Interview by: Martin Bauman
Hailing from Ottawa, Atherton is a hip-hop musician who draws influences from all genres. Priding himself on an energetic, even theatrical, live performance, his persona on stage borders on the absurd, providing comic relief to the thoughtful and sobering themes in his music. The Come Up Show caught up with Atherton while he joined the Deleted Scenes tour in London, and we discussed his latest album, No Threat, early influences, what’s next for him, and more. Read the full interview below.
TCUS: So, you were performing in Toronto last night at Rancho Relaxo. That would have been the first night of your tour, what was it like?
Atherton: Rancho Relaxo! [Yawns] Very relaxing. But the show wasn’t relaxing, it was a good show. Yeah, that was number one for me, and it was fantastic. It’s rare that I’ll come and perform at a show, and really be engaged and really take away something from every act that performs. And that night was one of those rare, magical moments where everyone just killed it. And we had a good turnout, too! For a Monday night, it’s kind of a hard sell for a lot of people, but we got people in the door, and they got loose, and it went off! [Makes air horn noise]
TCUS: [Laughs] Are those guys that you’ve met before, or is this the first time that you’ve met them?
Atherton: Kils and I have worked [together]. I was in a group called The Leathers, and we put an album out [that] we recorded with Kils. And I just released my most recent record, my solo record, in May of this year. And he recorded all of that and produced some of the tracks on there. So I’ve been working pretty closely with Kils, and he’s my go-to engineer. Dukez is from Buffalo, and we share the same manager – Tony is our manager. So we’ve had a good working relationship, and I do shows in Toronto, and Dukez will just come hop the border, even if it’s just to join me to freestyle for a track, or get a verse down. We’ve had a lot of fun working together. Blueprint… I’ve definitely seen him perform a bunch, and I rocked with him once in Columbus when I was on tour down there. He wasn’t performing that night, but he was deejaying. That’s really my only connection with him, other than being a fan.
TCUS: Going back, how did you get started in hip-hop?
Atherton: I guess it started off [as] a young teen, smoking weed, freestyling. [I] always loved to be the class clown, and loved to entertain my friends, and I found that in freestyling for them. It got serious in my early twenties, around 20, 21. I started really writing stuff. Around the same time, I stopped smoking weed [laughs]. And yeah, it got really serious. Now I’m 29, I’ve put out three albums, and toured everywhere. Just having the time of my life!
TCUS: What kind of artists were you listening to when you were growing up and getting into rapping?
Atherton: Mid-high school, when I was in like junior high, I wasn’t really listening to [hip-hop]. I was listening to a lot of pop-punk stuff, like NOFX, and Face to Face, and it went from there, starting as the end of the Nirvana wave, into pop-punk stuff. And then just a lot of nineties hip-hop, I guess. I started getting into more underground [hip-hop], with Hieroglyphics, and Dilated Peoples… [I’m a] big, big Pep Love fan from Hiero, I really liked what he was doing. I got into a lot of KRS-One, and then more of the newer indie stuff, like Rhymesayers and Def Jux, a little later on. Those were the artists that I really appreciated. And then again, I always loved that gangster shit. I could feel some part of me attached to it, but I couldn’t connect to it on a completely holistic level.
TCUS: You mentioned your most recent album earlier. Can you tell me more about that?
Atherton: Yeah, it’s called No Threat. It’s a 10-track album, I produced seven of the beats on there… Not too many features, I have Patience on there from Flight Distance, which is an Ottawa group. I have some singers on it: Whitney [Delion] from Sound of Lions, which is a great Ottawa trip-hop group, another guy, Dean [Povinsky], who sings in a band in Toronto called Wildlife. A lot of people from mixed backgrounds, genre-wise, came to the table. Even instrumentalists, like my buddy Dave Wickland plays some flute on there, and some sax as well. It’s a lot of eletronic, synth-based stuff. Except for the track that Kils produced, there’s no samples on there. So there’s a lot of synths, and then live instruments, too. I think it’s a pretty full-sounding record. It’s danceable, but not completely – it’s kind of like pop music with a heavy dose of melancholy.
TCUS: How would you compare it to your previous albums?
Atherton: My first record [A Different Way Of Doing The Same Old Thing] was done with a deejay. DJ Sire produced most of it, so that was more his sound. Really sample-based – what you think of when you think of a classic hip-hop record. The second one [The Leathers] was with my buddy PBRAIN, and that was really raw-sounding, [and had] a lot of drive behind it. It was by no means a polished record. We went in and recorded that with maybe three songs written, and a bunch of beats that we enjoyed, and five days later, we had a 10-track album recorded. It was just f***in’ really cool to see that album come together that quickly, because that’s pretty rare. Usually, left to my own devices, it’ll take me years to put something out. This new one [No Threat] is more of my sound. I was the driving force behind it, rather than making a record as part of a group. It’s definitely my first real solo effort.
TCUS: For those who have never seen you perform before, how would you describe your live show?
Atherton: It’s fantastic. This is either the 17th or 18th time I’ve been to London, but it’s no surprise [if] you haven’t seen me before, because it was often at, like, The Embassy, or Liquid Lounge, with me, the promoter, the promoter’s girlfriend, and the sound man as the members of the audience. And for a long time, I thought that’s all London was – east of Adelaide. And I was like “shit, this town sucks!” But you know, there were some good nights at The Embassy. That venue had some glory moments, for sure. But my live show is definitely… me on stage is pretty ridiculous. It’s pretty absurd, in terms of my banter and the way I act up there, whereas my songs, and a lot of my material, is pretty sobering stuff. It kind of balances it out, you know? My music is very serious, but I don’t take myself seriously at all.
TCUS: Looking ahead, as you come off this tour, what are you looking to do to close out this year and head into next year?
Atherton: Right now, some less interesting stuff, doing a lot of grants, and trying to get some extra money to put out at least one, maybe two more videos for the record. There’s already three or four right now. So I’m still heavily pushing that, then looking at licensing deals for the music. And aside from what I do in terms of original music, I’ve also been really getting into deejaying this year – so a lot more gigs there. In Ottawa, we run a successful monthly hip-hop karaoke night. It’s been going very well. If you know anyone in Ottawa, we do the third Thursday of every month at Babylon night club. It’s a pretty legendary venue for the local music scene.
— Devin Atherton (@DevinAtherton) November 10, 2012
TCUS: You mentioned your videos, where can people find those?
Atherton: My channel on YouTube is AthertonTV. They’re all organized there. Starting in January, I also do a weekly web show called Freestyle Thursdays, where I have random guests come on the show and do a quick interview, and then we usually do some sort of improvised music – usually it’s freestyle-based, or sometimes they’ll drop a verse. Last season, we had Shad, we had Fresh Kils, we had Mindbender, local dudes, Babble Goons… I bring on my dad, [or] my mom as a guest. It’s pretty random who we’ll have as a guest, but it’s a lot of fun. You can find that on the YouTube channel as well.
TCUS: Speaking of other artists, what kind of artists would you like to work with in the future?
Atherton: Man, anyone and everyone I find talented, really. The more I move forward, the more I’m branching out from a narrow view of just hip-hop, you know? Not to say that you can’t make great music and just be hip-hop, but for me, I need a little bit more, and [I need to] get into genres that I’m not familiar with – just to keep me from being bored. That’s really the logic behind that. So I work with classical cello players, or people with opera-trained voices, or metal dudes… whatever the case. I try to find somebody that works. And I do a lot of collaborations, and sometimes they’re shit. But sometimes, you strike some black gold. [Deadpans] You hit that oil, and get rich!
TCUS: That’s all from me, is there anything else you wanted to add?
Atherton: Yeah, ladies and gentlemen listening to The Come Up Show, you can check me out on the internet [at] devinatherton.com, and @DevinAtherton on Twitter. Follow me on this wonderful journey known as life! I love you, I miss you, expect a Christmas card.
TCUS: [Laughs] Alright, thank you very much!
Atherton: Thanks for having me!