With Asterisk the Universe, John Craigie combines rhythm and groove with observation and revolution in a timely addition to the symphony of unrest currently awake on the streets of America. He certainly didn’t plan to drop a new album in a time of pandemic and protest, but he remains undeterred. If anything, Craigie is even more aware of just how powerful music can be in the fight against oppression– though he admits it is a bit strange to be promoting a new project while Americans marching against racial injustice are met with tear gas, rubber bullets, and worse. “It’s complicated,” says Craigie calling from California just days before the album’s release, “Because I don’t want to take away from what’s happening right now and the voices that need to be heard.” But Asterisk the Universe has landed, and Craigie’s commentary on the nation and the resolve of those who desire to change it is certainly worth hearing.
AI- The video for “Part Wolf” paints a pretty wild picture of the album’s creation. It totally reminded me of being in college and holing up in buddy’s apartment with an 8-track recorder, anybody who happens to stop by ends up shouting or clapping on the song, it’s as much about the process as it is the final product… How important was that communal vibe to Asterisk the Universe? Have you always made music that way?
JC- Every album is different, but the majority of the time I record, I try to use that style because I do think it’s pretty, important to try to capture that level of community. I think it makes the music feel a bit more natural and loose. I do think that you sacrifice a little bit of polish– but I’ve always been a fan of that as well. I think that’s a big part of it.
“Hustlin'” has a real blue-collar, Bill Withers thing kind of happening along with it, and it sets the stage for you as an independent musician. I don’t think that term, independent, has ever meant as much as it does at this point. COVID-19 has robbed musicians at every level and fundamentally changed the way that you do business. Traveling was and is a big part of your writing style. How have you been dealing with the pandemic as an artist?
It’s definitely affected my writing style because you’re right, that’s where most of my passion and inspiration would come from. It’s definitely not as flowing as it was during the times of making this record. But I do feel that once we get back out in the world, I think there’ll be a huge flux, a huge blossom of creativity and great music and great art.
Your live shows are as much about the songs as they are about the stories you tell around them. And as a matter of fact, you’ve often been compared to a standup comedian in many respects. So invoking the whole Dana Carvey comedians all want to be rock stars, rock stars all want to be comedians philosophy, I’ve always felt the connection between the two. Especially when it comes to social commentary. How do you tie it all together?
I was always really drawn to comedy as a child, even with music too, but I was exercising my comedic talent before I was my musical. I was really drawn to comedians like Richard Pryor or Patton Oswalt or comedians who were able to tell stories of their real life and also bring in emotion. I love things like Seinfeld or whatever, [but] a lot of comedians get up there and they just tell jokes and it’s great, but I was really inspired by the ones who could walk that line between the two. And then of course I would see movies. I would see someone like Jim Carrey do something like The Truman Show or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I started to see this depth and [realized] that you could have both and how important both [are] because people want to laugh and they want to be told the truth and feel these deeper things. It kind of came together knowing that I had both those sides and then it just took time to sort of figure out how to mix them.
There is a lot of revolution on Asterisk. “You gotta climb up if you want to bring them down.” I can’t compare today to the rise of fascism or the era of segregation or the Civil Rights movement or the draft and Vietnam, ’cause I wasn’t around for those battles, but I can say that I’ve never seen anything like what’s happening in America and around the world right now. Not in my lifetime. I was going to say that you couldn’t have anticipated the upheaval when you were writing these particular songs, but I guess that’s not really true because the signs have been there for so long. How does it feel to see an album of yours like this coming out at a time like now?
You’re right. The signs have always been there. It’s not like a year ago things were not happening. I think as a musician who travels around, it’s very challenging to ignore the political upheaval, and I’ve always wanted to be a voice in that. Sometimes I’d write songs that were very specific. After Trump’s election, I had a song and that was very specific, but then other times a song like “Climb Up” just comes out because it’s sort of everything. I want to write something that can be used for years and years. So I am very, very proud that we will have that out into the world amongst all of this. I’m excited to be able to bring that.
You cover JJ Cale on the album. Even that song [“Crazy Mama”] aside, there’s a definite Tulsa Sound that permeates throughout–that easy drivin’, deliberate groove is really disarming and it’s a different kind of conduit for rebellion. Like if you were playing punk music, the message might just be like this heavy guitar-laden, loud, fast scream. But with that Tulsa groove style, that Tulsa Sound, you’re letting it marinate. I wonder if that makes an even deeper impression on the listener.
I would hope so. Again, I think it kind of comes down to the intention behind the musicians as they’re playing and being able to hear that through the music– which I tend to think that I can do when I’m hearing a studio album. If it feels like it was way too cold or scientific, it doesn’t inspire me as much as when I’m listening to something like The Band or someone that you can really feel people were all playing in the same room.
In “Part Wolf”, you say that, “This is the year we’ll be kicking his ass out,” and brother, you preach a lot of hope with this new record. Now I’ll ask you plainly– as we look down the barrel of the next six months, are you scared?
Yeah, of course! Always a little scared, you know? But I’m very hopeful. I’ve been joking with my audience because I did write a song after Trump was elected in 2016 and I told ’em, I said, “I don’t want to have to do that again!” Because it’s very, very challenging (laughs)! But I’m always hopeful, no matter what. As Americans, we’re very resilient and we’ve always been good at fighting back oppression– and in this case potential dictatorship. It always is hard for me to watch the country fight so much within itself. I’m aware that a lot of people support Trump and are Republicans and that doesn’t fill me with anger or hate. I know everyone has their own reasons. It just makes me sad to watch everyone fight with each other during all these times. I always wanted to do the best to bring people together, to unite. I think politicians that are very good at dividing us, and I think as musicians, were fighting against that and trying to unite everyone. Because we aren’t all that different, and we all do want some pretty standard core things.
Your bio mentions that you’ve gotten fan mail from Chuck Norris? I had to ask you about that. What’s the story?
Well, that’s an old story. It’s pretty silly, but years and years ago, when I was first starting to write funny songs, I wrote a very silly song about Chuck Norris, very sophomoric, very cute, but silly, mostly playing off of the thing that got Chuck Norris famous in the later years– the Chuck Norris “facts”? It was called “Chuck Norris’ Tears Cure Cancer, Too Bad He Never Cries”.
I was going to ask you what your favorite Chuck Norris-ism was.
Yeah, that’s probably one of them. Someone who worked for him was at a show, heard it, recorded it, and played it for him. And I’ll never know exactly what he thought about it, but he decided to send me a nice signed picture, which is actually framed in my room. I’m looking at it right now!