes some supporting tour stops for Phoebe Bridgers, Lucy Dacus, and Courtney Barnett, as well as festival performances at the Pitchfork Music Festival, Governors Ball, and Outside Lands — Bartees hopes to inspire a future of “little Black rock bands” the same way groups like TV on the Radio and Bloc Party inspired him.
For this month’s edition of First Look Friday, we talked to Bartees about his influences, inspiring little Black rock bands, and bringing hip-hop ambition to rock music.
I know you grew up in a Christian household singing in the choir, and that your mom was an opera singer. But how did you go from growing up around music to actually picking up a guitar and pursuing it as a career?
My mom was a singer, but my dad was a big-time music collector always buying records, 8-tracks, and random reel-to-reels. He loved hi-fi audio equipment too, so there was always this music equipment around and there was always stuff for me to play with. I felt like every interaction I had with music was through a very classical or hyper-trained lens, so when I was able to touch it and use it in a way that came naturally to me, it became a lot more extreme. I never thought I was going to do music for my life because the musicians I knew were so highly trained. All my mom’s friends were world-renowned acrobatic singers or piano players and I was like, “Oh God, that seems like a lot of work and I don’t really love it.” But, when I started messing around with guitars and, honestly, seeing loud rock bands and punk bands play, I was like, “Oh, this is something I feel like I can do.”
You’ve talked about indie rock missing out on a huge opportunity because they’ve limited the involvement of Black and brown people. Can you expand on that and what you feel like that missed opportunity is?
When you have rock bands that are all white, it only shows one side of it, and there are so many sides to it. There are so many ways it can sound. It also creates a false separation. In the ‘70s and ‘80s and even in the ‘60s, you had Sly and The Family Stone, Parliament-Funkadelic, the Ohio Players — all these artists who were making music that encapsulated everything. It was rock, pop, funk — it was everything. At some point, people decided one person couldn’t do everything anymore. It’s this thing that has always fascinated me, and ultimately, it hurts the music. It just shows a very one-dimensional side of what life is like. I try to bridge those gaps. That’s where I find things getting interesting.
Speaking of bridging those gaps, Live Forever does that well by not just mixing genres, but bringing in that hip-hop ethos where rappers aren’t afraid to talk about money, cars, and pretty girls. Why was it important for you to bring that hip-hop ambition to rock music?
Because it’s real. People are definitely sad and there’s a lot of shit going on. But, like, I want a bag [laughs]. I feel like that energy is so hopeful. If you look across the space, that’s not something you hear in rock music. We were talking about the roots of rock music and it’s mostly Black contributions, and that’s a uniquely Black experience — wanting the bag. Being like, “When I get the bag, I’m going to blow the bag on the homies.” It comes from an intense place among Black people that is tied to so many other things. If you grew up broke your whole life or nobody ever gave you anything and everything was always a struggle, the only reaction to that is to want everything. I try to bring that through music because I think that’s realistic. I think that’s what it is for me and a lot of Black artists. Not to be pro-capitalist — which I’m not — I just think it’s not bad to want everything when people have taken so much from you.
I know you grew up in Oklahoma before moving to DC and Brooklyn. How did that change in scenery and location impact your music career?
I think the biggest change happened when I moved to New York. New York was the first time I was surrounded by a lot of people that were like me. I always felt like I was the only one like me growing up. After college, I moved to DC for a job and I had a hard time making friends and being with people I wanted to meet. I moved to New York in search of that and I found it. It’s cool actually, because all the people I ended up meeting in New York, now they’re all going on to do some amazing things. All these people were people that seven years ago I was meeting on Facebook groups and going to parties with, and they made me feel like I was in a community [of] extremely creative Black people who were making what they wanted to make. It was empowering and that was where I felt like I could grow. Now that I live back in DC, it’s amazing because I’ve set my life up where music is the thing I’m doing, and I’m meeting more people in DC that give me that same energy and it’s become a really beautiful thing.
Your EP Say Good To Pretty Boy paid homage to The National, but who are some of the other artists you grew up listening to that you’re still inspired by?
Bad Brains, George Clinton — I think he’s a visionary. Bootsy Collins, visionary. Tina Turner, visionary. I look to TV On the Radio, Bloc Party, Karen O, Grace Jones. But honestly, I think the people that inspire me the most and keep me grounded are my grandparents and my great-grandparents. These people who grew up their whole lives working in tobacco fields, playing the Chitlin Circuit, playing in jubilees, and singing in church, but were never able to do what I’m about to do. I think about them a lot, especially now as I go into these shows.
You’ve talked about seeing TV On The Radio on Letterman and the impact that had on you. How does it feel to know that a new generation is going to see you on stage and have that same experience?
That shit blows my mind because it’s already happening; Black kids are already reaching out. I remember making Live Forever and being like, “I hope some Black kid in Yukon, Oklahoma, hears this and feels like they can make things.” That’s how I felt when I saw TV on the Radio or Bloc Party, I was like, “Oh, fuck! That’s me, that’s what I want to do!” And I didn’t even know what I was feeling but I felt seen. I hope I can keep doing this so I can continue inspiring people because I would love for there to be more little Black rock bands.
Going back to Live Forever, you released it in the year of COVID and it was eagerly embraced. How did it feel to release your debut in 2020 and were you hesitant to share it at the time?
Yeah, at times. I put out that EP, Say Goodbye to Pretty Boy, and I was like, “Aw, I wish I would have waited because COVID is happening,” and then it did OK. I was like, “Well, maybe COVID is kind of acting as an equalizer in a way.” I felt like the people who were doing the most interesting things were the people who could make things themselves. I could do it all with my friends, so I kept working on the record and when we put it out, I remember being like, “Well, if no one likes us, I’ll just make something else.” I was completely overwhelmed by how it went out. It’s the coolest thing that’s happened to me in my life. There were a lot of artists who put out great records in the middle of COVID and continue to do so. I think only the real ones can do it. I feel like a lot of artists that are way bigger and need a lot of resources to create a great record, it’s a really hard time for them. But for me and a lot of other artists who have always been making stuff in their bedrooms, this is just like every other day.
Now that you’re able to go back on tour and things are slowly opening up again, what are you most excited about doing next?
The coolest thing about all of this is I get to make more music. I’m finally in a spot where I can make another couple of records and be fine on money, and that’s so crazy to me to think all the s**t I was stressed out about my whole life is fixed now because of writing songs. I’m 32 — I’ve been working since I was 20 doing nine to five jobs, and I never thought it would be off the trap that things would work out. I’m just grateful that I’m gonna get to make another record or two. Worst-case scenario, I’ll make two more records and be fine and they’ll probably be good [laughs], and then I’ll make more.
Erica Campbell is a host and rock journalist with stories in Spin, NME, and Glamour. She’s the former music editor of Consequence and owns a star ornamented boot collection that would make David Bowie proud.