Exclusive: Homeschool Recruits Bartees Strange, Arlissa for “Smartest Man” Remix
Tom D’Agustino dissects his debut solo EP Homeschool: Book I with Paste in a vibrant discussion about friendship, fear and vulnerabilityPhoto by CJ Harvey Music Features Homeschool
Over the past few years, Tom D’Agustino has tried to regain his footing in music. After the dissolution of his former band, Active Bird Community, that he started with his friends when they were in middle school, D’Agustino embarked on a new journey under the name Homeschool. In many ways, he’s had to relearn everything, as the shift from constant collaboration to the solitude of a solo artist is still a shock. Nonetheless, Homeschool is also an intensely rewarding endeavor full of healing, something much needed in these difficult times.
On the eve of the pandemic, Active Bird Community opened a crowdfunding campaign for their newest album after 2018’s Amends. Soon after, the band called it quits, and remaining members Zach Slater and D’Agustino used the money to fund the production of Homeschool: Book I, a project born out of the ashes of a band to which the two dedicated over a decade of their lives. Homeschool feels freer and more whimsical, drenched in the same wit without the recollections of sadness and trauma. Instead, D’Agustino burrows deep into the recesses of his mind to string out feelings of insecurity into self-aware anthems with catchy hooks.
Homeschool’s latest single “Smartest Man” sounds like an uncomfortable therapy session blown out into an indie-rock jam. D’Agustino ponders his yearning for some form of stimulation as he sings, “ I wanna go diving / Or get struck by lightning / So I can feel the current in my hands / I wanna start a family / Just to see if they can stand me / They’ll know I’m not the smartest man.”
In a Paste exclusive premiere, Homeschool shares the “Smartest Man” remix by Bartees Strange, whose 2020 album Live Forever captivated audiences with its heartfelt intimacy of stadium-sized proportions. It’s a fitting collaboration, with Strange previously releasing Say Goodbye to Pretty Boy, an EP of The National covers inspired by being the only person of color at one of the band’s shows. Strange’s ability to change the contexts of songs with his musical and vocal arrangements carries on into “Smartest Man,” morphing the track into a serious rumination on the seed of doubt that D’Agustino planted. Soul singer Arlissa is the counterpart of D’Agustino’s longtime friend and collaborator Samia in Strange’s alternate universe, exchanging the guitars for electronic percussion and vocal distortion.
Speaking on his approach toward the remix, Strange tells Paste, “I wanted to take this song into a different space. The message of the song hit me a little darker than the song intended, so I sort of decided to take it that way. Also—knowing Arlissa would be singing alongside me, I wanted to make something that jumped a little bit.”
In addition to the four tracks, Homeschool: Book I will also include a physical collection of poems, paintings and photographs as companions to each song, further expanding the Homeschool universe to include interdisciplinary media that speak to D’Agustino’s desire to foster collaboration beyond common associations.
Homeschool: Book I is due April 23. Listen to the premiere of Bartees Strange and Arlissa’s remix of “Smartest Man” by Homeschool featuring Samia below. You can also read Homeschool’s full interview with Paste further down.
Paste: What was the process of getting Bartees Strange on the remix?
Tom D’Agustino: I think the idea first came from my manager and collaborator, Zach, who had been listening to Bartees for about a year. I was a new listener when he suggested that we work together. The second I heard what he was doing musically, I immediately had goosebumps. He crosses genres and incorporates all these different aspects of music that I love and had never heard put together that way.
We were trying to think of a counterpart to Samia’s role in the remix. I’ve been listening to Arlissa for a while. She was always on our list. This was a perfect opportunity to hit her up and see what happens, and turns out her manager is a big fan of Bartees! That kind of worked out and we didn’t really plan it out. I didn’t really want to get involved in his process at all. We just gave him the stems and said to take it and run with it. When I heard the first mix, I was floored, I thought it was incredible. He does this thing where he doesn’t care what the bells and whistles of the song are. He wants to get at what he thinks the core is and he just exposes that and runs with it.
Paste: Usually when you think of remixes, you think of just reworking the original source material, maybe tacking on a verse or whatever. He basically reworked the entire song.
D’Agustino: Exactly. I share your opinion about remixes. That’s what I was expecting, maybe not with him. I knew I was going to be surprised. I haven’t had my music remixed that much. This is what you want! You want to give your song over to somebody else and have them show you something new. I’m not very possessive over the songs, anyway.
Paste: I understand this was written prior to the pandemic, but there’s also a lot of context the pandemic adds to the project. How did all this affect you?
D’Agustino: If I had to write this record this year, it wouldn’t have happened, which might seem counterintuitive because you have a lot of free time. I was staying in New Jersey at my girlfriend’s parents’ house and I had space where I could just make music all day if I wanted to, but I couldn’t at least for the first couple months. I think a lot of creative people felt that way. Eventually, Bartees put out his album and had this prolific image when you can’t leave your house. I would look to certain creative people that were using COVID and quarantine as an opportunity to explore themselves inwardly instead of outwardly. My therapist told me that you can’t go anywhere outside, and you shouldn’t, but you can go anywhere inside.
That opened a lot of doors for me because it just gave me an opportunity to reassess my relationship to music and, on a base level, sound and what it means to me.
Paste: Speaking of therapists, this EP feels very therapeutic for you. How do you use music to help with your mental health?
D’Agustino: I had a pretty turbulent upbringing, so music was a place I could escape to. It raised me in a lot of ways because I could go into my bedroom and create this sonic space that wasn’t tied to anything tangible. I think the songs on the record talk about that too. “Smartest Man” is funny because I was babysitting a kid for about a year before COVID. I was teaching him guitar so that he can turn it into the coolest toy. We would also find ourselves playing soccer outside or nodding on the guitar and having these deep conversations. He’s 10, but I realized that his perspective was a lot clearer and easier to understand than mine was. There are no easy questions or answers for children. They experience the world on very unfiltered terms and don’t qualify anything. They don’t have the ability to judge themselves or others except on some deeper, moral level. Once you get rid of that bullshit, they have this innate perspective on what’s right and wrong, and are willing to learn too, but they’re also willing to call you out when you contradict yourself.
“Smartest Man” focuses on all that and questions what it means to be an actor in the world, and how what you do and say matters.
Paste: So what is your songwriting process? Is it an active thing you do throughout the day?
D’Agustino: I try not to write music. It’s a really gut-wrenching feeling to sit down thinking you have a song in you, and then you pick up the guitar and nothing happens or it sucks. That’s the worst feeling for me. I try not to put myself in those kinds of situations. Usually, I will sit down with the guitar in front of the TV and start touching it and playing with it. I’m not a very good guitar player so it’s a very simple relationship. Then, I can tell if I start to get this kind of feeling that is warm and soothing. I’ll keep playing, and usually, something will happen. There’s other times when I haven’t written in a month, and I’m just going to explode and I’ll sit down, and then just everything I do feels right. In terms of what the song is about, or how it sounds, I have no idea usually until I sit down and pick the guitar up.
Paste: That is great because you don’t want to make what you love seem like a chore.
D’Agustino: Definitely. I’ve put out a bunch of albums and the process of putting songs together is fun, but I hate having to make a tracklist or name them because it feels forced. I love the experience of making music because I don’t need to hear it over and over again. If you can keep your songwriting practice with very low stakes, or childish as we were saying earlier, that is good to me because it opens the door where I walk in and all the more technical knowledge kicks in and cool stuff happens.
Paste: I love pinpointing very specific insecurities and fears on “Smartest Man.” What is the most irrational fear you have?
D’Agustino: I’m terrified of insects. I would rather confront a bear in the woods than have ants crawling up my sleeping bag or anything with like, numerous insects. Those videos of people covered in bees should be illegal. It hurts me to watch. My partner went to school in New Orleans and she loved it. She very underhandedly would talk about these cockroaches that fly. You went to a place knowingly that had flying cockroaches and you paid to be there?
I also get afraid that for whatever reason, I’m just gonna pass out. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because when I stand up, I get a little dizzy. I’m always afraid that I’ll pass out and crack my head. I like losing consciousness in other ways, but not just walking around. Maybe the next album will be about these fears.
Paste: Bugs aside, how does Homeschool differ creatively from your process in Active Bird Community?
D’Agustino: The most interesting thing about ABC was the content of the songs. The lyrics came from me, but at that point in my life, I had five roommates and was spending time with my band all the time. I remember feeling very immersed in the culture of being with these people. Not to say that the songs weren’t introspective or personal because they definitely were, but I think that with this album and starting therapy, this allowed me to think about songwriting as not having to pour your heart out into a diary. I had songs in ABC where I felt I needed to spill out all this pain, whereas this stuff is exploring what’s meaningful to me.
With some of my previous songwriting, I lived in the past and with certain experiences I had, I relived them in my head over and over. Our last ABC record was Amends and there, I pretty much said everything I needed to say about how I grew up and the relationship I was in. Once that was out and we tore it down a bunch, I was done. I don’t need to think about that stuff as much anymore. I’m sure it still informs my songwriting but the way I think about it now is much more conceptual. Without sounding pretentious, it feels more like an art form.
Paste: You now fulfill that part of having a band through new forms of collaboration, like with producers and fans.
D’Agustino: I’ve never been like a solo artist, but to me, I’m not used to being a boss or leader in that way. It was a pretty seamless transition for me going from a band that had multiple songwriters. I very much lean on collaborators and producers. I don’t want to be alone doing these things, not because I’m afraid that I can’t, but it’s more that this thing could be broken open so much further with other people’s help. “Smartest Man” isn’t just a song to me. It’s a whole collection of experiences and when I think about that song, I think about my friendship with Samia and my friendship with all the people who lived in that area at the time. For Bartees to come in and pull something out of it that may have not been on the surface, I love that shit.
Paste: The entire project is collaborative down to the funding. Where did that come from and how did it influence your process?
D’Agustino: We worked with David Greenbaum who is incredibly talented. I will walk into the studio with an idea, but it’s not a good idea unless other people have touched it. He was great for that because he would know when to push me outside of my comfort zone a little bit and he would also know when to just like back off and let me do what I wanted. We also had Sam Cohen from Kevin Morby’s band, and he nonchalantly and calmly added so much flavor that was really cool.
They’re my songs in the sense that I wrote them, but we took the songs to all these gurus and they put their sauce all over it. It’s like getting to play with your favorite toy over and over again. I also realized I almost drove this EP into a ditch before I talked to this or that person, and I’m glad I talked to them.
On a macro level, we crowdfunded the money to make the record. From the beginning, it wasn’t like a record label cut me a check and then I went into a studio and wrote everything and recorded it. It was this effort from a lot of people that were different from us. We have a lot of freedom because we weren’t really beholden to anyone other than people who were fans and listeners, which to me is a very good place to be in because I don’t have to worry about what a label thinks. I just get to worry about what I want to make and what the people in the group feel is the best.
Paste: It must have felt good to know that many people wanted to support you.
D’Agustino: It’s not easy to make a record just in general. But it’s also not easy to make a record when you want to take a lot of creative chances, and you want to invest in it. I didn’t want to do it. There are so many other things people should spend their money on. We don’t need to spend this much money on music! Then we decided that we’re asking for help, and we want to do something that’s bigger than ourselves that the people in your community would benefit from and appreciate. If you don’t, you can’t really proceed in a meaningful way. We were able to raise a bunch of money for this Black women’s association for fair hiring practices and work training and stuff. When that amount of people show that they support you and that they value what you do, it gave me so much confidence in my creative freedom. With a record deal, you get scared, but if you have an army of people sending you love, you can do whatever the fuck you want and feel safe.
Jade Gomez is Paste’s Assistant Music Editor, dog mom, Southern rap aficionado and compound sentence enthusiast.
Watch Active Bird Community’s Paste Studio session below.