'I don't feel like I'm breaking anything': Bartees Strange on the personal history behind 'Live Forever'

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Bartees Strange is a producer and songwriter in Washington, D.C.
Bartees Strange is a producer and songwriter in Washington, D.C. (courtesy the artist)

Genre is in many ways a game of history, of inflections and nods to predecessors. The sonic innovations that are occurring in pop, rock, and hip-hop are just as much about disrupting structure and expectation as they are about developing new techniques. But what happens when artists are speculative; when they yearn for new futures that have not yet developed; when they hold possibilities with as much reverence as they do the past?

The debut album of Bartees Leon Cox Jr., a.k.a. Bartees Strange, addresses these questions with both tenderness and frustration. On Live Forever, the one-time hardcore kid engages with the idea of artistic freedom and the willingness to never be pinned down by the artistic and cultural demands the industry makes on Black musicians. Strange hopes to create music that imagines a world free of social baggage, where R&B, electronic, folk and post-punk can merge into a unique palette.

While Strange has been making music since he was a teenager growing up in Mustang, Oklahoma, the 31-year-old's rise to indie-rock stardom truly began this past March with the release of Say Goodbye to Pretty Boy, an EP that reimagines several tracks by The National. That record and Live Forever are a response to the alienation that Strange has felt as a Black man in the predominantly white indie scene.

"I was trying to make the case for like, wouldn't it be cool if there were more Black people making indie rock and being elevated because of it," Strange said on a recent Zoom call. "With this record, I kind of wanted to say, if we did that this is what the music would be like."

The record's flagship singles, "Boomer" and "Mustang," perfectly encapsulate this vision. "Mustang" is full of yearning; there's a reckless abandon to Strange's angst, and he's completely uncensored in his eagerness to be free of anxiety and pressure. Through glaring synths and potent power-chords, "Mustang" implores the listener to propel their nervous energy into cathartic creation.

In many ways, the opener, "Jealousy," and the proceeding "Mustang" are the thesis of the album.

"On Live Forever, I open the album with 'cut out my anger' and 'Jealousy,' talking about how jealous I am of people who have things that I think I deserve," said Strange. "And I end the song by saying, let's go to a world where everything is everything, I can be anyone I want to be and I can do anything I want to do, and I'm not afraid of anything happening to me. And that's when 'Mustang' starts."

Meanwhile, "Boomer" evokes the free-flowing, ambitious hip-hop of artists like Young Thug and DaBaby, both fellow travelers in the genre-twisting business. Strange is manic, spitting literary descriptions of drug-use, existential dread, and feeling disconnected from loved ones--all while frantic, fiddling guitar lines pierce his lyrical stream, and snare-heavy garage drums thud on the concrete.

But look beyond the post-genre appeal of Strange's catchiest songs. "In a Cab" is a invigorating, chaotic scene that drips of Mingus; "Mossblerd" is an industrial slam-poetry reading; and "Far" explores the ghosts of Americana, before exploding with reverberating zeal. Somehow, throughout the album, Strange manages to meld emo-inspired cries with bluesy, baritone modulations. These inconsistencies are not just intentional, they're an explicit cartography of Strange's personal history.

After spending his early childhood in the U.K., Strange's father, who worked for the US military, moved the family to Oklahoma. While Strange's mother immersed her children in opera and gospel music, a young Bartees extracted influence from a multitude of subcultures.

"I had never lived anywhere where country music was kind of like the big thing," said Strange. "Everyone listened to country music. I grew up on Garth Brooks Boulevard, and Yukon, Oklahoma had tons of folk music, tons of country music, lots of good guitar players. And I was like, 'Oh, I'm gonna get into this,' started buying Hank Williams records and Dolly Parton and Patty Patsy Cline, and just listening to what my friends are listening to.

"But at the same time, I'm on AOL Instant Messenger talking to my friends in the U.K.," continued Strange. "And they're like, 'Yo, have you heard Burial? Have you heard of all these, like, house groups? Have you heard of Bloc Party? I had all these friends from so many places. And they're always just like, feeding me songs."

However, Strange stresses that his amalgamation of styles and sounds are not meant to break genre. Rather, his technique is based around the act of reclamation. While Live Forever is biographical, it's still reflective of the larger historical narratives within American culture.

"It's always been funny to me," Strange said, "that people have thought like, oh, what's it like to break genres? And I'm like, well, Black people made all these things. I don't feel like I'm breaking anything.

"When I put the record together," he continued, "I want to make something that's representative of me, yes. But not because I want to break genre lines. It's more about what I believe is the right thing to do. I feel like Black people, especially Black people in the West, have made so many contributions in the music that has gone undervalued — not ignored, but undervalued."

Live Forever’s multitudes are what make it so intriguing: Strange's brilliant songwriting is simultaneously energizing and forlorn, personal and political, and both every genre and none of the above. Indie rock often scorns the past or mourns the present, a cynical space obsessed with anachronistic tendencies. But if Strange is a sign of a new, metamodern cultural philosophy that rejects these stances, one that seeks a utopian ideal while still being mindful of history's long shadow, then the trajectory of independent music is in good hands.


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