When Astronautalis (@astronautalis) traveled to Dubai in late 2015 for a gig, he expected a “temple of decadence” –– a modern Babylon that catered to rich tourists and businessmen. Instead, he found a passionate group of music-loving expats who, in his view, are realizing the romanticized American Dream like Ellis Island immigrants and Oklahoma homesteaders. “It’s this weird promised land,” the 34-year-old rapper — real name Charles “Andy” Bothwell — says from his home in Minneapolis. “I talked to busboys, valets and executives and they all had the same answer: ‘I can’t do this where I’m from.’ In a lot of ways, that romantic American mythology is more alive in Dubai than it is in Brooklyn.”
He spent much of his four days in the United Arab Emirates snapping shots of spice markets and sand dunes, utilizing skills he learned from his photographer mother. “I basically grew up in the darkroom,” he says. His mom gave him a Nikon FM2 as a high school graduation present, but the austerity of being a touring rapper made the hobby an extravagance he couldn’t afford — not when he was basically living out of a Honda Element, surviving on $3 a day. Then, about six months ago, he got “the itch” to pick it up again. Thinking his skills and care got him 24 perfect photos, it was “a kick in the teeth” to see he only got three or so acceptable pictures back from the roll. “I forgot about the agony of that process,” he says. “When I got that first roll of film back, it was like such defeat.”
Brushing off the initial discouragement, he worked harder, shooting everything from a cat show to the ruins of a former Nazi fortress. “I’m a complete sucker for a story for an image,” he says, “and anybody will see that when I write these absurdly long captions describing a scene.” He seeks an “elegant efficiency” in his photos, an aesthetic he applied to his upcoming fifth album, Cut the Body Loose. Inspired by the people he’s encountered abroad who create their own happiness and cultural scenes, it follows the structure of a New Orleans jazz funeral, somber and dark at the beginning, then poignant and joyful at the end, culminating with the stirringly gorgeous “Boiled Peanuts,” featuring a melody by fellow Twin Cities artist Lizzo. The turning point of the LP, out May 13, is the title track, which refers to the moment where the living bid farewell to the departed, end their mourning and celebrate life.
“It’s about getting to the point where you’ve been so sad or so angry or so distraught or so frustrated where it reaches critical mass and you don’t have room to be upset anymore,” he says. “The time for sadness is over and you just have to figure out what you’re going to do with the future.” That part is still unwritten for Astronautalis, but it’s almost guaranteed to involve global exploration and a photographic diary of his search for the “impossible goal”: telling so much more with less.
––Dan Reilly for Instagram @music