With a new album available now and The Wherever Tour making stops across North America, Atmosphere’s Slug joined Hxppy Thxxghts to discuss the creative process that became Whenever, what it’s like to perform new music for the first time and the ways timing will impact an individual’s response to music.
Thank you for taking the time to do this, I definitely appreciate it. Let’s begin with The Wherever Tour – you guys have three shows in the bag already and you’ve got Toronto tomorrow night. How’s the tour been going so far?
So far so good. The beginning of a tour, especially in the winter, it’s always a little rough because your body starts to…you’ve got to reacclimate to being surrounded by so many fucking germs. Everybody is sick this time of year so you have to be careful. When I was leaving – you know, I’ve got like 60 children, passing around bacteria. So when I was leaving, everybody was sick. Now I’m out here, everybody is sick. So I’m just making sure nobody touches me. But you also have to work out the songs. It’s one thing to practice, we could practice for months before we leave for tour if we want, but there’s nothing like getting in front of people and seeing what kinds of personality the songs actually have. First couple days, there’s no way for me to tell you how shit really is yet because it’s still incubating.
On that point, is this going to be the first time you’re performing a lot of the Whenever songs live?
Yeah, we’ve never performed any of this shit before. We don’t do too much shit off the record. I have a rule of thumb – you go through it slowly. You figure out, let’s try these ones and then you start alternating them out to figure out which ones are the ones I feel most connected to for an audience. I mean, I feel connected to all of them when I hear them in studio monitors but let’s see how I feel when we’re connecting them to an audience. ‘Cause there’s a song on the new album called “Postal Lady,” which is kind of like one big dad joke. How is that going to feel when I do it in front of people compared to a song like “You’re Gonna Go?” I think I know how that one’s going to feel, so I haven’t tried that one yet – ’cause that’s one that you might call an Atmosphere traditional. There’s other ones, like “Romance,” I don’t even know what the fuck that song is. It’s like French drugs or something…I don’t fuckin’ know, you know what I mean? So I have to slowly work it out.
And it’s weird because you have to have a lot of trust for these strangers, you have to have a lot of trust in the audience to help you decipher what the song is really about. I know what the song is about on a surface level because I wrote it but the song will always take its time to reveal itself to let you know what you were really fucking writing about when you wrote that. When I wrote it, I was writing rhymes and I was writing rhymes that I thought went to the beat. It takes a little time before I’m like, oh, my God, is that what I was writing about? Should I actually be unpacking this in front of people?
Have you performed “Postal Lady” yet at any of these shows?
Well, that would be a spoiler and I’m not saying shit (laughs). But I’ll just say that I ain’t scared of shit. I’ll try anything. It’s just a matter of when, where, how, what, why, wherever, you know what I mean? It’s just a matter of figuring out that side of it. And that’s what this shit is to me. I’ve been touring for so long and I’ve played so many shows, so I’ve had to find out what my own relationship with that is. Because people are there to party. If I were to party every fucking night, I’d die. So what am I there for? And what I’ve learned is that I’m there to unpack – to learn things about myself. It’s a form of therapy. And figuring out what these songs are and what they mean to me is a part of that.
And you have been doing this for so long and you’ve been unpacking a lot of shit for 23 years or whatever it’s been. I think it’s pretty noticeable with Whenever, your headspace and your heart space – at least from a listeners perspective – it seems like there is a lot more freedom in the layout and process of these songs.
We were definitely a lot more free when we were making these songs. When we originally started compiling these tracks, it wasn’t for an album. It was for a TV series – we were commissioned to make music for a television series. I approached each song with the concept of, what would I want to hear start when the credits start to roll? Right at the very end, right at the cliffhanger of a TV series and then it goes black and the credits start to roll and the music starts to play – what do I want people to hear so they’ll pull out there phones and Shazam it? So people go, who the fuck is this? So I approached each song like that.
With that, I realized Atmosphere has a history of making music that is very self-aware. The music that we make takes itself incredibly serious. Here, I was able to get away from that and not worry about making a concept album. ‘Cause, not to be pretentious, but every album we’ve ever made has kind of been a concept album. And that concept is loosely: Slug takes himself too serious. With this, I was able to break out of that. I mean, there are colors here that I’ve used before…I’ve painted with some of these colors. We’ve got “Guns and Cigarettes,” we’ve got other things in old Santa’s bag that don’t take itself too serious. But in an overall sense, I was able to approach this whole thing like that and not worry about what people are going to think of me. I thought people were only going to hear these as standalone tracks. I didn’t know they were going to be compiled into an album.
Then the TV show fell through in the eleventh hour so I was left with these songs. Do I want to release them as digital singles? Do I want to just put them in the vault? Should I release them as a soundtrack to a television show that never happened? Me and Anthony looked at it and I realized there was a theme going on that I hadn’t noticed when we were making it. This is what I’m unpacking – the theme is about reclamation, it’s about reclaiming shit, about reestablishing something that was before it got poisoned or tainted.
Then it was like, fuck, we got an album. I turned it into the label and they’re like, when do you want to put it out? Whenever. What do you want to call it? You know what? Fuck it, call it Whenever. It’s a record that wasn’t supposed to happen. The songs were supposed to happen but it was not supposed to come in this format. That’s kind of what formed our process and the way we released it and even the way I’ve approached it live. I don’t feel as much pressure to sell this, so I don’t have to beat people in the heads with my favorite songs. I can say, this isn’t my favorite song but I’m going to play it because it fits right after “Sunshine” or I’m going to play it because it’s a good set up for “God Loves Ugly.” I’m able to use these songs as…instead of banging you in the face with it so you buy my new shirt, I can play these songs almost as part of the bigger picture of the set that we’re doing on stage. And that’s kind of been the unpacking part. Fuck, I had so much fun with this process that my next goal is to figure out new ways to break new walls. Like, what’s my purpose for making music?
It’s interesting to hear that TV show anecdote because the songs work so well together as a project. That’s a cool little story.
I appreciate that, man. After we decided to make it into our own album, then we started looking at the transitions and the ins and outs of the songs to make sure we could…you know, when it was just the guts of the songs and the demos. Like, a song like “Son of Abyss” didn’t always have a long outro on it. We didn’t have the different narrators saying their different parts – I think there are four different narrators on here. All that stuff was added after the fact because that’s the stuff where we were like, how do we make this feel like there’s the continuity that our listeners expect from us?
Now, I have a feeling you guys don’t pay much mind to this but when you have such an expansive catalogue of music that covers so much ground, with so many sonic styles and energies coming to the table, how do you think your core fan base is going to respond to the songs featured on Whenever? Because I feel like, when it comes to artists who have been doing it for so long, it’s really easy to hang on to the nostalgia. I’ve been listening to you guys since I was in like 7th grade, so I have so many memories from high school and college and all the years since connected to certain songs or albums. But when I hear Whenever, I think this is – in my opinion – arguably one of the best albums you guys have ever released.
I appreciate that. I think part of that also is just your timing, you know? It’s who you are and where you are right now that allows you to see that. I can imagine there’s a 22 year old out there right now who’s friend just turned them on to God Loves Ugly, a record that’s like 18 years old. And they like that. I don’t know how they could like this – and I’m not even trying to do the self-deprecating thing, I don’t do that shit no more. I just mean logically and also understandably, I would be afraid of a 22 year old who likes God Loves Ugly and likes this album. Because you’re doing too much, you’re working too hard – calm down, go find the music that fits what you’re fuckin’ dealing with right now and apply it to yourself. Whether that’s my music or you’re discovering Nirvana. With that said, I do think it’s all about timing. That’s not to say a 22 year old can’t enjoy Whenever – but if you do, then that means you’re at a certain space in your life. That’s the thing about our music that I feel does hold true no matter what…it’s timing for us. It’s all about what you’re doing and going through right now.
And all of our albums are not going through the same shit. I’ve pretty much processed what I’ve been going through and put it on albums for years and that’s always been about timing. I could never remake a God Loves Ugly because there’s no way in fuck that I will allow myself to go through that again. So, if you think Whenever is arguably one of our best albums, what that means is that you’ve been exposed to our music as the music has been released. You didn’t recently discover us by hearing Seven’s Travels, you know what I’m saying? There’s a good chance you may have heard Seven’s Travels somewhere actually near 2003 when it was released. Now here you are 15 years later – well yeah, you’re 15 years older, so I could see how you’d think Whenever is pretty good. ‘Cause I’m 15 years older, too. And I think it’s a fucking phenomenal album. I don’t mean that to be a dick – but standing close to it, I see how much work Anthony does. I see the fucking genius in his shit and it’s beautiful to me to be able to stand this close to him and see that. I know how much effort I put into what I write and I know how much thought I put into what I write, so I think we’re making the best shit of our life right now. But I would never expect anyone else to agree.
And, honestly, I don’t care. I’m not here to…I’ve already proved myself so the only person I have left to prove myself to is me. I know that sounds like a bumper sticker and I don’t mean it so dramatically, but nowadays I write shit just to make myself giggle. I write shit just to see if I could – I’ll approach it like it’s an exercise to see if I can nail it. And if I nail it, then I might let other people hear it.
That puts things into a nice perspective, actually. This next one’s for my own personal curiosity since I’m such a big fan of hers – how did you guys first link with Gifted Gab?
Oh, man! I seen her on Twitter.
Oh, word? That’s how?
Yeah, someone fucking tweeted her into my timeline a while back, maybe a year or two years ago. I was just like, ooof, killin’ it. She’s arriving and she’s killin’ it. Ok, follow. Over the course of following her, she followed me back. I discovered her on Twitter…I shouldn’t say I discovered her, that sounds like some fuckin’ imperialistic colonialism shit. But someone put her on my timeline and I was like, this rapper is tight. I followed her, she followed me back, I hit her up like, yo, I think you’re dope. A little while later, I hit her up to see if she wanted to spit a verse on this posse cut. The best part is this, man…it was me, her and Haphduzn. And she was like, you know who would sound good on here? Murs. I was like, nah, fuck Murs (laughs). So, immediately, I hit up Murs. I kind of put Murs on there just to surprise her and make her be like, oh shit, you took my advice. I didn’t even tell her I was putting Murs on until the song was complete and sent her the link. She heard Murs on there and it’s like, yeah, that was your idea. And Murs kills it…Murs is amazing.
Oh, absolutely. Alright, man. Again, I’m grateful for your time and I’ll be seeing you on the 25th in Connecticut.
Alright, you’re the best. Have a great day.