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Arcane in the membrane 

Astronautalis takes the rap for historically inclined hip-hop

Indie-rapper/singer/storyteller Andy Bothwell, aka Astronautalis, is many things — a formally trained actor and director, a musician and a student of history — but he is definitely not a clairvoyant.

"If you had asked me five years ago if people would be singing and rapping in robot voices, I would have called you fucking nuts," says the Seattle-based artist. "Over the last few years the white indie-rap artists have become facsimiles of themselves and, interestingly, now pop radio gangster rap has become weirder and far more innovative than what the indie-rap nerds are doing."

The punk-and-grunge-obsessed Bothwell was also unable to foresee the blossoming of his own rap career when he scribbled "Rap Sux" on his middle school binder. Andy's big brother then turned him on to an album by Bronx underground freestyle guru, Lord Finesse, and the soon-to-be battle rapper set out to master the art of rhyming.

"Rap was very exciting to a suburban middle-class white kid in Jacksonville. It was exotic, and it was a world I didn't totally understand," Bothwell explains. "There was a period when I probably didn't miss a single episode of Rap City on BET."

While sharing stages with Atmosphere and Sage Francis were high watermarks in his early career, getting booed off the stage by three thousand people at Scribble Jam, America's biggest hip-hop festival, forced Bothwell to re-evaluate his position in the rap world.

"It was the nail in the coffin for my eventual separation from battle rap, and the beginning of my interest in the weird artsy indie rap that I eventually became tied to."

Bothwell's lyrical tales, gritty voice and flailing passionate performances as Astronautalis have been likened to those of Tom Waits and Nick Cave. His latest effort, Pomegranate, is a far cry from traditional sample-heavy hip-hop, not least because its songs are loosely based on historical events. "Trouble Hunters," for example, recalls the story of the Battle of Trenton and George Washington's crossing of the Delaware River.

Onstage, Astronautalis is all larger-than-life personality backed by laptop instrumentals. "There's something exciting about it just being me," Bothwell says. "I like having 'Uncle Andy's Story Time.' I've refined my persona down to this guy that's all the passion inside of me, minus any of the inhibition and shyness that I have. It's not a character, it's just me magnified."

Bothwell first became enamored with acting while attending a theater and performing arts high school in Jacksonville, Fla., before moving to Dallas to study acting and directing in college. Those interests continue through in his album concepts and theatrical stage image.

"It's commonly accepted that rap is just theater, it's just a big TV show," he contends. "They'll carry their character so far. The fact that some rapper would have his buddy shoot him in the thigh or do jail time so he can have street cred for his character, that is just so amazing to me."

Bothwell's own offstage persona is about as far removed from all that as you can get.

"Being at home and contemplating a record while sipping tea is delightful," confesses Bothwell. "But it will never compete with getting soaked with whiskey and screaming at the top of your lungs with a hundred people."

scene@csindy.com

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