Mishka Shubaly spoke with Bartees Cox about strange fruit, adoptive musical parents, divorcing his influences from the burden of history, being terrified for the right reasons and believing in the work of his friends.
I first met Bartees Cox at one of the Williamsburg music scene’s lasting cultural exchanges, Main Drag Music. We talked a little about basic guitar nerd stuff — the value and integrity of Japanese Fenders, the fragility of Gibson headstocks, the difficulty of life in New York, the difficulty of life out of New York — then added each other on Facebook and haven’t seen each other since. But we fell into a loose, rambling, free-range conversation about the explosion of the effect pedal market, the devaluation of music and musicians, how iTunes/Spotify has transformed how we process the influence of other musicians, what it was like for a black dude growing up in Mustang, Oklahoma, the evolution of racial consciousness in America, everything. He said a couple of things that pricked up my ears and made me curious to hear his new record: “Identity is a crooked bone,” “Tonnns of tape,” “…when I was trying to figure out what I was,” “One place I’ve always wanted to visit is Nova Scotia.”
Our conversation was good enough that I really didn’t want to hear his music. Hopefully, by now we’re all familiar with the term “friend rock” — music you are pressured to see/hear/support not because it’s good, but because you’re friends with one of the musicians. It’s dreary at best, and compounded by my 20 years playing music and my shitty attitude, friend-rock casts a long, dismal shadow in my life. I want to like your band but I fear I won’t, and often to avoid having to say “You guys are really tight,” or “The production is interesting,” I’m just not going to listen.
I’m really glad I listened to “Magic Boy” by Bartees Cox and the Strange Fruit. It’s warm, intimate, slightly damaged, comforting in a way that’s meaningful instead of hollow. I found it open to influence in the best possible way — Bartees welcomes songwriters to affect him on a level playing field, divorced from the burden of history. At different moments, I heard Ritchie Havens, Timbre Timber, Peter Bjorn & John, Tracy Chapman, and TV on the Radio. One of the rewarding aspects of becoming friends with Bartees is that we’ve been able to laugh about the assumptions we’ve made about each other based on physical appearance or the other person’s name. One of the rewarding aspects of listening to his music is that it’s forced me to reconsider artists that have just been punchlines to me, like Bon Iver. I look forward to talking more and I look forward to listening more.
This was why black, indigenous and Mexican communities stuck together down there. We were all strange fruit together. Targeted, unwanted, mad, hardworking.
When we were talking about TV On The Radio, you told me about seeing and hearing them for the first time and you said “I wanna be black like those guys.” Tell us that story: where you were, how you felt, what it meant to you. It sounds like they were more than a musical influence for you.
Sure. I remember looking for an instrument to get into. My mom is an opera singer, so she was all about my singing, but she wanted me to learn piano. I was in 7th grade really struggling with the instrument, and the other options were grim as hell. Trumpet, french horn — all that sounded lame and I wasn’t into it, but I was really into music. I had a friend named Aaron Burns who I was in camp with and would invite me to his house from time to time; he had a guitar and naturally gravitated to it, but I wasn’t thinking about really going for it.
I was probably in high school when I started really trying to play the guitar. I was the only black kid for miles with a guitar in his hand, so everybody equated me to Jimi Hendrix, so naturally, I started playing the blues and things like that, then got pretty good at chicken-picking and a bunch of very Okie-sounding covers.
And then Return to Cookie Mountain came out.
Now I’d heard At The Drive-In; they really got me into hardcore and rock music, mostly because they weren’t white. But when I heard TV On The Radio and Bloc Party, everything changed. I didn’t want to just be a player; they gave me an identity. They were my kind of weird. Black guys that didn’t look hard, who were making some really creative music that people at the time couldn’t duplicate. And these dudes were on Letterman and shit playing “white boy” music, but in their own Brooklyn way. It really had an impact on me. Showed me I could take my weird songs and do something with them. I really appreciate that. That changed my life.
Everyone is a musician and a recording nerd these days: tell us how you made this record. Pretty sure I hear a Roland Space Echo and a tape machine? What else is going on? Did you use a click at all to anchor the songs? They sound elastic and organic without sounding sloppy or out of time.
How I made the record… well, it was the first record I’d ever made, really. I was also interested in recording. My parents bought me a Talk Boy when I was a kid and I used to record everything in the house — I wonder if those tapes still exist. As I’ve gotten older, I started acquiring more gear, of course. You’re definitely hearing a space echo, you’re definitely hearing a Studer tape machine and I had access to an EchoPlex I was slamming a lot of stuff through. My neighbors probably thought I was making a grunge record.
Like many Tape Op readers and recording nerds love to wax poetic about, I really fell in love with the sound of tape. I really think that the way a lot of music is recorded now is just too clean, it sounds like it came out of a plastic factory. But with tape, there’s a dirtiness to it. It’s like gristle on chicken — you take the good with the bad. Almost makes the good even more good.
Strange Fruit is a fairly loaded band name. Referencing Billie Holiday or Kanye or all points in between? It’s been bumming me out since the record came out because, divorced from the reference to lynching in the American South, “strange fruit” sounds magical, entrancing, like the grapes the little girl steals in Pan’s Labyrinth. What was your intention?
The phrase is beautiful and terrifying. Which is how I think of my upbringing and the experiences of myself and my family. “Strange fruit” also reminds me of a saying I heard a lot in Oklahoma among communities of color about the white folks: “After you, it’s us.” This saying was the basis for why black, indigenous and Mexican communities stuck together down there. Or at least tried to. We were all strange fruit together. Targeted, unwanted, mad, hardworking. The song also had a huge impact on me when I first heard it.
My parents used to make us watch these documentaries on the History Channel about the Klan and hate groups. They were pretty woke folks and they wanted us to be appropriately terrified of white folks for the right reasons. They were just trying to protect us by keeping us scared. It worked.
In one of the documentaries, there was footage of Billie Holiday singing the song. I remember understanding what the song referenced so clearly. I couldn’t have been older than 8 or 9 years old. But when I heard the line “Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees,” I felt my stomach turn. That line was so poetic and, in a way, dark and magical, using your words. I thought about that song for years.
We would sometimes hit multiple churches in a day, singing at churches. People would ask what our denomination was and I never knew what to say.
You grew up in Oklahoma, where your mother was an opera singer and your dad was a funk bassist. That doesn’t seem weird to you because it’s your life, your normal, but I find it endlessly fascinating. Tell me everything about it. Were your parents professional/gigging musicians? What one album is your mother and what one album is your father? If you could have adoptive musical parents, what would those albums be?
I’ll tell you everything then.
My parents are wildly interesting people. Anything I do interesting, it’s one thousand percent because of them. Both of my parents are from the South — North Carolina, mostly. My mom is a singer and has always been a singer. When she was a kid, people called her “Donna Duck”; she sang in churches all over North Carolina. She was known for that. My dad was also a really talented guy. Big time athlete in high school, but ended up joining the military. He got into music in a big way around that time, picked up the bass, and collect tons of hi-fi recording equipment. I didn’t learn that about my dad until a few months ago. I’m still learning how much I’m like them the older I get.
We moved a lot when I was a kid. Tons of places from England to Germany and many spots in the US. My mom gigged regularly throughout my life across the world. Dad was in the military and would leave for big pieces of time. We were raised by a ton of people on the air force base, I have like four moms. My mom sang a lot and ended up teaching voice at the University of Oklahoma. I ended up going to school there. Her position in the faculty was sort of my window into really high level musicians. At that point in my life, I thought I was going to be a popping baritone or something! I performed in a ton of Gilbert and Sullivan operas, and I was really good. I really liked being on stage. And I had a major leg up with my mom being my vocal coach every day of my life.
The person who really got me listening to different types of music was my dad. My household was super Christian when we were young, so much that we weren’t really allowed to listen to secular music. My mom loved music though of course, so we listened to great singers. Billie Holliday, Whitney Houston, Bebe and Cece Winans, Donnie McClurkin and folks like that. I think the first record I bought was by the Gospel Gangsters.
My dad, though, he loved hip-hop and he loved R&B. He loved Erykah Badu, Maxwell, D’Angelo, Floetry, Jill Scott, 2Pac, Biggie, Nas, Jay-Z, Frankie Beverly, and for some reason, Peter Frampton. He also liked to work on cars in his spare time, which was any free time available. It was then that he’d play his music. We’d dance to Tyrone, my brother would sing the choruses, and me and my sister would tag team the verses. Only black folks for miles around, living in a town acres away from known Klansmen in Tuttle, singing songs from Miseducation, working on probably a mid-’90s BMW. A car that became mine.
My mom had us all in opera camp, and we sang in church every Sunday for years. We would sometimes hit multiple churches in a day, singing at churches. People would ask what our denomination was and I never knew what to say because we hit so many churches. I met some of the best people ever in some of those places.
All us kids played sports, shot stuff and ran around barefoot like all the other weirdos in Mustang, Oklahoma. I played sports pretty seriously. Tons of AAU tournaments, track meets, and football camps. Played some in college too. I quit to play music though.
I think my adoptive musical parents would be Bryce Desner and Justin Vernon. Albums would be Boxer and 22, A Million.
Shit is fucking bleak in America right now. If you could go live anywhere else in the world for the next 10 years, where would you go? If I gave you a ticket right now and you had to leave tomorrow, would you go or would you stay?
Berlin, and to be honest, Brussels. Berlin just feels like I like I think New York used to be when it was at its creative peak. There’s a lot of people from all over the world descending in Berlin right now making some incredible and cross-cutting shit. They have a helluva vibe over there; I wish I were there. If I had a ticket I’d go. I love Brussels too. I visited last year during a work trip. It’s corny, but I fell in love with that town. The Flagey was where I was at. Somehow, the best burger I’ve ever eaten was in Brussels. Wild. Also, they get hella shows. Ho99o9 played their last year on their European tour and it was sold out.
America is a garbage fire right now.
I really believe in the work of my friends. I like being able to work with them on their records. It gets me out of my head and that’s good.
What life do you want this record to have? What life do you want to have as a musician? Do you want to live in a motorhome and make a living playing to forty folks a night, or do you want pop success?
I started this project as a way to get a couple of songs out so I could later do a more thoughtful project. I needed something to show to book gigs and play with bands in the area. But once I started recording it a story began to unfold with the music and I followed it. I ended up with 12 songs and cut from those. When I finished, it felt more well thought-out than I thought it would be, so I decided to push back releasing the “bigger record” to let this one breathe a little bit.
As a musician, there’s nothing I want more than to be able to do this full-time. I’m in a good groove musically, but there are times when I want to focus on the things that mean most to me musically. I’m hearing songs right now I simply don’t have time to make. It’s not a bad problem to have, and maybe it’s just because I’m 29, but I always feel like I need to hurry up and get the work done, get the music recorded, start the process. But to answer this question, I’d like to do more with Strange Fruit over the next couple years and have one or two other projects I play in to keep me playing. I really believe in the work of my friends. I like being able to work with them on their records. It gets me out of my head and that’s good.
You can have one guitar, one amp, and two pedals to make a record. What are they?
Tough. I’d say a mid-’70s Fender Starcaster, a Fender Tremolux, a Boss DM-2 and a Strymon Riverside.
What’s next for you?
I’m working on a Strange Fruit record now and a few mixtapes. Also finally putting a band together. I’ll begin auditions this summer. I’m playing in a number of other projects as well. Stay Inside has some music coming soon. Might be doing some touring with Stephan Marcellus. Recording a big record this summer for Lizzie No that I’ll be recording and helping produce. And after that, Stay Inside will begin tracking our first full-length record.
Curated by: Mishka Shubaly
Conducted by: Email
Edited by: Morgan Enos
Published: May 14, 2018
Total questions: 8
Word count: 2160
Reading time: Eight minutes
Bartees Cox, Berlin, Biggie, Bon Iver, Brooklyn, Brussels, Bryce Desner, church, collection, D’angelo, denomination, echo, Erykah Badu, Floetry, football, Frankie Beverly, french horn, gristle, guitar, hardworking, Jay-Z, Jill Scott, Justin Vernon, Lizzie No, Maxwell, military, Mishka Shubaly, motorhome, Mustang, Nas, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, opera, Pan’s Labyrinth, Peter Bjorn & John, Peter Frampton, Ritchie Havens, Roland, Stephan Marcellus, target, Timbre Timber, tournament, track meet, Tracy Chapman, trumpet, TV on the Radio, unwanted, Whitney Houston, Williamsburg
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