Andrew Sims grew up in the ‘burbs. In Minneapolis. His love of hip hop bred first a secret stash of mixtapes and then his first steps into creating music of his own as a teenager. Today, roughly a decade later, Sims is a key member of the respected Doomtree collective, and recently released a jaw-dropping sophomore album entitled Bad Time Zoo, which we raved about here. Our love of that album compelled us to track Sims down for a wide-ranging chat in Austin, Texas about $30 beats, the hunter/hunted dynamic, the genius of Twin Peaks, and the shadowy Organikel corporation…
Stefan Goldby: How old were you when you first began getting serious about making music?
Sims: I started rapping when I was about 14. I’m 28 now. At that time, I was playing in bands and stuff, and they were terrible bands, obviously, because I was 14. [Laughs] So we were doing that and I was rapping, but it was always just fun, and I was just singing and playing guitar, and I started making more songs. And about my junior year – I guess I was about 17 – I started making real songs and recording them, and they were also terrible. I found a disc of them not too long ago – maybe four or five months ago – and listened to them and I was like, “Oh! Yeah. Cool.” [Laughs]
So I met P.O.S back then, when I was about 17 or 18, and he would give me beats, and he would charge me 30 bucks and let me record at his house, which to me was the best. But it was expensive still, at the time. I was like, “Ooh, $30…” And I was still trying to swing deals, like, “Can I get like five for $100?” That kind of thing. And I kept recording, started trying to play shows wherever I could, and then I think about 2002, I was recording songs over at the Doomtree house.
It was the first time those guys were like, “Yeah, we’ve got a record label,” and really it was just five dudes that had enough wherewithal to print up a CD-R and Kinkos the cover and get a show. And they’re like, “Yeah, we’re a record label,” and I was really excited. I was like, “Whoa, it’s a record label!” Nah, not even like that. We were just friends. So they asked me if I wanted to be in this record label and I was like, “Sure,” and we just kept moving from there.
We started as sort of a label by necessity because no one would ever want to put out our music or give us shows or anything like that, so we kept trying to piggyback off each other, and we still are doing that, to an extent, and now we’re more of a label by choice, because we don’t really want to sign to anyone because we’re doing pretty well with this record label thing. It was a long process of cutting our teeth with any kind of business related… [Laughs] We’re not business people. We’re artists that are trying to make it work, but we’re getting better at it. So that’s pretty much the start of it, I guess.
SG: And the world has come around to you. Most of the people that did go the major label route are right back where you are except they don’t have those five years of experience from doing it for themselves…
S: It seems like that. I have a couple friends who were signed into a major, and they’re asking me, “What do you know about one-stops.” I’m like, “Man, they’re terrible to deal with [laughs], but they will sell your records… I don’t know where the music industry is going. Everyone wants to know that; that’s why they all come down to SXSW right now. The last three years has been like, “Where is the industry going?” and everyone is like, “I don’t know… Internet!” Internet is the biggest answer to it all. It’s like, “Oh, Facebook and Twitter, totally. It’s really important to stay connected to your fans...” You just hear the same nonsense answers, and we don’t know what we’re doing or why it’s working, or any of that. I feel like: put out a good product and you do it honestly, and you let your fans in on the joke, and you’ll get what you’ll get, whatever that is.
SG: Let’s turn to your latest album, Bad Time Zoo. Doomtree producer Lazerbeak and you were the backbone of the album. How do the two of you work together?
S: I’ve been getting beats from him since 2003, but when I first got my first beats from him, I had to really convince him to give me a beat. I really petitioned hard…it was like, “I need one for this record I’m working on, Lights Out Paris.” I think he gave me three or four, and I used all of them. I was really a fan of his work. And his beats were terrible back then too. [Laughs] We’re getting better.
When you listen to our stuff now and you listen to our stuff back then, it’s funny to me how much of a jump it’s taken. But with this record, I was talking to different producers. Like, “Hey, I’m working on this record,” they started throwing me beats. He threw me 20 beats about four hours after I asked him. Honestly, he sent me an email with a zip file with all these beats and I was like, “Okay: All right.” So I made about eight songs to those beats; we tracked them, and I made a couple to other guys’ beats, but the Lazerbeak ones had a real distinct feel to them. They were real cohesive. So we talked for a while and we were like, “Hey, maybe we should just do this record together.” So we did, and I think we made 30 songs in all for it, and a bunch of them met the scrap heap because [laughs] you got to figure that you swing for average sometimes. You can’t knock them all out of the park.
SG: Is there a day from the making of the album that stands out in your mind?
S: There are a few days. There were three days where we thought we were done. There were three different days where we went out to drinks and were like, “Hey, nice work. Record’s done. It’s over.” We just finished our mix tweaks, and then I sat on the record for a little longer, and I called ‘Beak and I was like, “Sorry, man, we’ve got to make some more tracks. It’s not done. We have to make more tracks.” The first two times, he was like, “Cool.” And then by the third time, he was like, “Dude, make how ever many you’re gonna make, but let’s finish now.” So those are the distinct memories – the three nights we had celebration drinks [laughs] for the record being over, and then the three times I was like, “No, it’s not over.”
SG: What’s the biggest difference between version three and version one of the finished album?
S: Not much – there’s two different songs on there. “When It Rolls In” and the song with P.O.S, “Too Much” – those are the last two songs we added to the record. And I think it helped round out the sound of the record a little more. The beat for “Too Much” alone is so warm and positive in a way, and I felt like the record was missing some of that. And then “When It Rolls In” is a song that I stumbled on that I thought was great because it was different from all the other songs I was making on the record, so I put it on there.
SG: Thinking about the finished album as a whole, what are you happiest with about Bad Time Zoo?
S: I think the thing I’m happiest with is that it’s just the next step for me in my songwriting journey. I don’t feel like this is the be-all-end-all record for me, and I don’t feel like it’s a great record. I feel like it’s a good record, and it’s my next step. I’ve gotten a lot of good press about it, a lot of good reactions about it – people are really liking it, and I like that. It makes me feel good and it reaffirms where I’m going as a songwriter. What I like about it is, to me, there are hints in all the songs about where I’m gonna go, and I really like that. It’s funny – when you distance yourself from a product for so long – we’ve been done with it for about a year – so a year later, I’m looking at it like, “These are great, but I’m goin’ somewhere else next time.” So it’s good; I like it. I’m super satisfied with the sonic quality of the record. We spent a lot of time mixing and mastering, only probably for people to grab it on 64kbps MP3s or whatever. [Laughs] Just completely smash the bit-rate down and make it sound like it’s underwater.
SG: Why did you call it a David Lynch moment when you decided to call the album “Bad Time Zoo”?
S: I was watching Twin Peaks maybe three years ago, and I really liked that show a lot, to the point where I was watching all the behind-the-scenes stuff because I was like, “This dude is super interesting.” And he was talking about how he would have actors that would mess up a line or something, and they’d stop themselves, and they’d say, “Oh, sorry, I screwed up the line,” and he would go, “What did you say?” And they’d say, “Well I said…” whatever, and he’d say, “No, that’s the line. That’s what the character would have said because that’s what came out of you naturally…” in the character zone or whatever.
So I gave tracks to some friends that were outside of Doomtree… and inside of Doomtree. But since we made a surplus of songs, I wanted to give tracks out to see what people were responding to, and not necessarily what I liked. I’d get responses from different people, and two people came back to me and said, “I got a ‘Bad Time Zoo’ tattoo on the way…” And it was just a line that happened in one song – the record was called “The Veldt.” And I was like, well, okay. If both of these people liked that line so much, that’s the catchy line from the record, and that’s what the record should be called.
SG: Let’s pull a few of these things together: The album was going to be called “The Veldt,” with that hunter/hunted theme, so tell us about the music video that sums all that up – with lot a of running around in masks…
S: Ah, for “Burn It Down.” The video is more or less like your basic predator/prey situation. There’s wolves chasing around sheep and gazelles and zebras. Basically, what I’m trying to say allegorically is that there are subgroups of the disenfranchised – however we decide to draw lines between us, whether it’s gender relations, race relations, sexual orientation… Whatever those things are, we’re all more or less on the same team – it’s just that there are these huge distinctions between us that are distractions from the big picture of it all, which is we are the disenfranchised. There’s a reason that there’s more of us and less of them, and “them” being those that control the world and control the money in the world, and keep poor people down and keep all these different subgroups of people down. And the idea is if we would just mix it up a little more and drop those lines from each other, between each other, we could really affect some change.
SG: And that’s the positive side – the slightly snarkier side of the whole thing is “One Dimensional Man,” which seems to acknowledge that while the disenfranchised could rise up, they will not…
S: That song is just an observation and less of a call to arms. What it really is, is diagnosing liberal lethargy. To me, it’s a response to the snarkiness that I receive on a day-to-day basis. I’ll go into a co-op dressed like this, and they’re looking at me like, “You are not on this team. What are you doing here?” The whole thing to me is like, “Okay, I get it.” So what it really is, is based off a Herbert Marcuse book, who said that, in a capitalist society, and in a socialist society, there is no counterculture, because either way, you’re gonna be a product of the same system – you’re gonna be a cog in the same system in the way that we as liberals voice our dissent…or not even necessarily voice our dissent, but more identify with who we are as a subgroup of people – we are young liberals.
We’re on Macs, we’re on iPhones, we’re drinking peace coffees, fair trade this, fair trade that, we’re driving hybrid cars, we’re doing all this stuff, but at the same time, all we’re really doing is spending money and throwing money at our problems, and throwing money at an identity that we want so desperately. We want to buy our way out of the guilt that we feel about being American or being in the system. Our domestic policy is crazy. Our foreign policy is crazier.
So there are a lot of young Americans that don’t want to identify with the older generation that’s running the country. It’s just that there really is no way out in the system. It’s sad. It’s not positive, but it’s not necessarily all that negative. It’s just like…this is it. What I really want to do is just create a dialogue with it. I’m a rapper; I’m not an activist. I’m not changing the world. I just want to create a dialogue and have people talk about, “Wow, that’s an interesting point. Let’s diagnose that a little further.” And tell me where I’m right and tell me where I’m wrong, and I’m totally open to that. I’m not outside any critique on liberalism – that’s me fully, as much as it’s anyone else.
SG: It’s disturbing, even though it’s tongue-in-cheek, how much the “OrganiKel” corporation rings true. It’s completely, worryingly plausible…
S: It does, right? My friend Isaac Gale wrote and directed that video, and we sat and talked, and we’re both big fans of Mr. Show. And the way they did their shows was like one thing would lead to the next, and we kind of loosely based PlaxoChem, on the chemical corporation of GloboChem – the Mr. Show thing. So PlaxoChem has destroyed the world and they’re like, “It taught us a very valuable lesson, and that’s why we’re rebranding it. We’re calling it OrganiKel.” It’s like…urgh. [Laughs] So it’s funny.
SG: There’s a sketch on Mr. Show I love where there’s a guy reporting on the news, and it’s shot super tight, and he says, “I’m hearing that there’s a fire downtown,” and the camera pulls back, reveals the news anchor’s desk from another channel, with someone else reading the news, and our guy is literally squatted down in front of the desk, just listening to what the other channel says and reporting on it. It feels like that’s often a lot of what the Internet is. Somebody will actually be doing something, and then nine other sites take the first bit of what they did and say, “This is what’s happening, people!”
S: [Laughs] No one gave [Doomtree artist] Dessa any press until Robert Christgau gave her a huge review on NPR, and then the press was just flowing through and it was crazy. When I read interviews that I’ve done and articles about me, they just copy and paste almost all of my bio [laughs] and throw it in there. But it’s the Internet, and nobody is getting paid to do it, so you can’t be mad at it. Not that many people are making money off the Internet.
SG: Not many, but some…so as an artist, what do you feel are the new marketing tools that are actually useful?
S: I think that the direct line we have to our fans is good, and the line that they have to us is also good, and I think it creates a relationship between us and a rapport between us. We can blog about stuff that we think is funny or interesting or informative, and they can send us emails, and they can send us Tweets and Facebook messages, and we’ll respond to them. There’s something about that interactivity that’s good. I don’t know how you become a millionaire anymore in the music industry. It’s really gonna be rare. So I feel like, if you’re in the music industry, you need to accept the fact that you’re not gonna be a millionaire.
But why did you even start making music in the first place? The answer should be: Because I love it. And if it’s not, then you should find another industry. I feel like a lot of people are gonna be out of jobs, and that’s a sad thing, but it’s just what it is. And without corporate sponsorship, there’s not gonna be a ton of money in music anymore. You get your concert revenue, you get your merchandise sales, and you get record sales. And there’s not a lot else, outside of corporate sponsorship, like licensing…and maybe you get a McDonald’s banner on your website, but that’s dangerous ground because there are a lot of kids that don’t want to see that: “I don’t want to see you have a Starbucks ad on the side of your website. You guys are something different”. So it’s tough and it’s a tricky game, and I don’t know where it’s going or how you make money at it anymore. Luckily, I get to do the performance side of things, so I have enough to eat, but that’s pretty much that. [Laughs]
SG: A big part of that whole new music industry theory is that everything is going virtual and digital, and physical is no more, and yet you put one of the more elaborately packaged records, in a long while. I love the idea that there’s an art project wrapped up inside of an art project…
S: I think, again, it comes back to interactivity. What I want to do is force you to sit down and listen to this record from front to back, and the way I’m gonna do that is to give you something to do while you’re doing that. I respect your time enough, and I respect the fact that not that many people just sit down and look forward and listen to a record anymore. Totally cool. Here we are. It’s 2011. So the idea is how do you make it something tangible, something you can touch, something you can do with your hands and experience, and give you a more tactile experience to a sonic expression? You are creating your own piece within this music. So it’s cool – it gives you something to do and some way to interact with the project.
We are still completely reliant on our physical products. We sell a lot more physical products than we do digital, which is interesting in today’s Internet age, especially with an Internet brand like Doomtree. The only reason we’re even known nationally or internationally is because of the Internet. But I still think it’s important, and I still think it’s cool, and we all come from the era where we used to save up our paychecks, when we were 14, and then go down to the record stores on Tuesday and get those three CDs you could afford, and then you would listen to those CDs for like a month.
And the first experience of opening the package and feeling the artwork and the smells and the sounds and all that stuff, and reading even down to the production credits… That’s something I can’t let go of, and that’s probably gonna be a fault of my generation in the new music industry. The next generation may not have that experience, and they might know better about how to reproduce and sell music. Maybe you do it on a jump drive or something, or maybe that’s even antiquated at this point. Maybe you just beam an email code out to someone…
SG: Like Twin Peaks that you mentioned earlier, perhaps the challenge is to try and create a whole world for someone to jump into – not just a track or an album…
S: I think that’s probably right. That’s probably what the idea is anymore, especially if you’re someone that no one really knows of yet. You get to peel layers to people. I think maybe that’s what bands need to do, is create more identity about themselves and keep adding layers to what they’re doing, and actually create a mystique of some kind to make people want them more.
SG: If you look at the few artists that have been successes in the Internet era, for whatever you think of Lady Gaga as a musician, she definitely has a mystique, and she certainly has depth, at the very least from a personality standpoint.
S: No question. Lady Gaga was, and could be, the last overnight success you ever saw. And it’s because she’s so personality-driven, and people are like, “What?” They love that. That’s totally cool. She showed up to the Grammy’s in an egg this year, being carried by dudes – that was incredible. Who does that? What did she have, a dress made of meat a couple years ago? That was great too. [Laughs]
SG: I don’t think a dress made of meat is necessarily the way for you to do it, but if your goal as an artist is to start a dialogue, what is it that you hope you provoke someone walking away from a Sims show to think about?
S: If they’ve never seen me before, I hope they walk away thinking, “I’m gonna get that guy’s record, whether I have to steal it or buy it online. And I want to come back to see him again.” That’s what I want out of it. A cab driver asked me that yesterday on the way in. He was like, “So what is the point? What do you expect to get out of SXSW?” So I’m like, “I don’t know. I’m here.” And it’s good. This is it. This is the world of music. I don’t know what anyone expects to get out of it anymore. You just show up and do what you do and hope that people respond to it. And whatever comes of that is what it is. But we came to play, and that’s the bottom line. We came to make our presence felt.
SG: Except that you thought you were great when you were 17 and now you think you sucked, so… [Smiles]
S: Wait until I’m 38. I’m gonna be SO good.
Sims latest album, ‘Bad Time Zoo,’ is out now on Doomtree Records.