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Let Bartees Strange Cook

The hard-to-define, easy-to-love musician is back with ‘Farm to Table,’ a new album that can only be described as “Bartees Strange”

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“Oily hips,” “wood toter’s ass,” “elite wiggle”—Lester Bangs has nothing on Mel Kiper when it comes to describing tape in the most lurid terms possible. As the only man in indie rock who played Division II college football, Bartees Strange is all too familiar with the language of both the music critics and the football analysts, and they’re each currently in mass circulation as the NFL draft’s first round lumbers toward its conclusion. “I did it all, returned kicks,” he recalls while he kills a few hours in San Diego before a gig opening for Car Seat Headrest, enumerating a versatile skill set that earned him interest from several Big 12 schools before he committed to Kansas’s Emporia State Hornets. But how would his coaches describe him? Was he ever a “glass eater” or a “rolling ball of butcher knives”? The man born Bartees Cox recalls a one-word scouting report: “athlete.”

It’s a loaded, occasionally coded term. “Athlete” typically refers to a player with obvious physical gifts that don’t easily align with conventional thinking about position. There’s a parallel to the way Cox was viewed by the music industry before 2020’s dazzling Live Forever: Here’s a Black artist, a former football player and post-hardcore guitarist with a septum piercing who’s pushing 30 and who, in a single song, can rap like DaBaby, boogie like George Strait, reinvent the National as fourth-wave emo sociopolitical text, and howl “I’m going in!” like Bono. Even after 25 or so years of trend pieces touting our “post-genre” listening habits, the industry still seems to prefer that curated playlists bear this out rather than an individual. Bartees Strange did a little bit of everything, and most labels would have preferred that he did one thing. But Cox seems to take pride in the way “athlete” evokes boundless versatility. After three years of often flattering but not always fitting comparisons, his second LP, Farm to Table, can be described just as tautologically: “Bartees Strange.”

On a song-by-song basis, Farm to Table lays out a fascinating syllabus of styles and moods: avant-garde hip-hop and political soul, acoustic ballads and arena rock, conspicuous consumption and private pain. But as a full album experience, there’s nothing like Farm to Table, with the exception of Live Forever. The scope is broadened and deepened in classic “second album” ways, more confident and a little more jaded; Cox has now spent enough time in Los Angeles to write songs called “Mulholland Dr.” about how fake it all feels. But he also implicates himself on the recent single “Wretched”: “I was trying to be something wretched / something I saw on TV,” he sings, and the words are just as relevant to his experiences at Emporia State and as an aspiring lobbyist in Washington, D.C. There are love songs about his partner, about Hennessy and his family. And while the political nature of Bartees Strange had been implied in the past, “Hold the Line” was written in his most raw emotional state, immediately after seeing the footage of George Floyd being murdered by police and his daughter Gianna speaking at the White House. (“I’ve been in situations myself where I expected that outcome,” Cox explains, referencing Floyd’s killing.) It’s the third single from Farm to Table, and the field research he’s done thus far on tour appears promising. Cox outlines his pre-song banter: “Everyone say ‘fuck the cops’ on three. And everyone will say, ‘fuck 12’! It’s beautiful.” Tonight, the response is positive but more polite; the emotional impact is complicated by the group of chatty, college-age guys in killer whale onesies to my left.

Between the stomach bugs and long-tail COVID symptoms in the Car Seat Headrest–Bartees Strange camp, the tour has gotten off to a funky start. But I have little doubt that Strange will have the energy to execute the posi-jumps and splits that betray his past as a multisport athlete in high school; he’s chosen Extraordinary Desserts for his pre-show fuel, already jacked up on coffee before his blueberry cheesecake arrives. When it does, it’s about the size of a pocket bible.

Extraordinary Desserts is the kind of gentrified eating establishment that mainstreamed the concept of “farm to table”; it’s a fitting enough venue for Cox to clarify what that term means to this album. “I grew up on Garth Brooks Boulevard in Mustang, Oklahoma,” and indeed, two of Live Forever’s singles were titled “Mustang” and “Boomer”; in the video for the latter, Cox rocked a Nike-branded Oklahoma Sooners polo, the kind you rarely see outside of Memorial Stadium tailgates. And while indie rock will always have a tenuous relationship with signifiers of rural authenticity, Cox got his chops up playing country music in Oklahoma bars alongside progressive Americana artists like Samantha Crain and his Sooner classmate John Moreland, who received voice lessons from Cox’s mother. But in this journey, the end point is not just getting a seat at the table, but one at the head, getting to dictate who else gets to pull up a chair. Or, as he reiterates the spirit of Farm to Table more bluntly: “I’m from the country, I want some shit.”

Cox does not express these wants subtly on Farm to Table. Most of them are laid out in “Heavy Heart,” the skyscraping opening track that coincided with the announcement of his signing to 4AD, the revered indie label home to Big Thief and the National—the latter of which is Cox’s favorite band of all time. He wants to repair the relationships with those closest to him, he wants to stay true to his moral code, he wants to take his partner to her hometown of Toronto more often, he wants to take some time out to enjoy the success for which he’s toiled so hard. “I’m trying to find hobbies, that’s my challenge,” he confesses, having spent a few unexpected off days toying around with some mixing projects on his portable recording rig.

There’s a brief interlude on Farm to Table called “We Were Close for Like Two Weeks” that functions as a palate cleanser after its two slowest, most poignant and pained songs. Cox also intimates that it’s a sneak preview of his third album—which he further claims could already be done if he truly set his mind to it. He’s also rereading the 33 1/3 book on the National’s Boxer, his favorite album of theirs. “Matt [Berninger] was 36 when Boxer came out; that’s another reason they’re one of my favorite bands,” Cox notes. “There’s something beautiful about that.” Cox is 33, but that’s borderline geriatric when you’ve spent your post-grad days in DIY hardcore. “I struggled a lot with that when I was in my 20s, watching all my friends get popular and thinking, ‘I’m getting older.’” I think of Boxer deep cut “Racing Like a Pro,” an empathetic nod at the guy shooting up an endless ladder, when the chorus of “Heavy Heart” hits: “Why work so hard if you can’t fall back?”

The question might be more one of whether Cox can fall back when there’s so much work left to be done. Not just in the day-to-day of answering emails and enduring the same questions about genres and boxes. “I’ve been making music my whole life, and I learned a lot watching Live Forever do what it did over the last two years,” Cox says. “Like, whoa, people might actually care about what I have to say.” After the past two years and, indeed, while on a tour whose status is day-to-day, Cox realizes how fleeting this all can be. Why not take this opportunity to talk his shit again?

A few days before we meet, Farm to Table was officially announced with “Cosigns,” quite likely the first full-on shout-out track in indie rock history. In a tone that’s half-bemused, half-boastful, Cox raps, “Damn, just hopped out the van / Universal hit me ’bout some texts I need to send,” and proceeds to salute Phoebe Bridgers, Lucy Dacus, Courtney Barnett, Justin Vernon, and Martin Mills, all while dreaming of an upgrade from a van to a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter. If literally anyone else you’d describe as “indie rock” tried to make boygenius puns in Auto-Tune, it could have gone terribly wrong. But as Cox told his coproducer, Chris Connors, in their studio, “I’m the only one who can write that song. That song is so me, it has to be on the record.” 4AD agreed that it should be the first single.

Yet it’s not so much the name drops that make “Cosigns” such an anomaly. I can’t think of any indie rock band who leads off an album talking explicitly about how they’d leveled up since the last one. Pop stars make these songs. Rappers do. Hell, even Kurt Cobain kinda did. But no matter how much discourse endures about indie artists embracing commercialism and no longer enforcing Our Band Could Be Your Life bootstrapping morals, “Ambition makes you look pretty ugly” still rules the day. Talking about money might actually be less of a taboo than being competitive about your art. “Something happened in the late ’90s/early 2000s where rock stars became grateful and stopped being rock stars,” Cox begins, and it’s one of those beautiful moments when an artist confirms what you’ve heard only through whisper networks across social media. “I like to think of it as the NYU artist thing of, ‘Oh, I make this for me and no one else. I don’t care what anyone else says about my art; I don’t care about success.’ I’m not like that.”

But is Bartees Strange a rock star? He absolutely plays the role on stage, though in demeanor and dress, he’s still very much indie rock, sitting in an upscale bakery wearing a vintage Chicago Bulls hat and a T-shirt. Even before “Cosigns” ends on an ambivalent note—“I keep consuming / I can’t give it up / Hungry as ever / It’s never enough”—there’s an inherent gratitude and humility in listing artists that he’s opened for. While boygenius and Bon Iver and Big Thief are Cox’s peers and friends, they’re people he looks up to quite literally on marquees and festival posters.

“Cosigns” is not a humblebrag. “You gotta do the backstory before you do the superhero story,” he explains, though Marvel and Pixar may disagree. As far as backstory, Cox has spent the past two years as one of the most exhaustively profiled new artists in indie rock; Google “Bartees Strange interview” and you could probably cobble together an unauthorized biography.

However he was viewed on the gridiron, he was definitely a glass-eater and grinder once he shifted his focus to politics after transferring to the University of Oklahoma to finish his degree. While he lacked the Georgetown or Penn pedigree of most postgrads on Capitol Hill, Cox recognized how he could use power imbalances as leverage this time around. He recounts a kind of verbal cover letter—“I’m Black, I’m from the South, I had a lot of experience, and I was tenacious. Let me in!” slyly adding, “a smart person would be like, ‘We can take advantage of this kid!’”

With this combination of hustle and worldly cynicism, Cox fancied himself as a budding Remy Danton, Mahershala Ali’s unctuous oil lobbyist in House of Cards. He quickly rose up the ranks in digital-rights advocacy, culminating with a gig as a deputy press secretary at the FCC. Cox confirms he was indeed living that life of head-to-toe Brooks Brothers and drinks in Georgetown. He’s thankful for how quickly he became disillusioned. “I didn’t want to be like anyone that was around me,” he flatly states. But rather than giving up on his career path and focusing solely on music, he took a middle path and moved to New York City. His jobs included a stint at BerlinRosen, a “big progressive PR firm doing de Blasio and big labor movement stuff.”

After moving on to a tech startup, he became friendly with Bryn Nieboer. The two immediately bonded over the way music and religion overlapped in their lives—from singing in church choir to consuming, according to Nieboer, “basically every Tooth & Nail band.” The two committed to starting a project together. “I think the original pitch was At the Drive-In + American Football + Mogwai,” Nieboer writes in an email, which led to the formation of the excellent post-hardcore band Stay Inside. Cox amicably departed in 2018, after contributing to their EP The Sea Engulfs Us and the Light Goes Out. Nieboer saw Cox’s restlessness and promise first-hand and also his doubts about whether anyone would be able to understand his artistic approach, let alone himself as an individual. “I think he, for a long time, felt like he had to put himself in different slots and mixing the different parts of himself felt, maybe too revealing?” Nieboer guesses, having heard his early experiments in mixing rap, worship chord progressions, and 2000s indie-chamber music. “But I really believed that if he had it in him to just do what was honest, he’d be wildly successful.”

In 2022, that seems self-evident. It’s a common refrain among people who were familiar with Bartees Strange before Live Forever, even though it contradicts the main plot point in the origin story, where just about every label passed on it first. Bartees Strange first gained notoriety as a solo artist with Say Goodbye to Pretty Boy, an EP of National covers. For the past 15 years, the National has become a kind of social shorthand, more often describing a fan base than a style of music—“dad rock” for the craft beer and New Balances set, the upwardly mobile, highly educated striver keeping a white-knuckle grip on an “indie lifestyle” even as they pull 60-hour weeks at jobs that require advanced degrees. While this indeed described Cox during the vast majority of his 20s, “white” is an implied, default setting in the National shorthand. All of which made Say Goodbye to Pretty Boy both a tribute to Strange’s favorite band and a necessary provocation from someone who frequently felt isolated as a Black man at indie rock shows. But this was no lark; Say Goodbye to Pretty Boy was released to modest, positive notice on Brassland, the Brooklyn label founded in part by Aaron and Bryce Dessner of the National.

In 2019, Cox linked up with a kindred spirit in Will Yip, a Grammy-nominated producer whose work with Title Fight, the Menzingers, Turnstile, Mannequin Pussy, and Tigers Jaw among many others has defined melodic hardcore and punk in the past 15 years. Despite running in similar circles, Yip was unfamiliar with Cox’s music until manager Jamie Coletta passed him an early version of Live Forever. Yip recognized a fellow obsessive of rap and hardcore; despite growing up as an Asian American kid in Philly, thousands of miles from Mustang, Oklahoma, “I heard my childhood,” Yip writes. More importantly, the two related as outcasts in a still largely white realm. “Our first convo, we talked about how growing up, there was no other Black kid around him walking around listening to Title Fight,” Yip continues. “I could never find a place playing in bands growing up because white dudes wanted to play with guys that looked like the shit they saw on TV … other white dudes.”

Yip also recognized that many labels that focused on punk and indie rock, presumably ones he was very familiar with in his career, were unlikely to see the kaleidoscopic vision of Live Forever. Cox says that was still true when he was shopping Farm to Table. “Every label I talked to were like, ‘Can you do five more songs like “Mustang”? Can you do five more songs like “Kelly Rowland”?’ I could! But that’s not the point. People listen to all of it at the same time, and that’s who I am.”

When that came to pass, Yip released the album on his Memory Music imprint. Even now, Cox admits he’s never far from the self-doubt that pervaded the time leading up to Live Forever; midway through our conversation, he’s audibly relieved at my telling him that I’m enjoying Farm to Table, but he no longer holds a grudge against anyone who missed out the first time. “If anything, it makes me feel … smart,” he jokes. “Like, I knew something first. I knew people were gonna fuck with this.”

Cox has stressed that the release date of Farm to Table—the Friday before Juneteenth—is very much intentional, and it is an indicator of a cultural shift since the lead-up to Live Forever. Two years ago, Juneteenth had yet to be declared a federal holiday, but a surge of public sentiment in the wake of Black Lives Matter and George Floyd–inspired protests resulted in melancholic, apolitical indie-folk artists like Phoebe Bridgers and Mike Kinsella being called on to alter their long-planned and previously unchallenged June 19 release dates. And while Cox has frequently talked about how seeing Black-fronted indie rock bands like Bloc Party and TV on the Radio play late-night shows was transformative, they often seemed like the only two rock bands he’d be compared to with Live Forever: a limited critical vocabulary based upon years of Black invisibility in indie rock.

Erik Garlington, frontman for the all-Black Brooklyn trio Proper., had been writing almost exclusively about racial, sexual, gender, and intellectual alienation within the emo and pop-punk scene for years before the interlocking calamities of 2020 mainstreamed those discussions. “Progress takes time, so seeing Live Forever pop off, especially from an insider perspective—seeing him write these songs and take his time building his team felt like a win for a lot of black artists,” he says in an email. In March, Proper. released their third album, The Great American Novel, described by Garlington as “a concept album about how Black genius, specifically my own, goes ignored, is relentlessly contested, or just gets completely snuffed out before it can flourish.” He says “it was a no-brainer” to have Bartees Strange produce it.

It’s situations like these that prove there isn’t a contradiction in Cox’s simultaneous desires to prove the singularity of his talent while also inspiring a wave of post–Bartees Strange artists. “I feel like I’m part of a class of Black and brown and queer artists who are rolling together and it’s beautiful,” Cox states. He specifically mentions L’Rain and Keiyaa as examples, artists with whom he played on Rogers Avenue in Brooklyn throughout the mid-aughts before entering the rarefied territory of Best New Music and festival bookings in the 2020s; he also sees Dijon in Los Angeles and NNAMDÏ in Chicago as examples of a “hip-hop ethos existing in an indie space.” To clarify, there’s very little actual rapping in the music of any of the aforementioned. What Cox sees is a mentality that mirrors Lil Wayne’s explanation of “I’m the Best Rapper Alive”: He’s a competitor and listeners would be far better off if all artists took the same approach. “I wanna be like Justin Vernon and Aaron Dessner in a hip-hop sense,” with an artistry so well-rounded and distinct that a Kanye West or a Taylor Swift might come calling, knowing exactly what to expect. “I want them to know I’m for real—it’s competitive and it’s not a game.”

Ian Cohen is a writer and registered dietitian living in San Diego. His work has appeared in Pitchfork, Spin, Stereogum, and Grantland.

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