As the saying goes, “Atmosphere finally made a good record.” Their seventh studio album Mi Vida Local is immediate, and as Slug describes, an “insular” listen. The record is a portrait of the duo’s here and now, equally cataloging the pleasures and displeasures of being.
“I started making a list of all of my complaints as well as all of the things I’m grateful for about where I live,” Slug tells me over the phone, referring to his hometown of Minneapolis. “That’s what I decided to make a record about.”
Mi Vida Local truly grew legs once Slug and Ant made its lead single, “Virgo.” From there, Slug realized they weren’t playing around—they were making a project project. As it stands, Slug is uncomfortable, and he’s not the only one. The ethos of this album, of Atmosphere as a whole, is that comfort, much like peace and happiness, is a myth. Community, though, is very real and when Slug opens his front door to us on Mi Vida Local, we can take comfort in knowing that we’re all in this mess of atoms and tragedy together.
On the outset of our interview, Slug asked me if I was doing okay, and also what it is that I wanted to talk about. I replied: “Everything.” An undercurrent of humility, empathy, spirituality, and general mixed-up-ness informed Slug’s speech as we indeed discussed “everything.”
Though it is considered a best practice to cut interviews down for content and clarity, what follows is damn near our entire conversation. Word for word. Some darlings are just too sweet to kill.
DJBooth: On Mi Vida Local you sound incensed. Where does that urgency come from?
Slug: Urgent, huh? If there is an urgency there, it has something to do with being uncomfortable in this era, in this community… The only time I really find comfort is when I am with my kids, or when I’m with Anthony. I think that I draw from my experiences outside of my home and outside of my workspace, and then I bring them back so I can make the people I love feel uncomfortable, too? I guess it’s weird because I don’t know if I hear urgency when I hear that record.
Well, the production is very textured and traversing. Ant has you sounding like you’re wading through something, what is it?
Life is constant transition, so I’m sure I was wading through transition. But [my] wife is happy, kids are healthy, there’s money in the bank. There was no immediacy like: “I gotta fucking finish this, or do this because I have to do this.” In fact, there was less pressure on me making this album than usual because the label was not expecting me to turn in another album so soon. And, we started working in a new space that is just us. Me and Anthony, we’re working at our own pace, which I’ve never done before.
How did that space define this record?
It took me back to being able to go extra-concept. I think on the last album, I had a freedom of just throwing the kitchen sink at shit. It kind of reminded me of Seven’s Travels in a way. They were both similar in that the songs do not actually go together. They’re just songs, and we sequenced them hoping to provide a listening experience for people who still listen to albums. We still make albums, and I don’t know why we do. When we make a project, we still focus on creating a listening experience somewhere between 45 minutes and an hour, to be taken in in one sitting.
When we made Fishing Blues, I had the freedom of “What do I wanna write about today?” Whereas with this album, I went back to the normal me, which is: It’s gotta be a concept. Even if no one else hears that this is a concept album, most of my albums, to me, have been concept albums usually defined by the title.
This album feels like an admittance of mortality, not to the point of being sad, but more so to prompt us to be better people.
I think ever since Family Sign, I’ve been fucking heavily with the concept of mortality. Even Southsiders, the title… People thought it meant the Southside of Minneapolis, when really I was referring to hell. That song dealt with a lot of death. My own, specifically. Since then, I’ve become comfortable with the concept of death. Now, when I talk about it, I’m no longer talking about it with a sense of mystery or worry. The only thing I’m worried about with death now is that when I die, I’m worried for the people I leave behind that care about me. If I’m not there to make sure they’re going to be okay, I need to know they’re going to be okay before I die. That’s the only fear of death I have at this point.
I don’t mean that on some edgy “I’m not scared to die” shit. I mean it more so like, I’m tired and death sounds like a good, long nap. I’m at ease with it. I’ve lost some loved ones, people very close to me, and I’ve made it through and realized, “Oh, you can make it through when somebody else dies.” Therefore, it is what it is. I embrace the idea of joining my ancestors when it’s time. I’m more worried about getting sick and poor health and chronic back pain. I’m more scared of being miserable than I am of dying.
With this record, maybe the morality shit’s in there. I think I’m pointing at other people’s mortality more than I am my own. I think I’m more frustrated that people live like there’s no consequence. In the world of art, we create an art that is consequence-free. That’s always bothered me. Many of us share these stories of shitty situations. Stories where out of desperation we’ve had to do things, but we don’t share the consequences. It’s exciting to hear a story about a drug deal gone bad, but let’s talk about the fact that your friend got killed or who knows what. We’re not actually dealing with resolution in these situations. We’re just dealing with the glorious parts and not the grittier parts that come along with street life.
You approach consequence on “Virgo.”
I try to! I try to approach it in everything now. I’ve been trying to do that for years. I look at artists like Bob Marley and Common, and I’ve always appreciated how they do offer resolution inside of their music. Common gets a lot of credit for a lot of things, but one of the things I never hear people talk about [with] his music, is the resolution he puts inside of there. This is a guy who is not just trying to find inner peace, he’s trying to share that shit with people! That’s an amazing feat in today’s music.
On “Graffiti” you have a line about being needed. Who needs that resolution most?
The listener. I don’t think that the artist is making their art for their own resolution. For their own resolution, he or she is looking for other art to give them that. For instance, I don’t think Tom Waits was trying to save his own life, but he saved mine. I don’t think Neil Young was trying to save his own life, but he saved someone else’s. To me, that’s the crux of art.
I save my own life by being able to earn some resources to buy some groceries so I don’t starve. In the sense of keeping myself from killing myself—I don’t mean to speak so extreme—I found other artists who kept me alive. If I was making art to keep myself alive, what does that say? It’s not real to me. If that’s the case, I could just make the song and save it on my laptop and listen to it whenever I need it. But I’m releasing it for other people. I’m not releasing it for myself.
Who do you want to save with this record?
My own kids.
That’s what I thought.
If anybody else’s kids can jump on board, cool! I don’t want to claim that that’s my role, because that just feels pretentious, but join in if you feel it… I can’t be held accountable for what another person feels. The only thing I can be held accountable for is what happens to my kids.
You wonder if you’re allowed to be alive on “Anymore.” Who decides that?
The simulation decides who gets to be alive, you know? The matrix, or whatever the fuck you wanna call this shit that we’re all living in. We’re working in tandem with each other. If I flap my wings in Minneapolis, you might fall off a rooftop in Pittsburgh. I think that there’s give and take and there’s flex in all of these atoms and itty bitty beads that connect us. I don’t think it’s necessarily in our own hands if we live or die. That doesn’t mean that we can’t take our own life—I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about in the grand scheme of things, the major things: starvation on the planet exists because other people on the planet aren’t doing anything about it. The rest of the world has just as much power as you do over your own life.
Let’s go to “Trim” because it’s about having to fight to find pockets of peace in your life, while the album is about unrest. Between those two states, where do you fall?
I guess I’m pretty square in the middle, or I should be. Let’s be honest, if I found peace, then what? Then I’ve got to create reasons to strive. If you reach a goal, you don’t just quit. You create a new goal. I don’t really know if peace is a real thing. I think peace is the great humbler, it’s the Great Pumpkin. It’s this omnipresent concept that is in the air, but it’s like God. Plenty of us believe in it, but we don’t know how to define it. Happiness is another thing. There would be no such thing as the concept of peace and tranquility if we didn’t have struggle to compare it to. So, I fit right where I’m supposed to fit. I’m just another worker bee trying to get this pollen and take it to my queen.
That makes me think of “Specificity,” which leads me to believe you struggle with the idea of gratefulness.
I don’t know if grateful is what I’m struggling to deal with. More so, what I’m struggling to deal with is… You know what? Here’s the thing: what really got the ball rolling on this album was the song “Virgo.” When we nailed that song, then we were like, “Oh, we’re making a project, aren’t way?” Once that happened, I took in what this album is about. It’s about my immediate surroundings, literally. My family, first. Then when you get to the outer core of my own personal Illuminati, we start looking at my friends. Then we start looking at my city. This record squarely sits inside of the Twin Cities.
I started making a list of all of my complaints as well as all of the things I’m grateful for about where I live. That’s what I decided to make a record about. So, a song like “Anymore” is addressing relationships that I have with the scene here. A song like “Trim” addresses the relationship that I have with my family and my desires to find gratification. How do I fit gratification into where my life is right now? To be blunt: sex. Where does sex fit into my world right now? Back in the day, I used to have sex on the road. Nowadays, I don’t like people so much and I’m married, so I’m not having sex on the road. So, how do I write a sex song as an emcee who wants to rap about sex, because it’s on my list?
This might be the most… insular writing I’ve done publicly, in a long time. As I was rounding out the album, it was starting to write itself for me. I really tried to keep it as grassroots and organic to my literal being, so that I wasn’t writing any songs about my view on Brexit [laughs]. I kept it super close to home. I wrote about my family, my friends, the music scene here. I wrote about the art scene and the life that I live when I’m not on tour. I’m very happy with that.
Is this album special enough to be your eighth album?
No. There will never be an eighth album. We stopped at seven a long time ago. I don’t wanna make too many albums, so if we just keep making a seventh album, at least then we only had seven.
Will you ever crack?
I don’t know if I will. I’m gonna say “No.” I don’t even know what that looks like. What would it require to decide something was the eighth album? If you flip an eight sideways, that’s the infinity symbol. Do I really, really want to put that on one of my albums? No, we’ll stick with the seventh.
Are you scared of legacy?
I wouldn’t say that. I think we are a legacy group at this point. I’m not in competition with these new artists. I’m not in competition with what’s currently happening, I’m only in competition with myself. In that regard, that’s all legacy. For me, I’m the “self-deprecating” artist, so we’ll call it: I’mma break a legacy. You know what? I just came up with the name for the next tour.
Is this album a celebration of everything that you got?
It’s a photo of where I’m at right now, with all of my moving parts. If we were to just take a picture of it and freeze all those moving parts, that’s what this album is. To make that relatable to a wider audience, it’s a photo of your neighbor. There’s a me on every block and in every building, who is feeling the way I’m feeling.
I want to disturb the people who are disturbing the status quo, not because I’m down with the status quo, but because I feel like there’s a portion of the people who want to disturb the status quo who are doing it inside of some sort of comfort. I’m full of discomfort, even with the fortunate place that I get to be in. So, if what you’re striving for is to attain that comfort, I’m here to remind you that it doesn’t fucking exist. If you’re trying to disturb the people who you think have that, check yourself, because everybody is uncomfortable right now.
That’s funny, that’s the adjective you wanna throw on it. In my world, it’s all jagged, man. It’s jagged and industrial-looking. There’s a lot of concrete and metal, and it’s all twisted. There’s probably beauty in that. If you’re just taking photos of it, like a tourist, yes you’re going to find beauty. But, a lot of us have to live there. I know I’m fortunate; my bills are paid. I’m not trying to compare myself to people who are living worse, but in a sense, we are in this together. So, I am required to absorb and feel what those people are feeling. I’m also trying to make sure people are feeling what I’m feeling because what I’m feeling isn’t comfort, either. That’s what I’m trying to say [with this album].
I did not sign up to be a tourist of this shit. I grew up with it and I got myself out of it. In fact, I live about two miles from where I grew up, but that two-mile stretch is an amazing difference. Where I grew up, it’s still kinda fucked-up, but where I am now, it’s like the Promised Land. At the end of the day, I am traveling between all of it. I’m not a tourist, but I’m trying to take a picture of it for the tourists so they don’t have to come up in here. Don’t come in here and take pictures and leave. You can have this picture, and if you feel it, cool! Get involved and do something.
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