Interview – Busdriver
June 30, 2009 § Leave a comment
Published: The Vine, June 11, 2009.
Over the best part of a decade, LA experimental hip-hop sort Regan Farquhar (aka Busdriver) has cut a hyperactive, hyper-intellectual swathe through a genre some feel is stuck in its old ways. Working with anyone from art-noise kids Deerhoof to signpost LA rapper Aceyalone, his bombastic, warp-speed elocution and loose, multi-channelled production aesthetic have seem him rise to become one of independent hip-hop’s true iconoclasts.
We caught up with Farquhar on the eve of releasing dizzying new record Jhelli Beam to chat about the physicality of his craft, his formative years at the legendary Project Blowed open mic and the state of independent hip-hop.
Hey, how are you Regan?
Good, I’m good. How are you?
Not bad at all. What’s going on this evening?
I’m at the YMCA with my daughter. She’s in some half-cocked hip-hop dance class for some reason (laughs). Not that I told her to do hip-hop dance – it’s just the only class that they have.
Nice. I’m enjoying the new record by the way.
I’d love to hear a little about the musical direction of the record. I don’t really have any information on who did the production and so forth.
Well, I’m fortunate to have a whole scene of producers and beat-makers, not at my disposal, but accessible to me. So I kind of dip back into that pool as often as I can. I worked with an old friend in Daedelus and Nobody, and actually, most of the people who worked on the record I’ve known forever. So yeah, there was Omid, Nobody and Daedelus and a couple of new guys like Free the Robots, Nosaj Thing…
Ah, Nosaj! I just got his record – he’s amazing.
Yeah! He did the first song, ‘Split Seconds’. I mean, that’s the thing, in LA right now there’s a real synthesis between a lot of electronic techniques and beat music and hip-hop beats. And you know, it’s not really fantastically new but it’s being made new because it’s being recontextualised. Everyone has their different spin and it really allows me challenge myself. Like working with somebody like Daedelus or Nobody, they feel the need to challenge themselves with every song and so do I, so we can change direction and try out a different sound palette with different songs. So you know, you tend to get a variety of things. Like Nobody’s stuff might go from sounding kind of psychedelic to sounding kind of rough and synth based and really heavy, and Daedelus’s stuff goes from sounding really dancey to just something else entirely.
There’s a lot of layers to most of the songs and they have that kind of crowded sensibility that, like, a Curse Ov Dialect beat might have, where you know that all five members have put their piece in. Did any of the tracks come together like that?
Yeah, sure. The last song ‘Fishy Face’, my friend John Dieterich from Deerhoof, he lent a lot of sounds – guitar work, bass line stuff, all kinds of stuff – and we kind of poorly mixed it in with everything and it came out how it came out. I also contributed my own production to tracks like ‘Handfuls of Sky’, which me and Nobody did. Actually, funnily enough, I wrote that song in Australia in my off time in Sydney when I was touring their last time. I was touring there for a month and I pretty much spent most of the month writing that song.
So most of the production, like the chords and the rudiments of that song, I did beforehand and then Nobody fleshed it out and we got Antimc to play glockenspiel. And then there’s a string section somewhere in there from London, buried. Unfortunately, my engineer didn’t really know how to mix that so it sounds like a sampled thing and we just kind of left it how it was. So yeah, there were definitely multiple pairs of hands involved in most of the production, but mainly me and Nobody.
I guess having seen you on that tour and sort of witnessed the physicality of your elocution – that really rapid-fire kind of rapping – it really made your music make a lot more sense to me. I’d kind of found some of the records a little overwhelming before then, but live, it all kind of crystallised. Do you feel that your music really sort of belongs in a live setting?
Well, I’m a one hundred per cent hip-hop guy and I’m from a crew and we’re based in an open mic, and probably for the first ten years of me trying to do music I was heavily involved in an open mic. That’s where I developed my approach and the approaches I attempt to use. So yeah, that makes complete sense because that’s one of the forms in which I feel most comfortable, and aside from being most comfortable, that’s the form where a lot of things actually started to click.
I remember reading in an old interview that when you were a kid, you were really quite shy and introverted. Was that the case? And if so, was that kind of open mic scene a gateway for discovering your confidence?
Music in general and the ability to do it is a huge confidence booster, but only in brief intervals. Pretty much every night that we play, half an hour before the show and half an hour afterwards I’m feeling good, then I settle back into who I normally am. But the open mic did help me and, you know, that’s what it was there to do. It gave people a megaphone to share with everybody their inner anguish and inner joy (laughs), and that’s what it did. Ultimately, the open mic was a kind of workshop for kids who came down – at like sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, twenty – and they expressed themselves and that’s what it’s for.
To me, that’s what the role of hip-hop is for young people of colour or anything; it’s the anti-music and the last resort. Because kids need some kind of outlet and people need some kind of outlet and you have to make do with what you’ve got.
Do you still keep in contact and maintain relationships with some of the guys from that Project Blowed scene, like Aceyalone and Abstract Rude and those guys?
Oh yeah, yeah! There’s a couple of Project Blowedians on my new record. Myka 9 is on there and one of the new guys from Project Blowed Nocando is on there…
Yeah, I was going to ask you about him. His flow is amazing…
Yeah, he’s one of the young guys, you know. So yeah, it’s all still really active. It’s like my YMCA.
I’ve only had the record for three or fours days and it does always take me a while to unpack your themes. I guess my mind doesn’t work quite as fast as your mouth does.
(Laughs) I’d be hard pressed to find an overall theme in Jhelli Beam. I think the impression I get from it is that I’ve abandoned certain models or sort of framework. You know, even in the indie form there are careerist aspirations that are recommended. Like, ‘You’ve got to these things, you’ve got to do it!’. And when I turned the record in, it proved to me that I’ve truly abandoned – at least for the most part – the kind of obvious things that I should be doing and that I dedicate my attention so wholly to the tidbits of the craft of rapping that I cast a blind eye to a lot of things.
I mean (chuckles), there are a lot of silly songs about being old or being out of step or being out of place, and it’s not because I necessarily feel that way. It’s just because I like writing from the perspective of an underdog or someone who has been discarded. And again, that says to me that I’m try to pay attention to the craft rather than saying anything in particular. I mean, I am trying to say things, but what I’m saying isn’t all that important. Rather, the ideas are kind of ammo or tools or something.
American musicians in particular always seem to insist that there’s such meaning or so many pressing matters that give way to their songs, and I’ve just never felt that way. I mean, I feel like the meaning is important to what I do, but it’s more of a visceral thing than that. Like my body and my mind have found a certain place that they need to go. It’s not about you know, ‘There’s a missile crisis in Cuba! God damn it, this song’s all about that!’ (laughs). I mean sure, it can be about that, but there’s something else happening there and that’s kind of what the record’s about. I’m just going for it and trying to be fresh and still at it and I’m not taking myself too seriously, and there you go (laughs).
Completely. Picking up on what you were saying before about the kind of expectations and aspirations and kind of boundaries that come with operating within the indie scene, do you feel as though underground hip-hop community actually allows much leeway in terms of real experimentation?
You know what? There isn’t any room in post-underground rap or whatever you want to call it. There are more conventions and rules than I think there is in mainstream rap music or regular pop. I feel like people are bogged down with all these ideas that they feel they have to perpetuate. I really don’t like independent rap music that much. I can’t really listen to it. And it’s not because I don’t think it’s good; I just feel that there’s only a handful of approaches that people take – and I do too – and it’s just kind of tiring. To me, a lot of mainstream artists can be more interesting at times. I mean, it sucks that I’d rather listen to a Lil Wayne record or something like that than listen to an Adversary record. I mean, I have the last Lil Wayne record but I don’t have the latest Adversary record.
I don’t know, I think somewhere along the line the people who occupied underground hip-hop, the idea of immediacy just sort of left them and they just kind of settled into a groove. I think a lot of people are good; I just can’t listen to it. Maybe it’s because I’ve spent too much time with it, or maybe it’s just because I’m a hater, which I probably am. But yeah, it’s all very strict and people who listen to straight hip-hop, they’re not a very tolerant breed. It’s very much a one-channel crowd.
I understand that for sure. At the same time, I’ve noticed a lot of interesting stuff coming out of your hometown at the moment, people like Nosaj and Ras G and Flying Lotus. Do you feel like LA is going through an interesting phase?
I hope so. I think that the emphasis has shifted and a lot of people who are championing composition and production and texture are really making some headway. And I hope that it keeps on, you know. As far as rap music is concerned LA took a major detour at some point and now, a lot of the beat guys are re-approaching stuff and have kind of taken the helm in terms of what’s interesting in the independent scene.
Jhelli Beam is out now via Epitaph/Shock