P.O.S. photo by Dan Monick
In this week's print edition, freelancer Steve McPherson profiles Stef Alexander, aka P.O.S., who is performing this weekend at First Avenue in celebration of his sophomore Rhymesayers release, Never Better. Steve was kind enough to provide us with his full conversation with the local hip-hop powerhouse, complete with a discussion on Canadian bacon, bonus tracks, and an inside look the intricacies of his new album.
P.O.S. plays a CD-release show for Never Better on Saturday, February 28 at First Avenue.
City Pages: I'm probably going to get the Italian Combo.
Stef Alexander: Canadian bacon?!
CP: You've got a problem with Canadian bacon?
Stef: Yeah, I hate it. Because it's just ham.
CP: Do you like ham? Do you feel like it's just ham being presumptuous?
Stef: No, I hate ham, and they just try to sneak it in there by calling it bacon. It's ham.
CP: Well, I'm getting an Italian combo.
Stef: You should; I'm just saying I don't want it. [To the waitress:] I'll have the Italian sausage sandwich, and my lovely wife will have the Italian combo.
CP: So who's the guest on "Terrorish"?
Stef: That's Jason Shevchuk, who was in a band called Kid Dynamite from Philly. It's members of Lifetime, and they went on to make bands like None More Black and Paint It Black.
CP: How did you hook that up?
Stef: I met Dan, who played guitar in Kid Dynamite and Lifetime, and I heard that they were fans of my music, and I have a song on my first record called "Lifetime ... Kid Dynamite" and somehow, I ended up getting ahold of [Jason Shevchuk] and asking if he wanted to do something, so I sent him the track, he wrote the part, and sent it back.
CP: Does that track from your first record sample them?
Stef: No. The chorus has the word lifetimes in it, so I thought, hey, I like that band.
CP: And who's on "Handmade Handgun" (the bonus track)?
Stef: Astronautilus. He's a friend of mine I met on the '04 Warped Tour and he's probably like--if people are going to compare me to punk rock--he makes rap music that sounds a lot like Modest Mouse, if that makes any sense. He sings a lot, but not in a punky way--in kind of an alt.country kind of way.
CP: Did you feel like you had a conscious idea of doing something different than your first two records on this, and what was that thought?
Stef: That thought was, I want to do what I've been doing, but just more of it. Usually I write a lot of verses and make a lot of beats kind of alternating: like I'll write verses with no beats and I'll make beats with no verses and nothing in mind and I'll just work it out. This time, I lost all the original beats I was making when my computer got stolen and my MPC got stolen--this was last February. So I started over again and spent a lot of time crafting the sounds and bouncing them off Lazerbeak who was answering back with the exact same thing. I'd play him something crazy and then he'd play me something crazy. He was definitely feeling where I was going and working towards that.
CP: Did you try and reconstruct any of the stuff you lost or did you decide to start over?
Stef: After that tour where everything got stolen, I kind of wanted to scrap the feel I was going for. Everything except for "Out of Category," which I recorded to two-track because that was the only beat that I had left that I still wanted to use. I liked the mix fine enough, so that's the only song that's not really mixed in stereo, because I just wanted to rap over it.
CP: Well, let me ask you about that, because I'm interested in that song particularly because of the way that the music in ["Out of Category"] has a very physical effect. When I started thinking about that, I realized that happens on a lot of other parts of the record: things like sub-bass and things that are not simply, "Here's a beat and you can rap over it." There's stuff like the hi-hat on "Out of Category" that has a certain effect on your ear. Where does that come from? Is that something you think about, and definitely want to have happen?
Stef: It's the way it feels coolest to me. I don't know, I feel like ... Spoon, man. It's all about Spoon.
CP: The band Spoon? Not the song "Spoonman" by Soundgarden, right?
Stef: It's never about the song "Spoonman." It's always about the band Spoon. The way their music is produced is so ... active, you know? For being such a simple acoustic guitar-bass-drum ... sometimes piano kind of band, the way it's produced is really effective. It's so clearly thought about as far as, "Let's make this sound really clean and good, and let's make this sound really mean and dirty." I just wanted it to sound the way it was supposed to sound. When I turned it in, Siddiq [of Rhymesayers] didn't think it sounded right at all and I was like, "You're wrong!"
CP: I've heard some of this on your other records, but especially on this record, it seems like, in that same way with Spoon, there's no part that's taken for granted. It seems like everything is doing work, and you'll have different kinds of bass and different kinds of snares layered, which probably makes people who run rap labels kind of freak out.
CP: I mean, did it change at all from when you gave it to Siddiq the first time.
Stef: I cut two songs off of it, just because it was too long and I wanted to pick it for continuity instead of for length and power, even though it's been a while since I put out a record, I didn't want to throw everything on it.
CP: You mean like Heiruspecs?
Stef: Ay ... [laughs]. I think that record's awesome. I think it's their best record.
CP: Obviously, I'm kidding. But you were going for continuity, for making a piece, so you only cut stuff. You didn't make any mix changes.
Stef: I didn't change any mixes. There were a couple songs that didn't have the right mix, so I tweaked those, but I didn't do any new arrangements.
CP: So when Siddiq says, "I don't know if this is right"--
Stef: He thought it needed more polish, like a lot more polish, not really understanding that the way these sounds were sampled, you can't really clean them up. A lot of these songs--like "The Basics"--that song is as spotless as it can possibly be without revealing the sample or changing what the song feels like. A lot of this stuff is meant to be gritty. It's intentionally like that.
CP: It's an experience.
Stef: It's supposed to be.
CP: And on "The Basics": How do you even make a beat like that? I still can't figure out how it fits together. Did it come from the first thing you hear on it, or did you back into that. Sometimes I find that I might write something and then there might be a part that comes in and then I realize that's the cool part and so then I emphasize that part, which might sound strange then. Is that how you did it?
Stef: No, the first sound was the first thing. That sound is attached to the [wailing melody] part of that sample. I don't want to tell you where I got it, but it doesn't sound anything like that at all. But it's a song I tried to sample and use on my first record. Same with "Drumroll": those two were beats that I had conceptually thought about for years but didn't know how to go about making them until this pass around. There's a couple more that I've been trying to make but haven't gotten yet.
But ["The Basics"] is entirely based around that ki-doom-ti-ki-doom-ki-ta-KI-KI and then just finding where that rhythm goes. [Warning: Music geek content ahead] That loop starts on the uh, the second "and."
CP: That's what I think messes me up, because you want to hear it as a one, but it's not at all. And that's very Spoon, also. Start the song in a place that only make sense when it drops.
Stef: I like tricking you. [laughs]
CP: So the idea of concepts you're trying to execute but couldn't do it yet: that's interesting because it seems like some of the songs are definitely concepts in the way that movies can be concepts. "Let's make a rap song where the drums are just rolling the whole time." Or "Purexed" has that explosive chorus. Do you feel like to some extent all the stuff is kind of that way? I mean, do you think of "Savion Glover" as just a beat?
Stef: Yeah, but that was the point of that one, too. With all these incredibly dense things I'm working on, let's make one that has nothing going on, and still have it work.
CP: Well, "Savion Glover" comes at a good point in the record: the point where you're wondering if the whole record going to be [intense scream]. That was on the Doomtree False Hopes, right?
Stef: Yeah, a different version.
CP: So did you rebuild it from the ground up for Never Better and why? Did you just want to keep it because you needed it?
Stef: No, no: we needed it for False Hopes. I had a demo version and we wanted to fill up False Hopes, but I knew it was going on the record.
CP: I do miss the little guitar part.
Stef: Yeah, but I wanted to build it in a way that I could build it live quickly, because I'm doing it live now.
CP: Now, is there a dude saying, "P.O.S." at the beginning of that track?
Stef: Yeah, it's a scratch. It's totally unlike me. I gave it to Mike 2600 to do some scratches and that's what he did.
CP: And you took out the reference to Scott Storch on the final record. [The False Hopes version contains the line, "Scott Storch, big check / Probably got a lot of bad head."]
Stef: Well, Scott Storch is no longer daying Paris Hilton. [Preceding line: "Populace keeping their focus on Paris Hilton / (Ick) / Prada dead, guilty as any Internet thread."] Paris Hilton is still pretty ridiculous. So she can still be named because she's still just as ridiculous, but Scott Storch is not dating Paris Hilton any longer. If you're going to have a song that makes a lot of points that make sense right now, you take out the ones that don't if it's a new version.
Photo by Dan Monick
CP: Somewhat in that vein, I wanted to ask you about the inauguration, which was pretty exciting. I feel like you had a, I would say, tendentious relationship with the President since day one of your career. So how do you feel like your career's going to go with a new President? Are you still prepared to bitch about the President?
Stef: If it's called for. I mean, it's not about bitching about the President. It's about issues. It can't just be any President.
CP: Well, on "Let It Rattle," you ask, "Do you really think a president can represent you?" Do you feel like who might be able to represent you?
Stef: Maybe. Absolutely, there's a very good chance of it. I am throwing back to a Nas line talking about money.
CP: Right: "I'm out for presidents to represent me."
Stef: And it works fine if you're thinking about presidents, too, because those are super rich people that may or may not be thinking about you. We have to see. I think [Obama] is, and I voted for him because I think he is. But that line was written about dollars, about cash.
CP: I think it might be trouble for any bands with songs written in the last presidency.
Stef: It's not, though. It shouldn't be about talking shit about the president. It should be about thinking about and paying attention to what's going on. People keep on asking me about that.
CP: Really? You've gotten a couple?
Stef: I'm not mad about it. I mean, yeah, that was a big deal when Audition came out. [The record begins with the line, "First of all: Fuck Bush. / That's all, that's the end of it."] People were like, "Whoa! This is how the record starts? I like this guy." So if it's not about that, what's it about? It was never about the president specifically, it was about what's going on.
CP: But I feel like you got a lot of good artistic work out of that relationship to the president.
Stef: I only have ... two lines on the first record, and one line on my second record.
CP: When did you decide that "Let It Rattle" was going to be the opener?
Stef: It was going to be "Drumroll" and then I got the beat for "Let It Rattle." After the second sequence I made, I switched it. I realized that it really did make a better first song. My friend Simon Army was like, "You should put that as the first song."
CP: The sequencing is really good. It's challenging right up front, but then you get into the meat of it, and you keep pushing and pulling with it, and by the time you get to "Never Better" you're way out there.
Stef: I think "Never Better" is my favorite song I've ever made in my life. I knew as soon as the beat came together that it was the shit. It's so simple, but it's so not even close to simple, and that is exactly what I'm all about.
CP: I'm also curious specifically about the tracks "Been Afraid" and "Out of Category" and the idea of writing in third person. It seems like "Out of Category" has autobiographical information--
CP: Do you see it as you talking about you, or are you talking about a character, or something else?
Stef: Well, "Been Afraid" is not about me. "Out of Category" is about me. I make that differentiation by saying "he" in "Out of Category" and then having it be subject matter that my fans are probably familiar with already, and then saying "she" and making "Been Afraid" about the girl's perpective, just to make sure I'm removed from it.
CP: It's nice because, well, there's the template of the emo-rap relationship song, and it's not trying not to do that, but it's so careful with the way the relationship builds. It's such a small amount of movement.
Stef: It's a really super intense second verse, but it's definitely not a relationship song. I mean, it is, but it's not a love song or an anger song; it's "We're in this situation and we're enjoying ourselves because it's better that way." It's a weird song.
CP: I was reading a review of the record, and I was dismayed to see that people are still trying to figure out your music by these waypoints that don't mean anything for what you're really doing. I guess it's natural, but I just feel like all the stuff about punk or rap doesn't really have a bearing on it. I feel like, especially with this record, you're pushing into territory that's--
Stef: Brand new. I wanted it to be brand new. And that's what I set out to do: Make beats and if they didn't feel like totally new shit, then scrap the beat. Give it away. There's so much I gave away or scrapped. And so much I lost. I told Sage Francis I lost beats and he said, "That's dumb. Why didn't you have backups?" No sympathy.
CP: So both "Been Afraid" and "Out of Category" have the line, "Hold your heart." What does that mean to you?
Stef: I don't know: Believe it. Swear on it. I think that one came up because I started both songs on the same day and finished them about a week apart. But they both have that in them, and I almost titled the record that, but thought it might be a little over-emo or taken the wrong way. I feel like it's a good one.
CP: You seem less angry on this record.
Stef: Are you sure? I feel like this record's so much more angry. It's so much more focused and more mature. It's less outright, but more focused. I feel like the meanest, most angry thing I've written in my entire life is "Let It Rattle."
CP: Yeah, maybe? It does seem more focused, but a couple days ago I went back and was listening to Audition, and it's so all over the place that it's hard to peg down as a record. I guess I'm specifically thinking of "Paul Kersey to Jack Kimball."
Stef: Yes, that's a pretty angry song, but that's not the record.
CP: But I just feel like you swing between dissatisfaction and unease with the way things are and a lot of hope. Maybe if you made "Hold your heart" the title of the record you're swinging too much to one side.
Stef: That's what Never Better's about as a title, because you can't place that anywhere.
CP: I was thinking about that while I was watching the video for it, because you can take it as saying, "Things have never been better than they are right now" or "They are never going to get better than they are."
Stef: That's what it is. You can't peg that, you know? If you're trying to call me an emo rapper: "How're you doing?" "Never better, man; how are you?"
CP: There's something kind of Minnesota about that, too.
Stef: Absolutely. But I feel like [the album] is the most angry thing to me that I've written as far as a mean verse, little jabs at whatever all over the place, all over the record. I feel like it's more focused outward than it is internal, like the last two.
CP: It seems like there's less of the off-the-cuff studio dialogue on this record.
Stef: Way less. Which is kind of a bummer to me, but that's just how it came out. These songs are different songs. A different feel, and I wanted a different result. I wanted the record to be just as fun in that area, and I don't know that it is, but that's how it came out.
CP: Sometimes those things can kind of undercut stuff in a nice way, so you can have your cake and eat it, too. Like "Purexed" is so majestic, but then you're like, "Du-duh! Duh!" at the end. It just throws this little tag like, "I'm aware that this is over the top."
Stef: Relax dudes.
CP: Or the track where you crack up in the middle of a line?
Stef: I was totally laughing. I was making fun of a band and laughed. I was literally laughing and I'm glad that it comes off that way. I just sacrificed that line.
CP: I don't even know how you could plan to make the line come out like that. So when you perform it ...
Stef: I'll do it the way it's supposed to be.
CP: What band were you making fun of?
Stef: This band Cute Is What We Aim For. Just awful, awful pop band. So terrible.
CP: So how much static was there really from Rhymesayers, because this record is not another When Life Gives You Lemons.
Stef: It's not even like Audition. There's no "P.O.S. Is Ruining My Life" huge radio single. There wasn't that much static. Siddiq was definitely skeptical, but it's the kind of record where, after he had it for a month, he really liked it.
CP: Well, and "Goodbye" has some possibilities--
Stef: That was the last addition to the record. And I insisted that it wasn't a single, so they leaked it. I was really happy with how it came out, but I don't feel like it is the representative sound of the record. And actually the first comment I saw about that song on the internet was, "'Goodbye': great song. I hope he didn't change his style to this." Which is completely what I was expecting.
CP: So when you signed to Rhymesayers, there was some possibility of Tommy Boy signing you, right?
Stef: They offered me the most unbelievably, ridiculously, too-good-to-be-true insane record deal ever. And I called Rhymesayers and I was like, "They offered me this," and Siddiq was like, "Well, here's the deal: you don't want to sign with those guys." We had a conversation about development and things like that and I felt good about Rhymesayers after that.
CP: So my real question is: Do you think you could have even come close to making a record like this one if you were dealing with Tommy Boy?
Stef: No way. No way.
CP: So tell me more about the videos. Were these people you'd worked with before?
Stef: Everybody who did a video is either a good friend of mine, or a friend of a friend. I had a couple of people in mind to do videos, and my friends piped up and were like, "You can't have those guys do your videos." And I said, "Why not?" and they said, "Because we're your friends and we do better videos, so why wouldn't you have us do it?" Well, because the budget's not there. And they said, "We'll make it work." And the best thing to do was just do six in a row and have everyone share the same gear and help each other out. The director for one video is the assistant director for the next video--that kind of thing.
CP: So did they have concepts and ideas?
Stef: We all had concepts and ideas and sat and pooled everything together based on what we could afford to do and what would be cool.
CP: Looking at the videos, I was thinking, if I were a little kid, this is the video I would want to make. When I was younger, before I was into music, I really liked action figures; I liked airplanes and guns. And I remember having friends who were into music and thinking music's not as cool as action. But you're sort of doing them at the same time.
Stef: I feel like we had some great ideas.
CP: I don't want to overstate my case here, but I feel like that's a huge part of being a creative person: not losing touch with that excitement.
Stef: Oh totally. I was so excited to make those videos--every single one of them was a ton of fun. Plus doing so many videos in a row taught me what I want to do. Taught me how I want to make videos. The next time around, I'll know what's going on.