Oh, not bad. I’m a little tired. I have a bunch of these interviews lined up today, but I’m pretty good.
Your new album None Shall Pass is about to drop. What are your thoughts on the album right now?
It really should be out already because it’s been a long promo process and you think it’s done and then you have to turn it in four months early. It leaked on the internet a month ago. At this point I just want it to be out already. I’m just trying to stay excited for it. The time is so long between when you’re done and when it drops and I feel like I’ve been running around a lot. I’m just looking forward to it being out there.
Your label Def Jux puts each writer’s name on the press copy and says their name on overdubs throughout the album. How does the album leak despite that?
Well, the writer that leaks it gets contacted, but once it leaks out there you can’t stop it. So all we can really do is kind of take them off the list of people that get albums forever. Other than that, I guess there’s an entire legal process, but once it’s leaked, it’s leaked. In the past we’ve had albums leak three months in advance. When we put the names on the albums, they hold out until a month before the album drops. It’s frustrating.
What was your state of mind recording None Shall Pass?
I don’t know. It was good. I was pretty focused and most of it was recorded in San Francisco. There were definitely less distractions than I’ve had. I was just working. One thing is that I had the ideas already for it. It felt like I was going somewhere and it felt like I was actually writing something. It was less frazzled. It wasn’t me just throwing something out there. I had a good idea and I was just trying to follow through on it. It was hectic at times but for the most part, I felt pretty good about the stuff that I was doing.
What inspired your single “Coffee”?
It was kind of a song that I wanted to be…A lot of the record was dealing with growing up and being friendly with your neighbor and that kind of stuff. I kind of wanted to end it on a note where the theme of the song was “just because we want to be friendly with each other, it doesn’t mean that I want to hang out and party.” It’s about being introverted and not having people bothering me. I’m somewhat of a recluse. It was a funny way to end the album. It was kind of like, ‘Hey, peace to everyone, but kind of fuck off.’ (laughs)
You’re known for having a very loyal fanbase. Do your fans ever get too close?
Not really. Most of my fans have been pretty respectful and pretty loyal. It seems like the fanbase is growing and they’re following me, which is great. Occasionally someone may go overboard, but you put them in their place. You don’t really want to be rude because you’re sitting there with their money in your pocket, but there are certain boundaries. What I have to realize is that most of these kids are younger than me and when I was a teenager and in my 20s, I was really excited to see shows and going to shows was just my shit. It was all about music in my life and it seems like these kids are really like I was when I was a kid. They want to be a part of the scene and they want to say, “What’s up?” to you. After a show I hang around with the audience because I like to get personal and say thank you to everybody, but occasionally it can get out of hand. (laughs)
You worked with longtime collaborator Blockhead on “Coffee.” How has your relationship with Blockhead today versus when you were both starting out?
It’s like exactly the same. It’s pretty great. We’ve known each other for so long. Before we were into this, we were kind of friends. He’s like one person that I can always collab with and it doesn’t feel like you’re collaborating and putting out any extra energy. When you’re collaborating, you have to exert extra energy so you can see eye-to-eye with the other person and I don’t really have to do that with him. It’s really easy for us to work with one another. We have our process and we’re the kind of people where we hang out, regardless of whether or not we’re working on music. We get to hang out and I get to hear his stuff, which is pretty awesome. It’s just a natural process.
What does Blockhead bring out in you that other producers can’t?
I don’t know. He has his own thing going on. It’s hard to put it into words. He has his own sound that he chases. It’s hard to describe. I think the thing that I like the most is that a lot of his beats, before they even have lyrics to them, they’re very visual and they put you in a place. They have a mood with them that kind of paint a picture before you even start writing the lyrics. Once you have that, that’s a great backdrop. It’s got the soul and I can balance out what I’m going to write and I can exaggerate the sound of the beat with what I’m writing or I can go against it. There’s a lot of things that I can pull off to make it interesting. But I think that the way he has layered samples and he does what he does, I feel like it paints a picture. It’s very visual, if that makes sense.
How was it working with John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats on “Coffee”?
John’s awesome, man. I’ve been a fan of his for a long time. I introduced myself to him at a show and we became friends over the past few years. We had talked about collaborating for a long time, but it’s pretty easy to fuck up a rock and rap collaboration. We wanted to make sure that we made something cool. By the time we did the song “Coffee” for the record, we were pretty good friends. I knew that he would be on the album somewhere. I had basically done my lyrics and I sent them over to him. I was like, ‘Hey, man, this is my theme. Hopefully you like it and send it back to me. If you want, sing one line or sing ten lines. Sing whatever you want on it and I’ll work around that.’ He did what he did and it came out great. He’s super-creative and really prolific. He’s the kind of guy that always wants to write music. He’s the kind of guy that would show up at the hotel with his guitar even if he doesn’t have a show just because he loves to write music. He’s always making music. Just from a lyric-writing perspective, I kind of consider him a bit of a hero, so it’s really cool that we were able to hook up and do a song.
What inspired you to write “39 Thieves”?
That was sort of my ode to growing up in Long Island. It was funny because I was trying to think of my high school memories and it seems like they all took place in parking lots, whether it was a grocery store parking lot or a Home Depot parking lot. We were skateboarding and we were fucking around with graffiti, which was basically loitering. Some chicks would show up and we would get kicked out and we would have to go to another parking lot. I wanted to touch on that and capture that. When you get kicked out of one spot, you go to the next spot. It’s kind of this idea of loitering and hanging out at random 7-11s and things like that. That sort of shapes you. It seemed like a funny high school-era memory that I wanted to do without being like, ‘Back in the days, I used to do this.’ I wanted to approach it and paint a picture of this time. In short, it’s about parking lots.
You make songs about a variety of subjects and put everything together in a very interesting way. Who is your ideal fan?
I don’t know. At this point, I’ll take anyone who wants to listen. The longer I kind of do this, the more I value that. I guess when I’m writing, I write for myself. I don’t think about the fans or the magazines. I just think about what’s interesting to me and at the end of the day, you just hope that you contribute something. I would like to think that to a degree my fanbase is comprised of younger versions of me, of people who want to do similar stuff. I guess I’m hoping that I can look back to people. That’s a nice feeling. At the same time, I like the hardcore hip-hop fans and the fans that have never heard hip-hop. You don’t know what to expect at first when people just start showing up to your shows. You’re just happy with whoever shows up. You go and play in cities and it can be overwhelming. There are times when I don’t even know what I want to say. I just want to say, “Thank you” to everyone. I’m just thankful I have fans at all.
Your writing is very unique. Can you take us through your writing process?
Yeah. It’s really just frazzled to a degree. I tend to keep notes throughout the day and I’m always sort of collecting phrases and words that I like. And anytime that I hear somebody say something that I think is interesting, I write it down. When I’m watching a movie or watching TV, I’m always watching for phrases and then I want to apply them later. Then when I’m making a beat, even if it’s the main loop or just the drums with a bassline, then it sort of sets a tone and then I figure out what I want to write about and then I go through all of my little phrases and see which ones I can apply to what I want to write about. Then I see what sounds good together and what sounds good is what I like to keep. I just sort of patch them together and string them together.
I used to write a song in one sitting but that doesn’t really interest me as much anymore. I like to just write a bit and see how it sounds and chip away. I like to chip away and go back to the music and the lyrics. I like chipping away a little at a time and not doing anything that’s half-assed. I don’t know. Some of these things can take years. Sometimes it’s really quick and sometimes it takes a long time. Each song requires something different. I don’t treat them all the same because they’re not the same. They’re all their own living, breathing things that I try to nurse to health. Each one turns out really different at times. Sometimes you get what you want and sometimes it’s really painstaking, looking for one word for days. It can be a very long and arduous process. That’s the result of writing all of these years.
Your lyrics can be very complex. Do you ever worry about the casual fan not understanding your music?
Not really. My primary audience is myself. I try to write stuff that stays true to what I feel. I’m just trying to do what I do. I do it for myself primarily and if people don’t want to keep up, they don’t have to keep up.
How much production are you doing today?
I’m pretty much constantly making beats because it helps me to write. I don’t know. I have five beats on the record and Blockhead did seven. I like to be involved in the production side of things even if it’s not the majority of stuff. I just like to do a few things on the record. I’m still the main engineer and I record all of it myself. Even with other people’s stuff, like Blockhead’s, he’s been doing it for so long that he can send me the beat and I can just record it myself. I don’t know. I’m sort of just involved in the process because I did the actual beats. I like to be pretty much hands-on with it.
What did it mean to you when Nike chose you to participate in their Nike Run project?
It was pretty cool. I aligned myself with all of these indie labels and I’ve done it very independently and I was on my own terms for just so long. I wasn’t going to major labels or corporations asking them for a job. At some point Nike came to me because they liked what I did. They came to me. I thought they had a cool, interesting idea and it was something that I had never done. I don’t know. When something like that pops up, it’s a very good thing to do. I was almost pretty much done with my album and I was drowning in that and it was a stressful time, but this was also a reason why I could take a month off from working on my record and just work on this Nike project every day. I did that and then I got back to my album with a fresh set of ears. I was able to then get back into my album and see where it was.
You produced a 45-minute instrumental that was supposed to be something runners could run to. How did you approach making that?
It’s funny because you have 45 minutes of music and they basically gave me just over a month to finish this kind of thing. I wasn’t sure how to do that. I don’t know. They didn’t want it to be sample-heavy. They didn’t want loops. So I started out with some drums. Instead of going to my records, I can play bass and I can play keys. All of my life I’ve played guitar. I started writing and laying them down. At the end of each day, I had a few more minutes of music and I gave myself 24 hours to change something if I didn’t like it. If I didn’t change it, it had to stay because I was running out of time. I would come up with new basslines and just layer them with something. There’s samples in that but there’s really no straight loops. I don’t know. It was a task and it was definitely difficult. It was definitely more like puzzle-solving. That’s what I liked about it.
Getting back to the album, where does None Shall Pass stand in your catalog of albums?
I always like the new stuff, so at this point it’s my favorite of all of them. I don’t know. It’s hard to compare and contrast them. Each one is a direct reflection of the time that I made them in so they all carry a certain relevance in my life. That being said, right now, None Shall Pass is the closet thing to what I am today and at this point, I feel like this is my most realized work to date, I would say, and it really seems more focused than anything I’ve ever done and hopefully I can continue down that path.
What are your goals for None Shall Pass?
I don’t know. I just want people to like it at this point. The goal is always to make something that I’m happy with and I’m happy with this, so I’ve kind of achieved that already. At this point I’m just looking forward to the release and I’m hoping that people like it. I’m hoping that this tour is a success and I want to get home and start making another record as soon as possible. I just want people to come out and check out the tour. Then after that I’ll get back in the studio.
What’s the nest move for Aesop Rock?
The next move is going to New York tomorrow, but I guess in the bigger picture, I don’t know. It’s just staying busy and keep becoming what I am and hopefully I can find another theme to follow up on. I want to keep making songs. I want to have a big catalog before I’m dead.
You’ve proven that you can stay independent and still be successful. What advice would you offer to up-and-coming MCs?
There are a million ways to go about it. There’s not one way to do this and there’s no one right way, so when people expect something from you…I’m literally going blindly into all of this as far as the music industry and even creating music. You start wondering if the way that you do it is the right way and you get nervous when you go to collaborate with people because you don’t know if they’re going to make fun of you. I don’t know. There’s a million and ones different ways to do it, musically and business-wise. There’s really no right and wrong way. I’m just trying to figure it all out and get by and keep my foot in the door. I would just say, “Don’t get frustrated and don’t get knocked down.”
What do you want to say to everybody?
Even if you downloaded the record, please try and support it on August 28 and check us out on tour.