Posted: October 5th, 2007
"I did a fucking ollie airwalk on flat first try"
Interview by Jeremy Fish | Photos by Chrissy Piper
Who are you? How are you? Where are you? And how old are you?
I am Aesop Rock. I am pretty stressed out these days. I am currently at my inlaw’s home in Toronto, Canada, in the bedroom that my wife grew up in. It is painted black on all walls, and the ceiling, too, and has stickers of terrible, early ’90s alternative and punk bands everywhere. I am 30.
Is it true you quit smoking last year? You are famous for smoking. Why did you quit? How did it go?
This is in fact true. I quit smoking on June 2, 2006, so it is coming up on one year. I quit cold turkey—the only way to go. I had always said that I would quit if I had kids or turned 30, whichever came first. I have no babies, but 30 arrived, so I retired from the tobacco game in an effort to preserve my life. I made no big build up about it; I just kind of said. “Okay, I’m done,” and that was it. It almost wasn’t hard, ’cause I knew I was going to quit, not like I was going to try to quit. It was as if I had no choice, the day came and that was that.
You went to art school for painting, and then on to work for a gallery before your music career broke. Were you still skating a lot then? Given that background, what artists and visual art inspires you?
I have worked at a bunch of galleries in my life. I liked to be around art, so starting in my college years (’94–’98) I was also working at galleries; in Boston during school, in New York City during summer. When I moved back to NY full time, I worked at a few more, and then settled at one for a few years. I was always the back room guy, the packaging/shipping/installations guy. I just wanted to be around art and not wear a suit, so doing this kind of hammer-and-nail work around galleries was a good way for me to accomplish both of those things. I started skateboarding pretty young, maybe fourth grade-ish, and kept on pretty much ’til about ’98 or so. Once I moved back to NY after school I kind of slowed down; I was trying to work and paint. I feel like my painting influences were from everywhere. I loved skateboard graphics, I loved graffiti, and I was taking figure-drawing classes after high school. In college my training became way more traditional and really focused on learning about drawing hardcore—painting, skateboarding really slowed down. For me once I really needed to cut down on hobbies. I was trying music, painting, skating, and work all at once.
Before we met I always listened to your stuff, and thought, “Damn, this dude is sad.” But you really aren’t that sad. You are pretty fun and lively. So that people don’t think I am lying, what types of things do you do for fun?
I am too sad to answer this. On the real, though, I have my moments. But more than being sad I tend to get really bad anxiety, which can be crippling. I have had my bouts with depression since I can remember. I have seen the docs, I have done the rounds. Whatever. I get to this level of stress where I feel physically paralyzed. I just get neurotic to no end, and worry myself into a hole. It can occasionally be pretty scary to me and those around me. Really scary, in fact. That said, most of my peers are going out, drinking, drugging, etc. I like to work on music. I like to write. Since my recent move to San Francisco I have picked up drawing and skateboarding again—part time—for fun. It’s pretty great. I just like to make things. I love television, movies, video games—all that shit. I know, I am too old for it, but I don’t give a fuck. I can be lively, but only in the right circumstances. I seem fun and lively to you ’cause we are usually hanging out, being low-key, getting stoned, building on cool ideas for art and music. If I am out at a bar, or in a crowded place, I shrink up. It is like I don’t know how to talk to people. If I am in a space with a finite group of people I am comfortable around, then I can open up. I just don’t do well around a lot of people. I avoid it at all costs. It all spins like a flipbook of shit I need to do, memories, plans, money, work, rent, future, lyrics, deadlines… I feel like I am losing my mind. It all goes and goes, and I can’t stop. I can’t put my finger on one thing and complete that task. I can’t get my brain to slow down for long enough to wrap my thoughts around a single idea. This probably isn’t making sense. Regardless, it gets intense, and it is something I struggle with. And lyric writing is literally like OCD these days. It feels more like a disease than a pastime sometimes.
Name five pros from Long Island.
Frank Gerwer, Ben Liversedge, Gino Iannucci, Anthony Pappalardo, and Howard Stern.
Did you beat me at skate or did I let you win?
I totally beat you with witnesses present. Don’t pull that shit. I did a fucking ollie airwalk on flat first try after not having done one in maybe 10 years, God damnit. Don’t steal my shine.
Aren’t you sponsored?
By Superficial and FTC. Funny, all I had to do was quit skating for like 10 years to get sponsored.
Bazooka Tooth was almost four years ago. What the hell have you been doing?
Staying busy. Did a few tours. Bazooka Tooth took me around the world: United States, Europe, Australia, and Japan. Then I did the Fast Cars EP, which was practically an album length. I had planned on putting it out and then moving to an album, but it got a great response so we hit the road again after that. Then I got married, moved across the country, made a 45-minute song for Nike called “All Day,” did the book with you, a bunch of guest spots and remix work, and now my album. It’s funny, I’ve had a pretty high output, just nothing in the form of an Aesop Rock solo LP. Now it is time for that.
The new album is called None Shall Pass. Tell us about the concept for this body of work.
None Shall Pass is kind of in short about growing up, and growing up being judged by your peers and contemporaries. It is about how when you are young you can get away with so much and dismiss it as “being young,” actually using the excuse “I was young and dumb,” and it’s somewhat credible. With so many changes going on around me it seemed like I was more responsible for my actions than ever before. If I do something dumb, I can’t pawn it off on being young. I feel like at around 30 you can’t even pretend you’re a kid anymore; people look at you and pass judgment. It’s not even an unhealthy thing, it’s just natural. I do it. I look at my friends that are around my age and I have an opinion, I judge them based on how they act. With the music I tried to capture the feelings of a bunch of different time periods in one’s life, and tie it all up by saying you can do whatever you want, just know that the ultimate judge in life is your fellow man. This isn’t a religious judging. If you choose to believe in that, that’s fine, and it doesn’t negate what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the way your peers view you. What type of person are you in the collective eye of those around you. Are you an asshole? Are you kind? What did it all lead to? Do you treat people with respect? Are you civil to strangers? All these things that I feel fall into what people judge others on, what I judge you on, what I am judged on. Are you being the person that you want to be or that you can be? That kind of stuff. The term “none shall pass” is like nobody will pass this point in their life without being judged. It is unavoidable—everyone gets a label.
A shitload of skaters I know like your music. Does it make you happy to know you are giving back to a culture that helped make you the dude you are today or do you not give two shits?
Man, that’s dope. Hell yes it feels good to know that. Sometimes I don’t know who likes my music. I know I sell a few records, and I support myself, but at the end of the day who is buying this? To know that some of these people were probably no different than I was is really refreshing. In many ways it is the ultimate reward.
Talk a little about your process, and whom you worked with on None Shall Pass.
I record everything myself. I have a studio at the crib. A lot of things are similar to how I have been working forever. Blockhead and me are a well oiled machine at this point. If I am producing my own track I will usually start with some drums and a simple, very, very basic skeleton. Then I’ll start writing. Maybe lay down a verse, work on the beat more, flush it out, see where it goes, slowly arrange and write at the same time. It is a lot of samples mixed with some instrumentation, bass, guitars, keys, some of which I play, some of which I had others play. With blockhead’s stuff I usually break it down to the main element of the beat and write to that, then start arranging, then go back and write, arrange, write, arrange—it’s a big back and forth. A lot of carving away at the songs ’til they are where I want them to be, instead of banging out a song in a sitting and declaring it good or not. If a song has a good element, I will throw the rest out and work around that element. I like to incorporate instrumentation, and this time around we ended up running into a bunch of sample issues. I guess ’cause they are really trying to crack down on that shit harder than ever. So on many of the beats we would go back in and recreate or rewrite elements of the beats, get players to assist, etc. It ended up being way more collaborating between me and Block than ever before. He worked on some of my stuff, and I worked on his. The overall sound of the record is this weird combination of elements that I don’t think I have ever touched on thus far in my career…samples mixed with live stuff. As for other collaborations, my squad was in there, Breeze, Cage, El P, Rob Sonic, Camutao. The cherry on top for me was getting my friend/hero John Darnielle to lay some vocals down for me on a song called “Coffee.” I really have looked up to his lyric writing for many years, so getting to share a track with him was really something else. That may end up as a single. He is one hero I had that when I met didn’t let me down.
Can I get your five favorite albums of all time?
Man, this is the impossible question, you do realize that? I’ll tell you five CDs in my car right now. Tom Waits, Orphans; EPMD, Business As Usual; Gangstarr, Step in the Arena; Ghostface, More Fish; Rob Sonic, Sabotage Gigante
When you were a kid and you were about to posse up and go skate, what was your jam to listen to before shredding?
Depends on what era. Could have been Run DMC, could have been Dead Kennedys, could have been EPMD. It depends on what year we’re talking about.
If Labor Days was black, and Bazooka Tooth was blue, what color will None Shall Pass be?
Download Aesop Rock songs and albums from the iTunes store here.