This is why people love P.O.S: You used to see Stef Alexander hanging around at punk shows. You used to see him hanging out at hip hop shows. The first time you saw him play guitar it kicked your ass. The first time you saw him rap it kicked your ass twice. And then, the next day, you still saw him at punk shows and hip hop shows. Because Stef is a Twin Cities homeboy. He didn't come out of nowhere, he bumped into you when you were trying to get to the cash machine at the Triple Rock or he stood next to you at some show at First Ave and there was never a moment, as a member of rap collective Doomtree or hardcore band Building Better Bombs or doing his solo stuff, where he wasn't that kid you always saw at shows. It just happens that sometimes at shows he'd take the stage and blow your fucking mind.
Over the past few years, Stef's profile as P.O.S has grown, even if by his own accounting he's not swimming in money. He's touring and playing huge festivals like Coachella and recording albums for RhymeSayers--another crew of local talent you love because they remain dedicated local homeboys putting Minnesota on the map--but ten to one if he's in town you're going to run into him at a show or find him collaborating with any number of his peers from the rap and punk scenes or just hanging out with his kid. His talent is only rivaled by his sincerity, and that's why you love P.O.S, because he'd rather hang out and do something cool than put up with a bunch of bullshit.
Fresh off a marathon week of shows prepping his Building Better Bombs/Marijuana Death Squads bandmates for a live band P.O.S set at Coachella, I sat down with five questions for Stef and we ended up asking (and answering) about twice that.
Alright, let's start with something simple. When you're doing an interview, what are the three questions you hate to hear?
"Do you hate mainstream rap?" "I heard you used to be in a punk band." Mostly because I like mainsteam rap, and I'm still in a punk band. "P.O.S? What's that stand for?" I guess those are like my least favorite three.
Nice, nice. So, do you hate mainstream rap?
In a past interview, one thing I stumbled upon was you talking about doing Coachella last year and how it was really short notice, so was that part of the inspiration for doing something completely different this year and taking more control?
I think, maybe a little bit, but mostly because me and Bill, just the two of us, toured Never Better for over a year, and that's just too long to try to play the same set. Half of of me wanted to bring more of my friends down so I could have more people hanging out with me, and half of me really wanted to try and do something that was mindblowing out there.
How has the response been for the warmup shows?
Monday was really good, Tuesday was a little bit better, I thought, and then yesterday [Wednesday] didn't sound as good, but it was really fun, probably the most fun, because it was such a small place. I get a chance to play small places with Marijuana Death Squads or Building Better Bombs, but I don't get a chance to play P.O.S shows in small places in Minnesota. I play small places all over the country, but in Minnesota I don't.
So, you're doing these bigger things, Coachella, the Warped Tour, South By Southwest last year. When you're doing the big festival shows does it become a different vibe, a sort of separation?
One thing I kept in my mind about starting to play bigger shows in the first place, not just fesitivals, but any kind of bigger show, is to try to pretend it's not so big. I feel like with festivals and SXSW and conferences, I really try to think that it's not that big a deal. There's so many other things going on, I just want to go do the best I can and have fun. If I keep my attitude low-key, it ends up being a better show.
That was one thing that struck me about Warped Tour when I covered it last year, I spent all day there and I saw a lot of bands jobbing it, but your set felt like a real show, with a real closeness, partially because of the hometown crowd.
It wasn't like a last stop on a tour and it wasn't like a hometown show, it was like, "I'm still doing this job-ass tour, but I'm doing it at home." I didn't move up stages, you know, the guy who puts the stages together asked if I wanted to play a bigger stage because I was at home, and I just thought, I'd stick where I was at. It was really fun, really cool having so many people around that little-ass stage.
What inspired the live band thing, aside from taking some friends down to Coachella?
Mostly my friend Ryan Olson, head honcho of the Gayngs gang, and I've been working with him for years in Building Better Bombs and you know, worked closely with a lot of his projects from Digitata to Mel Gibson & The Pants on certain things, and he's worked closely with P.O.S stuff before. I was on tour at the top of the year, me and Bill, he had the turntables and I had the guitar. It was cool, but it wasn't enough. Just guitar didn't work without drums, and Ben [Ivascu, drummer for Building Better Bombs and about 10 other local bands] is kind of The Dude, he was already playing drums for Bombs, and I was like, "This will work. Ryan knows how to do this, let's do it." So when I was on tour, I just gave the band to Ryan. "Here's the songs that we're gonna do, I'm on tour, figure it out, and if we can figure it out in time, let's do Coachella." Sure enough, I got home, and he said, "you ready?"
Whenever you see somebody doing hip hop going from DJ production into a band, and sometimes that's more of an obstacle...
Usually it's not as good. And usually it takes a while to work out the kinks and stop it from sounding too much like a jam band or like...a lot of times people want to take that amazing guitar sample and replay the guitar part, and it just doesn't sound as cool. Watching Atmosphere go through all the stages of a live band and find out what worked really well for them, seeing Heirospecs build based off the awesome drums and bass and go [was helpful]. I feel like we knew what we didn't want it to sound like, you know, and we just didn't do that. I think maybe my songs are more structured to deal with this because there's a lot of hip-hop sampled drums and live drums on every song, and instead of just having the sampled drums, Ben is filling in those parts, and it's working out.
Do you see this being something you stick with for recording and playing live?
I'd like to see how it goes for the summer, and see if we can come up with more stuff. I know me and Bill are trying to make something really special. We really want to have our live show be one of the most impressive live shows possible, and if that works out with having Building Better Bombs involved with it, we'll stick with it for a while.
You get a lot of questions about politics and beliefs and how that informs your lyrics and where you're coming from as an MC. Do you feel as time has progressed, more success has come to you, more doors have opened, that your perspective has changed in your lyrics?
No, that's the ultimate thing about it is, when I first got signed to Rhymesayers I really could have made an easy record to listen to that was mega-catchy and was about whatever, going to the club, and probably would have made more money. I have a lot of mental blocks both because of growing up in such a "punker than you" music scene Minneapolis is known for, and partly because all the music I appreciate is actually about something. I feel like with every tiny bit more success that comes, I need to be a bit more challenging, in order to both live up to what I want out of my music and to prove to myself and my fans that the way I want to do it is going to do the trick. You know if it's not, and you know, if I never actually...people always say I'm successful but I probably make what people make if they work full time at Kinko's, you know what I'm saying? That's totally successful to me, I'm fine, I'm not worried about it, but I'm not rolling in dough and I'm not ready to stop. I got a lot more to do before I feel like I'm in any kind of secure place, but I don't think I'm going to find my secure place by dumbing down my music or making it easier for whatever random kids just stumble into it.
When you're doing a bigger festival like Coachella, is it more important than ever to do an amazing live show to suck in those people who aren't invested in your music yet, to give them a reason to take the time to get into the more challenging stuff?
I think so. I think if you come to one of my shows and you're not having a good time after two or three songs, it just might not be for you. Whether the show is killing or not, I think two or three songs is plenty to know if you're going to be into it or not. If you're not, that's okay. What's going to be different about Coachella is that if you don't like rap music, you're at least gonna like watching Ben play drums. [laughs.] Because he's a maniac, and because he nails it, and these songs aren't easy to play on drums, and he holds it down so hard. I don't know--I feel like one thing about Coachella, it's more people and a bigger stage, and we'll give people more to look at than just me and Bill. I don't know, I didn't want to think about it like that, I just wanted to make sure my friends came to Coachella and made sure the set was insane and hopefully like nothing else that was at Coachella.
Musically, not sticking to any genres, what's really impressing you these days?
Around here, Slapping Purses, a lot of the things people are doing with noise and oscillators. There was a shift maybe nine, ten years ago, where all the hardcore bands all of a sudden started being like dance bands, and then all the dance bands with the members from hardcore bands started making softer music, and the cycle continues. I feel like all the punk rockers who used to make punk and then moved to dance music and then moved to some quieter bands and then tried some experiments for a while are now coming back out again noisier and crazier and there's more collaboration than ever. Everybody's in five bands, and all the bands are pretty cool, and there's always going to be one of them that's like "Wow, I've never heard anything like that!" There's bands like Moonstone, and Knife World, and, I don't know, I feel like the scene in the Twin Cities has been more impressive than a lot of other scenes. As far as the national level, there's a lot of really good music too, I just don't know how to think about it all right now. [Laughs.]
Every scene has its own economics dictating how much you can do, but being from here, with solo stuff, and Doomtree, Building Better Bombs, Marijuana Death Squads, and everything else you've got your fingers in, how do you avoid getting burned out?
I think if I didn't have all the other things going on, I would get burned out. If I was only playing P.O.S shows and touring playing 200+ shows and coming home and playing P.O.S shows and writing P.O.S songs and not doing anything else, I'd probably have quit years ago. If it wasn't for Building Better Bombs and Marijuana Death Squads and side projects and stuff like that I think I'd lose my mind. If I didn't have a place to play guitar and shout loud or not look at the crowd and not talk to people and just make noise, I think I'd lose more interest in all of it. But the fact that I try to spread it around I feel like keeps everything fresher.
Last dumb question: in today's fucked up economy, how does anyone afford to go to a big festival like Coachella as a fan?
Aw, man, I've never been to Coachella unless I was playing, and that's pretty much how it is for all the big expensive festivals. I can't just fly to California and go to a $300 concert just for fun, I work at Kinko's, man.
So do you see a completely different vibe of person at those shows than you do if you're just on tour doing club shows?
Well, you do, yeah, you see people that don't go to club shows. You see a lot of people who do go to club shows and they're standard, solid, music lovers, but you also see people that save their money and go to one or two concerts a year. They go to Coachella and maybe they go to, I don't know, Pitchfork Fest or something like that. There are people that plan their vacations around music and they're not so invested as the scene here. I'm not mad at them, I'm excited to hopefully show them something they haven't seen.