The Washington, DC songwriter and producer spoke to AdHoc about his new EP of National covers, highlighting the work of black artists in indie rock, and how music is just another form of activism.
Bartees Strange’s superb debut EP, Say Goodbye To Pretty Boys, is primarily an homage to The National, but it’s hard not to hear traces of other rock, emo, and pop acts across the collection of National covers and originals. Here’s a partial list of musicians who were top of mind for the Washington, DC songwriter and producer when he spoke to AdHoc recently: Destroyer Destroyer, Kings of Leon, Rosalía, James Blake, Burial, Garden City, Chet Faker, Bon Iver, Thom Yorke, Prince, and—last but not least—his mom, the opera singer Dr. Donna M. Cox.
“A lot of [my music] is pretty house or beat-driven,” Bartees tells AdHoc of his current approach. “I’m a producer. I love synthesizers. [And] I’ve noticed that The National have started to adopt a lot of that stuff on their newer records—more electronic drums, more synthesizers. I was like, ‘Yo, let’s put some of those more beat and house and trance and disco-inspired rhythm sections over some of these songs and go from there.’”
Say Goodbye To Pretty Boy sees Bartees and his collaborators doing exactly that. The songwriter and producer—born Bartees Leon Cox, Jr.—decided to reimagine a handful of National songs after realizing he was one of the only black people in the crowd of a National concert in DC last year. On Say Goodbye to Pretty Boy, he pairs five reinterpreted Nationals tracks with two originals. A third original, ”Far”—which is available exclusively on Bandcamp—demonstrates Bartees’ remarkable ability to transform something spare and ghostly into something fierce and jangly.
“In terms of how my songs compare [to The National’s originals], I hope that they’re hard to compare,” says Bartees of his covers. “I hope that they’re very different because I’m not trying to one-up The National. This is our interpretation of this music we love.”
Bartees also spoke to AdHoc about sneaking into hardcore shows as a teenager in Oklahoma, choosing which Nationals songs to rework, and fighting for a more equitable world as both a musician and activist. Read the full interview below, and listen to Bartees’ EP here.
Say Goodbye To Pretty Boy is out now via Brassland.
AdHoc: You spent your teenage years in Oklahoma. What was the music scene like there? What was the soundtrack to that period of your life?
Bartees Strange: I grew up in Mustang, a pretty small town. The scene that’s popular in Oklahoma is country music, but there was a thriving DIY community there and a lot of hardcore bands. I grew up listening to bands like Destroyer Destroyer. I remember being in sixth and seventh grade when At the Drive-In was getting really huge. They would come play in Oklahoma. Kings of Leon was a smaller band at the time, and they played headier stuff around Oklahoma. We used to hear about them playing, and I would sneak into shows at really small DIY venues.
Tell us a little about your upcoming EP. What led you to reimagine The National’s songs?
I love The National. They’re definitely one of my favorite bands of all time, and I’ve been to a bunch of shows. Most recently, I went to a show in DC where Courtney Barnett was opening for them. I love Courtney Barnett, so I wanted to catch them both. I got there and I was like, ‘Damn, there are like no black people at this show.’ I remembered every other time I’d seen them. I saw them in Tulsa, Oklahoma; I saw them in random art spaces, where I’m normally the only black person, anyway. But when I was at the [show] in DC, I was surprised that there were no black people there.
It’s unfortunate that the contributions that black and brown people make to indie rock music—and independent music, generally—a lot of times go overlooked. I wanted to do a project that highlighted the work that black artists have done in the past in the genre of indie rock music, but I also wanted to take a minute to nod to one of my favorite bands of all time.
How did you pick which of The National’s tracks to rework?
Some of them are bigger songs—I wanted to use songs that people actually knew, like “Mr. November” and “About Today.” “Reasonable Man” is definitely a smaller song of theirs, but [it has] meant a lot to me.
How do your renditions compare to the originals?
Well, we only had one rule in making these songs: We’re not going to try to do covers, because there’s no way we’re going to make them sound nearly as good as the [originals]. So we wanted to take them somewhere totally different and show the shit I like. The songs are frickin’ beautiful. This stuff is gorgeous. We told ourselves, “You can‘t fuck it up as long as you try to do our own thing with it.”
We approached [the project] with honesty. I hope they’re hard to compare. I hope that they’re very different because I’m not trying to one-up The National. This is our interpretation of this music we love.
Can you tell us about your original songs on the EP?
We have two originals [on the EP], and one other original that’s only on Bandcamp. Both of these originals, by the way, were B-sides from an LP that I’m gonna have come out later this year. I really liked them, but I didn’t think they fit on the LP, and I wanted to find another way to use them.
When I started listening to them in tandem with some of the National songs, I was like, “Oh, in terms of mood and vibe this fits.” I also didn’t want people to think I just cover The National—I wanted people to know that I make my own stuff.
What are some other influences you register in your music?
Rosalía. James Blake. Burial. Skream.
How do they pop up?
A lot of [my music] is pretty house or beat-driven. I’m a producer. I love synthesizers. I’ve noticed that The National have started to adopt a lot of that stuff on their newer records—way more electronic drums, more synthesizers. I was like, ‘Yo, let’s put some of those more beat and house and trance and disco-inspired rhythm sections over some of these songs and go from there.’
I love Garden City and Chet Faker and all those UK pop artists. I was like, “Let’s strip it all the way down in a James Blake, only-four-instruments-allowed way, but let’s stack—almost like Bon Iver—tons of vocals that increase throughout the song and have big synth swells, like some Thom Yorke Anima-type of shit.’
Every song is different. They all have very different influences, but that was my sound palette: the instrumentalism and the deliberateness of The National’s arrangements, plus all these house DJ things I like. We have really heavy Prince references on the cover we did of “Beverly Road.”
I read that you work in the non-profit sector. Do you see any similarities between your work as a musician and your work in that setting?
It’s all the same. Activism and organizing are the same as writing music and sharing emotions. The way that you get people to buy into a campaign, or a political candidate, or a big idea is by showing that you’re emotionally invested and that they should be too. People react to emotions. They want to be inspired.
My mom’s a singer. I grew up singing. I’ve always had this attitude around [singing], like it’s a gift. Making music’s a gift, and we’re lucky to be able to do this and share it with people. I’ve been doing this my whole life, and no one’s ever listened—no one’s ever noticed. I will probably continue doing this regardless of anyone noticing it. I feel the same way about activism and organizing and labor unions and the climate and making sure that people are organized on those things—because that shit’s deeply important.
Making sure that our ecosystems and our neighborhoods and our jobs are equitable is the only way that anything’s going to get better for anybody. It’s all very connected: people want to be inspired, people want to make the world better, and music is an amazing vehicle to make those things come true.