Guante's new album with Minneapolis producer Big Cats!, An Unwelcome Guest, proves two things about the rapper and spoken-word artist's move from Madison to Minneapolis a few years ago: It's done wonders for his art, and it's only driven him deeper into harsh, heavy themes. (He's also dropped the "El" from in front of his name.) The song "No Capes" begins with this: "They found Superman's body behind a Chinese buffet / Cape over his head wedged between the dumpsters, no other." Guante—real name Kyle Myhre—says this track takes place outside the album's over-arching concept, something of a post-apocalyptic narrative tangled up with a love story. Released through Twin Cities' Tru Ruts/Speakeasy label with some merchandising help from Sage Francis' Strange Famous Records, the album also comes with a thoughtful booklet that includes all of Guante's lyrics and both his and Big Cats!'s detailed notes on each track. Myhre remains feisty and pissed-off, but he's also created a lyrical thread that—gloomy or not—is very easy to get immersed in. Myrhe took some time off prepping for Guante and Big Cats!'s Saturday show at the Cabooze with Toki Wright, Maria Isa, and others to speak with The A.V. Club about the album's themes and how guests like Haley Bonar and Big Quarters took them on.
The A.V. Club: How did the image of Superman dead behind a Chinese buffet come about?
Kyle Myhre: Well, I guess buffets are just deeply ingrained into my consciousness, for starters. The album plays around a lot—and that's the most explicit, but it's implicit in a lot of other songs—with the mythology of superheroes. The idea that the traditional archetype of this super-powered person who's gonna save us all from ourselves, or from aliens or whatever, isn't really realistic. If it's a metaphor for something, it's not a metaphor for something that I would support, or that the character in the story of the album would support. What's the most embarrassing way to die? I think that would be one—to kind of demolish that archetype right away with the first line, and move on to, so, if that's not the ideal of heroism of courage, then what would be?
AVC: It adds a note of humor. Maybe "humor" is the wrong word, but something kind of skewed, at least.
KM: It's already a really dark album, I guess, but I wanted to keep little bits of gallows humor or weirdness or pop-culture references, so it's not completely drowning in blackness and sadness.
AVC: It seems like everything in this story begins with some huge loss or cataclysm. The second track and the first with lyrics, "If It Bleeds, It Leads," starts the story off with some unspecified disaster, which would usually be used as an ending, or a climax.
KM: I'm the first to admit that it's not the most original idea, of a post-apocalypse. A lot of my favorite books and movies and TV shows and video games take place in that setting, so it's something I enjoy. The challenge would be to do a post-apocalyptic story, but address things that aren't always addressed. I thought it was a healthy challenge.
AVC: You also have this repeated line: "We are waking up in our caskets." It's like an end and a beginning all mashed together.
KM: That line in particular, I've used it for a lot of promotional things. If my own work can strike me, then that's the one that strikes me as the most interesting on the album. In one sense, it's about consciousness and waking up and realizing what's going on in the world, and not being happy with it. There's also a kind of hopelessness, because you finally have that spark and understand what's happening, and by then it's too late.
AVC: It's a very collaborative album—Big Cats! has a very diverse set of beats, you have a few guest rappers, and Haley Bonar sings on "The National Anthem." How does all this input from other people affect your over-arching concept?
KM: Particularly with the rappers, I have very little control over what they talk about. That was kind of an adventure, to see how they interpreted the stories in the songs. The two singers [Bonar and Chastity Brown, who sings on "Welcome To The Border"], I wrote their parts and I knew exactly how I wanted it to be. For the rappers, and particularly on "The Stockholm Syndrome," when I e-mailed Big Quarters and Prolyphic, I told them what the song was about and where it would lead. Prolyphic took it very literally and wrote a very straightforward storytelling verse, and Big Quarters were very abstract in their approach, kind of. You saw right away, in the first two verses, completely different approaches to writing and to the subject matter, and when I wrote my verse I tried as best as I could to tie those two threads together. I loved that I could get Haley Bonar to sing on a song about zombies and disaster and stuff. It was a minor victory.
AVC: The song "The Damp, Foggy Midnight" leaves people with the question, "Where do you go when you've run out of road?" Is that a cut-and-dried ending for you, or do you want people to respond in a more open-ended way?
KM: In terms of the narrative, the end is pretty set in stone, at least to me. The open-endedness comes from the interpretation of that ending. Was the character justified in his actions? Was he a monster? Who are we to judge someone else's reaction to tragedy? Stuff like that.
I'd like for people to take two main things away from the album. First, just the idea that when a person is pushed, particularly by state terrorism or government oppression, or even what only appears to them to be state terrorism or government oppression, they're going to respond, often unpredictably. Again, it's a really simple idea, but one that I think bears repeating. We so often refuse to look at the roots of terrorism or insurgency because doing so could be perceived as "excusing" those things.
Secondly, I guess I want people to broaden their definition of "power." Powers, in superhero comics, movies, or concept albums, are always metaphors, I think. We may not be able to shoot lasers out of our eyes (or be the carrier of a zombie-plague, like the guy on the album), but every individual has the power to make an enormous impact on the world, for better or worse—through skills, community, willpower, whatever.