Indie rap stars Atmosphere return to Montreal

We spoke to the band’s MC, Slug, ahead of their first Montreal show in five years.


It’s been almost five years to the day since Minneapolis indie rap stars Atmosphere — flagship artists at the label they helped found, Rhymesayers Entertainment — have graced a Montreal stage.

Since that last show, the duo has released three major recording projects, so there’s a lot of catching up to do with rapper Slug, who returns to town with production maven Ant and their live band this Saturday at SAT.

This is part one of an interview that happened earlier this week, bringing us up to speed on the last few years of triumphs, tribulations and tunes. Come back tomorrow for part two, in which we discuss Willie Nelson’s reggae career and the setting aside of egos.

Darcy MacDonald: You’ve released three projects over the past five years, so I’d like to go back some. There has clearly been growth on those records, especially in working with the live instrumentation element. The double EP To All My Friends, Blood Makes the Blade Holy plays out almost like two cool collections of songs. The Family Sign is a record with a little more of an overall creative band input, and with Southsiders, that aesthetic has sort of jelled. That’s a fan’s perspective, but what do you think of the evolution between those three projects?
Slug: Essentially the goal behind that was to create an EP for Dan Monick’s book Seven, a book of photography of him following us around to different places over time. He asked if we would include some songs on a 10-inch, and a 10-inch is good for about six songs, so we made that EP and we gave it to him.

It took so long for the book to get completed that, in the interim, we made another EP [Blood Makes the Blade Holy]. We were going to just to release that as a 10-inch as well, when the book came out. But then the book got stalled even longer for some kind of production reason, not the music but the actual book, you know? So then at that point I was just kinda like, fuck this, I want this music to get heard before our new record comes out! So let’s put ‘em out.

And those two EPs, they were definitely attempts at concise EPs. They weren’t really collections as much as, say, the To All Our Friends EP, which was just supposed to be, like, a thank you to all our friends, you know? And it talked about friendship and shit.

And then Blood Makes the Blade Holy was kinda more for, um…you know, cutting off friends, if that makes any sense. It was to my enemies.

DM: I found that on that double EP, specifically on the second half of the entire release, there seemed to be almost these perfect examples of classic rock. Like there’s kind of a Rolling Stones or like a Beatles song, and so on. Was that overt?
Slug: A lot of it came out of the sessions Anthony [Davis] was doing with Erick (Anderson, keyboard player) and Nate (Collins, guitar) at the time, and I wasn’t really present for a lot of those sessions, so I’m not sure.

I never really ask those things. With the making of that record and The Family Sign, I intentionally stayed away from their process, because I’m kind of a control freak. And I didn’t wanna try to control three creatives, you know? I wanted them to just hand me off the stuff they were making, and I’d write to it. I felt like if I was inside a session, I’d have just pissed everybody off.

You know, Anthony has always been very tolerant of my need to own everything, you know what I mean? He stands with where I’m coming from. But I didn’t wanna be there tryin’ to Quincy Jones all of those muthafuckas. I just wanted to deal with the work they gave me.

Which, I’m glad I did it, because it taught me a lot about letting go and not having to be in control of everything. Those two records, that was a really big growth step for me as an artist because I finally actually learned how to collaborate with other artists as opposed to being like, “Hey, I know how this should be, everybody follow my lead.”

DM: It’s interesting that it took more people to come into the fold for you to be able to let go.
Slug: Oh,  yeah, well and The Family Sign was similarly constructed, in a sense, in that they made music totally independent of me, and then brought me the music they were making and wrote to it. The issue with The Family Sign — and I shouldn’t say ‘issue’, I guess I’m saying ‘issue’ because it seems that there’s a lot of people that point at the record and go, “Yeah, that’s the one that’s kind of awkward for us, as a listener.”

But the thing about that record is that it was very selfish for me as a creator. That was kinda like, um, I don’t know what to compare it to, but are you familiar with Here, My Dear, the Marvin Gaye record? That whole record is about his divorce! So that record was me, in love, when I made The Family Sign. I was in love when I made that.

And not only was I in love, but I was insulated from everything outside of my world, aside from Anthony showing up at my house to drop off beats. I didn’t go hang out with friends, I wasn’t hanging out with fans. I was sitting at home with a newborn baby and my wife, and I was just like, in, you know, baby life. I was in love land, you know what I mean?

So I didn’t care about making a record speaking to the landscape of rap. Especially at the time, the landscape was really starting to alter. You had Odd Future, Danny Brown, Action Bronson. You had a lot of new faces breathing new energy. I’m from the crowd that was five to ten years prior to that. So when all these new faces were coming in, I just kind of unplugged and I went and listened to a whole bunch of old soul records. I just kind of got outta rap for a minute and got into music that was for being in love, you know what I’m saying? And so I feel like not only was I surrounded by my new kid and my wife and my and brothers and my mom and my direct family, but I also wasn’t really letting a lot of new type of that influence in that wasn’t also reinforcing that type of environment. So in that regard I made a record from that.

And I think that for me, that might be one of the most important albums that I’ve ever made in the sense that it was such an intimate look at what the fuck I was going through exactly right then. Not that most of my records don’t kinda follow that, too, but also, a lot of my records are speaking from the experiences that formed me along the path. Whereas that record in particular was really speaking from the experiences that informed me the day I wrote that song. You know what I mean?

And it’s kinda like, so, we went and made Southsiders after that that. Now Southsiders was created differently. We no longer work with Erick and Nate anymore. The music was all made in Oakland. Anthony is living in L.A. now and he’s working with a new batch of artists and instrumentalists.

So in that regard he’s not only influenced by a new geography and new weather, for that matter, but he’s also around some other people. And so I feel kind of like Southsiders took all the looseness that was going on. ‘Cuz you’d find that we were loose widdit (before). I’m learning how to collaborate, and Ant is learning to collaborate, and we’re learning how to do these things, but it was still new.

So there’s dissociative growing pains going on, you know? I still stand beside all of that music because it’s me. And I love ‘me’ in a way where I love representing who I am through my art. Southsiders to me is musically and lyrically tightening the rope of what we had going on. We had this rope as a tool to work with and play with and (now) we actually tightened that rope and turned it into something that’s tight enough to walk on. ■

See part 2 of this interview here
Atmosphere plays with Prof and Dem Atlas at SAT (1201 St-Laurent) on Saturday, May 31, 9 p.m., $25