It’s All About Atmosphere

Atmosphere’s Slug talks with Pollstar about the Minneapolis-based rap act and how DIY is the only way to fly.

Formed in 1989, Atmosphere has grown and contracted since Sean “Slug” Daley started rhyming to Anthony “Ant” Davis’ beats.  But no matter how big or small Atmosphere is, the two men have always put the music first.  But then, they have to because they’re the ones running the show.

This summer you’ll find Atmosphere on Slightly Stoopid’s “Kickin’ Up Dust” tour as well as doing a few headlining gigs.  And how does a Southern California band view having a Minneapolis rap act on the bill?

“Kickin’ up dust literally!!,” Slightly Stoopid’s Miles Doughty told Pollstar. “State-to-state coast-to-coast Stoopid, Atmosphere, Tribal Seeds and The Grouch & Eligh are bringing a melting pot of madness to a town near you. … Nothing like summertime touring.”

Along with talking about the versions of Atmosphere he and Ant have fielded throughout the years, Slug also described the band’s business side, what he actually hears while performing and how anxiety can be a great motivator.

Photo: John Davisson
CounterPoint Music & Arts Festival, Boukaert Farm, Atlanta, Ga.

Aside from Ant, how many musicians will accompany you on this tour?

One other musician, a DJ named Plain Ole Bill.

The size of Atmosphere’s stage show has expanded and contracted over the years.  Are you traveling as a three-piece because the group is supporting Slightly Stoopid, or is this the way it’s going to be for a while?

I’m not sure.  [Throughout] the life of Atmosphere, I’ve been through so many changes, the only variable that has stayed the same has been myself.  Even Ant didn’t use to tour with me.  He’d stay home and make beats and I would rap to them and he’d make records.  Then I’d go out and tour with whomever I could hire to be my DJ or in some scenarios drummer, bass player, guitarist, whatever.

In ’05 Anthony quit his job and decided to go on the road with me.  The only thing that held him back from touring was that he was afraid to quit his day job. When he started touring with me it modified what we had so that I was no longer the only variable that was constant.  And it felt way more natural because here are the two guys who make the music in their basement and now they’re on stage.  I like to tell people, “Hey, whomever me and him decide to bring with [us] is just part of the insecurity of how to present what we’ve been doing lately.”  It’s like, whatever it is we’ve been working on lately; we got to figure out how to present it on the stage.  We’ve rolled around with a few live players for quite a few years and it felt like that was the important thing to do for a number of reasons.

I needed a change.  What I was doing in the ’90s and the early 00s was … I was kind of running through the motions. It wasn’t like I was mailing it in, but I wasn’t scared anymore.  I wasn’t afraid of what was going on.  I was just comfortable.  So we shook it up by starting a band.

Now, everybody has a band, all the rappers have bands. And so, it’s like, “Shit.  There’s nothing special about that, anymore.” So it’s kind of a breath of fresh air to go back to the DJ thing. Not just one DJ, I have two DJs.  I’m older than a lot of my fans realize, but for me when I was a kid, there were a few artists that did double DJs – Doug E. Fresh and the Get Fresh Crew, Main Source – and it was always kind of a special phenomena to see two DJs working together.  It’s standard to see two rappers and a DJ. Run DMC created that mold back in the mid ’80s. But two DJs and a rapper was a new thing in the late ’80s. Nowadays you don’t even see that anymore.  So it’s kind of exciting to be presenting that element.

I had been working with a band so long that I became accustomed to a non-linear sound.  I was able to add texture to what I was doing on stage.  What we’re doing now is that we’re still able to add that texture because we’re breaking up that sound. Ant isn’t sending me one signal with the beat.  He’s sending me drums, kicks, snare, hat – they’re all different lines.  We’re still able to texturize and create a sound similar to what we were doing when I had live players but with the excitement in the hip hop mind-state or, I guess, aesthetic of the DJ and the beat.

During the live show, what do you hear?  Are you hearing the same mix the audience hears?

I have my own mix.  I have a monitor on stage where I tend to keep drums and my voice.  I don’t necessarily need piano, guitar, bass, any scratches on stage. But I also wear ear [monitors]. I can basically control my own volume with my in-ears, what I like to all the “album sound.” I have an album sound sent to my ears which is a mix of the whole show and I fit my voice in there. I’m listening to it like I want to hear it coming out of my speakers in my car.  I’m able to monitor it like that but I can also turn that down anytime by grabbing the little butt pack that I wear and turning the volume down.  So if I have a song where I want to rap harder, I’ll turn down my ears so all I have are drums and my voice coming through.  I have variations of what I do depending on the song.

When you were traveling with various musicians, did you see Atmosphere as a music act, a rap act or more like an artists’ collective?

I always saw it as a rap act but I did know there was a strength to having a kind of evolving collective. There were a couple of players I definitely depended on a lot – Nate Collis who was on guitar and Erick Anderson on keyboards.  I definitely depended on them to kind of be stable.  There was an evolving mixture of other friends of mine. It was always people from Minneapolis. It was like, “Hey, you want to quit your job and go on the road for a year?”  Minneapolis is so full of musicians that it’s not hard to find someone who wants to play music.

From my own perspective, I still spoke in terms of like, “This is me and Anthony putting our music out there on display for the live show and whatever you get it’s just for better or for worse.  It’s frosting.”  You know sometimes you get a piece of cake that has too much frosting?  I’m not trying to say everything we present, you’re going to love it.  But the cake is still there.  Whatever kind of decorations or frosting we throw on it, that’s just extra. … Pushing the envelope or reinventing the wheel, I was never trying to do that.  I was always trying to give the best idea of how I felt the show should look and sound based on the album [we] were presenting.

You mentioned a time when you were no longer afraid, saying that wasn’t necessarily a good thing.  Is fear a good motivator for the creation process?

For me it is.  I don’t know if “fear” is the word I would choose, but “anxiety.”  When you back me into a corner is when I come up with my best shit.  Whether I’m in the writing process or touring process, if I get too comfortable, that’s when I worry that I’m not doing my job correctly.

In rap I’ve already kind of overstayed my welcome. I’ve been doing this since ’95, I’m coming up on 20 years and there are not many of us that have been able to do this for 20 years.  There’s an elephant in my room that’s basically going, “You gotta keep it moving, you gotta keep looking for that new thing.  You can’t get too comfortable because you will get fired.”

Do you think you would be this focused on something if you weren’t a musician?

I want to say no but if you asked my mom she would say, “Yeah.”  She might stop short at saying “anal” but I’ve always been pretty anal about stuff.  I come up with an idea of what I want to do and I don’t stop until I execute it.  For better or for worse, you know.  Not every idea is a great idea. Whether it’s a song, a performance or building a deck in my backyard, I’m one of those guys … I get it done.  I figure out what I want to do and then I figure out how to get it accomplished.  It’s probably from my upbringing.

Regarding the creation process, how does an Atmosphere track begin?  Does it start with beats or words?  Do you get a couple of rhymes and work from there?

I’ve tried everything. It depends on where we’re at.  When I first started with Anthony, I used to show up with notebooks filled with raps that I had written and we would find beats to go with them.  Over the years we evolved and tried different techniques for making music.  Right now the place where we’re at, I would say is “mellow.”  Anthony has been staying in the Bay Area of California for the last two years and I still live in Minneapolis. I wake up and find the email he sent the night prior, have a couple of new ideas and spend a couple of hours drinking coffee and trying different voices or ideas for choruses or whatever.  And whatever I come up with I’ll send back to him, he’ll wake up, look at it and send it back to me.  Then at night I’ll look at his notes and try to build a song.  I still have to work.  I do four hours, take a break for about four hours and then go back to work that night.  It’s actually more hands-on for both of us than it’s ever been.  In the past I would show up at his house and throw every piece of shit I had against the wall to see if it stuck.  Now we’re throwing our ideas back and forth.

I guess we’re getting comfortable with our age.  I like to use this metaphor when talking with friends – when you get older and someone rear ends you, you don’t jump out of the car and get mad and lose your mind.  You get out of the car, you shrug and make sure everybody’s OK.  It’s still an accident.  It is what it is.  Now we look at these accidents we make and they don’t break our hearts or make us crazy.  We’re just a little more thoughtful.

When you started Atmosphere, you and Ant were very much a do it yourself act.  Now that you’ve been recording and performing for more than 20 years, do you still see DIY as the way to go?

I do. We’ve been able to turn this Atmosphere thing into a vehicle that’s more than just me and Anthony. We built a record label, a record store, a touring company.  Everything from the artwork to the merchandising, everything we do we create jobs and give them to our friends.  With that in mind, there’s a little less do it myself, particularly me. In the past I used to draw my own artwork for the cassettes.  I was so DIY because I had no choice.  That’s just how it had to be. Now, I’ve been able to take that and turn it into do-it-yourself jobs for my friends.  Maybe I’m not making the artwork myself anymore … but I’m still providing somebody else with an opportunity to create a place for themselves inside this vehicle.  I do believe in [DIY] but it’s just that it’s gotten so big that I couldn’t handle all the responsibilities myself like it was back in the day.

I still don’t have a real management company.  I tried it for a minute.  It was cool, I was with Silva Artist Management.  Great people and I had a great time with them but I realized that they were way too big for us. We weren’t ready to be standing next to the Foo Fighters and Beastie Boys.  We backed away and went back to being self-managed. And when I say “self-managed” I don’t mean I’m literally the guy who answers the phone if you want to book us but we keep it in-house with the company that we built – management, merchandising, marketing, it’s all in-house.

So even when Atmosphere isn’t active, when you’re not creating and recording music or touring, you’re still a very busy person.

I stay working.  I have a lot of friends who have dreams, big dreams and the more of them I can help … I’m not trying to martyr myself here by any means. I am a piece of shit, don’t get it wrong.  But the more of my friends I can help obtain what it is they’re looking for is a stronger place we all can [have] within this culture.

You gotta remember that when we were kids we looked at this in awe.  We were just fans, huge fans.  Where we’re at now, we don’t take it for granted.  I love my job and I don’t want to lose it. I’ll do whatever I can do to keep a job within this culture. … Whether that means I’m rapping on the stage or selling you T-shirts or driving the f***ing bus, I’m trying to learn every aspect.  I don’t ever want to go back to working for some rich old guy who doesn’t know my first name.  Self employed for life, you know what I’m saying?

Photo: John Davisson
Forecastle Festival, Waterfront Park, Louisville, Ky.

What moves Atmosphere from town to town?  What’s your touring setup like?

We roll in a bus and a trailer.  If it’s our own headlining tour we bring a truck with all the backline gear. [For this tour] we’re in a bus.  I have a crew of five people and a band of three so we have eight people on the bus right now.  We’re pulling a trailer that’s filled with merch and some backline. 

It’s a pretty big production. This is probably one of the largest productions that I’ve been a part of in the sense of what Atmosphere is carrying We’re carrying these LCD light screens that we’ve never used before for video and crazy imagery and stuff. We’ve never really monkeyed around with that.

I’ve also set up the stage with props. I always liked the idea of making the show look like a high school play.  We’ve done things in the past where we had trees on the stage and giant birds and some shit.  But this one is way more … we took the look a little bit from what goes on in the EDM culture right now where there’s a lot of imagery and flashing lights and shit like that.  Not because I’m trying to distract you from the music but because it’s like, if you’re here to dance …

We were in the culture of indie rock for a long time. Atmosphere toured in the indie rock circuit and in that culture it’s all about staring at the stage and the performers or staring at your shoes. Nowadays I’m seeing more and more people who aren’t even looking.  Their eyes are closed and they’re dancing.  So, I was like, “Shit, if it’s no longer about staring at me, maybe we can create an experience that’s not just about, ‘Hey, look at me.”  This is an extension of that. It started when I was throwing different props and shit on the stage. But when you start playing with different looks and different lighting techniques, it makes it more than just a rap show.  That’s the wrong way to say it, though. I hate it when people say, “Oh, this is more than a rap show” because it’s not. It’s just a f***ing rap show.  But it’s like, I guess, I’ve reached a place in my life that I don’t need all the girls to stare at me. It’s OK. I’m old, I’m fat, I’m married, I have kids.  Let’s just have a good time and dance.  I’m into that. 

That’s something that, maybe four years ago playing festivals I started to pick up on, watching the EDM groups or even a jam band and what they’ve been doing.  If people are having a great time it’s not really about the guy on stage [being] an idol and the whole economy of the guy standing 12 feet taller than you.  I think it’s a natural thing to stop over- emphasizing that and start emphasizing the whole production.

Are there moments during rehearsals where you step back to take in the whole presentation, perhaps video record a rehearsal and then critique it?

I’ve never really videoed myself but what I do is take a cordless mic offstage and stand next to the sound guy and LV guy and watch from their viewpoints.  I’ll still be rapping while the DJs are onstage but I’ll be offstage watching, taking notes. I do stay involved but it’s never been about what I am doing.  I feel like, I’m not a choreographed guy, per se. I’m not that good at that. I’ve got enough shit to remember, I don’t want to have to remember to stand over here at one point or whatever. I still keep myself free to do whatever, but I do pay attention to what the show is going to look like as far as lights, sound, actions.  It’s become one of our strengths that I don’t choreograph myself. I need to stay free and loose to be able to stop the show when I have to and yell at a kid for picking a fight or who knows what. I always try to stay kind of personable with the audience. It’s not just a show, I’m trying to run an experience and I want that experience to be good for everyone.

What can fans expect from Atmosphere on this tour?

Most of the shows are outside.  So you got the weather situation.  It’s going to be either really hot or it’s going to rain.  It could be miserable under other circumstances but here you’re watching me.  So I’m trying to use that for the basis of what our show is about.  Everybody’s f***ing hot or if it’s raining everybody’s wet.  We’re all on the same page here so let’s just kind of let our hair down and enjoy it. I really love to play outdoors for that fact.  Once it rains everybody’s hair is f***ed up, everybody’s shoes are ruined, nobody is cooler than anyone else.  We’re all the same out here.  I think that’s when people can let their guard down, let their social structure shit fall down and have a good time together. 

I’ve seen Slightly Stoopid perform and I feel like they’re fairly similar with that mind state.  It’s like, “Hey, this isn’t about how you guys paid this money to see us.  You paid your money because you want to have a good time. Regardless of who’s on the stage you paid your money because you didn’t want to go to work today. You’ve been at work all week.  It’s time to kick it have some fun – so who cares who is on the stage.  Let’s just make sure everybody has a good time.”

It’s kind of over-focused on.  A lot of our shows in the past, when we headline tours inside clubs, we tend to play kind of a dark show. … I prefer dark humor, I prefer to try to extract shit out of people’s heads.  I think on a tour like this we’re not so much going to try to remind everybody that they have problems.  We want to remind everybody that it’s OK to leave your problems at home.

“You gotta remember that when we were kids we looked at this in awe.  We were just fans, huge fans.  Where we’re at now, we don’t take it for granted.”

July 19 – Berkeley, Calif., Greek Theatre
July 20 – Chula Vista, Calif., Sleep Train Amphitheatre
July 24 – Eugene, Ore., Cuthbert Amphitheater
July 25 – Nampa, Idaho, Idaho Center Amphitheater
July 26 – Missoula, Mont., Big Sky Brewing Amphitheater
July 27 – Magna, Utah, The Great Saltair
July 28 – Aspen, Colo., Belly Up Aspen
July 30 – Bellvue, Colo., Mishawaka Amphitheatre
Aug. 1 – Tulsa, Okla., Cain’s Ballroom
Aug. 2 – Kansas City, Mo., The Crossroads
Aug. 3 – Council Bluffs, Iowa, Harrah’s Casino – Stir Concert Cove
Aug. 4 – Des Moines, Iowa, Simon Estes Riverfront Amphitheatre
Aug. 8 – Boston, Mass., Bank Of America Pavilion
Aug. 9 – Asbury Park, N.J., Stone Pony Summerstage
Aug. 10 – Philadelphia, Pa., Festival Pier
Aug. 11 – Baltimore, Md., Pier Six Pavilion
Aug. 14 – Chesterfield, VA  Pocahontas State Park
Aug. 15 – North Myrtle Beach, S.C., House Of Blues
Aug. 16 – Raleigh, N.C., Red Hat Amphitheatre
Aug. 17 – Charlotte, N.C., Time Warner Cable Uptown Amphitheatre
Aug. 19 – Birmingham, Ala., WorkPlay Soundstage
Aug. 21 – Atlanta, Ga., The Tabernacle
Aug. 22 – Saint Augustine, Fla., St. Augustine Amphitheatre
Aug. 23 – Cocoa, Fla., Riverfront Park
Aug. 24 – Boca Raton, Fla., Sunset Cove Amphitheater
Sept. 13 – Chicago, Ill., Humboldt Park (Riot Fest)

Atmosphere is appearing on Slightly Stoopid’s “Kickin’ Up Dust” tour on all dates through Aug. 24 except for  July 28,30 & Aug. 19 which are headlining dates.  Visit for more information.