Since Bartees Strange showed himself to the world as an enthusiast and creditable cover artist of The National, he has toured with Lucy Dacus, Phoebe Bridgers and Courtney Barnett. His new record will be released on 4AD, the excellent label that, in addition to The National, also houses Big Thief, Deerhunter and Future Islands. But all that is no reason to just class Strange among the indie artists. on Farm to Table you certainly hear guitar melancholy (‘Hold the Line’), but also something with autotune that could be on a Mykki Blanco record (‘Cosigns’) and a pure pop song by Sam Smith could have been (“Wretched”). Strange himself, in the past still a federal press officer under the Obama administration, likes to talk about americana, but in his own sense of the word: ‘A mixture of all the American music I’m a fan of: hip-hop, noise, soul, R&B. , blues, jazz, country…’
First I want to talk about your previous record and debut Live forever to have. It contains the song ‘Flagey God’. As in: Place Flagey in Brussels. What’s up with that?
“About seven years ago I had to be in Germany for work. It was an exhausting job, I played in a few muddling bands… At that time, my life could use some direction, to say the least. Just then I was invited by a German friend who lives in Brussels. There I drank, ate, smoked and partied for a week. It was a magical time, suddenly I had the feeling that everything was possible again. Brussels has been very important to me.”
Do you have a favorite place in Brussels?
“Yes, but I can’t remember the name. All I remember is that it was a basement with plush seats. Jazz was playing, it looked like an ordinary house and the decor was Victorian. A very romantic place.”
Could that liberation have happened to you in any city?
“I certainly felt very accepted in Brussels, although that also had to do with the friend who had invited me. But the people of Brussels have welcomed me very warmly. It’s a very diverse city, I didn’t know that at all. It’s great to be somewhere where no one knows you and yet not feel strange or different.”
We note: without Brussels there would be no Bartees Strange. In the year and a half between Live forever and Farm to Table you toured with Lucy Dacus and released some single singles. Why did it have to be so fast?
“I made the first recordings for Farm to Table on the day before the release of Live forever† I was very proud of that record and from that feeling I immediately wanted to work on a successor. In retrospect, corona turned out to be my luck: I will probably never get the chance to work on an album in peace for a year and a half.
“The farm in Farm to Table is the farm where I grew up. I am descended from black people of the South, farmers and blues musicians. My mother was an unlikely opera singer, her uncle a gifted bassist… They taught me hard work. When you see me play, you also see them and all my ancestors who played their way out of slavery. They never had a chance to live off their music.
“Now I, a boy from the farm, have a seat at the table† The record summarizes those two people: I am aware of my privileged position, but I also want to keep the people I grew up with close to me. The fact that I am becoming more famous or touring with great musicians does not change that. Everything I write and sing comes from my position as a black man, but the music is for everyone.”
In ‘Tours’ you sing about the time you spent alone at home while your parents were away.
“As a soldier, my father was often on missions, my mother was always away to perform. I once made up my mind not to become like this: I would never leave my family behind for so long. But in the meantime I’m about to go on tour to Europe.
“It’s only when you grow up that you realize how much you resemble your parents. I understand now that they were outside so much because they liked to do it. In the future I would like to have children of my own, but I want them to have a father who follows his dreams.”
Even before Live forever brought you Say Goodbye to Pretty Boy out, a cover EP with only songs from The National. Why?
“My record was already finished by then and it just seemed like a good way to improve myself as an arranger and make people curious about my music.
“I first saw The National in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on tour with their record ‘Boxer’. A friend recommended the music to me and I liked it, but seeing them live? It blew my mind. The only thing that made me sad was that I was the only black man in the room. Black Americans have contributed immensely to all forms of popular music, including rock. But while black artists do have long, lasting careers in pop or rap, you hardly see them in guitar music. That’s pretty crazy when you know what people like Chuck Berry and Jimi Hendrix have contributed to this. There really shouldn’t be anything surprising about a black man playing guitar today.
“When I saw TV On The Radio play, with their black frontman Tunde Adebimpe, my life changed. I want to be able to do the same for black youth today who love rock and think they are the only one. A rock scene without blacks ignores not only the past, but also the future. That’s why my covers of The National took on a second meaning: it’s not just music I like, it’s also one of the biggest indie bands seen through a black lens.”
Matt Berninger, frontman of The National, was 36 when their worldwide breakthrough record boxer came out. You released your debut album at 31. An advantage or a disadvantage?
“Definitely an advantage. When I was younger, I had neither the taste nor the determination to develop a career. I’ve gotten smarter, more confident… Plus, over the years I’ve met friends who help me with my music.
“The National is also really mature music, made for the mind. Take a song like ‘Brainy’, which is classical music without sounding like classical music. I fell for that in the beginning, then I fell in love with the lyrics that Matt writes with his wife. What a great way to make music together! Later still, I learned all about their long road to success and how hard they worked for the status they have today. In my view, The National embodies the importance of hard work and patience. Anyway, I can talk about them for hours.”
Farm to Table is out at 4AD. Bartees Strange will play at Rock Werchter on Sunday 3 July.