What brought you to Seattle?
I moved there in May of 2008 for a girl, actually, and that didn't really pan out.
We don't have to dwell on that.
I moved away June 1. And I've never lived in one place for too long, so recently I was compelled to move to Minneapolis.
What took you there?
Not a girl [laughs]. Lesson learned, quite clearly [laughs]. I moved out here for music, actually. The music scene here is pretty exciting, between Wisconsin and Minnesota. And a lot of my friends out here are doing the things that I think are most interesting now. I'd been coming out a lot—probably 10 times in the last two years, so I said, "Why don't I just move out here?"
You're working on a project with P.O.S., right?
Yeah, it's about two-thirds of the way done. He's still finishing up his solo record, so it's just happening when we have time in between working on our own records. I suspect we'll probably finish it this winter, when we're all snowed in—when it's a lot easier to get things done.
Can you shed any more light on it for us?
It's all based on the short stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald. He turned me on to the stories, and we both really like how apropos the stories are from that era—decadence just before a collapse. We found it really appropriate to the era we're living in now. The group is called Four Fists, which is also a short story from Fitzgerald.
Where are you working on it?
Mostly in an attic in Saint Paul. He's got this little recording studio in an attic in a house that he shares with his big ol' family. We just lock ourselves up there in the dead of winter.
I don't want to go too far back, but you used to take part in a lot of battle-rap-type stuff.
Well, that's pretty far back. I started when I was about 12, and I taught myself to rap, and I was just emulating New York City gangster rappers. At the time, I listened to rap and punk and old indie rock, and particularly stuff out of the Pacific Northwest. K Records was a pretty huge thing for me in high school. This is something that will probably offend a lot of rap fans, but I didn't really connect songwriting and music with rap... I just kept doing it, and as rap music began to expand and grow, around the late '90s and early 2000s, when kids like anticon and Rhymesayers really started to expand the scope, it sort of collided these two worlds for me—the indie rock that I loved and the rap that I loved, and that's when I began to really desire to write songs instead of just freestyle. And around the same time, I was just getting really bored with battling. There's a pretty shallow glass ceiling with battle rapping. There's not a huge amount of room for growth. I got invited to do Scribble Jam in 2002, which at the time was one of the two or three most important battles in the country. I saw what was going on there, the people at the pinnacle of the game, and I just thought, "This just really isn't that rewarding." And I didn't really perform well at it, and so it became abundantly clear that it wasn't for me. That's when I started to focus on songwriting. I made my first record in my bedroom with a kid from Jacksonville named Radical Face. Then just started touring and dirtbagging it in clubs and bars and backyards, real sort of punk-rock touring. Did that for years and years and years, until it started to take off to the point where I could pay the bills without another job, right around the time I moved to Seattle.
I read somewhere that you've done 350,000 miles of touring in a Honda.
We just hit 300,000 miles, actually.
It's actually an Element. My manager, who started out as just my best friend, was really supportive, and he quit his job of nine years and sold all his stuff and bought the Element, and I got in, and we just started touring. That was 2003. We've gone through two engines. We didn't have it for a year and a half because we expanded up to a minivan, and that got totaled after we put like 90,000 miles on it, so then we went back to the Honda. Counting all the cars in Europe, Australia, etc., I'd say we're probably around 500,000 miles of touring, realistically.
Where were you at in your life when you started work on This Is Our Science?
I'd finished the previous record, Pomegranate, and then I basically packed up my shit and moved to Seattle. Pomegranate was basically a sort of historical fiction based on my kind of super-nerdy obsession with history. While I was finishing up that record, I got introduced to A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson. For want of a better term, it really blew my mind. I had never been a science kid in any real way. I had always been a theater kid and a history kid, arts and culture, but science was always taught to me in such a bland way that it had never really sparked my interest. Reading that book and getting a sort of anecdotal history of the whole thing and seeing there was a storytelling element to it was really exciting to me... And then just looking back, all the records I'd made were about other things or other peoples' lives, and I'd never really made a record that was just about me, and I felt like over the last 500,000 [miles] or whatever that I'd accrued a pretty damn fine collection of stories. So this new record draws a pretty big parallel in my mind to the scientists of the Age of Enlightenment and their research process, in comparison with the process of a musician, and even more so, the touring process a band goes through when they go about it in a really DIY way. We knew we wanted to make music, and we knew we wanted to do it for a living, but we didn't have a record deal or a booking agent or any publicity, so we just got in the van and started e-mailing people and driving around the country. We'd play shows for 10 people, until we played shows for 50 people, until we played shows for 100 people, and we starved and ate ramen and skipped meals to buy gas. That compulsion for me when I read about these scientists who'd maybe made these incredible discoveries—they knew that the world was made up of elements, but they didn't necessarily know how to find or define these elements, so people were poisoning themselves and huffing carbon monoxide and, like, eating plutonium and doing all these drastic measures because they knew their destination was out there, they just didn't know how to get to it. So they just did whatever the fuck they had to do to get it done. That felt really similar to what my friends and I have gone through to carve out a little niche in the massive music industry.
I bet you've got a lot of stories from the road. Recall one that means something poignant to the record?
When I play in Europe, I play a lot of squats, and there was this one in this really cool building in Darmstadt, Germany, and it's an old mansion with gargoyles looking over everything. I played there a couple of times, and I had a decent fan base there. I saw this poster for Kevin Seconds from 7 Seconds, who was playing that same night. I was really excited. I'd never seen Kevin Seconds or 7 Seconds. I ran downstairs and saw his set, and it was really great, and I was just kind of laughing to myself. It was a last-minute show, so it was pay-what-you-want. It was surreal to see this guy who so many people had lauded as a hero, and who is such an important person in punk-rock history be like: "Yeah, we'll just put this show together, and you can pay what you want. I just want to play a show." And that guy's probably pushing 50 years old, and at the time I'm maybe 27. He made a joke while he was playing about the age of the crowd—I was probably one of the oldest people there. He said, "Everyone here is probably half my age." And everyone laughed, and then he said, "That's okay, age never meant shit to me. It's all about heart and stupidity anyway." And then he just launched into a song. I just thought that was a really wonderful sentiment. A lot of times you look down the barrel of this life choice you've made, and you're traveling around the country, and you've forsaken any possibility of a career besides bartending, and you get all these dumb tattoos, and you get older, and your résumé gets worse, and your life experience gets longer, and your hireability gets lower, and you're sleeping on a couch at some fucking douchebag's house that smells like cat hair and cigarettes. You're just like, "What the fuck have I done?" It's nice to always be able to refer back to that story. You know, this guy never got huge. He wasn't Prince, but he still made it into something worth doing and something worth holding on to.