Speaking Gently: An Interview with BADBADNOTGOOD
They are the Canadian jazz group who have performed with Ghostface Killah, MF Doom, and other hip-hop elites. Oh, and they only formed five years ago.
Even though BADBADNOTGOOD has worked with the likes of Wu-Tang's own Ghostface Killah, Kaytranada, MF Doom, and Odd Future, it's darned easy to forget that they formed only five years ago -- and have much more humble and localized beginnings than you'd expect.
"I don't think we ever will realize [our popularity]," says Chester Hansen, bass guitarist for the band, "because we are blown away everyday. Going online and being like 'Holy shit, thousands of people just listened to something we did, something we wrote, something we recorded.' Or going to a show and seeing people outside ... like, this can't be happening. It's very surreal, especially with the Ghostface thing. I personally have been listening to the Wu-Tang since I was 14, and then to hear about the possibility of doing that album and doing 30 shows with him. And now when we see Ghostface, he's a friend! It's really really cool."
The group's past and present identity is one that many people can relate to. Only a few years ago, BADBADNOTGOOD -- comprised of Matthew Tavares on keyboard, Leland Whitty on saxophone, Alexander Sowinski on drums and Chester Hansen on bass -- was nothing more than a relaxed improve session for college students who wanted to translate songs like Gucci Mane's "Lemonade" and Tyler the Creator's "Bastard" into jazz pieces. In fact, the Canadian band's current lineup was not even as developed as it is now, since Leland Whitty only joined the group this year, making their newest album IV the most layered and lush record in their discography.
"I think that when we write our music -- since we don't have lyrics to attach meaning to -- a lot of the songs were conceived together, so it didn't come from one person's idea," Hansen continues. "So to make up for that, we try to focus on the vibe and the atmosphere and emulate from other records we love [that transport you to another country]."
To do so, however, is a task that's easier said than done, since each band member comes from very distinct musical backgrounds and listens to various genres of music. While they all share the love of hip-hop that brought them all together initially, Tavares also loves techno, shoegaze, and noise rock. Hansen cites video game music, funk, and soul as his influences, and Sowinski has stated his enjoyment for classical music in his earlier years. During the recording of IV, though, it seems like Brazilian music has entranced the quartet for the moment.
"Between all of us, we definitely listen to everything," notes Hansen. "Alex used to be in ska bands and reggae bands, I was in a classic rock band and hip-hop band. So yeah, through the years, our tastes have crossed over to each other. Like Matt is obsessed with Brazilian music for the past couple years, like psych and jazz from the '60s and '70s so we all listen to tons of that. But there's old soul stuff that we are discovering also. Kind of everything, really, but it's still mostly still hip-hop."
And when it comes to hip-hop (and music in general), their home city of Toronto has quite a claim to fame since none other than Drake hails from the Canadian metropolis, paying tribute to it throughout his latest album Views. "There's a few songs I like, but I liked If You're Reading This It's Too Late way more overall," Hansen gushes. "It's obviously amazing that it's doing so well being his first number one album, and we have nothing but love for Drake. He's done so much for Toronto."
That last statement could also apply to BADBADNOTGOOD as well. Besides featuring Canadian electronic producer Kaytranada on their latest album, Toronto up-and-comer soul singer Charlotte Day Wilson contributes her bit to as well on "In My Eyes", making IV the first album of BADBADNOTGOOD to include singers. It's a moment that not only adds flavor and more nuance than ever before to one of the group's songs, but also serves as a great opportunity to promote a burgeoning artist in the city as well, especially since Wilson's planning on dropping an EP later on in the year.
Yet, another way that BADBADNOTGOOD contribute to the musical landscape of their city is simply through featuring on other artists' records, and that's no more apparent than on Kaytranada's newest, critically-acclaimed release 99.9%. Tucked in an album filled to the brim with guest vocalists and musicians, BADBADNOTGOOD show off their skill on the song "WEIGHT OFF" a track that perfectly blends the catchy, jazz grooves of the jazz band with the electronic layering of Kaytranada to create possibly the most eerie and captivating instrumental performance of the year. The two talents come together on the song "Lavender" for IV, and the result is just as amazing as it was on "WEIGHT OFF".
"'WEIGHT OFF' and 'Lavender' were actually [recorded at different times]," Hansen informs us. "'WEIGHT OFF' might've been the first thing we did the first time that we ever got together with Kay about a year and a half ago at our studio. It came from a sample, and he wanted us to interpret it. And then after we did that ... we've been sending ideas back and forth nonstop, mostly drum breaks. And whenever he's back in town, we'll write a bunch of samples and he'll make beats out of them etc. and 'Lavender' came through because he was using our drum breaks and he came up with a little synth melody over it and we really liked the idea and thought it would sound cool in context with the Ghost stuff we were working on so we took that and reworked it and then next time Kay was in town we worked on it again. It took about three or four different stages, and it was really this winter [when we completed it]."
For a band that goes through multiple takes of the same song to make it sound as perfect as possible, it's a surprise that they pay little attention to their album art, and exhibit almost no creativity when it comes to the title of their records. IV's predecessors are aptly named I, II, and III in chronological order. Moreover, until IV, all of BADBADNOTGOOD's album covers features grainy, lo-fi images of the band members either jamming and hanging out or dressed up in strange costumes. The cover for II, for example, features one of the band members wearing a pig mask, an image that has come to be the group's de facto mascot.
"When we first started as a band," Hansen notes, "we were just having fun playing together and putting stuff together. Matt, our keyboardist was recording everything and mixing everything and our friends were helping with the album artwork so it was like an informal family thing, which it still kind of is, but we take a bit more seriously now. But we're still terrible at naming albums, so we continued with the number thing.
"And the cover," Hansen continues, "-- actually, Matt and a friend of ours designed that as well. He kind of stumbled across the photo, it's a photo from a trip we did last summer that a friend took, and he thought 'This is kind of funny,' but then the more he sat on it, the more it became a serious contender for the album artwork and we all like it. It kind of signifies us growing and becoming a bit less dark than it was before -- it has more color to it and more dimension.”
That last line is a bit of an understatement, considering the fact that Whitty's saxophone, numerous collaborators, and various jazz fusion sounds places IV in a realm that's easily surpasses its predecessors, a most difficult feat to pull off. This is an album that places a slow-burning, film noir soundtrack song like "Chompy's Paradise" next to the title track, a wild avant-garde piece that's drenched in '60s John Coltrane melodic phrasing and rhythm.
Right after that comes a brilliant jazz-hop fusion with frequent collaborator Mick Jenkins, and -- after falling into the soft elegance of "Structure No. 3" -- concludes the album with the aforementioned Charlotte Day Wilson feature and a lush closer that gives each band member a chance to shine with some ear-grabbing solo performances. In a decade that's tried to revive the boy band and generally churned out some truly gutless radio-friendly music, IV (and to a larger extent, BADBADNOTGOOD) are a welcome reminder that popular music can be more than one-dimensional and tasteless; they can be sophisticated and passionate as well, perfectly blending all of the Toronto band's influences into a satisfying amalgamation that is sure to leave one speechless.
Yet this is also the age of volatile pop artists like Miley Cyrus and post-modern hip-hop so disjointed that it can border on being pretentious, such as Kanye West and his latest album The Life of Pablo. And, somehow, BADBADNOTGOOD manages to remain as humble and grateful as the first day that they came together as friends in Sowinski's father's basement to jam. Even after many fans and critics have hailed the group as the future of jazz, they wholeheartedly reject that notion, refusing to be even labeled as "jazz" in the first place.
"Well, we don't think of ourselves as a jazz band," says Hansen.
Then what do you see yourselves as?
"Just a group of guys making music that we like and kind of just combining all of our influences to make a weird mix of stuff. Jazz is a way ... a tool that we use to play music, and the knowledge that we learned will always be there inspiring us, but the word is so loaded. People have called us a jazz band before and people take it badly if it doesn't fit their definition of jazz so ... there's just so much amazing jazz out there and pushing the boundaries of the music. We just like to think of ourselves as pushing the boundaries in weird music ... being creative and honest completely in what we do."
Ultimately, it's this motivation to stay off-the-beaten path that makes BADBADNOTGOOD the eclectic group that they are today. Given their immense talent and musical knowhow, all four of them could have gone on to graduate from Humber College (where they all met) and become excellent jazz artists in their own right. Instead, they decided to do something more daring, boldly pushing the boundaries of what music can be by rejecting the notion of genre categorization and classism that has plagued music discussion for decades. At its best, IV exemplifies this ideal of musical innovation, and it's what makes BADBADNOTGOOD the boundary-pushing, down-to-earth, relatable and talented group that they have been since their days in the Sowinski family basement.