Bartees Strange remembers doing the most with little—now he’s giving back to artists
It’s a song that’s imbued with frustration, condemning the idea that Black artists have to be one thing. It’s also the throughline of his 2020 debut record, Live Forever. Across 11 tracks, Strange taps into pop punk, trap, IDM and more, offering a heartwarming cohesion that’s relentlessly replayable. You only need to hear “Stone Meadows,” a cut that embodies Radiohead’s all-encompassing flux, transition into “Flagey God,” a track that could have sprung from Warp Records, to get pulled into the world he’s creating.
Over the course of a year, Strange went from being unsure if he’d get to play these songs live to performing them in front of hundreds of people, including runs with Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus. “I feel like in the last year, now that people care, it’s kind of a mind fuck,” he admits over Zoom the day before flying to the U.K. to finish his next album. “It’s like, ‘Whoa, why?’ It’s a weird energy to receive, and learning how to receive that energy is a new thing.”
If there’s one thing that Strange came to show us on his last record, it’s that embracing change makes us more open-minded and empathetic. But if change is also inevitable, then progress is self-imposed, and what he seeks in the new year is expansion. For Strange, the possibilities are as vast as they are thrilling.
I wanted to start by saying that 2021 has seemed like such a celebration of everything you’ve accomplished. How has it felt to be able to play songs off Live Forever live throughout the year and share that experience with others?
It’s been amazing. I didn’t think I was gonna get to play those songs when I put that album out. I really wanted to release the album, but I was definitely bummed that I wasn’t going to get to do them, and it’s been great that I have got to play a substantial amount of shows and really play the record in different places. It’s really cool, and no one got sick. Thank God. Oh, my God, I was so stressed about that. The whole last two months, I’ve just been like, “Please, please, please, no one in this band get sick.” And no one did. Knock on wood.
Do you feel like the songs have transformed as you’ve played them live?
Yes, and it bums me out because I’m like, “Shit, I should have recorded it this way.” Now I’m all mad at the songs again. But yeah, it’s been nice to watch the songs change. “Stone Meadows” hits so much harder live. I feel bad that the record version doesn’t go as hard as that live version. It’s absurd. I would also say “Boomer” goes harder live. On the album, I recorded everything with one guitar part, and live, I play it with three, so it just jumps, hardcore. It gets really intense.
When did you realize that “Boomer” had grown into such a massive song?
When I started playing it live, honestly, because I felt like it was the only song that people knew. [Laughs.] I’d be like, “Oh, this entire show is about getting to ‘Boomer.’ How do we get to ‘Boomer’ faster?” So I started moving it from the third song in the set to the last song in the set so everyone would have to wait for it.
You’ve opened for a ton of people in 2021, and then you also played these really big festivals like Shaky Knees and Outside Lands. What have you learned from those experiences?
I feel like I’m learning a lot. I just want to get better at everything. I felt like we had some amazing shows, but when you are touring with people like Lucy [Dacus] and Phoebe [Bridgers], who have been doing it for as long as they’ve been doing it, they bring a different level. It was cool to see it every night and learn from it and be like, “OK, I have my own thing that I do, but I can learn so much from these awesome artists that I’m with every day.”
Which is why I’m also so pumped to go on tour with Courtney Barnett in December  and Car Seat Headrest [this] year. Courtney Barnett is like the sickest band, period, out right now. Her band is crazy, and they do it with a three-piece, they do it with a four-piece. It doesn’t matter. She crushes, and I can’t wait to see that every night and learn from that.
Did you have any onstage mishaps?
Yeah, I had a bunch. I mean, I fucked up a lot of shit. I played a lot of stuff wrong. I forgot a lot of words. I do some silly stuff, but we all did, and I think that’s the dopest part. I’ve been playing music for a long-ass time. I have fucked up onstage many times. That happens. I just realize, doing it in front of more and more people, [that] it’s not a big deal. It’s almost more forgiving. The bigger the crowd, the more down they are to have a good time. It’s kind of harder to play a small room than it is to play a big room for that reason. But I guess the biggest realization was just, “No matter what happens, it’s all fine.”
With “Stone Meadows,” I start that song in the wrong key all the time, which could throw [it] off in the most ugly and insane way live. I’ve caught myself doing it, and it’s been like, “My bad, starting over.” And I’ll just start the song over, and everyone’s cool. The audience is like, “Great, that’s hilarious. This is a human being standing in front of me.” [I’m] extremely human onstage.
You’re someone who played in a ton of hardcore and emo bands. Now, you’ve put out your own record, and you’re producing for other bands, too. So what do you think it took to really get to this point?
Honestly, the thing it really took was to just do it, to just start building it. So when I decided, “Oh, I want to produce records,” I found records to produce and just started producing records. I wasn’t posting on Instagram, like, “Oh, I’m a producer now. Bring me your records.” I was going to shows, meeting bands and being like, “You should come over. I’m going to record a couple of songs for you for free. I just want to do it.” I’ve always started very small and just done the most I can with very little. It feels very life-affirming because I remember making those choices seven years ago that I was going to get better at those things, and I was going to invest time in that. That was a big part of it. You know, just making those little choices.
Would you say that quitting your day job over a year ago is a big part of it?
Getting everything set up to where I could do that was the challenge of the last eight years, for sure. Because I had a 9-to-5, and it was a good job. So I was working that and always doing music on the side until music just gained more and more weight. It just eventually outweighed the 9-to-5 when I went to a three-day schedule. Then eventually I was just like, “Guys, I don’t have time for both anymore. I love you.”
I bet it’s felt so validating to be able to give back to other bands by producing for them.
Yeah, it’s sick. I want to be better at it. I can’t wait to just do it all more and get better and better because it’s so much fun, working on other people’s stuff. It’s also a great way to try shit out that you may do later.
Do you mean for your own stuff?
Yeah. Or even for another person’s stuff. Every time I try something, I’m like, “Oh, we’re going to try that again and try it differently.” Every song is like the same song in a weird way. You run into the same problems. You try the same solutions, but they lead you down different roads. I’m excited about producing more over the next few years.
It sounds like a good way to invest your energy into someone else’s project, get away from your own songs for a little bit and come back to them with a fresh perspective.
Yeah, that’s true. Also, music is a weird business. You got to have multiple ways of making money in it, and touring is hard. Making records is a whole challenge in itself, and writing and producing for other people is a whole other world. So the more you can do all of it, the better you’ll feel. You know, ’cause I have friends who, [for them], tour’s the only way they can survive. I think that the pandemic definitely made a lot of musicians think twice about that.
Do you feel like living in D.C. has played a pretty big role?
Yeah, I fuck with D.C. I fuck with the energy hardcore. There’s this underdog energy [where] they’re just like, “Fuck everybody.” [Laughs.] Which I love. I love that energy from this part of the country because D.C. feels overlooked in its musical contributions, which they have a good case for. A lot of great music has come out of here. I’m really proud to put out records and say that I live here.
It seems like a place that you can live in and really tap into those kinds of roots.
Yeah, that’s actually really true. Because it’s not like New York or L.A. I feel like the good shit out here, there’s a lot of it, but it’s in the suburbs, and it’s very pocket-based. You got to find it, but once you find it, it’s pretty huge. New York, it’s like everyone’s an artist. You want to be in a scene? Cool, go outside. [There’re] like 12 scenes in front of you. Same with L.A. or Philly, but D.C. is not like that. You have to find it, but once you do, it’s pretty real.
When do you think you found it?
Honestly, in the last couple of years because I lived in D.C. fresh out of college for like four years. When I was 22, I moved here, and I had the hardest time meeting people. I was very much like a square-toed Hill weirdo. I just worked on the Hill during my time trying to make a living. I had a hard time meeting those people. I just wasn’t around them. But then when I came back after living in New York — I also had made a couple of friends in New York who are from D.C., so I had some ins there — I was able to find the sweet spot.
Is there anything you want to carry forward into 2022? I know you’re going to be finishing your new album soon.
What I want to carry forward is expansion. This idea that everything is possible still. There are things that I want to dig into that I’ve never done before. This energy of, “It’s OK to try and keep trying more things.” You don’t have to make what you think people want you to make. You can make what you want to make still. Do what you want to do. Keep that energy. Make yourself happy.
I feel like that sentiment is really embodied in your music because when I listen to it, I hear freedom — someone who just loves music.
Yeah, that’s so true about me. [Laughs.] So I want to keep that, you know? Because I feel like in the last year, now that people care, it’s kind of a mind fuck. It’s like, “Whoa, why?” It’s a weird energy to receive, and learning how to receive that energy is a new thing. That’s not baked into most people, so I’m learning that, too. So the next few years should be interesting, but I’m really excited about what I’m making.
As far as 2022 goes, what else are you excited about?
I’m excited for the shows. I’m excited to tour with Car Seat Headrest. That’s going to be really cool. I’m sure that I’ll have music coming out, and it’ll be cool to see what I make. That’s funny for me to say because I’m gonna make it, but I’m like, “I’m curious what the fuck I’m gonna do.” I keep looking at everything I’ve been making, and I’m like, “Whoa, where we going with that one?” It’ll be fun to figure that out over the next couple of months.
I know you’ve said that the songs are written, so do you mean actually recording it and doing the production?
Yeah, like building it all. It’s just a new phase. So, I’ll write it and record it and stare at it — and really have to set some time aside to finish it, to go into it with the mindset of finishing. That’s where I am now, where it’s like, “Let’s finalize.” That’s the hardest part, but it’ll be fun.
Do you have the lyrics as the foundation and then you build on that?
No, it’s opposite, actually. Everything is built way before the lyrics. The lyrics come, literally, it can be like the day before the songs come out. Lyrics are the hardest thing. Everything else is so natural. That’s a lot of what’s about to happen over the next few months. The arrangement and the instrumentation and the production is so fast. I love that shit. But then when it’s like [you] got to be honest about how you really feel about some stuff, it gets heavy. You got to go somewhere, and the hardest part about finishing the song is going where the song is actually taking you.
This interview first appeared in issue #401 (the AP Yearbook), available here.