Interview with the Busdriver

Categories: Up On Sun

by Matt Neff
Photo courtesy of Epitaph

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A-heh heh heh…Up on the Sun’s legal team has suggested I apologize to our general readership for the dismay and chaos my last post has caused among this beloved paper’s fanbase. I reckon it was rude of me to violently puke my dumb opinions upon your poor heads over some country-rock dinosaur who, as one astute commenter pointed out, doesn’t even merit review nowadays. I promise next time I won’t eat so many hot wings before I write, and to prove it here’s a different tack to float your collective boats: hip-hop music, and a tasty strain of it too. Good luck.

When I was a young squirt, I used to marvel at the crude horsepower chugging beneath the hoods of the buses that carted me to school each morn. The vaguely angry man who sat astride the driver’s seat of our mighty yellow stallion would struggle and wrestle with the great steel stick shifter, and our bodies would lurch and thud around the seats as we hurtled towards our educational destinations. More tank than Cadillac, they weren’t thoroughbred prizewinners, but they still wore the pants in the child-transportation business.

Well, a similar dosage of horsepower seems to lie behind the motormouth indie rap songs of the other busdriver, Busdriver, nee Regan Farquhar, whose surreal, tongue-twisting, jazz-influenced outbursts splatter the listener with tales of liberal failure and indie rap woes. Busdriver is the spawn of Project Blowed, the L.A. underground rap collective responsible for attacking the typical boring rap status quo (bitches/hos/etc.). He blasted off in the early nineties doing open mic nights at the Good Life Café in South Central L.A., and has since been weaned on the fulsome dugs of such luminaries as Abstract Rude and Aceyalone.

In his songs Busdriver takes a good look around, whittles folkloric-type figurines from what he sees, and deploys them in a rapid fire barrage of abstract metaphors, surreal images and sarcastic brickbats that lodge in your language centers and blossom into pleasurable interior explosions. His flow is fast as tarnation and he works with producers ranging from Nobody and Boom Bip (on his latest platter, RoadkillOvercoat) to Daddy Kev, who aren’t afraid to cop licks from Bach, Can, and vocalese jazz records. His voice has been described as “Aesop Rock impersonating Will Smith impersonating a white guy,” a description I can’t top, and his delivery is generally staccato and heavy on ye olde sarcasm. Here’s a random sample of his lyrics (one fourth as effective out-of-context and on a computer screen):

I’m a hallucinogen pez-dispenser, led ventures
With a group of oompa-looma parachute troopers
Who discredit theories and behead your mentors
Who can radiowave windsurf
To invert what is common knowledge

And:

And I’ll fortify the Left’s patron saint
With anti-war cries and face paint
When the GOP appoints a man in tights
To read protestors their Miranda rights
This is an anger pact, a teen scratch post
That boasts a paperback zine pathos
“Unsheathe the saber”
Says thee blasphemer’s acting coach
And torment the Scientologist at the Cineplex
They are bonafide clansmen in dinner dress
Giving your art loft undertows the thumb and nose

His latest record, RoadkillOvercoat, takes a lot of shots at ineffective leftists and the cool-kid culture (he knows his audience) and ventures into indie/electro-dance territory a lot more than the two earlier Busdriver records that I've been able to hear, Fear of a Black Tangent, and Temporary Forever. My main complaint about the guy is how much he raps about himself and his status within the underground hip-hop scene (although he chides me on that one--see interview), and maybe he’s a little contemptuous of his audience at times (“The number one superfan/ With the notable computer tan”), but overall he’s pretty tolerable for a hip-hopper. According to the press kit hoohah, he’s been branded as the “zany underground rap guy” who attracts mainly white audiences, but at Chaser’s on Friday night the crowd was pretty darn eclectic. Technically it was the Paid Dues afterparty but B.Driver made no reference to the fact except when I asked him about it (“Oh, no…I wasn’t there…”), and seemed none too thrilled to be interviewed either, rambling laconically from behind his horn-rimmed glasses with nary a spark of interest. I must’ve done something wrong by asking him questions when he was in a rapping mood, because he did a 180 when he started his shtick. Live, he was what they call an animal. Bending, writhing, jerking his head around, veins and other tubes standing out on his forehead and neck, twisting and twiddling his fingers in time with every syllable (no mean feat when the man enjoys Latinates) and spitting out rhymes like he was getting his butt zapped. He distorted the phrasing and cadences, stretching out and compacting verses, and worked two mikes, one dry and one with delay/trem effects, often wrapping the cord around his neck and swooning with glee at his own power. I was impressed. Anyway, here’s what we talked to him about:

U.O.T.S.: Matt & Niki D’Andrea
BD: Busdriver

UOTS: I read that you went to high school in Arizona.
BD: I did! I went to a boarding school in Sedona, Arizona, called Verde Valley School for most of high school. It was kind of like a magnet alternative educational college preparatory campfire…fuggin…sing-along that masked itself as a school. When I was going, there were people from all over the country and all over the world.

UOTS: What kind of kids went there?
BD: Just fuckups, you know…Rich kids and not so rich kids. It was a pretty interesting hodgepodge of god-knows-who. Like spoiled Japanese aristocracy, impoverished German kids…it really was a mixture.

UOTS: So how did you fuck up to get in with the fuckups?
BD: I think I may have…no, at that point…what did I do? No, I didn’t do anything really. No, my parents just found out about the school and got me in there.

UOTS: What did you think of Sedona?
BD: Well, where we were staying was a little bit outside, in Verde Valley, on the outskirts, but Sedona itself I never really spent much time in…but it was always a big trip to go down there. It was very beautiful, the restaurants were all really nice. There was a lot of tourism-type…jive. But Sedona is a gorgeous place. Very beautiful.

UOTS: How did you come up with the name Busdriver?
BD: There’s no good story behind it. It's just one of those silly names that teenagers come up with.

UOTS: So you came up with it when you were a teenager?
BD: Yeah, my friend did actually.

UOTS: I read something else about the title, Roadkill Overcoat, you were just driving along….
BD: Actually my partner Matt came up with that one, and I just stole it from him. I had a bunch of ideas, bad ideas, and I didn’t want to depend on them, and I liked what he said. I knew it was bad because I don’t like titles that start with the letter R and I didn’t like the way it looked on paper, and I had all these other things like lettering and wording that looked more aesthetically rounded and more what I liked to associate myself with. But fuck it, I didn’t care. And it was indicative of my life right then and there.

UOTS: You write like a rap critic in a lot of your songs, constantly analyzing yourself and the state of the music. Do you think that directly addressing the audience and calling their attention to rap and its possibilities is the only way to make them pay attention to what it can do?
BD: Whuh…I don’t understand…what am I?

UOTS: Well, in a lot of your songs you talk about rap and the underground hip hop scene directly, and your status within, like Unemployed Black Astronaut, “I was one of the top five fresh hip hop guys…” I was wondering if you followed music like that or if it was just your natural take on things?
BD: Uh, music? Yeah….I definitely inquire into music. But as far as that whole slant on things, that was pretty much to that record, Fear of a Black Tangent...That record was pretty much that whole mindset of scrutinizing the rap game and kind of taking a sarcastic spin on my underdog status. But yeah, I inquire about music and take an interest in music.

UOTS: Your lyrics are very dense and literate. Do you like to read?
BD:I think I do, but I don’t read as much as I used to.

UOTS: Could you name a couple of your favorite books from when you used to read?
BD: …I really couldn’t.

UOTS: How long are you on the road now out of a whole calendar year?
BD: Probably a solid four or five months.

UOTS: So it doesn’t leave a whole lot of time for leisure reading, I guess.
BD: No, it leaves plenty of time for that, actually. There’s a lot of waiting around when you’re on the road. I don’t know, I didn’t read anything really special when I used to read a lot. I read a lot of Kurt Vonnegut and a lot of not so interesting…a lot of…well, I was supposed to be a philosophy major in school, so I read a lot of that crap. A lot of Marcuse and a lot of existential writers. It was pretty much a waste of time. It was “fun.” I mean, it’s not a waste of time, it’s just “fun.” I used to be a reader. I like to act like I am, but I’m not. I just reread…ah, what’s it called…a Confederacy of Dunces.

UOTS: Oh yeah! John Kennedy Toole.
BD: Yeah yeah yeah…I’d picked that up years ago and had never finished it. It’s like the funniest shit I’d ever come across.

UOTS:I have a couple questions out of left field for you. Have you ever been in a fight?
BD: Yeah. Just at rap shows.

UOTS: When you were younger, or fairly recently?
BD: No, I haven’t been in a fight in a while. On the Weather tour, with Radioinactive and Daedalus when we were all campaigning together—it wasn’t really a fight, I was barely in it, but….there were hecklers there spraying beer on us, and it was at a big venue, there were hundreds of people there, it was a big thing and people were spraying beer on us—Radioinactive, he can take you off guard with how willing he is to throw his person in danger and other people’s persons as well…he launched himself off the stage and into this pile of guys trying to get at them, and they started beating his ass, and me and AWOL jumped in—and you know, I hit somebody. It may have been one of my friends. But it was real brief, I wouldn’t even consider it a fight.

UOTS:So no one-on-one fistfight action?
BD: (Irritated) I’ve done that a couple times, but not really, you know? Nothing really, no stand-offs. I have bad fight stories.

UOTS: Do you ever have reoccurring dreams?
BD: (Flatly) No. I don’t dream much.

UOTS: What are some of the day jobs you’ve worked?
BD: This is the only real day job I’ve ever had…uh…I used to work at bars, I was a production assistant for TV shows. Those are about the only other jobs I’ve had.

UOTS: What kind of shows?
BD: Sitcoms…bad sitcoms.

UOTS: What did you think of the sitcom production assistant life?
BD: Oh, it swallows you, and it doesn’t leave room for much else. It’s hard to do it if you’re not invested in the industry. Twelve hour days, most of the time.

UOTS: When I saw you at the interior stage at South by Southwest you had two microphones and you were working them at various points for different sound effects. I’ve never seen that before, so how did that come about? Was it something you saw in someone else that just inspired you or was it just a process of experimenting?
BD:A friend of mine—Andre Afram Asmar, he’s a world music producer, he would run everything—the music and the mikes—through his board, and he would manipulate and put delay and other effects on it. He’s stopped with that, and he’s now less active, but I still wanted that, so I wanted to use an effects mike—I have two mikes, and I can have the effects mike and a dry mike. That’s pretty much it, but I mean, a lot of people do it…they utilize effects onstage a lot better than me. There’s this rapper from Boston named Edon, he’s really amazing, he uses this guitar delay pedal and saturates the sound, manipulates it onstage. A bunch of people do it. Jamie Lidell is a really good vocal manipulator in live performance, he’s really incredible. I’m just putting a little bit of verve on my voice and whatever.

UOTS: Could you describe your writing process?
BD: It’s tenuous, I don’t know why…it takes too long sometimes. I sit around and I think of things. It’s rooted in routine and structure, to a fault. With all the word choices and the metered rhymes I really try to adhere to a certain kind of thing, even if it seems off. I use ABABABCD rhyme schemes that coincide with the rhythm and the cadence I’m doing, and then you know have rhymes brought up in one bar and in the fourth bar it comes back. I should do less of it and be more off-the-cuff, but it’s rooted in that. Sometimes the songs take an hour and sometimes they take a month and a half, six months.

UOTS:How would you feel about Weird Al Yankovic parodying you?
BD: I’d be honored….I don’t know. My heart would just…float.

UOTS: You know he did a song called Another One Rides the Bus. Maybe you could cover it.
BD: Hmmm…I should parody him.

UOTS: Yeah, that would teach him a lesson.
BD: Oh, he doesn’t need to be taught anything. He knows. He’s got it all figured out.

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