Last Friday, Los Angeles-based genre bending artist Alt Bloom released his debut EP, Astronaut Complex. Ethan Thompson, the artist behind Alt Bloom, released his first singles last summer and has since racked up over 2 million streams on Spotify. His work effortlessly blends alternative and R&B sounds with honest storytelling rooted in self-discovery. He grew up in rural Montana, so nature is an important part of his identity as a musician and is the driving force of his visuals.
Ethan had originally set Astronaut Complex to release on June 5, but pushed the release back a week with a powerful statement. Since then, he has been using his platform to encourage his listeners to support the Black community, and he will be doing a Live Stream with Jam in the Van on June 20th to raise money for Equal Justice Initiative. I spoke with Ethan on the day of his release to better understand the concepts behind his music.
Odyssey: Happy release day!
Ethan Thompson: Thank you so much. It's a wild, wild day.
O: Yeah, I bet! I really respect the decision to push the back a week. I think that was definitely the right thing to do.
ET: Yeah, absolutely. Thank you. It was all I wanted to talk about during the whole week. So, it really would've been weird to put out music on top of everything that was going on, but it was something that needed to be vocalized about.
O: Absolutely. Thank you so much for using your platform in the right way.
ET: I'm always trying to use it in a way that's spreading positivity and new understanding of people.
O: That was so well said. I noticed through listening to your older stuff before the EP was released that you immediately came onto the scene in a very openhearted and vulnerable way with your lyrics. A lot of your storytelling is like very personal. How has that experience been for you – was it hard to immediately come onto the scene in such a vulnerable way?
ET: I don't think so. Music has notoriously been the place where I've been able to express myself. The first song I ever wrote was when I went through a breakup when I was 15. I couldn't say those things to the girl, but I could sing them over a melody. It's funny because people hit on my music sometimes, saying, "This is too personal, you need to make it more broad." And I'm like, "Well, this is just how I express myself." It's always been where I feel the most comfortable saying these thoughts, more comfortable than in conversation.
O: Right. Do you think that in a way being more specific with your storytelling is a lot more relatable than just being general and broad?
ET: I don't know! When I go in and create, I always try to do what's most honest to me – because honesty is what people really connect with. Whenever I'm writing lyrics, I try to ask, "Am I being the most honest I could be?" A good example is with "Get Back." I had a first verse that was a little bit more broad strokes on going through a breakup with someone, and after sitting with the guys I was writing with, we wanted to make the verse something more real. I went into the other room and wrote exactly the first four lines first: One ring to voicemail / Text him, babe, please / If we talk in the morning / I lose another night of sleep. It was exactly a situation that had happened to me in the past. I really put that moment to the music, so it just felt honest.
O: That's awesome! Was one of the writers you were talking about Brian Phillips [known for work with COIN and Walk the Moon]?
ET: Yeah! Brian does mostly production and then I do most of the writing on the materials. That song was with Devin D'Amato too.
O: Cool! How did you come into connection with them? I know that you've said before that Brian is a close friend of yours.
ET: We both went to the same college in Boston, Berklee [College of Music]. We didn't know each other out there, but we met through friends of friends the first six months that we were both in Los Angeles. And then [three years later] when I started doing my project, he expressed interested in going in. We had both grown so much, so we thought it'd be a good time to see what each other could do in a room. "Sway," which is the last song on the EP, was the first song that we wrote together. It was a completely different production at the time, but that was the first one we did.
O: How did the production change from the first one?
ET: Oh my God. 110%. We had something that felt like it was a band playing it. We were trying to take that recording – which had acoustic guitars, very much a live sound – and trying to make it feel fresh to us and something that's moved our needles. Band recordings are beautiful, but I feel like they've been done so many times and we want to always be pushing to do something fresh. We literally worked on it for about 50 hours over the course of a year and a half. The week that [the EP] was due, we decided we really wanted this song in here because it played well live. And literally the last half of the day, we said, "Let's just completely start over, screw it because we literally have 24 hours to turn it in." We completely redid the whole thing. It just clicked immediately.
O: Wow, that's awesome. I never would have guessed that it was a full band kind of sound before.
ET: Oh yeah. It was very organic, but in a way that we didn't like. I'm pushing for some more organic stuff with my fall EP coming out, to just like do the other side of my heart.
O: As far as live stuff goes, do you have that kind of full band sound when you perform?
ET: Absolutely. Yeah. I've got two of my buddies playing with me, Alex Palazzo and Artie Johnson. I miss them both on stage. [Artie] is on drums, me and Alex play a bunch of different instruments, and then we have some tracks playing in the background. It's a blast. I adore playing the songs live and adore playing with that band.
O: That's awesome. Hopefully you can get to do that again soon.
ET: Hopefully we all can! Missing the vibe.
O: You're originally from Montana and you've said before that Mount Siyeh [in Montana] is your all-time favorite hike. What is your favorite hike in LA?
ET: My favorite one is Vital Link, which is in Burbank. It's a quick one where I go to blow off steam three or four times a week. It's in Wildwood Canyon.
O: Oh, that sounds awesome!
ET: It's hot. You've got to get up early to do it this time of year.
O: For sure. I really love the way that you've been able to channel nature into your music. That's something that's super important to me as well. Since self-discovery is the overarching theme behind your music, how do you use nature to explore your self-discovery?
ET: Oh, it's the best tool to get over your bullshit. I think that oftentimes I forget the blessings that are within this like domesticated system we've made. When I go into the woods, I [think about how] we are wild animals that have just figured out how to live in a society together, and this is where we used to live. Whenever I'm able to go up into the woods, it really clears my head of my own fears with the pressures of being in the music industry. It always grounds me back to my roots when I'm out in the woods.
The goal when I was doing Alt Bloom, even in the name, was that I wanted to mix everything I've experienced in the city, music wise and life wise, with my background of being literally a boy in the woods for like the first 18 years of my life. When you're out on the road touring and you're going from city to city to city – which is beautiful because you get to see how different those cities are, from Chicago to Portland, and internationally as well – but you often get disconnected from nature. So, the reason why I want [nature] in everything that I do is so I can have more opportunity to be out in it.
For instance, with the acoustic videos that we did for each song on the EP, the California sessions, we took the five songs and picked five locations in National Parks across California from bottom to top. We shot a video in each one of those locations. It's something that I want to grow, so that in the future when I'm putting out an album, I can go to places like Patagonia and shoot. I'm always trying to ground it in the outdoors so I can bring it to people and keep myself in it.
O: Is there a way that you like to explore nature while touring? I know it's hard, especially if there's no downtime between days, but do you ever find yourself searching for nature to explore?
ET: Oh, absolutely. While driving from place to place, I just pull up the map and I look for large green areas and then click on them and search them to see if there's anything nearby to pull off to, even just for an hour. I did the same thing when I first moved to LA and when I lived at Boston, I was always opening my Google map and looking for the green areas, places where there's where there's more woods than buildings.
O: I've never thought about it that way before! That's a really good idea.
ET: Yeah! I've found some really fun locations, like Vital Link I literally found out by following the green point on my map. And that was one of my favorite places to hike.
O: Cool! I love how things work out that way.
ET: Keep putting it in and it'll eventually come back out.
O: Your album art and and photos are very much nature centered. What kind of creative direction did you have behind that?
ET: [Creative direction] is one of the biggest fortes of being able to run your own thing. The team took the photos [Jessica Robinson and TJ Hoover from Bloom Creative] reached out to me because they loved my music and wanted to do some art with me. I explained to them what my vision was – I said I wanted a living room set up out in the woods, and they literally pulled off exactly that.
O: That was so wonderfully executed.
ET: They did a great job when I showed up, it couldn't look better. They even picked out the aesthetic of the chair, the TV, and the phone. They really nailed it.
O: Do you have a song that's most personal to you from Astronaut Complex?
ET: It's funny, it always changes. The whole EP is supposed to be a relationship, top to bottom. So, starting with "West Coast," I'm doing my thing, but I'm meeting somebody and I'm not sure what to do about it. And then, you go all the way through the EP and it's a breakup, and then "Sway" is after the breakup. Singing "Get Back" live is really fun. We open with "West Coast," which is always fun, it's like opening my diary of where I was at in my life. "Our Love" and "Sway" are both very heartwarming in a way, and "Damn Baby" on acoustic is a blast. So, it really changes every day.
O: Honestly I think that's the best answer you could have because that means that all of the tracks go together in a way, like it's all telling a story.
ET: Absolutely. You know, when you're making art, seeing the pieces coming together is really fun. It honestly feels lucky when that plane lands. I'm just glad that this particular piece of art all came together.
O: Oh, for sure. I know you said there was luck, but you clearly put so much work and effort into this, so I'm not surprised that it came together so wonderfully.
ET: Thank you so much.
O: And again, thank you for pushing the release back a week because of the Black Lives Matter movement. I think that that was definitely a really good thing to do. Have you done anything else to support the movement?
ET: Yes! I have a link on my page that has several charities linked up there – the Black Lives Matter carrd. I would really love to encourage people to have a conversation without anger. I'm watching friends from different places in the world become enemies over political injustice, but there's no way we will ever solve anything if people are instantly wanting to write each other off because someone feels something different. The only way we can have a conversation and educate each other is if we do it through a caring means, through understanding that this human being you're talking to hasn't had the same experiences you've had. The part that breaks my heart is when people write each other off because they don't understand each other's experiences I really want to encourage people to talk to others in an encouraging and understanding way.
O: Yes! The best way to combat all of this is like just through education. You're never going to help educate people if you're trying to make enemies.
O: What's the main message that you hope your listeners can get while listening to Astronaut Complex?
ET: I hope they just know that they're not alone. My whole mentality is all about togetherness. Anyone who's a fan of my music, or anyone who's been a part of my journey, we call ourselves "the tribe." It's all about being together. I really want it to be a celebration of jumping outside your walls of safety and jumping into love. If anyone's going through heartbreak, if anyone's going through a struggle in life, there's someone else that's been there. You're not alone. There's always someone there that you can talk to.
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