Last November Minneapolis rapper Sims released More Than Ever, his first solo full-length since 2011, yet you’d be hard-pressed to argue he was taking time off. Despite dealing with family health issues, he nevertheless released two albums in that period with the hip-hop collective Doomtree and two solo EPs, with additional projects currently in the works.
Though collaboration comes easy, Sims remains most in his element in the solo album format. Rapping over electro-inspired beats, his latest features both a growth in sound and the same incisive rhymes listeners have come to expect, ranging from high octane bursts “Icarus” and “What They Don’t Know” to sobering cuts like “Spinning Away” and “Gosper Island.”
Behind the Setlist talked with Sims about making More Than Ever, the process of transferring negative energy into something positive, and the tricky business of balancing politics and music. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
So where are you at today?
I am out of town working on some songs. We rented a little cabin, Airbnb thing, so I’m out here in the woods.
Is that solo stuff?
I’m actually working on a collaborative thing now.
Oh cool. Is that supposed to come out this year?
We’ll see. Supposed to is weird [laughs]. But yeah, that’s the goal.
How has your live show changed over the years? Are you doing new stuff with this record?
Yeah, totally. So this one I have two dudes with me. I have Makr and Ander Other with me. They’re playing a bunch of beats and boxes behind me. We have taken the tracks and bounced them all as individual stems. So instead of playing a master track, we’re sending each element separated, and then these guys have the ability to replay all of it live.
What I wanted to do was add some mistakes and human element back into computer music. I wanted things that could never happen again to happen each night, whether that was a mistake or an awesome accident.
The new record sounds a lot different stylistically than Bad Time Zoo. What did you want to try out this time?
Just to be free and not be constrained to any particular style of song. I wanted to keep it moving and not make the same record again.
It seems like there’s more electro influences on this record.
Yeah. I think the days of sampling are gone for us, so we have to create all the sounds from scratch.
And you enjoy doing that?
Yeah, it’s good. We’ll miss sampling forever, but it is what it is.
Do you think sampling will come back around at some point?
It can’t because there’s lawyers lined up. That’s why no one can sample anymore, because of those lawyers. It’s happened to us a few times as well. It’s not cheap.
On Bad Time Zoo you had some themes talking about technology and the Ray Bradbury story was an influence. Did you find any themes emerge while you were working on this record?
Not really. I guess you could probably pick up the themes between the songs and feel what that is. That’s up for anyone to decide. To me it’s about joy and it’s about working through things, taking negative energy and deciding to transfer that into something positive and beautiful, using the examples that people set for you as a catalyst to make something positive happen. So when something tragic happens, you take that experience and then flip it into something positive. You do it for the people who aren’t there anymore.
More Than Ever is structured with the first four songs being very urgent and energetic, and then it seems the back half is more contemplative for the most part. Was that done intentionally?
No, it’s just what songs fit together. Basically I sequenced the record by sides of an album for the vinyl. It’s a four-side album, so I just picked little couplets.
I think I saw in an interview you mention “OneHundred” was one of your favorites off the album, which was the lead single and one of my favorites as well. What about that song struck you so much?
That’s actually not even one of my favorites, but I do like it. It’s cool. It’s fun. It’s just good rapping [laughs]. That’s it.
What are your favorites then?
“Gosper Island” is one of my favorites, and then “Spinning Away” and “Voltaire” are my other favorite songs.
I was going to ask about those. What’s the story behind “Voltaire?”
That’s the street the Bataclan is on and that song is about the Paris attacks. It’s a story of a guy walking down to a train with his girl, and then getting to the show and the violence breaks out. That’s the story in that song. It’s a first-person account of the shooting at the Bataclan.
“Spinning Away” is another one of the darker moments on the record. What was it like writing that one?
It’s just what goes on in my brain all the time [laughs]. It’s like an existential moment where you’re thinking about God and whether or not when you stare out into the distance God is looking back at you.
You use this imagery in the artwork of melting gold. Where did that idea come from?
The cover is about perseverance and going through something, like those tacks, but inside is this beautiful gold liquid that will appear. And also the gold looks cool on pink and good on blue.
Yeah, I dug the color scheme because it’s different and really stands out.
It’s extremely different for a rap album. Rap albums are dudes in front of graffiti walls and dudes in front of urban decay.
You’ve talked about being a liberal before, and that’s certainly been reflected in many songs throughout your career. How do you balance your personal politics with songwriting, especially with this current climate that we’re in right now?
It’s never an intentional thing for politics to leak into songs. They just do. My songs are a representation of myself in any given moment in any given day. So whatever I’m thinking of is what’s going to go in a song. When I start to premeditate what I want a song to be about, that’s when I try to aim the ball too much.
When you’re writing, how much do you generally come up with on the spot?
I pretty much always come up with stuff on the spot. I’m writing all the time, so I’ll write lines all day every day when I’m driving around or whatever. Lines will come to me and I’ll put them down in my Notes on my phone. Generally, I’ll just write on the spot. I spend a lot of time on each verse when I sit down to make songs, and I’ll come back to edit them and stuff like that.
One thing I’m curious about is you being a white rapper, as race and the Black Lives Matter movement have become such important topics in the rap scene, how do you approach that? I know Macklemore tried to tackle that last year, and he might have been coming from a good place but it didn’t necessarily come across the best. How do you try and deal with that subject?
I don’t know yet. It’s a developing thing and I’m just kind of there. I’m at the rallies and marches and I’m with the people. I’m trying to be good ally and a good friend of the black community, because I support it and I’m with it. I don’t know what to do about it. I’m not writing songs about it at the moment. I’m just showing up as their friend now. All I can do is check people when they need to be checked out here in the world, but as a musician I’m doing my thing still.
You’ve been doing music over 10 years now. How do you think More Than Ever represents where you’re at currently and how does it represent where you want to go in the future?
I’m not really ever thinking about that. I feel great about it. I think it’s my best work, and that’s currently where I’m at. That’s all I’m concerned about, to make good music and better music. I’m always trying to make my best music now.
You don’t usually have many features on your albums. How much different is it to do a collaborative album?
It’s way different. It’s a lot less work [laughs]. I think I’m good at taking the lead and I’m good at also picking up where someone else wants to take the lead. I like working with people. I think rap music is really fun to be collaborative with, but my solo stuff I get more into my space and want to do my own thing. I have my own vision for each one of those.
And you have Doomtree too, which is very collaborative, so you’re able to balance both at the same time.
It’s cool to have a couple bands, you know?
So what else do you have planned for the rest of this year? Are you going to be touring a lot?
Yeah, I’m going to Europe in April and I have that little P.O.S run coming up. Then festivals this summer and more tours this fall. I have two different collaborative albums in the works right now, so that’s it.