Bartees Strange discusses the music that influenced his great, genre-less debut album
The first thing a lot of people notice when they listen to Bartees Strange's excellent debut album Live Forever -- released today on Will Yip's Memory Music label -- is that it refuses to stick to one genre of music. Across its 11 songs, it moves through indie/art rock, post-hardcore/emo (he used to be in the emo band Stay Inside, and he wrote a guitar part for one song on their great new album), quiet bedroom folk, abrasive noise-rap, R&B, blues, country, dance beats, and other harder to pin down, more out-there stuff that doesn't fit neatly into any genre. And Bartees didn't just compile a whole bunch of songs from different genres; he usually does at least two or three of these on the same song, and he always makes it sound natural. He doesn't defy genre so much as rejects the concept of it completely. "People ask me, Oh, what's it like making 'genre-defying rock music,'" he recently said to Grammy.com. "I'm like 'All that is just Black music and I'm Black,' and that's it, that’s the whole thing."
Bartees' refusal to be part of any one genre or scene makes him an artist whose music can really speak to millennials and Gen Z, generations who are less tribal about genres than their predecessors and more likely to listen to an array of vastly different music at once. And what makes Bartees such an appealing artist is his ability not just to incorporate all these different sounds, but to deliver them in a way where they really feel like they're all coming from the same place "The through line I think is just me, just that I made them," he said in that same Grammy interview, "and that it's my story and my voice and my experiences." That through-line is what makes the TV on the Radio-esque art rock of "In A Cab," the swampy, psychedelic, Shabazz Palaces meets Death Grips rap of "Mossblerd," the dancefloor banger "Flagey God," and the coffeehouse open mic folk song "Fallen For You" all fit snugly on the same album. It's what makes "Boomer" split the difference between trap and pop punk without sounding clunky or corny.
It takes a very talented musician to pull all of this off as well as Bartees does, and he's obviously very talented, but more importantly, the way he approaches music is strikingly original. One or two individual songs on the album might remind you of other artists, but when you listen to the album as a whole, it's hard to walk away from it thinking it sounds like anyone in the world besides Bartees Strange. Live Forever is one of those debut albums that truly brings something new to the musical table, and it also very much seems like it's only the beginning. Earlier this year he already released a National covers EP which was actually recorded after his album was finished, and he's got a lot of production work for other artists on the way too. "I want to have that type of career where I can just kind of move among spaces and do whatever I want in all of them," he told Arielle Gordon in an interview for Stereogum. To say he's already on track for that would be an understatement.
Live Forever is out now on Memory Music and you can stream it below. Because the album clearly pulls from so many different types of music, we asked Bartees to tell us about some songs that influenced the album, and he made a list with a wide range of songs from TV on the Radio to HO99O9 to Lucy Dacus to Nosaj Thing to Mitski to DaBaby and beyond. He also got into the specifics of where and how these influences show up on the album. "I can think of a ton of references for this album, some most people will catch, others I’m not so sure," he tells us. Read on for what Bartees had to say...
SONGS THAT INFLUENCED LIVE FOREVER (by Bartees Strange)
TV On The Radio - "Wolf Like Me"
A Lot of people know that I’m a big TVOTR fan. But there’s something about the song "Wolf Like Me." I don’t know what the intention of those words are. But to me I remember hearing it and feeling like that song was made for me. In "Mustang" I reference being a “Beast from the southern coast.” It took everything for me not to write “Wolf from the southern coast.” This is song is so well paced - and I think it’s Tunde at his biggest. Peak All Star. Also - this song was one that really set me on my musical path. Saw that Letterman performance they did as it happened. Shook my whole world.
Bloc Party - "Helicopter"
I will never forget playing FIFA and hearing that guitar line cut through. Seriously turned me on to guitar playing. And when I found out Kele was a black person I felt super seen. I love how simple the song actually is - something great about a straightforward rock song, held together by a great vocal performance and a powerful couple of riffs. Few bands do it better imho. For songs like "Mustang" I wanted to capture that energy. I didn’t have the guitar riffs - but I did build the song around that synth line. That’s the whole joint right there.
H09909 - "War Is Hell"
So - this is an untouchably fly, and fucking incredible band. I throw them in some of the best live acts ALIVE. If you’ve seen H09909 you already know. This song in particular was a guiding light for "Mossblerd." Sure, I’m not yelling and screaming - but the use of distortion and how they’re creating drum-like textures without using drums - that was inspiring. Death Grips and Show Me The Body (BODY WAAAAAAR) do similar things. Like huge fuzzy nonsense overtaking the stereo field, doing the job of a high hat or a snare - but it’s not those instruments. It sort of shows that rhythm can be created with anything. And sonically - there are no boundaries. In terms of subject matter - fewer bands talk more shit - and on "Mossblerd" I wanted to talk my shit.
Lucy Dacus - "Trust"
I’m a sucker for a great songwriter. Lucy is one of my favorites. The song "Trust" is so “Open” - peak vulnerable. I love when i hear a band, or see an act, and then the songwriter does a song with nobody else on stage, and you realize everything is coming from them. And that’s how I felt when I heard this song for the first time. I wanted to bring THAT energy on songs like "Far" and "Fallen" for you. Lucy you’re incredible.
Nosaj Thing - "All Points Back To U" (ft. Steve Spacek)
Y’all - this song put me on my ass for two months. It’s toooo good. So simple. I completely built "Flagey God" with this song in mind. I love house, garage, dance and techno. Can’t get enough of it. But this song right here - is peak. I keep coming back to the word simplicity. In this song - there are so few changes. And when Steve voice comes in, it’s absolutely heartbreaking. So emotional. It’s a great example of everything in a song existing to support the leading vocal. And I love love love love that he just repeats “all points back to you” throughout the song. So few words were used - and emotionally - the point of the song hits harder because of it. So I took that idea and decided to like - repeat the verse because it’s all that I wanted to say. Just a heavy heavy tune and s/o to that genius for making this. Damn. HEAVY.
Mitski - "Happy"
I love how this song begins. For "Jealousy" and for "Ghostly" I was trying a lot of vocal mix tricks to make it pop more. And Brian DiMeglio who did the lion's share of the mix work kept pushing me to peel it back a bit. I remember listening to "Happy" and thinking yeah, simpler is better. Love how those vocals were affected. And I love how much of a scene setter it was for Puberty 2. I wanted "Jealousy" to do a similar job. Set up the record, but not show too many cards ya know?
Frank Ocean - "White Ferrari"
Frank is the greatest. I got asked to do a cover of this song by Maeve Higgins for a live taping of the Repeater Podcast in Queens one summer. Super intimidating song. Me and my buddy Justin got ourselves together and did a live performance that was very…… OK? And I remember feeling like I wish I’d sounded better - and my gf was like - “You can’t beat yourself up for not nailing a Frank Ocean Cover.” There’s something about the form of that tune though. It’s split in halves. I liked the idea of just having two distinct sections of a song - and how that frame can be a really cool way to tell a story. In Ghostly I’m taking you through a relationship I had in college, and then zooming into the future to evaluate if I’ve changed at all as I’ve gotten older. I guess what I’m saying is that through "White Ferrari," Frank Ocean gave me the gift of time travel and I used it on "Ghostly."
DaBaby - "Taking It Out"
So something I love about DaBaby is - he barely needs the instrumentation. His voice is the main instrument, it’s the melody, it’s everything. Biggest take away from this track though is I love how from beat one he just jumps all over the song. I really wanted to do that in a rock song ["Boomer"]. The other inspiration, mostly for the outro, is "A Country Boy Can Survive" by Hank Williams. That song has always meant a lot to me.
Japanese Breakfast - "Road Head"
I just don’t think there’s a catchier song in existence. Specifically - the drums on this song are incredible. Super dry. When we were tracking "In A Cab," I was hearing these drums all over it. Brian did a really good job of finding the right sample to give me a trappier, drier snare sound. Wouldn’t have had that thought or reference if it weren’t for this track.
Thanks again to Bartees. Stream Live Forever. Here's two more videos from it: