A couple of months ago I was at a big concert south of San Francisco. I’m not really into arena rock, but I had been given a couple free tickets. The shows on the main stage were as bad as you might expect, but I caught this awesome act on the second stage. MC Lars was rocking out to about 500 people on the lawn, the pre-show to what was about to happen in front of 20,000.
I was taken with the lyrics, the energy, and pure joy of the performance. So much so that I approached MC Lars to ask about interviewing him for The Rumpus. Which is when I realized he was one of my former students. Actually, he realized it. So this is what happens when the teacher becomes a fan. I’ve never felt so old.
Rumpus: Stanford was great for me. I had been awarded a Stegner Fellowship, which is basically $30,000 a year for two years with no strings attached. It was like finding a big pile of money on the sidewalk. I ended up as a teaching assistant for The Films of Woody Allen, which is where we met. What was your impression of Stanford?
MC Lars: It was cool. I mean, I feel really lucky that I was able to go there. I had to find people who were inspired by music and art, who were there to creatively grow, not necessarily to get that $100,000 a year job right out of college. I liked it though. I met some cool professors. I majored in english so that helped my lyrics. The radio station was awesome. That’s where I discovered hip-hop, at KZO2, ’cause they had vinyl back to the 70s, old hip-hop stuff, and that got me so excited about that.
Rumpus: So you’re taking my Woody Allen class and you’re doing this great comic, which I think is running in the daily paper, is that right?
MC Lars: Yeah, yeah.
Rumpus: I didn’t even know about the music connection. Were you doing music then? It’s a very strange experience to have a student become a successful alternative musician.
MC Lars: I was – it was 2004, right?
Rumpus: No, it was 2003.
MC Lars: I guess 2003, I was just starting then. It was just something for fun. My connection to being at stanford to doing music full-time was that I went to Oxford overseas program and became friends with a lot of indie- rock bands out there. I would go out to clubs and give them my cd and convince them to let me open for them. I would say, “my set up is just a laptop! I don’t have to soundcheck or anything.”
So I got all these gigs while I was there. I was playing a few times a week. When I got back to America an indie label called Truck Records put out an album I made in my dorm room. That was right after your class, I guess. That just led to all this other stuff. But it was because I went to England right at that time when I was 20, and was really confident in myself, and convinced all these British people it was cool.
After that it just kind of grew. In my junior year and senior year MTV started playing a video that I did. Then some of the songs got on the radio, then I got a tour slot with a band called Bowling for Soup, who were like a pop-punk band from Texas. I took senior year off to tour. That’s kind of the trajectory.
Rumpus: Okay, let’s go back to the comics. So originally, I made you draw a comic to get into my class.
MC Lars: Yeah.
Rumpus: How did that happen?
MC Lars: Well, I was late trying to get into your class, so you were like, “Do a comic about Woody Allen and Saddam Hussein, and make it make sense and I’ll let you in.” I did that and then it was in the Daily the next day and you saw it or whatever.
Rumpus: And then I put it in the Politically Inspired anthology?
MC Lars: No. That guy Spiro, he wrote a script and I drew something for it. It was about the two Marx brothers talking about the double speak of 1984.
Rumpus: That was great, wasn’t it?
MC Lars: Yeah that was cool
Rumpus: It was the second one I had done.
MC Lars: That was the first time I’d been published at all, you know, so that was a thrill when you put that out. That was cool.
Rumpus: I think that I met your dad and your mom at the reading.
MC Lars: Yeah, yeah they were supportive.
Rumpus: So, you start making music, you go on tour, you finish up at Stanford. When did you blowup?
MC Lars: I think, what happened was I got a big – Universal publishing gave me a big publishing advance. That was like November 2004. that allowed me to make bigger budget videos, and like when I graduate now I have a job. That allowed me to make money by touring.
Rumpus: You make the music and you make the videos.
MC Lars: Yeah, yeah.
Rumpus: And these comics – you’re kind of doing everything.
MC Lars: My whole thing is, and I’m learning this more, is that I have to have control over everything for it to have the vision that I need, because it’s my baby, the comics and the videos and the songs. I’m down to collaborate with people, but it has to be through my terms. I spent a summer working with this musician in New York who I kind of let take the reins and I really respected him because he had this hit song a while ago. I learned that I have to not let people compromise the vision, you know what I mean? We did a whole record that was folk sounding hip-hop stuff, but it was more his record than it was mine. We worked too fast. I wasn’t able to do this. So I’m learning about authorship and all that.
Rumpus: I wouldn’t expect you to be a rapper. you know what I mean?
MC Lars: Right, right.
Rumpus: You’re like a white – I don’t know if suburban is the right term – but you’re like a white Stanford kid and then you turn out to be this awesome rapper. I spent a lot of time in the ghetto in Chicago and inner city, and I never thought of people outside of the city rapping. I’m not saying it’s not legitimate. I’m not saying that at all.
MC Lars: There are questions of what is real hip-hop and what is appropriation, and ownership. There’s a great book called Other People’s Property about that question. I do talks at colleges, and high schools and libraries about the history of hip-hop culture. I try to make this point that hip-hop is postmodern culture, that it’s now universal in that it’s transcended race. I make all these comparisons to the meter of Edgar Allen Poe and other 19th century writers I studied at Stanford, and how the poetry of hip-hop is kind of an extension of that. It’s the same canon. Naz can be in the canon with Christopher Marlow. That’s kind of the point I try to make. I also try to stay up on what’s happening with the underground and hip-hop, cause that’s where the most exciting stuff happens.
Rumpus: I’d love to hear you give that talk.
MC Lars: It’s pretty fun, man. I love doing that. I’ll let you know.
Rumpus: You’re touring six months out of the years.
MC Lars: Yeah.
Rumpus: How many people are showing up at these shows?
MC Lars: We’ve done really well in Australia and England. We got back from Australia last month and that was pretty dope. We had about 300 people a night on a good night.. here I do maybe 100, 200. It depends. Some small cities in the midwest you’ll get like 50 people, and then some markets like New York, we played this place called Mercury Lounge in Manhattan, that was almost sold out.
Rumpus: How big is that?
MC Lars: That’s about 300-400 people. I’m still underground, but to the point where I’m happy with this turnout.
Rumpus: Is it generally all ages shows?
MC Lars: I try to only play all ages shows, but sometimes they’re 18 and up. I did a show at the Uptown in February in Oakland, and that had to be 21 and up ’cause it was a bar. It just depends. I have a cool booking agent who arranges the contract stuff. So if I go there I don’t have to worry about not getting paid. Which is really really important.
Rumpus: Does that happen a lot?
MC Lars: Yeah. Like on my first tour, since it was small, we wouldn’t get paid what we were supposed to.
Rumpus: How did that happen?
MC Lars: The promoters can be shady. They’ll be like, “well, we invested all this money, you only had this many people, so, here’s lke one fifth of what you’re supposed to get.” In this industry that is really common if you don’t have an agent.
Rumpus: Tell me a little bit about life on the road. What is that about?
MC Lars: It started out being really exciting. Seeing all these cities. I was younger, so meeting girls every night, you know, and all that. And meeting other bands. But you get used to. Like the midwest. Long long freeways and the unhealthy food that you have to eat, ’cause nothing’s open 24 hours. It’s just like an endless series of long long drives and moments of excitement. People say it’s like war, long periods of boredom with short periods of terror and excitement.
Rumpus: Is it better to stay with fans?
MC Lars: It’s fun to stay with fans because you see their life and you connect with them. But then you end up staying up late talking about all this stuff that you’ve talked about a million times, and that is tiring. It’s cool to connect with all these people’s live. I feel like I’ve seen a weird interesting subset of young America, and connecting a lot of the fans you know from the Internet and actually spending time with them. You realize how interesting they are, and you realize how certain people have big dreams and have exciting lives and certain people really make traps for themselves psychologically.
Rumpus: That’s something clear in your trajectory. Why didn’t you make these traps for yourself? It seems already at Stanford you were coming at things from outside the box. You just felt like you could – I mean you were always a super nice kid –
MC Lars: Thanks
Rumpus: But, you know, you had a sense that things were going to be fine. A certain confidence in that. Where does that come from?
MC Lars: My parents are super supportive. I think that helps. My mom’s a teacher librarian and my dad is a lawyer who always wanted to write. He’s retiring and starting to write more this year. For my first tour in England my dad came as my tour manager.
Rumpus: He took time off from lawyering to come and be your tour manager.
MC Lars: Yeah, for like ten days in England. I’ll never forget that. That started the ball rolling with everything. I just believe that I love music so much, and the affect that it was having on my friends and people at Stanford and Oxford. It was like, wow this is something I’ve stumbled on that I can’t neglect. I know it’s so hard to break in but I might as well try. Try until I can’t anymore.
Thanks to Kristina Kearns for help transcribing this article.