Introducing: Bartees Strange’s “About Today”

A re-envisioning of The National's song, plus a love letter to the band.

Band practice was done and we were on our way home, biking and skating up Prospect Park West. We could hear the summer bandshell show — they were introducing the National. Do you think we can still get in? By the time we made it, the set was well on its way. I hadn’t seen them in years and I was amazed. They sounded heavier than their recordings. They moved like an orchestra. Grace, belligerence, solidity. Afterwards, Carter and I couldn’t stop talking about what we’d seen. 

I’d moved to Brooklyn a year before. For most of my 20s, I couldn’t admit to myself that music was what I needed to do. Seeing that show crystallized something in me, something about who I wanted to be. I grew up in tiny town Oklahoma — in places like that, you find some of the best people and some of the best record stores. I found Boxer at Guestroom Records. The best drummer I knew couldn’t get enough of it, my professors kept talking about it, the cello students down the hall seemed to debate daily about these brilliant arrangements and these “twin brothers from ‘Clogs’.” 

In college, I’d just started playing in bands. Music was a way to process some of what I’d faced growing up. Blatant things, subtle things, fully terrifying things. Blending in and not making too much noise was how I’d spent most of my life. There were never many black folks around. I see now the fear I learned there didn’t allow me to think bigger than where I was. But through playing in a hardcore band, then a post-rock band, a country band, a punk band, and eventually leaving Oklahoma — I grew more surefooted. I began to blossom into something I really loved. 

The first time I saw the National was in Tulsa. Something about how they held back was beautiful. There was a directness to their sound, a clarity to their vision. I remember thinking I wanted it for myself too. Tulsa wasn’t ready for them. Half the crowd loved it, half the crowd didn’t care. I remember that too — it was course-setting. I don’t need to be liked. I don’t need to fit in. Half of the crowd will love me 

So in commemorating some of these songs and creating this EP, I wanted to bring something new to them. I got this idea when I was at my last National show in DC, Courtney Barnett was opening. It hit me how few black folks were in the crowd, and how this genre (indie rock) seems to exclude the contributions black people have made to it. So I thought Hey, I think I could do something to recast some of these songs — focusing on the elements that made me fall in love with them. The kick patterns of “About Today,” the coarse emotion of “Reasonable Man,” the soul in “Geese of Beverly Road.”

This music has meant everything to me over the years, so this project felt like an opportunity to share these songs with people who may have missed the wave as well. 

These songs were my love songs, my break up songs, my I-got-my-first-job-interview hype music, and the road trip soundtrack for some of my greatest memories and accomplishments. This band has always meant more to me than the tunes. And most of all, they showed me multiple times that. 

— Bartees Strange

Bartees Strange’s EP Say Goodbye to Pretty Boy comes out March 13, 2020 via Brassland Records.

Bartees Strange was born in Ipswich, a town in Suffolk, England. His family did stints in Germany, Greenland, and a number of states across America before he hit his 12th birthday when they settled in Mustang, Oklahoma. Bartees began producing music for friends with a small project studio he built out of a Tascam 388, the family computer and a pirated copy of FL Studio. Through AOL instant messenger, Bartees connected with old friends in the UK, who brought him up to speed on a new world of sonic influence led by Bloc Party, Burial, Robyn and Skream. College, and a half-decade stint in Brooklyn connected him with the rising indie scene — particularly favorites like Bon Iver, TV on The Radio, Frank Ocean, James Blake, King Krule, Japanese Breakfast, Mt. Kimbie, Mitski, Thao Nguyen, and The National, giving him a crash course in lyrical intrigue and textural brilliance.

Say Goodbye to Pretty Boy is a summary of his influences and the first commercial release by an artist who we truly think can go on to become a cultural influencer in his own right. Bartees resides in Washington, DC — where makes music and works at a non profit fighting against climate change and poverty.

(Photo Credit: Bao Ngo)