Feature interview: Atmosphere at Newport Music Hall

Andy Downing
Photo by Dan Monick

Recent news headlines have been dominated by affairs unfolding on a global scale. Against this backdrop, it's easy to view the most recent Atmosphere album, Mi Vida Local, as a type of counter-programming, the rapper/producer team of Slug and Atmosphere immersing themselves in a song cycle born of life within their Minneapolis home, as though the persistent planetary chaos had inspired the pair to seek out comfort among friends, family and townsfolk.

This, it turns out, was not quite the case.

“I mean, I love that, but that's way thicker than anything I thought of,” said Slug, born Sean Daley 46 years ago, who leads Atmosphere into a concert at Newport Music Hall on Thursday, Oct. 25. “For me, it was just a natural reaction to reacquainting myself with my scene, my surroundings and my city. I travel a lot, and then when I'm not traveling I don't leave my house, man. … I don't feel comfortable around people I don't know. But I was a lot more social over the last year than normal. I have these kids (Slug's oldest child is 24, while his youngest just turned 1) who if I don't take them to the fair and take them camping, no one else will. So I'm forcing myself to learn how to be OK with leaving the house.”

Slug's homebody tendencies are a boon to his music making, however, and he said he's approached his craft with a 9-to-5 mindset ever since he gave up his day job to pursue a career in music. This means even on family vacations he'll travel with a laptop and cellphone, and it's not unusual for him to pull over during long drives, allowing his wife to take the wheel so he can sit in the passenger seat and write in his phone's notepad app when inspiration strikes.

“There's this weird voice in me that's like, ‘Go to work or you're going to get fired,'” Slug said. “The reason I need to create is I always want to have a healthy respect towards, essentially, this authority figure in my life. This music has become my boss. This audience is my boss. I'm fortunate to be in this position, and I have no intention of ever taking it for granted.”

For this reason, according to Slug, he and longtime friend and producer Ant (aka Anthony Davis) work together constantly — often crafting songs as mental and creative exercises rather than for planned release.

“As a kid, I was always fucking with puzzles, trying to do jigsaw puzzles. I have to solve the problem. I have to do the puzzle,” Slug said. “Sometimes I come up with song concepts that are just the dumbest shit in the world, but I force myself to finish it because it's an exercise. I have to complete it. I have to crack this code.”

This particular batch of songs started in a similar manner, only taking on more concrete form once the pair stumbled onto “Virgo,” a drum-less, acoustic-guitar-driven, hymn-like deep breath on which Slug lobbies for self-care (“Put your oxygen mask on first before you offer me help”), confronts aging (“When I start up the motor, it still turns over/But nowadays, a little bit slower”) and appears to make peace with death, a concept that has been a driving force on recent albums (“I won't waste ammo aiming at the angel of death”).

In the past, when albums started to take this early shape, Slug said he had a tendency to let his more conceptual side take over. “I'd be like, ‘OK, I'm going to make a whole record where there's a third-person narrative.' Or, ‘I'm going to make a whole record and it's all about traveling,'” he said. But onMi Vida Local, he stepped back and allowed the songs to develop absent his usual high-minded flair.

“This was more like, ‘I'm going to make this record and I'm not going to take the time to point at what it's about. I'm just going to let it write itself.' And it did,” he said. “And when I stepped back … that's when I realized, ‘Oh, I'm just making a record about my city.' Or maybe it's not exclusive to my city, but more so the people who are part of me, the ones who turned me into who the fuck I am, that created Sean, that created Slug.”

These people range from his own children to neighborhood denizens he'd consider crossing the street to avoid engaging in small talk. “It was like, ‘Oh, fuck. If I'm writing about people I don't like again it means my therapist is going to make a bunch of money this year,'” Slug said, and laughed.

Of course, that's not to say that some of those more conceptual ideas didn't eventually worm their way into the record in some form, Slug being Slug. The rapper noted the album was long ago conceived as the third in a trilogy followingSouthsiders, from 2014, andFishing Blues, from 2016, which collectively find him exploring the idea of death. But where the first two albums were more centered on the individual,Mi Vida Localtakes a more outward view.

“The worst thing about death is not you dying. You die and it's over. All of your trauma is done. All your worries, stress, it's all done. It's like somebody turned off the light,” Slug said. “It's everybody else around you that gets affected. That's what this album is about: the people around me. … Death is not for the dying. It's for the people who survive.”

Newport Music Hall

7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 25

1722 N. High St., Campus


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