Sims dishes on his new record Bad Time Zoo, the time he quit rapping and was forced to revaluate music, the isolating aspects of technology, turning the mirror on your own hypocrisies, and always being plugged into the here and now.
Before we dig into Bad Time Zoo, I thought we could talk about your background a little bit. How did you first get into music?
Both my parents were musicians, so growing up there was always instruments around and a lot of records in the house. I grew up around music. I started playing instruments when I was really young. There was always like keyboards and guitars and stuff lying around the house. I started playing when I was a kid, had some bands and stuff throughout middle school, and then I was also rapping at the time in middle school.
I think I was about 14 or 15 when I started rapping. I wasn’t really doing much with it. It was just kind of fun. I played around with it and would freestyle with my friends or whatever. When I was about 17 or 18, I started taking it more seriously. I had a rap crew in high school, and we played parties and that kind of shit. Then I think about 20 or 21 is when I decided I wanted to focus more on what I was doing. I put out my first record when I was 22 or 23, and have been doing it since.
How did you hook up with the Doomtree guys?
I went to high school with P.O.S, Lazerbeak and Cecil Otter. They were older than me, so I didn’t know them very well, but I would get beats from P.O.S when I was 17, 18 years old. I’d get beats from them for 30 bucks a beat, and then he’d let me record them at his place. That’s kind of how that started.
From there, I kept hanging around to the point where they were like, “We’re starting this thing called Doomtree. Do you want to be in it?” I was like, “Sure.” And that’s how that worked.
You grew up in Minneapolis. What was that like?
It’s cool. Musically, I think that there’s a lot of music history here and there’s a huge music scene here. Music is a very big part of Minneapolis. There’s been breakout bands in different genres, like Hüsker Dü, Prince, Bob Dylan and Atmosphere, but there’s never been a specific sound here in particular. I think that’s helped us.
When you look at music in a historical context in the U.S., Minnesota is not exactly on the map, or else we’re newly on the map, so I feel like there’s a lot of room to play. You can absorb the best of what you like from genres all across the country without having to fit into the mold of what Minnesota music is supposed to sound like.
It definitely seems like Minneapolis has become one of the hotbeds for rap these days, which has been pretty cool to see.
Yeah, I don’t know why or how that happened. We’re in Minnesota and I have no idea how it became a hotbed for rap music, but apparently it is. People come here from all over the country, actually. They move here to become a part of the scene.
I think it could be that we’re not L.A., New York or Chicago, so there’s a lot less competition and there’s probably a lot less to do, so people are more interested in music. Or maybe it’s just that we have an arts-based community and people are just naturally interested in music. It’s a thing that people can do, so it gives everyone here a chance to get their music heard, or go play a show or whatever it is.
There’s something to it about the size of the music scene. It’s a very large music scene, but not a very big city. I think we’re the 15th largest, or something like that, in the country. We’re not very large, but I think that due to all those factors there’s an ability to have some kind of sustainable music scene here.
All right, so let’s talk about your new album. I understand it’s loosely based off of the Ray Bradbury short story, The Veldt. What about that story did you draw from and interested you?
It’s hard to say now, looking back, because I wrote these songs a year or 18 months ago. I think the way that I started it was I wrote a few songs and realized they were loosely tying into this story I had read back in middle school. So I went back and reread it, and I was like, “Oh yeah, they totally do tie into that.”
The animal scenes that were happening in it and the big game stuff, I feel like they’re cheap literary devices but they’re a good way to describe human characteristics. Animals have very clear cut and dry characteristics about how they operate within their domain. I feel like those are pretty easy things to assign to humans and how they operate within their domains, and interact with each other and interact with their environment.
It was mostly based off of the animal imagery that was happening and I thought I could tie in the Ray Bradbury thing, which is about technology replacing the most vital things in your life, which is love. It’s sort of being distracted by all that there is to be distracted by and forgetting the most vital, crucial things about living.
What exactly is the Veldt?
It’s a beltline across the Southern Hemisphere, but the one people talk about all the time is the one in Africa. It’s the one where all the lions, gazelles, giraffes and elephants live. It’s like the big game area in Sahara Africa, so it’s all those big awesome animals that everyone draws and talks about.
Are you a big science fiction fan?
I’m not particularly a huge science fiction fan. I like good works. I don’t think that there’s one particular literature genre that I’m into over another. Are you a huge science fiction fan?
I am, yes.
You are? So who’s your favorite writer? Here’s where I flip the interview on you [laughs].
I was a film major in college, so I’m really into science fictions films and stuff. Star Wars was huge for me growing up.
Yeah, man. Sweet.
You kind of mentioned the technology aspect and I was wondering if you could talk more about that. I think that’s one of the biggest themes on the record. What do you think are the negative consequences that have come from it?
It was sort of an unintentional theme. The way I do my songs is whatever I’m thinking about at the moment or a sustained moment, like maybe a month or a year, and then it sort of happens. Whichever way I thought about them, the songs sort of happen that way. Apparently, I was on that kick for a while.
I’m not necessarily saying anything about it is inherently evil, but there is something in it that is inherently isolating and alienating. I even catch myself staring at my phone all the time, and playing with my phone instead of looking up and seeing the people in front of me. I’ll be at dinner with my girl and I’ll catch myself looking at Twitter or something. It’s like, what am I doing? Why am I looking at Twitter right now when I could actually be having an interaction with something that’s real and tangible?
It’s an interesting time to be alive, I think, and being the first generation with this much connectivity. It’s almost like people have two different identities in some ways. They have their online life, and then they have their real life. That alone as an idea is an interesting thing, that you have two lives, and one of them is online and one of them is real life.
There’s a lot to look at with all this new technology that’s happening and the connectivity that’s happening. What it’s doing to us as a species and on a societal level, it’s really interesting. I’m interested in it and I don’t know if you can assign a right or a wrong to it. It’s just sort of happening. It’s just there. Saying that it’s wrong would be like, it’s wrong that the grass is green [laughs]? The grass is just green. That’s just what it is. Now how do you interact with that?
The production and beats that Lazerbeak did are pretty amazing. What was it like working with him and how did that process work?
What you wind up hearing on the record is pretty much what he gives me to begin with. We do some changes to them. We do changes in sequencing, and we add or subtract elements from the beat. We kind of play around with the dynamic of the song.
Basically, he gives me a beat that he made at home. I make some raps to that at my house. I demo it, and then go over to his house and we go into it a little bit. We say, “What’s vital? What’s not vital? What’s helping the song? What’s hurting the song?” We break down and work through the song together.
From there, we go into the studio and work on little studio magic tricks, like, “All right, let’s add this element here or this element here,” and we construct the song together. We basically work where he makes half, I make half, and then we come together and fill it up and pretty it up.
There’s a big difference between this record and your first one, Lights Out Paris. Do you think your collaboration with him was one of the big reasons why?
Yeah, I think so. I think that there’s a more cohesive feel to it because the beats have a very likened sonic quality. The beats vary throughout the record and we go a lot of different places with the beats, but I feel like they have a common thread to them, probably because they all came from his hand.
So there’s that, and also I just became better at writing songs. I still am not exactly where I want to be with writing songs, but I feel like my songs are better than they were on the first record, as far as knowing how to construct and make a song and feel good about it when I’m done with it. If I’m not feeling good about it, I’m leaving it on the table and going to the next song. I took a lot of pressure off myself and pressure off the song itself.
It’s different from understanding and getting the confidence of if the song doesn’t work out while I’m writing it, I can just throw it away. It doesn’t ever have to come out. You know what I mean? I didn’t get that at first. I was like, OK, I got these beats. I love this beat, so it’s got to be a great song. If the song doesn’t work, the song doesn’t work.
You got to figure if you hit for average – everybody in the world in everything that they do, you can’t be great every time. So what you do is you make more songs than you need and you pick the better ones. Some of those songs that we made for this record will never see the light of day. We made 30 songs for this record and we wound up choosing 15. I think four or five of them have come out in other capacities since, another four or five will come out in some capacity, and then the other five will never come out because they’re not very good.
There was a five-year period in between the two records. I know you were pretty busy and did that False Hopes release as well, but there was also a darker time where you quit rapping for a while, which is kind of addressed on the hidden track, “Staring Down the Ocean.” Can you talk about that a little bit, and how you overcame that and starting rapping again?
I don’t know if I ever officially quit, I just didn’t do it for eight months or something like that. I played a show here and there, but I wasn’t making songs and I didn’t care to make songs. I was disheartened a little bit with it and trying to understand what was important in my life and what I wanted to do.
That experience where my girl was in the hospital getting a transplant and the transplant failed – it was a long winter. It was three plus months of being in the hospital. It gave me a lot of perspective about how short my life is. It made me reevaluate the way I was approaching my life, the way I was looking at things, and I was bothered.
I decided to step away from what was bothering me, which was rap, because I wasn’t going as far as I wanted to go and I wasn’t as good as I wanted to be. It added to it and pokes at you. It’s not a good experience. It’s not fun and it doesn’t feel good. There’s no connection to happiness within it sometimes, and you get buried in that and lost in that.
I had to step away from it to realize, yes, this is exactly what I wanted to do. Music is exactly what I love, but it made me reconnect to the idea that I make music because I love to make music. The outcomes of it are neither here nor there. If I become famous or rich from making music, it doesn’t make me a better or worse musician or songwriter because that happened. It’s just about timing, or that worked or didn’t work.
So, I don’t know. It was a process of reevaluating who I was as a person and as a songwriter, and then finding myself in the place I was. Actually, it was her that pushed me back into making music, because I was kind of fucking miserable without it. Making music is the thing that makes me happiest, and it took some time to understand that.
I read a bad review of a show that I did, which was probably totally fair. I was like, “Man, fuck. If you had any idea what I was doing today before I came to this show. My girl is in a coma and I was sitting by her.” Then I had to go and do a show we do every year here called the Blowout. I went from the hospital to the show, and I probably didn’t give a very good show.
I read a review that was like, “He’s garbage. He shouldn’t be there.” I was like, “Man, fuck this. This is crazy talk. You have no idea what I did today.” It was all this process of getting through some stuff and reevaluating what I wanted to do with my life. Sorry for that incredibly lengthy answer.
Did she end up being OK? Did everything work out?
Yeah, it’s worked out. We’re still waiting on another transplant. She’s OK, but she has to get another transplant. She survived. I guess that’s the answer. No one’s ever asked me that before, so that’s why that answer was so discombobulated. It’s like, “Oh, shit. Yeah, that’s right.” No one ever asks me that kind of stuff. They’re usually like, “What’s it like rapping?” You know [laughs].
So there’s a couple songs I want to ask about how you came up with them and what they mean to you. The first one is “When It Rolls In.” It’s a deceptively simple song, but it has some really powerful imagery and message to it.
My friend Nate and I were driving around with the roughs from the record. He was like, “Cool. What other beats do you have to work with still?” I played him some of the beats and he was like, “That beat. You should work on that beat.” I was like, “Yeah?”
It didn’t really fit with the rest of the beats, obviously. He was like, “Yeah, work on that beat. Maybe you can try to not rap on that beat at all.” And I was like, “OK.” He was like, “If you’re going to rap, just rap in little chunks. Let it breathe out. Your record needs some space to actually breathe.” And so I went home and worked on a demo for that.
That song’s about the fact that despair, pain and misery, all those things, are naturally occurring and are never not going to be there. They’re going to pop their head up when they do, and there’s nothing you can do about that. The fact that you can’t fight that pain and misery, and whatever will be there, it’s like, what do you do with that? You have a choice to how you let it affect you and how long you let it affect you.
That song is actually loosely based off of Peter Gabriel’s “The Flood.” It is basically that you know it is coming. How do you deal with it when it comes? That’s the idea.
Another song I wanted to ask about is “One Dimensional Man,” which is kind of a blunt song where you call out the hypocrisy on the liberal side of things. How did you come up with that one?
I’m a very liberal dude and I live in a very liberal city. Outside of my city in Minnesota, still, it’s not very liberal, but being here is sort of a bubble. Outside of Minneapolis, you get people like Michelle Bachman and stuff like that, who somehow continues to get reelected and is very popular. You also have Keith Ellison, the first Islamic congressman. So it’s an interesting dichotomy that happens in Minnesota.
Minneapolis is very liberal, and I’m part of that too. The thing is there’s a lethargy about it in a snideness, smugness and self-satisfied feeling of absolution in some ways. You voice your opinion of disdain through the things that you purchase. What I mean by that is a bumper sticker on your car, the type of car you drive, the type of clothing you wear – it’s all a homogenized dissent and it’s all part of the same system. There’s really no counter culture, and there’s really no way out because it’s all a product of the same culture. I thought that was an interesting angle to think about.
Michael Moore has made millions and millions of dollars off of white guilt [laughs]. You know what I mean? All these other companies are making millions of dollars off white guilt, or whatever guilt you want to assign to it, whatever right and wrong you want to assign to it. They’re not really doing that out of philanthropy.
Michael Moore isn’t making Bowling for Columbine and Roger & Me out of a completely philanthropic area in his life. He wants to tell that story, and that’s totally cool, but the idea that you’re telling that story and that absolves you from any wrongdoing is a false notion. It’s a very fraudulent way to think. So I just thought it was an interesting look at ourselves to turn the mirror back.
We do a lot of deflecting and a lot of blaming as liberals. Especially during the Bush era, there was a ton of blaming and a ton of deflecting of all wrongdoing. Whether it was domestic or foreign policy, it was like, “Well, we didn’t have anything to do with that. We had a supermajority Republican congress and a super-conservative, crazy president.”
So it’s easy to go, “Oh well, that’s not my fault then. Look at all this fucked up shit. This is fucked, this is fucked, this is fucked.” The post 9/11 world is a crazy place, especially right after 9/11. It got really nuts for four or five years. It got really crazy here. Now that we have the reigns, what are you going to do with that? You have your people in office now. What are you going to do with that? Apparently, not much [laughs].
It’s a way to turn the mirror back on ourselves and examine ourselves and what we’re actually doing. I’m not taking a holier than thou approach to it. I’m really not trying to do that. I’m just calling it out, like let’s take a look. I’m not saying that I’m above it or beyond it. I’m very much a part of that the same as everyone else is.
Feeling self-satisfied and feeling better than someone else is a very destructive feeling. It’s a very destructive mindset, and the concept of it alone is totally wrong. If you put the equal sign on the back of your car, you feel better than us people. That’s not right.
You released a video for that song not too long ago and in it you’re covered in this gooey stuff. Was that chocolate syrup or something?
That’s actually black paint.
Oh, it was. Wow.
Dude, it got all in my eyes, and ears and mouth. It was really disgusting. The video basically starts with the CEO’s apology. Their company, Plaxochem or whatever it’s called, did something terrible to the environment. Now they’re rebranding, going green and calling themselves OrganiKel. It was basically them that poisoned the world, and now they’re pretending like they’re cleaning it up with all these products and stuff. Even the protestors are buying shit.
We didn’t do necessarily the best job of telling what that product is that they’re buying, but they’re buying something called Tree Sticks. You just buy this piece of wood and start shaking it, so now you have something to be grabbing at. The whole idea was to lighten up the song a little bit and make it kind of funny. It does get intense at the end, with the little kid and the family and stuff, and actually the black paint makes it pretty intense, too. But the idea was to add some humor to the song and make it funny.
So the last song I wanted to ask about is “Radio Opaque,” which is your response to rap music and music in general. The line that stood out to me in that song is, “How many songs about clubs and bottles, drugs and murders can we take?”
Yeah. It’s not necessarily just about rap, but it is a lot about rap. It’s more about pop music, and even pop listeners. Man, it’s so recycled, and nonsensical and dumb. It’s frustrating. It’s stupid.
To be frank, a lot of it is supported by white suburban kids who demand that. It’s a simple issue of supply and demand, and the white suburban kids to a large part personify themselves as that. They like to personify themselves as a character, or as that group of people of ballin’ and all that stuff, but it doesn’t do good for any community to have that image.
Black people, by in large, are not gangsters. You know what I mean? They’re not club rats. By and large, that’s not who they are. That’s a small percentage of them, or of any community that is gangsters or club goers all the time. It’s a bad image portrayed for the communities and it’s a bad thing.
I don’t know. It’s more me talking shit about rap because it’s so boring most of the time. That’s why I’m actually excited by some of the new guys out right now. I mean Wiz Khalifa is actually cool because there’s a song that is not necessarily about any of that shit, and it’s a huge song right now. It’s more creative than rap songs have been in a while, and I think that’s really cool. I feel like creativity is popping back up. But until people really demand something creative and something great, we won’t be able to get rid of this bullshit.
That’s one of the things I really love about you and Doomtree is that you have a different approach than your typical radio lyrics and all that stuff.
Yeah, I don’t know how it happened but my record actually performed really well on the college charts. It was No. 1 on the rap charts for a while, like weeks and weeks, and that was awesome. It was really unexpected because I didn’t make a single on there. There wasn’t a clear cut, “Oh yeah, that’s a radio song. This is a radio hit.”
I think it was kind of telling of where we are right now and what people want. The Internet is a good leveler in a lot of ways. You look at a band like Arcade Fire, who will probably not ever really be a Top 40 band, but they perform like a Top 40 band. They can sell out Madison Square Garden two nights in a row. Without the Internet, I don’t know if that’s an option for them. They wouldn’t necessarily get a ton of play on a ton of stations.
It’s a wider funnel basically now. People have access to a lot more now, and it’s pretty cool. It’s an exciting time. Even though no one is buying music, music consumption is probably at an all-time high. That’s a really exciting thing and it shows the demand that people have for good music. It’s not necessarily all consumer to artist.
That’s not to say there’s no one to blame. It’s just more of me talking shit. I’m not mad at anybody. I’m just talking shit [laughs]. I’m like, “Isn’t this boring?” And people are like, “Yeah, this is boring. That’s why I don’t listen to any of that shit.” I do because I like that shit, but it’s boring a lot of times.
I have a couple questions some of the users of our site submitted, so I thought I’d ask those now. The first one is what are your biggest non-musical influences?
Non-musically that affects my music would probably be conversations and interactions with people. I think I write a lot of my music based on conversation and based on dialogue, whether I’m a part of that dialogue or not or I overhear it. There’s a lot of interesting things that happen and there’s a lot of nuances that happen if you can pay careful enough attention to it.
People have a lot of defenses, and when you see those pop up, you can go back a few steps and analyze why those are there. Whether you’re doing it justly or correctly, or are completely making it up, it’s interesting to think about, “OK, where does this defense come from and what about this thing made this person act like this or this?”
I think it’s interesting, where all these defenses come from, so I think about that stuff. I write songs that are based in my world, and my interactions within this world and my way to look at this world. They’re not necessarily right, and they’re not necessarily correct or true. They’re just the way I look at it.
I also go to art shows and check out art. I don’t really know that I understand art, but I like looking at it. I can’t look at a painting necessarily and go like, “Oh, this is about childhood or whatever.” I’m not that good at it. But I do find it stimulating, so I try and look at that as much as possible. I read and I also like comic books a lot. I like movies, and 30 Rock [laughs].
The next question is to what extent is your work and ideas influenced by the creativity of the rest of the Doomtree collective?
Influenced, not as much, but motivated by very much. I don’t think I sound like any of the other rappers. I don’t think any of us sound that close to each other anymore. When we first started, we sounded a lot more like each other, but everyone has their idea and their voice now, and the direction they want their music to go in. I think everyone found their lane and is going in it, and that’s really cool.
When I hear new songs from any of the other Doomtree rappers, it makes me want to get back in the studio and make more songs: “That was awesome. Now I got to get in there and do something more awesome.” It’s sort of a friendly competition thing that we have with each other where we’re not necessarily competing. Everyone’s in full support of everyone’s stuff.
It’s more like above all I want to impress these people. I don’t really care about the rest of the world as much as I care about those people and their stamp of approval. When they tell me that’s a really good song, I believe them, and if they tell me it’s all right, then I think it’s all right. It’s good enough.
The last question is supposing your political views are fluid, do you ever look back on your previous work and feel that your views then are contradictory to your views now? If so, how do you reconcile with those differences?
Oh, for sure, but I don’t look back with any disdain on anything I’ve done. Before and after is an idea of what it was then. That’s who I was in that moment then. I don’t know who I’ll be tomorrow, and I don’t know who I was yesterday, but today I know who I am.
You sort of just put yourself in the now, like that Eckhart Tolle view. You just live in the now, and you deal with your stuff and you deal with the world in the now. You don’t really worry about the past or the future. You be absolutely as hyper-present as you can to the moment, exist within it and relish it. You have to love constantly what you are, where you are and who you are. I think that happiness comes through that, being very plugged into the moment.
That’s another interesting thing about the whole technology piece about the record. It’s about the importance of being in the moment. When we start to look at our phones and be on that in an ethereal, non-real but very real Internet existence, it’s a different existence than now and here and who you are in this moment. I don’t really reconcile because I don’t really think about it. I just sort of do what I’m doing.
Real quick, before we go, what do you have lined up for the rest of the year?
I’m doing this Dessa tour that starts on Saturday. I’m going out with her, and Lazerbeak and her band. That’ll be really awesome. We’re going to the West Coast. Then I’m putting out an EP in the late summer/early fall. We haven’t set a date for it yet, but Lazerbeak and I are putting out an EP together. Then I have a tour coming up in the fall that I will announce I think in the next month or so.
What else? We’re working on a new Doomtree crew record now, like right now, so we’re chipping away at that. It’s happening the way it should, which is tactfully. We’re going to try and get done with that and get that out this year, but we’ll see. So Doomtree crew record, Lazerbeak EP, and tours, tours, tours. Hopefully, more tours than I can stand.