Music with a Capital "M": An Interview With Ethan Iverson of the Bad Plus

Photo: Josh Goleman

The Bad Plus may be known for their revisionist covers of pop songs, but pianist Ethan Iverson proudly reflects on jazz’s past and shares his hopes and fears about its future.

The Bad Plus

It’s Hard

Label: Sony Masterworks
Release Date: 2016-08-26

The Bad Plus may not always play by the rules, but that doesn't mean they haven't come up with their own rules.

The limber, Minneapolis-born trio of bassist, drummer, and pianist have played on the same stage for 15 years, and while they've undeniably grown as instrumentalists, many things have remained constant. Since their inception, Ethan, drummer Dave King, and bassist Reid Anderson have tackled an eclectic mix of cover songs and original compositions.

Their fascination with pop by way of jazz all started at an early gig when, for lack of a set's worth original material, they intuitively opted to play, not standards, but rather '90s anthem "Smells Like Teen Spirit". Though as Ethan stresses, capturing the spirit of the original piece is hardly their main concern. The Bad Plus' focus is to deconstruct and reassemble familiar musical artifacts from their own perspective. So don't mistake them for no house band.

In the past, they've taken on Bowie, Blondie, Radiohead, Rush, and... Igor Stravinsky? In 2014, we spoke with the band about their complete overhaul of the revolutionary and riot-inciting, Rite of Spring, one of their most ambitious projects to date. Most recently, the Bad Plus recorded It's Hard, an album exclusively of covers, featuring reworked classics by Prince and Ornette Coleman, among others.

Understandably, Ethan speaks with great poise about the band he calls home. When I asked how Dave approached the drum part in the ordinarily drum-less Rite of Spring, he answered: "Well, he's a genius that applied everything he knew about music to figure out what would work." And about his bassist: "I think pretty soon you'll be seeing some brilliant Reid Anderson albums of his own electronic music."

The three have many decades of combined experience in improvisational, rock, electronic, and classical circuits and have collaborated with numerous luminaries. They approach each project with respect, proving masters of domains both somber and frantic, refusing to stay in their seats. Yet despite the intricate and restive arrangements, it remain one of the more palatable jazz groups I've ever heard. Far from esoteric, as avant-garde jazz tends to be, the Bad Plus aims for clarity. "I don't think obviousness is unhip," Ethan says: "If you listen to what we're doing with the songs on It's Hard, there shouldn't be any doubt about why we're doing the songs or why we're playing them the way we are."

When I spoke with Ethan, the Bad Plus was halfway through a six-show series at New York's Blue Note Jazz Club. He spoke with composure, because with more than a dozen Bad Plus records under his belt, six consecutive shows probably isn't such a big deal. Heck, they've survived digitization of the industry, the Sony rootkit scandal, and an age in which jazz might as well be pronounced dead. Still, they've emerged as creative and badass as ever. In answer to what's next for the band, Ethan replied: "I know what the next thing is going to be, but I don't know if I'm allowed to announce it yet. Let's just keep the focus on this record." He laughed, "Christ man, we already did a whole record of covers for us to talk about."

* * *

Your group is known for its creative interpretations of popular songs, and while you've produced plenty of original material over the years, your upcoming album, It's Hard, contains only cover songs. I'm curious, have you guys just run out of ideas? You can tell me if you have.

[laughing] Now that's just not true.

I'll have to take your word for it. I will say that, to me, these songs don't sound worlds apart from the songs you were playing on your early records. What would you say differentiates this record from previous ones?

We've been playing our instruments longer, so we're better instrumentalists. Things get refined in terms of the band language. I was very happy with the piano on this recording. It was a really great Steinway. I went to the Steinway factory in Queens to pick out a piano, and after I picked it out, they told me it was the one Evgeny Kissin likes, who's arguably one of the top half-dozen classical pianists in the whole world. So that made me feel good.

Would you say there's a unifying theme to your choice of covers on these albums?

No. But there has to be a good reason for us to do the song. Jazz musicians have taken popular music of the day for their own purposes forever. That's what Louis Armstrong did in the '30s. That's what Miles Davis did in the '50s. Coltrane's "My Favorite Things" is a perfect example. Before that, classical pianists would improvise on a theme from an opera.

Theme and variation is a mainstay of European classical music, so this can be seen in that context. I would say that there must be something about our arrangements on each of these songs that we feel gives it a reason to live. They're obviously not straight interpretations. I wouldn't go so far as to say there's a political reason for every interpretation, but at the very least, there's some kind of theatrical reason or emotional reason.

Do you guys all propose songs to cover?

In this case, most of the suggestions came from Reid and Dave because they know much more about pop music than I do.

I'm going to name a few songs you've covered, and could you tell me their significance to you at the time you decided to take them on? I'll start with "Smells Like Teen Spirit".

Well that's an iconic song, and it fits very easily into being played in a simple, direct, jazzy way. At an early gig, we didn't have enough original music to play a whole set, and in jazz, you obviously play some standards. And I think Reid or Dave said, "Instead of standards, let's play 'Smells Like Teen Spirit'. That's easy enough to do." So we did it, and that was that. I remember on our first recording, I listened to the original quite a bit, and I was struck that there was some kind of lonely sound there, so I tried to play in some kind of lonely fashion.

What about Blondie's "Heart of Glass"?

In that case, it was the distinctive melody and that great hook with the odd bar, 7/4 action. We really put it through the filter of free jazz, something avant-garde. We deconstruct it and then hammer home the 7/4 hook at the end. In the original, you blink and you'll miss that moment, but it becomes very obvious in our version.

Would you say you get a sort of deviant pleasure from taking these straightforward songs and twisting them, a sort of subversive quality to it?

Subversive and definitely surreal, absolutely. But this is very much in the tradition of Thelonious Monk, who is one my big heroes and a hero of Reid and Dave too. Monk was a master of taking old songs and making them surreal or giving them complex emotions. We hope to see ourselves in that tradition.

And I wanted to ask about two songs from It's Hard: "Staring at the Sun" by TV on the Radio.

Well Reid and Dave listened to that album, [Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes], incessantly when it came out. They loved that song. For me, I was like, "What can I do with this?" So at the beginning of the piece, I try to play like I'm in a Japanese garden or something kind of exotic. In a way, that's a more straightforward interpretation as well. At the end, the original arrangement is quoted by Reid and Dave.

And finally, Prince's "The Beautiful Ones". Had he died at the time you'd chosen that song?

No, we had no idea. We just laid the song down, and he died about two weeks later.

Did it take on any sort of extra significance at that point?

Well, I'm sort of happy we did it before he died because there's a lightness to our interpretation that would have been hard to have after he died.

As long as you've been the Bad Plus, you've been the trio of Ethan, Reid, and Dave. What about the specific interplay of piano, bass, and percussion do you think works so well?

It is a classic instrumentation. The holy trinity of music is melody, harmony, and rhythm. All three instruments do those roles. The drums can be melodic and harmonic as well as rhythmic. Of course the piano is a percussion instrument, and the bass does all three all the time. So there's some way it just meets in the middle that makes sense to us and has made sense for a lot of great jazz over the years.

You three all seem to have very different personalities, which I'm sure is part of why you have such a distinct sound. Dave seems to be very outspoken; Reid seems more contemplative. How would you describe your roles outside the studio or the stage?

I think I'm the most interested in jazz history, and I blog about it furiously. Those guys like jazz history, but they don't do that kind of thing. In terms of my role outside of the band -- I write about music, myself. I think in some ways, the three of us are pretty similar compared to the rest of the population. [laughing] We're different, but when you look at everybody and then you look at the three of us, there must be something really unified.

Although your lineup is sacred, you've worked with a lot of different folks over the years. I wanted to ask: who's been the biggest challenge as a collaborator, and who was the most fun as collaborator?

Well, [2014's] The Rite of Spring was a big project. There were videographers involved, and the music is very hard. Although there wasn't a fourth musician on stage, it was a commissioned work with a big video element, so there were more moving parts and a greater responsibility get it all right on that first night. That was the biggest challenge. That was stressful. Everyone had to nail their parts exactly. Essentially we played a 40-minute, composed classical piece and couldn't make any mistakes. That's not true in jazz.

And the most fun?

They've all been great. For me, working with Joshua Redman [on 2015] was such a blast, on tour with him, getting to hear him play every night. I learned a lot from Josh.

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In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

Next Page

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Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx (photo © Michael DelSol courtesy of Howlin' Wuelf Media)

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From the opening bars of "Suction Prints", we knew we had entered The World of Captain Beefheart and that was exactly where we wanted to be. There it was, that unmistakable fast 'n bulbous sound, the sudden shifts of meter and tempo, the slithery and stinging slide guitar in tandem with propulsive bass, the polyrhythmic drumming giving the music a swing unlike any other rock band.

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From Haircut 100 to his own modern pop stylings, Nick Heyward is loving this new phase of his career, experimenting with genre with the giddy glee of a true pop music nerd.

In 1982, Nick Heyward was a major star in the UK.

As the leader of pop sensations Haircut 100, he found himself loved by every teenage girl in the land. It's easy to see why, as Haircut 100 were a group of chaps so wholesome, they could have stepped from the pages of Lisa Simpson's "Non-Threatening Boys" magazine. They resembled a Benetton knitwear advert and played a type of quirky, pop-funk that propelled them into every transistor radio in Great Britain.

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Acid house legends 808 State bring a psychedelic vibe to Berlin producer NHOAH's stunning track "Abstellgleis".

Berlin producer NHOAH's "Abstellgleis" is a lean and slinky song from his album West-Berlin in which he reduced his working instruments down to a modular synthesizer system with a few controllers and a computer. "Abstellgleis" works primarily with circular patterns that establish a trancey mood and gently grow and expand as the piece proceeds. It creates a great deal of movement and energy.

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At just under two minutes, Beechwood's "Heroin Honey" is a breezy slice of sweet pop that recalls the best moments of the Zombies and Beach Boys, adding elements of garage and light tinges of the psychedelic. The song is one of 10 (11 if you count a bonus CD cut) tracks on the group's upcoming album Songs From the Land of Nod out 26 January via Alive Natural Sound Records.

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