Sage Francis is a powerhouse -- CEO of Strange Famous Records, activist (but don't call him one), hip-hop freestyler, social commentator, and musician. His new album, Human the Death Dance, like every one of his prior releases, combines his distinct hip-hop sounds with his views on the world. Frank, funny, and unabashedly real, we talked about his music, politics, and the human condition.
What sorts of things did you listen to growing up?
I only listened to hip-hop, growing up.
Any particular bands that stick out?
Yeah, Run DMC, Public Enemy, Beastie Boys... Even before that, it was every hip-hop group that I had access to that I listened to, and thankfully I had a radio station in Boston that played hip-hop once a week for an hour. I would tape the show and that's where I'd get a lot of my hip-hop material
What do you listen to now? Like while you guys are on the road?
I'm a radio-head; we just flip through stations and look for the hits. Other than that, people have been plugging their iPods into the radio and I'd say more of a classic rock mix and Neil Young -- it's a staple but like folky stuff. Folk rock sorta, things that are kinda mellowed out; nothing that will hype us up too much.
So the title of the album, Human the Death Dance – What does it mean and how do you think that this album differs from prior albums?
Human the Death Dance was... alright, I stole that title from Buddy Wakefield. Buddy put out a record on Strange Famous Records and he gave me a list of 50 titles. He's like “I don't know what to call my record.” One of them was "Human the Death Dance." And I was like, “I like that one, you should call your album Human the Death Dance.” I like the images it conjures. I like the idea of it, whatever idea that is. But he didn't choose it. So, I used it for my album. My working title for the album was "Grave Dancer" or something, but so far all my albums have 5 syllables and Human the Death Dance had fit that quota. And I think the Death Dance is what we do in the face of death every day. What inspires us to either stay in line or to step out of line -- out of fear of the unknown. What we do out of fear of the unknown –- that's the dance. And it's a very human, shared experience.
Do you think this album differs from the others at all?
This album is a culmination of all the styles I had previously to this record. I think that if my body of work is this body [gestures to himself], then this album is this hat right here [gestures to his hat]. And that's the end of it. That is just, I put a cap on it and said I'm probably not going to go that route anymore as far as that album is made and ones before it. It has sort of a mix tape quality to it. It jumps from style to style. What's important is that the theme is that it's a celebration of my life -– things that I've learned, things that I've been through. And when I say celebrate, I don't mean like “YEAH!!” but making a mention; it's like a journal entry of the shit that I've been through, the shit that I've learned -- and after this, I don't know what I'm gonna do. I have no idea.
Something completely different then?
Yea, I've given a lot, and I don't feel like breaking myself open that much anymore.
What is and what is your role with knowmore.org?
Knowmore.org is an idea that Bernard Dolan had come up with. After the 2004 election, he came to me and we were like -- after Bush won again, after all the people had tried to convince the youth to go to the voting booths and act, do something and then they didn't -- we were like: what the fuck can we do to change things? You know, you can't trust the voting system. The only concrete thing is where you can spend your money. So, let's create a database, a massive database that breaks down each company so that people have access to that information. If people wonder where they want to spend their money, if they care as a consumer, if they want to be a conscious consumer, maybe they will stop buying Kraft after they realize how their company is being run and how their worker's rights situation is. So we break each company down into a category and we use the same kind of technology that Wikipedia does. And other people can contribute information. And once more and more people start to contribute to it, it will grow and become THE database for people who can use it to make better purchases. That's important. Informing consumers; it's a free service, and it's not like we are asking for people to pay for information and hopefully it changes things.
This question pertains to "Sea Lion" on A Healthy Distrust and "Got Up This Morning." Both of those songs are such cool collaborations of signature sounds. How did those songs come about?
With "Sea Lion," Will Oldham had sent me that chorus and him playing the guitar line and he was like, “Can you do anything with this?” and I was like “I don't know man, this is a different kind of tempo than I'm used to dealing with.” And I sent it over to Alias, who is touring with us right now, and Alias turned it into a full beat. He just added all the other elements and then I got it and it has this bounce quality to it. And I had actually rearranged the way that I write; it was a little out of my comfort zone but once I got into it, and the end result –- its one of my favorite songs I've ever made. And that went easier than I thought it would. It could have really failed, but I don't think it did at all. I am very proud of that one.
It's almost the same things with "Got Up This Morning," except in the reverse, because I got the beat first from Buck 65. I was writing verses to it, songs to it and nothing was really nailing it. I was like, “I don't know what to do with this beat.” And I was hanging with Jolie Holland, and she added those vocals over the beat and played fiddle on it, and once she did that, my story came together and everything fell into place and we added the harmonica shit afterward, through another friend. It's like over a month period going here and there and showing people different things. Finally the song is done and you're like, “Damn, this is it, this is crazy.” It went through so many different paths and it ended up here. I like it now.
You've worked with PETA, you are a vegetarian, you abstain from alcohol, and you clearly have socially charged lyrics. A lot of people would call you an activist. How do you feel about that sort of title?
I think people are grabbing more than is there. I AM an activist; I act out but I don't like to be... I don't want to be associated with PETA. I don't want to be associated with any other group of people that define themselves by those measures. I don't like it. I think it separates us from the people that these groups are trying to help, and that's not the kind of shit I'm on. So, I don't know. Its tough to answer that one. Strangely enough, I haven't been asked those kinds of questions in a while.
What do you hope people get out of your music?
I hope that they get... shocked. Shock and awe. I hope they hear it and they know this is it. There is nothing else beyond this. This is the music. This is the end.
I write for Tiny Mix Tapes. Imagine you are making a mix tape for the road. Whats the first song and the last song you throw on?
First song would be maybe Metallica "One," and the final song would be that piano song from the Amelie sound track.... (to Tom Insulator) “What's the piano song from the Amelie soundtrack?”
Tom: “It's a French name... Yann Tiersen did the soundtrack”
I can't pronounce it anyway.
Doodoodooobambambam... ... (he sings the sounds of the entire song while miming piano playing) That one.
Brilliant. Is there anything else you want to add for the readers?
Strange Famous Records. That's my home. And we are putting out other records now. Buck 65 record comes out in September. It's called Situation. I'm pumped about that. And the Prolyfic and Reanimator album is coming out after that its called The Ugly Truth. And those are the two big projects we have coming up. We are gonna finish this tour, and I'll keep doing shows, but we are going to jump into some major business stuff and make some moves and put on some people that really need exposure.