Bartees Strange: “Hardcore and punk was a refuge for me. It was the only place I could be myself”

Multi-talented songwriter Bartees Strange embraces just about every genre on his brilliant new album Farm To Table. But, as he tells Kerrang!, he’ll never lose his love for the guitar…

Bartees Strange: “Hardcore and punk was a refuge for me. It was the only place I could be myself”
Huw Baines
Luke Piotrowski

There used to be a hidden responsibility that came with being the first person in your crowd to get hold of a record. You’d have to part with it for a few days right out of the gate so that your friends could tape it or rip it. By the time you got the CD back (usually missing the little teeth that held the disc in place), it had changed. Now it belonged to everyone, with their fingerprints alongside yours on the plastic case, and a rush of opinions waiting impatiently just out of frame.

Music is often as much about those fingerprints and opinions as it is the actual nuts and bolts of an album or song. It’s a personal and a communal experience, and a singularly powerful tool of self-discovery. Bartees Strange gets it. His breakthrough LP Live Forever – equal parts pop-punk, indie-rock, hip-hop and weirdo electronica – was an evocative study of the places that helped mould his writing: the racist confines of his hometown of Mustang, Oklahoma, the hardcore scene that offered acceptance, the blank void set aside for him by execs who didn’t know what to do with a Black artist who didn’t fit their narrow view of what a Black artist should sound like.

Farm To Table, his sensational, expressive follow-up, is more concerned with the people who navigated these surroundings with him, from his opera singer mother and military engineer father through collaborators and tourmates – Courtney Barnett, Lucy Dacus and Phoebe Bridgers are among the shout-outs on Cosigns – and former workmates in Washington, D.C.’s halls of power, whose own lives partly inspired him to cut back against the grain and return to music. ‘I was trying to be something wretched, something I saw on TV / But you were the only one who would come through calling / You found ways to rescue me,’ he sings in a lull on Wretched, sowing the sentiment amid spiralling dance-pop.

“At first, this record was like a very small EP, kind of focused on fleeting relationships around COVID,” Bartees tells Kerrang!. “And as I wrote that, over the course of the last two years, it grew into this thing about the people I’ve met, and known, and that I've built deep relationships with over my journey through music, and through jobs, and family, and kind of how it all adds up, and can really mean a lot. It can really be the thing that propels you. And, you know, with this record, it's kind of like recognising this transition in my life, as I've started touring more and playing more and meeting all these people that I've always looked up to, and it's really just taking stock and being like, ‘Wow, this is incredible. What do I want to do with it?’”

Live Forever emerged in the grips of the pandemic, its October 2020 release following up good notices for Bartees’ EP of The National covers, Say Goodbye To Pretty Boy. Its thrilling songs brought colour and fizzing personality into that frightening, inert space and in doing so it introduced more people into his life, with the audience kept at bay by restrictions nevertheless reframing his relationship with his music in real time. As writing on Farm To Table began, he was able to see the work, and the collaborative process, as an anchor. He moved fast, making album two only months after album one had hit the ground running.

“I feel like Live Forever gave me space to just be okay with celebrating things, even when things are bad,” Bartees explains. “You still need hope. You still need to have something to look forward to. It’s good to be able to step back and appreciate things, even when it's dark, you know? Everyone needs to know how to do that. Life is hard, and for a lot of people, it’s super hard. My life is pretty good, and it’s still kind of hard.

“You can’t use things being hard as an excuse to not count your wins, no matter how small. I mean, that’ll get you through the day sometimes. And this record was kind of me forcing that into existence, being like, ‘I know everything is crazy, but I’m gonna make something new, I’m gonna make something that makes me feel good.’ This record was awesome – me and my friends, just like how we made Live Forever. It was like, ‘Let's do the thing we love to do.’ That was a beautiful gift that we could have during the pandemic.”

Bartees Cox Jr. was born in the UK while his father was stationed at Bentwaters, a former Royal Air Force base located around 30 minutes’ drive from Ipswich. He bounced around the States a little, as military kids tend to, before settling in Mustang, where he became a good football player and, thanks in part to his mother’s immersive outlook on music, an opera camp attendee. Once he’d found his own outlet, he then graduated to being a frequenter of basement hardcore shows. “Hardcore music and punk music was a refuge for me,” he says. “It was the only place I could go and just be myself. Even though I was the only Black kid there, I definitely wasn't the weirdest one there.”

Nestled in the genre-busting sprawl of Farm To Table the effects of a youth spent studying records by Glassjaw, At The Drive-In, Mewithoutyou and Bear vs. Shark are often apparent. On the heartland-leaning Heavy Heart, Bartees runs honeyed vocal hooks up against guitars that retain their sharpness and attack from odd angles, while the ensuing Mulholland Dr. goes as hard at a series of Midwestern emo lead lines as it does Future-esque AutoTune.

“I remember even when I was pitching Live Forever around to get signed, people would be like, ‘Can you make six songs like Mustang?’ I feel like that's not the point,” Bartees says. “The point is kind of that it's all of this stuff. I can see myself doing myriad things. There's a bunch of music I'm interested in. I love making house music. I love making beats. But I don't think I'll ever stop playing guitar. I'm a guitar player. That's just what it is. If I ever leave guitars, then I must have found something very special somewhere else. I'm always going to have the punk or emo or hardcore moments built in to my best songs.”

Farm To Table is out now via 4AD

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