Turning the page: Slug on Atmosphere’s new babies, new music

Monday, September 20th, 2010, 1:05 pm by Ben Salmon

Atmosphere: Ant, left, and Slug.

Sean Daley picks up the phone ready to talk.

You can just tell. The guy –- who you may know as Slug, founding member and principal creative force of veteran indie-rap stars Atmosphere –- is a pretty good talker at any given moment. But on this day, he’s relaxing on his back porch on a sunny, family-filled day in Minneapolis.

“I’m f––in’ awesome,” Daley says. “My little brother came over earlier to visit the new baby. We’ve got a four-month-old here.”

I’ve called Daley to talk about music, of course. After all, Atmosphere is one of the most successful and longest running acts in underground rap, formed in the early 1990s and churning out inventive, intelligent and introspective hip-hop ever since, thanks to Slug’s mic skills and the clever production work of his longtime partner in rhyme, Anthony “Ant” Davis. The two are part of a team that founded the influential Rhymesayers Entertainment record label, which has released their critically acclaimed and increasingly commercially successful albums (2008’s “When Life Gives You Lemons” debuted at No. 5 on the Billboard 200). They’re also relentless tourhounds who’ve played all over the world and will roll into Bend’s Midtown Ballroom on Tuesday night (see “If you go” at the bottom of this post).

All good reasons to talk about music. Another: Atmosphere just quietly and unexpectedly released a surprise double EP called “To All My Friends, Blood Makes the Blade Holy,” the cover of which features four hands, three holding cocktails, and one holding a baby bottle filled with milk.

Indeed, Daley’s life is all about that baby these days, and in this interview, he spoke with another guy (me!) who loves to talk and is currently looking after a four-month-old kid. So, for all those reasons to talk about music, we spent 75 percent of our time on the phone talking about babies. Here’s an edited transcript of that conversation:

Frequency: In addition to your new baby, you also have a 16-year-old son. That’s a pretty big age gap!

Slug: I didn’t know I was going to have another one, honestly. But then two years ago, my wife was like, ‘Let’s have a kid.’ I was hesitant at first. I had all these reasons why I wouldn’t have another kid. Any excuse you could think of: I’m too busy. I’m too selfish. The carbon footprint of having a child. And then she said something to me that clicked. She said, ‘If you really want to make the world a better place, you’ve got to have kids and raise ’em right. You’ve got to balance out all of the idiots that are having kids.

I was like, I can’t argue with that. It just is so logical to me, because really, I recycle, but that’s not saving the f—in’ people. It might be helping the deer in the long term. It might be helping the bears that we recycle, but we’re not gonna save the people because the people are still on a self-destructive mission. So it’s like, yeah, she’s right, the only way to save the f—in’ planet is to make f—in’ awesome kids.

Frequency: Has your perspective on parenthood changed from your first experience to this one?

Slug: Well, the anxiety levels are way lower. I was 22 with the first one, so I was kind of just a kid myself, I guess. The pressure to be able to maintain holding down a full-time job with health benefits as well as working a part-time job because we needed the extra money. The pressure of not knowing what we’re doing. The pressures of trying to maintain a relationship with a person that you didn’t know if you were supposed to be together forever with. All of those things. It was just a different situation, whereas now, I’ve got a pretty good tenure with the job that I’m doing, I’ve been here for a while, I feel pretty secure, so that anxiety’s not there. My ability to be a dad, I’ve already done it once, so I know I can do it again, so that anxiety’s not there. It’s just a lot of the anxieties are gone, and it’s crazy, because it opens up room in your head for so much other stuff. And don’t get me wrong, the first time I had a kid, it was magical. Even though those anxieties were there, it was still amazing, the whole experience. But this time, it’s like that without those anxieties, so it gives me more room to actually be more creative, even as a father. The first time around, I was taking a lot of cues fom other fathers or from books for the right thing to do. This time around, I can go to myself for many of those cues. I’ve got to thank my first son. He trained me really well for this job.

Frequency: Are you already seeing and hearing the influence of having a new child creeping into Atmosphere’s music?

Slug: We came home from tour last year and we took a year off because me and (keyboardist Erick Anderson) both wanted to have kids, so we took the time off to go through the pregnancies. While we were off, we put a lot of time and focus into writing, so we just created tons and tons of music. And yeah, it’s definitely creeping into the music. There’s something going on, even from the other guys who don’t have kids, but they’re just caught up in our kids, because everybody’s loving our kids. There’s a sound in there. I don’t know what I would call it, but there’s definitely something, and I really like it, and we’ve never had it before. I have to believe that it has to do not just with the kids, but also the time off that we took from the road to just hang out with each other (and) spend more time as a family of musicians as opposed to a crew.

As far as influencing the lyrics, yeah, but I started moving into a new direction in, like, 2005, where I wanted to be a little more thoughtful about what I had to say and what kind of effect it has on kids. Because there are a lot of kids that listen to what we’re doing. I don’t mean I want to turn into Will Smith. I just mean I want to be held accountable for everything I’ve got to say from here on, and I think that came from my first-born. He turned, like, 12 and 13, and he showed more interest in coming to my shows and being around. So I’m watching him … and how he would attach to different artists played a huge role in the direction I was trying to go and the s–t I was writing.

Frequency: You used a word a minute ago that perhaps describes this new post-baby music Atmosphere is creating. “Thoughtful.” Is the new music more thoughtful?

Slug: It’s just really grown up, and I don’t mean to say that in a pretentious way. I almost am saying it apologetically. It’s just very … I don’t know what else to call it, but it’s some grown-ass man music. It’s definitely sharp. It’s definitely direct. Even at times when I do get a little obtuse or metaphorical, I guess what it is is I’m very concerned about what I’m communicating. In the past, I would make sure that it was open for interpretation, whereas nowadays, I’m not trying to do that anymore. I want you to know what I meant, as opposed to letting you come up with your own interpretation. Granted, there’s something beautiful about me having a song that’s about food, and somebody else finding something way more meaningful. There is something to be said for that. But in the same breath, I feel like a lot of that has worked against me, where I have a song that might be about something I felt was pure, and the audience hears it and turns it into something that’s negative, and not only that, but they bond over that negativity and they get excited about the negativity, and I don’t know if I can be that guy anymore that wants to bond with cynicism and negativity.

Frequency: It sounds like it’s not only the kid that’s influencing your music, but also the fact that you’re older and wiser and, maybe, happier. Are you happier now than you used to be?

Slug: I’m far more sober than I used to be. I think that plays a large role in it as well. There was a lot of happiness back then, but I think a lot of it was contrived happiness. I was forcing happiness, but truthfully, I’m definitely more content and happier with who I am.

If you go
What: Atmosphere, with Blueprint, Grieves & Budo, DJ Rare Groove
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday, doors open 7 p.m. (Meet and greet with Atmosphere at Ranch Records at 6 p.m.)
Where: Midtown Ballroom, 51 N.W. Greenwood Ave., Bend
Cost: $25 plus fees in advance, $28 at the door. Advance tickets available at Ranch Records (541-389-6116) and through Ticketswest.
Contact: Random Presents


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