Local Current Blog

The P.O.S position: A conversation on quantum physics and music with Stef Alexander

Photo by Nate Ryan/MPR

This article was produced as a part of a collaboration between The Growler Magazine and 89.3 The Current, and appears in the April print edition of The Growler. Stay tuned for an in-depth conversation between Andrea Swensson and P.O.S, which they recorded at Imagine Wellness on April 13 and will be released next month as part of Andrea’s podcast series, The O.K. Show.

What happens when your health issues take center stage, forcing you to reschedule tours, delay plans, rearrange your artistic desires? What happens when your mind races ahead but your body stays put? What happens when you start to feel like everyone knows you as “that rapper who got the kidney transplant”? What if you feel sick and healthy at the same time? What if you are P.O.S, and you’re trying to pinpoint the perfect way to sum up three years of witnessing the best and worst of humanity and your own body’s abilities, knowing that this will be the first thing you’ve said in an awfully long time?

You might end up rapping about quantum physics. You might invite all your friends to help out. And it just might end up being one of the finest songs of your career.

“All I want is to chisel my initials into something permanent now, and raise up these damn kids and make my mama so f***ing proud, and mutilate a couple crowds,” P.O.S spits about three minutes into the nine-minute “Sleepdrone/Superposition.” It’s an urgent statement that comes amid a flurry of cameos from rappers Lizzo, Astronautalis, Allan Kingdom, Hard_r (P.O.S’s son, Jake), plus riot grrrl founder Kathleen Hanna, Eric Mayson, Lydia Liza, and Nicholas L. Perez, all of whom manage to stay mostly out of the way as P.O.S ruminates on his health, relationships, and identity.

“I’m trying to exist in superposition,” he insists repeatedly. For such an epic song, he’s invoking an equally epic quantum theory; superposition is the idea that a being can exist in multiple states at once, a la Schrodinger’s cat (who gets a shout-out in the song). On “Sleepdrone/Superposition,” P.O.S is a black man confronting police brutality and coming to terms with the deaths of Eric Garner and Mike Brown; a father grappling with his relationship with his kids and his own parents; a surgical patient trying to overcome chronic pain; and a rapper so lyrically gifted and intellectually complex that he seems to rise above it all and float untethered over the mayhem.

It’s ambitious as all hell. And yet, somehow, the whole song manages to fly by in an instant, despite the fact that it’s the length of three pop songs. It’s the kind of opus that demands repeat listens, if only to catch all the guest appearances and lyrical turns of phrase. And it’s so, so good to have P.O.S back in action.

Andrea Swensson: This is your first new solo music in about three-and-a-half years. How does it feel to finally have it out?

P.O.S: Ugghh, so good. So good. I don’t know that I’ve ever taken so long to make one song before. I [worked on] the beat, the really hard, hard concept of the beat for six months. I even turned that beat in for the pile we made making “All Hands” for Doomtree. But it was at one of the most raw stages. I don’t think anybody could really hear it yet. And I don’t know that I could, either.

AS: When did you start working on the lyrical aspect of the song, figuring out what you wanted to say?

P.O.S: Aw, man. I don’t ever know what I actually want to say. I always have a vague idea, and then don’t know how to get from point A to point B. So it’s just every piece of garbage that falls out of my brain, until I feel like the song’s done. But this particular song, I’ve been working on in some capacity or another, lyrically, for a couple years. Right after I got my transplant, I was writing a lot of lyrics, and some of them ended up in this song, some of them are ending up in other songs I have. But those songs themselves were not ever going to make it to the world. They weren’t good. They were more just kind of like a release, and trying to get words out of my head, but they didn’t make for really good listening for people.

AS: More like journaling. That can be good, too.

P.O.S: It can be good, but I don’t know if it makes for the best P.O.S song. I really like my songs to hit in that specific way, where I can say this as loud as I want and mean it, and know that everything’s cool. If it’s ruled by emotion, I want it to be ruled by a consistent emotion, and I want it to be ruled by something I’ll at least be able to look back and have make sense. And I feel like a lot of the feelings that I was having recovering from surgery was just like this really weird kind of lonely that I don’t even know how to find actual words for. And I don’t know that it would come off relatable. So I feel like I’ve been poaching the stuff that is relatable for future music, but yeah, those songs—some of them didn’t even get demo-ed. They just got written and then yelled a bunch of times.

AS: One thing that I love about this song is that you’re talking about a lot of different topics but it maintains a consistent vibe throughout. How did you do that?

P.O.S: One of my favorite super long songs—and I know how people feel about the band NOFX, but I grew up listening to a lot of NOFX. And I always thought that he was a clever writer, in that bratty kid way, but more than that he was a clever songwriter, where he doesn’t have a giant range, he writes the same kind of five or six songs over and over again, but the way he is able to structure them ends up being catchy in the right ways. They have a song called “The Decline” that’s a 15-minute fast punk song. And there’s no way that that doesn’t get boring. Except that the way they arranged it is, it comes off like a little EP that just happens to have the same chorus in every song.

So for me, coming at this, knowing I wanted to make a really long song, and [with my] experience with Deathsquads, I understand how to arrange something so musically it stays interesting. Working with Ryan [Olson] for so long, he’s really good at bringing up other little chunks—I take it from that, and I have my own style with that too. But the NOFX thing I was talking about was, the way that they spaced out the chorus and the way that they brought it in throughout these different styles, that way they make music was something that I grabbed onto. If I make the chorus big enough and feel like it’s its own separate thing, and if I space it out right, then this nine-minute long song won’t feel like a nine-minute long song.

AS: One thing that I really enjoyed about it, too, is that you get the sense of all your different musical backgrounds. You’ve got the Deathsquads drumming and your solo synthy beats and some elements of Doomtree with the chorus and everyone coming together—and then you’ve got this idea of superposition, which is being able to exist in all these different states. That confluence massaged my brain in a really satisfying way. Where does your fascination with superposition come from?

P.O.S: I think anybody who is into pop science or is interested and paying attention to what is going on out there, that’s a super fascinating concept. I had read about it and known about it for years, but being laid up—being, like, on my back, and it’s daytime, everybody’s at school, everybody’s at work, everybody’s got things to do and it’s just me. It was like, alright, I guess I’m going to try to walk one block and get a cup of coffee, and then when I get home an hour and a half later from my baby walk and lay down in my bed, I feel like I was thinking about that concept for a long time. And it’s really difficult to put pop science elements into actual music without feeling like a fool. Because I’m not a scientist. I’m probably misunderstanding something hugely. But I try to put it out there the way that I understand it.

AS: I like that you shout out Schrodinger’s cat, too.

P.O.S: Haha, yeah. You gotta.