Slug on Atmosphere’s “Fishing Blues”

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Atmosphere, Sean Daley and Anthony Davis. Photo by Dan Monick

They’ve had precedents, they’ve had peers, and they’ve had heirs, but in any discussion of Minneapolis hip-hop, Atmosphere will supercede all of them. Sean “Slug” Daley and Anthony “Ant” Davis have spent their nearly 20-year-long discography filtering the former’s extroverted introspection through a Midwestern underdog’s perspective. They’re the narratives of a man hungry to tackle the wider world, but, as they put it on Seven’s Travels, “Always Coming Back Home to You.” Their career arc plays out in their uber-Midwestern album art—from the tagged freight train grain car of 1997’s Overcast! EP to the snow-caked graveyard of 2014’s Southsiders, from the youthful declaration of mobility in “I Am Here” to a meditation on that last place we all end up.

Fishing Blues is Atmosphere’s latest, and it’s something of a 13-year-late companion piece to the nomadic, page-turning blur of Seven’s Travels. Fishing is an unpredictable, outward-spiraling work informed by Slug’s process of getting his music—and himself—into the public. But it’s also the moment where the hints at reconnecting with his home turf that first cropped up on Southsiders and its 2011 precursor The Family Sign, are shot through with a more directly collaborative feel. It’s the first record Slug and Ant worked on together in person since the latter moved back to Minneapolis full-time, and it was built in a hectic working environment, where Slug didn’t have much opportunity to get lost inside his own head.

We talked with Slug, who was still reeling from a trip to Helsinki, about this new phase of his musical career.

I saw that video you did with Sway about learning how to fish—is that your belated “OK, now I’m an official Minnesotan” moment?

Well, I’ve fished before, but never with anglers—people who actually call themselves “fishermen” and have $500 worth of gear. I’ve fished with my own sons, my oldest years and years ago, and I’ve also fished with my stepfather. I’m pretty sure my dad has taken me fishing. But all of those times were with people who see fishing as a pastime, not ’cause it’s a thing to do. I’ve never had a fishing license until recently. I’ve never fished professionally. Anthony, on the other hand, has never even had a rod in his hand before. That sounds weird. He’s never cast a line. I used to live in Uptown [Minneapolis] 18 years ago, my oldest was probably four. I used to take him to that little under-bridge area that connects Lake of the Isles to [Lake] Calhoun, and we’d fish for little shitty panfish. We’d catch one, we’d catch two, and by the second one we’d feel so bad that we’d just start feeding corn to the fish. It’s not like I’ve never been fishing, I was just never like ‘Let’s go fuckin’ fishing, bro! Let’s go out on the lake and then eat the shit.’ One time when I was a kid, my stepfather took me and my brothers up to Lake Vermillion up North, and we sat up there for 10 days or so to go fish. But I spent way more time just listening to music on my headphones and ignoring my family, because I was 15 years old.

As far as your career on record, you’ve transitioned from young, on-tour hedonism to a more localized focus, grappling with humility and family. How does this fishing thing tie thematically into the album?

As far as the record goes, it wasn’t originally called Fishing Blues; it had a different working title. But it still alluded to identifying with the music I’m making and the life I’m living, and figuring out the space between them. In my head, all my records have been about that. But as a human, as I’ve grown, the content is supposed to follow along with me. And where I’m at now with life is, I’m still hungry, I still want more, I want to see more, learn more, experience more. I’m still looking for more resources, whether that means money or food or bricks to build with. The fishing thing, to me, is that you cast out there and hope to get something in return. And these are the blues that accompany some of these moves—it’s still casting. Fishing as a leisure activity, or fishing for your actual food, or fishing and then selling the fish on the market—all of these things play into what I’m doing. And this is what I do for a living, but it’s also what I do as a leisure activity. I can’t help it. When people ask, ‘What do you do for fun?’ I review records in my head, I listen to music, I drive around, I make music for fun. But I also take the music I made for fun and cast it out there to try and catch a fish. So when the title stumbled upon us, both of us were like ‘Whoa,’ because a lot of these songs are dealing with where I’m at now, what I’m doing now, identifying myself now.

When I started having kids again, I made The Family Sign. That was the movement that was in me at the time, because I was gushing with melatonin and love, because I was having kids. So I was trying to figure out how to articulate that through the music, even the songs that weren’t about kids. And then when I made Southsiders, to me it made so much sense, because after I had the kid I started spending more time around the house and around the city, and I started getting familiar again with the local scene. I’d spent a few years on the road to the point where I didn’t really know what my local contemporaries, what my own scene sounded like. So Southsiders was when I started rediscovering all the cool shit that was happening in my own backyard. Whereas this record was influenced by me figuring, ‘OK, now the kids are there, now I gotta go get the fish to feed these kids, gotta read the right books to them.’ That place where I’m just trying to figure out where I’m at now. And that’s why it’s all over the map, there’s a lot of different types of songs on this record. There’s not the kind of galvanized push in one direction like The Family Sign does. There’s a lot of tangents on this record—they’re still credible to me, but it’s like Seven’s Travels in a way, where it’s all over the map even though, to me, they’re all parts of this identity and where I’m at right now. It’s kind of some ADD shit going on there.

I noticed—and I think this has also carried through most of your career—you have both an introspective sense of your own character, as well as an observational mode: character studies or sussing out how other people might see the same surroundings. A good part of the album feels like Minneapolis as it seems right now from the perspective of a longtime resident who’s seen things change, and has also seen not enough things change. The track “Pure Evil” feels like a reaction to, or is at least informed by, the Jamar Clark incident. Or is it just a culmination of things that’ve been simmering in your head?

I’ve always tried to make sure, here and there, to talk about some of my ideas of justice, my ideas of the moral code that should be attached to the inequities and injustices around me. I’ve had to be careful, though, because I’ve had to find ways to articulate these kinds of things without coming off preachy. And it’s interesting because people are like, ‘It’s OK to be preachy’—and they’re right. Depending on who you are as an artist, it’s all right to be preachy. Depending on who you are as an activist or a politician… or a preacher! It’s all right to be preachy. But sometimes some of the people, myself included, we walk the fine line of positivity and negativity. I’ll probably never be able to run for office in Minnesota, because if you vet me, you’ll probably find a lot of shit in my history that you might not want in a candidate. But I still know that my voice, whether as a signal booster or just as a voice, carries a little bit of influence. Just a little, but a bit. So I try to find a way to say these things without being preachy, and in a way that anybody could say along with me if they agreed with them.

Here’s the thing, especially in hip-hop: let’s take a look at my audience that’s predominantly white. I want to say things in a way that allows them to feel included and allows them to say it along with me. Even though maybe I’m saying very similar things as contemporaries of mine, who are people of color, sometimes you might not get these white kids wanting to say it along with you because these kids don’t know if they have the right to, or if it’s their place to. So I look for a way to say these things, especially as someone of mixed ethnicity who passes as white but comes from a culture of non-whites. I’ve had to look for where I am and how I fit in, so I want to say things that allow other people who deal with similar issues to get behind and feel empowered without feeling as though they’re co-opting or taking away from the actual voices who are saying these things.

It seems like a recurring theme, the surface versus the depth, as it relates to who you see and how they live. Another thing I’ve noticed on the record is that there’s a couple tracks that are paired—“No Biggie” is a really fired-up track, almost combative-slash-motivational, while “Everything” is a bit more pragmatic and reflective, but they’re paired on the album like companion pieces. Is that an expression of the way your perspective’s shifted in that sense?

To me, “No Biggie” is paired as an appetizer compared to a meal. The pairing is important because it’s there to set up things. “No Biggie” is kind of like, ‘I feel this way,”’and I want you to hear it in my voice and the snare, but the music is not the most accessible. It’s almost defensive, but it’s very… it reminds me of “The Takeover,” in a way—it’s aggressive, it’s in your face, I end it with a very rap-qualified punchline, ‘There’s no life after death, I’m not ready to die.; And the song’s basically saying I’ll never be the greatest rapper in the world, because I survived. I was here long enough to show you all the weaknesses I have as an artist and a human. A lot of artists come and go so fast that we never get the opportunity to see that about them. We see just one dimension. I’ve fortunately been around long enough to show you different dimensions, even the flaws. I’m all of this stuff: I’m strong and I’m weak, I’m rich and I’m poor. And so the “No Biggie” thing was a way to set things up aggressively, to lead you into something that’s welcoming, to say, ‘Hey, we’re all this shit, not just me.’ But obviously it’s rap, so I’m writing from the perspective of myself. I can’t pretend to be just this one thing, when I know that I’m all these things. “No Biggie,” the setup is saying I lived through it—I lived through my opportunity to be just an image, just a face, just a rapper. I’ve lived through all that shit, and I’ve got the chance to show everybody that I’m more than these things, and “Everything” is just the second part of that.

Speaking of veteran artists who have multifaceted and sometimes literal multiple alter-egos, you collaborated with both MF DOOM and Kool Keith on “When the Lights Go Out.” How did that come about?

Originally, that was possibly going to be a one-verse song. Summer of 2015 I was in Milwaukee for Summerfest, and I was showing Evidence from Dilated Peoples some of the demos I was working on. That song was a demo, it had me doing a verse and a hook, and he was like, ‘You know who’d sound cool on here? Kool Keith!” And I said, ‘Yeah, yeah, he would.’ And I kept it moving, but I noted it in my head. And once I got the demo to the point where I felt comfortable showing it to someone I didn’t know as well, I sent it to Keith and was like, ‘Hey, would you be down to talk on this?’ ’Cause I still didn’t see it as a real song, I thought it was going to be a one-verser like ‘No Biggie’ that led into something else. And when he sent me back what he sent me, I was like, ‘Holy shit, this is perfect.’ And then Anthony was like, ‘It’d be a shame just to have this as an interlude, let’s put somebody else on it.’ And at that point I realized, especially with Keith on it, me on it, and the way the music sounds, it reminded me of the late ’90s—like the Dynospectrum shit, or just how dark underground rap sounded back then. So I was like, ‘I wonder if DOOM would get on it.’ A lot of the people that’ve been rollin’ with us since the ’90s are also likely fans of Kool Keith and DOOM. I know the 40-year-old who’s gonna love this. And then DOOM got on it and I realized, ‘Wow, this isn’t a song for the late ’90s, it just has the parts.’ The song itself, it went from being a funny idea to make Evidence laugh to becoming an actual piece of my highlight reel. Not just because of me and the beat, but because of the whole orchestration of the song. It went from being a funny thing to do to becoming a real song to me. Which is funny, because I think a lot of the music me and Anthony make does start off as a joke. I don’t think that a lot of people realize that, especially considering we don’t make a lot of funny music. Maybe back in the day I used to have a little bit more sarcasm inside the stuff I was making, but over the last decade or so there’s not been a lot of fun music coming out of us. But a lot of these non-fun songs start as a funny idea that Anthony and I have. We try to make each other laugh and then we go, ‘Whoa, there’s a song here,’ and then we flesh it out and make a song.

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Atmosphere. Photo by Dan Monick

There are some tracks here that do sound deceptively lighthearted, but Ant’s production still seems substantial and serious when it needs to be. I’m interested in getting some insight on the writing process of the album because I know it’s pretty collaborative—are the producer/lyricist roles are a little malleable and flexible on this record?

Yeah—we actually spent time with each other making it. The last few records we made from across the country, ’cause he was living in the bay in NorCal, and I was living here. So he’d e-mail me beats and I’d write to ’em and demo them and send them back, and he’d go, ‘Aw, I like this one’ or, ‘Hey can you change the chorus on that, it’s not right,’ and what-have-you. And we’ve always played a role in it like that, we’ve always given each other guidance through e-mail or text messaging, etc. But the majority of this record was written on his couch, in his house, here in Minnesota, ’cause he moved back. He had dual citizenship between Minnesota and California, and now he’s fully Minnesotan again. So we were actually present with each other, and to have influence over each other in real time played a huge role in where a lot of the material went, musically and lyrically. And I think that’s part of why the music on this album is all over the map. Because the last time we were this all over the map, it was Seven’s Travels. You Can’t Imagine How Much Fun We’re Having also had that—the first time you listened to that record, you had no idea what was going to come next. Again, with this record… I really like how that feels right now. If Ant had lived here during Southsiders I don’t know how that would’ve affected the record. But I do know that having a sounding board on hand while I’m sitting there writing it in the moment, it was really good for me.

And it wasn’t just him. One of our roadies, Jeff, [we call him] Sketchy Jeff, he was present for a lot of it because he was staying at Ant’s house at the time. So often he’s sitting there on the couch watching college basketball on mute while I’m sitting on the opposite couch right across from him rapping. And sometimes I could turn to him and ask, ‘Hey, what’d you think of that?’ It’s funny, because Jeff doesn’t even listen to a whole ton of rap. But also, deM atlaS was present for a lot because he was writing with Ant at the time. And [Brother] Ali was present at the time as well, because Ant kind of had this weird incubator thing going on at his house with different rappers in different rooms writing while he was in the basement making music to give us. And I was open to hearing criticism in the moment from other people. Or maybe not even criticism, but having this sounding board. If I play something for Ali and go ‘What’cha think of this’ and he hates it, it doesn’t mean I’m gonna get rid of it. But it gave me some insight outside of my own insight. Whereas Southsiders and The Family Sign, I was just in my own head for those records. That’s it. I didn’t have the opportunity to really see what other people were going to think of that shit in that moment.

And then there’s one other track, ‘Chasing New York’ with Aesop Rock, that actually seems like both a passage-of-time look into an idea of your younger self versus where you’re at now, talking about the first time you were in New York and being disappointed about how the trains weren’t graffiti-bombed like they were in the ’80s. How did that come about?

The Aesop thing was the last part of that. Originally Ant played the beat for me and it reminded me of—you remember the Crooklyn Dodgers? I’m gonna be fully vulnerable and honest here: there’s a triangle in this song. And the triangle and the drum pattern together, that reminded me of the Crooklyn Dodgers shit. And because of the Crooklyn Dodgers thing, I figured, ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if I rapped about New York.’ But I don’t wanna be just, ‘Hey, New York! I like New York!’ I wanted to rap about my relationship to New York. I wanted to talk about how I badly needed acceptance from New York. I mention my disappointment about the first time I went there, even though I grew up loving New York. I needed the acceptance, but I also wanted to talk about this from a very honest standpoint of how I chased after New York, and realized once I got it, well, it’s people, like everywhere else. It’s a home, it’s whatever. I don’t expect people to necessarily interpret that song the way I meant it, because I know a lot of the things I touch off on, I’m doing it in a sort of abstract way—I was definitely trying to write it in the form of one-liners, ’cause I was trying to fit a lot of ideas into this one thing. And once I was done with it, I was like, ‘This needs Aesop at the end of it.’ Because a), He’s from New York, he grew up there, but he left it. And b), the type of abstract shit that I was trying to push out, I thought he’d fit that well. He does that really fuckin’ well and he’s really able to articulate and communicate an idea through abstraction. So he was [like] ‘Yeah, sure, what do you want?’ I was like, ‘A sub-chorus. Listen to the song, and then write what you think I’m talking about.’

Nate Patrin

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