Busdriver: The Avatar of ‘Less Yeses, More No’s’ in the Era of ‘Yes, We Can’
“That’s the problem with underground hip-hop is that we don’t have street cred with niggas in the hood,” Busdriver expounded from the stage of Los Angeles’ El Rey Theatre while muscularly wearing a mauve polo shirt. “College kids just download the shit, so it’s a small demographic we’re chasing after.” Opening for UK grime rapper Dizzee Rascal and Definitive Jux label head El-P at the end of a month long tour, Busdriver tore through his song lyrics at nearly double the already astonishing speed of his albums, pulsating around the stage, feigning anger and ecstasy, a mist of perspiration rising up into the stage lights while he freestyled about walking down Wilshire Blvd. in cowboy spurs. At one point he grabbed a life-sized cut-out of an eighties gold chain-wearing rapper and thrust the microphone into its face and––perhaps in an effort to catch his breath––demanded, “Now sing your part.”
Besides his remarkable speed, what sets Busdriver’s style apart is his use of polysyllables, unusual imagery, convoluted grammar and melody: singing as much as rapping on songs like “Casting Agents and Cowgirls,” in which his vocals toll like bells and then walk like a bass line. His choice of tourmates and collaborators, have placed him in the sometimes contentious position of bridging the gap between indie rock and tenable hip-hop: recording with members of Deerhoof, The Unicorns and CocoRosie. A recurring producer on Busdriver’s albums is Daedelus, sometimes known as Alfred Darlington, an electronic music oddball who performs his live shows in Victorian formalwear while manipulating loops from 78 rpm records as they blip across a Monome, a device which looks something like an enormous 100-button lit-up telephone keypad.
Busdriver was born in Los Angeles as Regan Farquhar, his father, Ralph, was the screenwriter of seminal hip-hop film Krush Groove (1985). “That was the film that made LL Cool J, Kurtis Blow and Run DMC into the superstars of rap at that time,” Farquhar has said. “It let me know that hip-hop was valid and made it seem realistic to be a rapper.” Farquhar has moved away from his hometown only briefly: a stint at a boarding school in Arizona and a year at the American University in Paris where he studied philosophy.
Busdriver doesn’t have a reputation for being the most affable interviewee, disdaining lyrical interpretation and refusing to elaborate on often succinct answers. His emails to arrange our interview had been curt to say the least and so, after waiting 40 minutes at the appointed location, I had already assumed he was a no-show only to look up and see him casually sipping a cup of coffee. His six-month old puppy had chewed up a plastic object and then vomited it up around his apartment, he explained, and he’d been delayed cleaning it up. The coffee shop had filled up while I’d been waiting and had become somewhat crowded. “I know a place near here,” Farquhar said and, although he seemed initially unsure of our destination, led me down Vermont Ave. to the back patio of the Starbucks adjacent to Macho’s Tacos.
The day after the presidential inauguration, Busdriver had released the track “Will He,” described as an ‘inaugural tribute,’ online for free download. From the song’s opening lines the stakes are high but the tone is unclear: "…the president’s thought of as a thoughtful coon/ as Hannity peddles the fresh nonsense/ having his every press conference remixed and auto-tuned….” It seems hard to overstate how jarring it was amidst the relief and optimism of the inauguration to hear Obama referred to with a mothballed racial epithet; a sting that, for better or worse, has somewhat diminished now that debate and criticism of Obama’s policies have become part of the daily news cycle. The song, with references to Henry Paulson’s blunders and Rick Warren’s opening prayer, had a timeliness to it that made it sound as if it had been written and recorded the day of the inauguration and released more or less immediately. “I waited until the week before to record it so I could incorporate any breaking news,” Farquhar explained, “but I ended up using it pretty much as I’d already written it.”
The song seems to come across as more negative than Farquhar had intended. “I’m not happy with the unemployment and the peril a lot of the country is in,” he said, “but I’m glad Obama’s in there. It feels like a different era. Hopefully people will be a lot more engaged and a lot less complacent. It can be really stifling how Americans cast a blind eye to everything but in this election I felt like people were really thinking about policy and how it applies to their lives. I don’t care who’s in office as long as there’s dialogue and people are thinking. That’s what’s important to me.”
I asked about the track’s sardonic edge. “I have to be caustic because that’s just the way I write,” he said. “That’s the kind of writing I like and try to emulate.” and then pointed out, “It’s hopeful in the end,” and indeed I can think of few lyrics more optimistic than “pre-emptive thanks for my electric car.”
One of its more memorable lines is the lilting bridge, in which Busdriver, accompanied by ambient major chord synths and a squelching beat, asks, “Now that we’ve painted the White House black from the inside/can we paint the combustible engine green/and replace verses of the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ with the theme of The Jeffersons/ know what I mean?” The song’s conclusion is a series of questions about what Obama will do culminating with “Will he change us?” which in context seems to be a hope for the undoing of some of the more destructive attitudes of the American electorate.
One of Busdriver’s strongest tracks is “Less Yeses, More No’s” from his 2007 album RoadKillOvercoat. Refracted through imagery of unitards, dried blood globules on dog tags and enormous cactus needles injecting Botox onto the faces on dollar bills, the song’s primary target is neoconservative policies but the most stinging lines are jabs at the ineffectiveness of the left. Producer Elvin (DJ Nobody) Estela’s beats neatly mirror the odd triple stressed ‘ess’ sound of ‘less yeses,” exactly the kind of interplay between rhythm and language that Farquhar excels at. The song also seems like something of a statement of principles, lamenting that “every emphatic ‘no’/is now an ambivalent ‘yes;” better to be fervently opposed to everything than to be half-heartedly in favor of anything. In a type of verbal enactment of this support of negation, Farquhar at one point in the interview used the word ‘not’ seven times in eight sentences while describing his position on Obama.
“I’m against everything,” Farquahar said, “so I can’t really zero one thing out.” One is tempted to interpret each of Busdriver’s recent LPs as ‘diss’ concept albums, each aimed at a different target. His loose jazz-inflected mini-album Cosmic Cleavage (2004) satirizes real or imagined ex-girlfriends and his own romantic failures; Fear of a Black Tangent (2005) mocks the rap establishment and his own lack of prestige within it; RoadKillOvercoat belittles trust fund liberalism and indie-rock posturing.
And yet, appropriately or paradoxically, it’s clear from our conversation that hip-hop, independent music, politics and relationships are among the things that matter to him most.
At his best his taunts are more a depiction of universal human absurdity than the ridiculing any individual person or thing. To me, a moment from his song “Note Boom” exemplifies this. In a voice that blends pretentious valley girl with art curator, he remarks: “I hear he [Busdriver] sucks live/only appeals to hipsters who dress like Russian spies/are painfully cool and have button-eyes.” Is he insulting his fans? Is he making fun of people who make fun of his fans? Is he making fun of himself? The answer pretty clearly seems to be all three.
“I’m just talking shit,” Farquhar said in defense, “I include myself in the barbs that I throw.” And this claim seems abundantly true. Farquhar seems to feel free to voice his self-recriminations, both on his records and in interviews. “It was one of those moments,” he said, beginning a description of a recent social faux-pas, certainly one of the more mild examples of his self-deprecation. “You know when you’re having a conversation and you act like you know something and then someone points out how ignorant you are and you feel kind of embarrassed. I had that happen recently with a friend of mine, Saul Williams. He was showing me his new record and he played his cover of that song ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ and I don’t know shit about U2 so I was like ‘Man, that sounds great! That sounds like something else!’ and he looked around like: ‘What?”
In an attempt to undermine Farquhar’s nay-saying reputation I asked him to name five people or things he loves. Would it be possible for a man who has built a career on talking rash in odd time signatures with surreal imagery to enumerate a few things that make life worth living? “I’m not good at this,” he said. “That’s my problem. I don’t have many favorites. I don’t herald much.” He mulled it over and began to describe a faux-Russian LOLcats website. I had to ask for an explanation of LOLcats. “Usually LOLcats are these cute pictures of kittens doing cute kitten things with misspelled captions like ‘Oo! I poo’ed on the floor!’ but the Russian one has this mock-Communist slant to it. So there’s a kitten playing with a ball of yarn with the caption ‘I will avenge your death a thousand times and lay your ashes in Lenin’s cold, dying hands.’ It’s so fucking funny. I really appreciate that.” He added ‘beat poets’ and ‘people’ to the list. “There’s this restaurant in Portland, Oregon called The Farm,” he said. “When I get up there on tour I always feel like I can take a deep breath and hang out. They’re kind of racist up there so I don’t know about that. When I walk in the door, they’re kind of like ‘Who are you here to see?’ and ‘I’m like I’m here to eat, bitch.’ But it’s all good. I like Shawn who works there.” Farquhar laughed and threw up his hands. “I can’t answer this question. I’m not good at it. There’s a lot of people I like and a lot of people I don’t like.”
To be fair, Farquhar had already offered his fond praise of his father, his friends, his collaborators and his 10-year-old daughter Samira. I asked him how it was being a father and a touring musician. “It’s bad,” he said. “She doesn’t like tours. It creates some distance sometimes. She’s a really creative kid so I’m hoping when she’s a teenager we’ll put her to work. She’s a maximized version of me. She’s really sarcastic and funny. She puts on all these characters to mask how she’s really feeling. She’s a bright, enigmatic little girl. So it’s a joy hanging out with her. When I try to over-parent her that’s when things get fuzzy, so I try to just bask in her glow. She’s into music and jewelry. Making jewelry, kinda. She’s into film. She’s writing some screenplays. She’s always filming and writing things.” He paused glancing around at the nearby stores. “That reminds me, I need to get a new cord for her camera.”
Farquhar has an odd habit of halting and drawing out ‘ee’ sounds in the middle of words as well as inserting unusual pauses between syllables. Perhaps it’s a stretch, but it gives one the impression that he’s breaking everything down into measures and bars, thinking as much about the beat and cadence of what he’s saying as the content. At one point he told me that a song on his upcoming album was inspired by friend and collaborator Giovanni Marks, a.k.a. Subtitle and then retracted it.
“Maybe I’m just telling you that because that’s what I think you need,” he said. “Really it’s all craft. It’s all just rhythm and beats and words and syntax. I farm words. I find words I like and put them together with other words and only afterwards do I realize that I have to make it make sense or at least halfway make sense or half-heartedly make sense. Unfortunately that’s what I spend most of my time doing. I write from a really cold intellectual place: things! and words! and stuff! I think if I wrote from a different place it would probably be better for me emotionally and I’d probably make more money. I’m trying to do ‘things’ less and ‘human’ more. I’m just trying to write better songs.”
Busdriver’s new album Jhelli Beam will be released on June 9 by Anti- Records. Produced by Daedelus and DJ Nobody, the album will include guest appearances by rapper Mikah-9, Nick Thorburn of The Unicorns and guitarist John Dietrich of Deerhoof. Busdriver also recently appeared on Themselves’ theFREEhoudini mixtape available for free download from Anticon.
*photos on pages 1, 3, 4, & 5 by Matt Proghovnick and courtesy of Anti-