With 'Fishing Blues,' Atmosphere aimed to lighten up and not take itself so seriously

The duo's ninth full-length album is a sprawling, 18-song record that shifts moods and lyrical concerns from one song to the next.

click to enlarge Minneapolis duo Atmosphere is one of the headliners of this weekend’s Ubahn Fest. - Photo: Provided
Photo: Provided
Minneapolis duo Atmosphere is one of the headliners of this weekend’s Ubahn Fest.
Few Hip Hop collaborations have lasted as long or been as creatively fruitful as the one between rapper Sean Daley (aka Slug) and DJ/beatmaster/producer Anthony Davis (aka Ant), the duo otherwise known as Atmosphere. The pair rose up out of Minneapolis’ Rhymesayers Hip Hop collective of the late 1990s, over the years tweaking an aesthetic rare for its melding of samples with live instrumentation and for a lyrical approach as introspective as it is dexterous.

Atmosphere’s ninth full-length album, Fishing Blues, dropped in August, and it’s both a continuation of and a slight departure from the duo’s modus operandi — a sprawling, 18-song record that shifts moods and lyrical concerns from one song to the next. CityBeat recently tracked down Daley — who, when reached by cell phone, was trying to figure out how to work a dryer at a laundromat in Minneapolis — to discuss everything from working in music’s streaming age to Kool Keith’s show-stealing “coup” on the new album.

CityBeat: I was re-listening to the new record today in preparation for our conversation and I forgot that it is more than 70 minutes long…

Sean Daley: What’s wrong with you guys? Seventy minutes used to be standard for a Rap record. (Laughs.) Now everybody is like, “I want my Rap record to be 34 minutes long!” Get the fuck out of here — that’s an EP!

CB: Well, it’s interesting, because I listened to it via digital stream, which is a format that is seemingly limitless in terms of length or the amount of songs you can include on a single album. How do you think the rise of digitized music has impacted what you do?

SD: When you had to actually purchase the physical thing and have it in your house as another item taking up space, I think we were more careful about what we bought and what we listened to. Whereas now you can listen to it on a subscription for free or you can buy the digital version. I think we’re a lot less careful about what we consume. We consume tons of stuff that we wouldn’t have consumed if we had to actually purchase it and have take up space. Nowadays it’s all about getting you to come to the show. And if I can get you to come to the show, then I’m convincing you to buy my book or my T-shirt or my used car. In a way the music has become a promotional item, and I like that. I’m not mad at that. As a businessman, I appreciate the digital age because it makes it easier to get my music into the ears of people.

CB: Did you have a theme in mind when you started writing Fishing Blues?

SD: When I started this record, my theme was “recreational usage.” In the past we’ve been guilty of making music that takes itself very seriously, and I wanted to make some music that didn’t necessarily take itself too seriously. I didn’t want to sacrifice who I was in order to do that, I just wanted to show some of the sides of myself that I might not have been showing since (2008’s When Life Give You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold). Now that I’m in my forties, I’m starting to let my hair down and not have everything be so thick and serious and so self-aware and just have some fun. At least this time. Who knows what will happen next time? I had a couple more kids. Ant had a kid. We’re experiencing life through the eyes of these children, and I think it’s lightening us up a little bit. It’s making things a little less heavy.

CB: As a big Kool Keith fan, I was happy to see him make an appearance on “When the Lights Go Out” (which also features MF Doom). And, as expected, his contribution, especially that whole riff on Joan Rivers, was both spot-on and hilarious...

SD: He fucking blew my mind. When he sent back his stuff I was like, “Holy shit, you just stole the show.” I’m not gonna say I’m one of  the best or nothing, but I’m no slouch. And we all know who MF Doom is, so if you can come in and steal the show from me and Doom without ever even dropping a rhyme, that’s amazing. We don’t really use a lot of guests on Atmosphere records, so I thought to have Keith and Doom on one song was the last thing our audience would be expecting. That’s a left turn. And it was a coup.

CB: On “Pure Evil” you seem to be writing from the point of view of a police officer who is conflicted about his profession, but you can actually read it multiple ways. 

SD: I wanted to make a song about the corruption of power that comes along with being in the police force, but I didn’t want it to be preachy, and so I had to think out a way to make that song without just being like, “Yeah, cops are bad” or “Fuck the police.” And, for better or for worse, that was the best I could come up with. I’ve always had this anxiety about making preachy music. I grew up on a lot of preachy music, and I love it, but I just never felt confident being that preacher myself. I’ve always felt more like I wanted to come up with ways to make the music more available or more open (for interpretation) to the listener. 

CB: You guys have been making music together for almost 20 years. How do you keep things interesting for yourselves?

SD: With Ant it’s been relatively easy for me because he is always striving and pushing to find new sounds and new directions. He’s never been one to follow trends. He creates this landscape or mountain for himself and then figures out how to climb it. Having a guy like that in such close proximity, or at least working with you, is contagious. If you look at my first couple of records, I wrote the same three songs over and over and over. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve been able to expand that. Now it’s like the same seven songs over and over. (Laughs.) Your palette becomes wider, and I think a lot of that I owe to Anthony. But it’s also about aging and still being allowed to make this music. When we were younger, we didn’t allow 44-year-old rappers to exist, but if we had, who knows what kind of music we would have had. Now that we’re reaching that place where we allow people like me to still exist, it also opens it up to allow for us to make songs that have never existed within this music, within this genre. 

ATMOSPHERE headlines Ubahn Fest Saturday night. Tickets/more info: ubahnfest.com.

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