What kind of music does the trio the Comet Is Coming make, anyway? Drummer Max Hallett, known within the band as Betamax, is accustomed to this question. “I get asked that question a lot when I’m loading gear into a cab,” he told PopMatters one wintry afternoon over a Zoom call. “So my reaction is normally that it’s psychedelic rave jazz. But when I say that out loud, I think it sounds awful. I think, ‘Oh, I wouldn’t listen to that.'”
But when it comes to the labels “psychedelic”, “rave”, and “jazz”, he’s not wrong. His interaction with keyboardist Dan Leavers, who goes by the Comet stage name Danalogue, creates a heavy electronic presence in the music. Saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings, also known as King Shabaka, would represent the jazz element even though Hutchings has always been reluctant to describe what he plays as jazz. And when considering the extensive reach of the sonic palette used in the studio, one could do a lot worse than call it “psychedelic”.
As Hallett sees it, the title of the trio’s new album, Hyper-Dimensional Expansion Beam, is an attempt to put their sound into words: “[Naming the album] felt like the best way to access it, rather than a specific genre. When we started, people said that it was kind of [like] electronic music. We’d get booked everywhere. We played at rave events, punk events, and jazz festivals. At first, people were like, ‘What is it?’ It doesn’t really fit inside of anything, so we were just getting creative with it, with what it could be.”
Even if the Comet Is Coming doesn’t neatly fit in anywhere sonically, the label Impulse! carries an enormous amount of jazz baggage with it. Having released Trust in the Lifeforce of the Deep Mystery, The Afterlife, and now Hyper-Dimensional Expansion Beam on the legendary label, how does someone like Hallett feel about that? “It feels surreal, I guess, because that’s a label with such a lineage,” he admits when asked about it. “In a way, it’s connected us to, by association, with a lot of music that we love. It was interesting for us to start thinking of it in that way. Alice Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders, that type of stuff is a big influence on what we’re doing, but obviously, we also sound nothing like that. It was interesting because I never thought of myself in that world.”
The way the Comet Is Coming goes about composing may strike some as terribly inefficient, but it is a way that has worked for Hallett and Leavers since the group started. In the case of Hyper-Dimensional Expansion Beam, the trio entered Real World studios for four days in January 2021 to lay down roughly nine hours of music. After letting the material sit untouched for months, Hallett and Leavers devoted close to three-and-a-half months to chiseling away at the music, turning it into something new. “For me, I like to start with lots of stuff,” Hallett said. He elaborates:
“I think of it as positive creativity where you just say ‘yes’ to every idea, and you’re just throwing ideas down and just getting creative momentum, and you’re just recording a lot of music. Then you end up with a lot of material, and you’re aiming to get it all on one disc, 40 minutes, so you think, ‘wow, how is that going to be possible?’ There are so many variations and different ways you can do it. It’s me and Dan that do all the production and arranging. We would think of it as the first part of it is like filming a documentary where you’re just trying to capture what’s happening, and the second part is that you’re editing a film, you’re trying to make it tell a story and bring out the things that happened. I think of that as negative creativity, or you could say you’re trying to clean up all the best bits and then trying to see what works with what. Sometimes the tracks are formed similarly to how they were in the session, and other times, you look back and you go, ‘wow, we totally flipped this track’. It’s almost like a remix of what the original thing was.”
According to Hallett, time away from these jams was essential to the creative process. “We didn’t listen to it for six months,” said Hallett, recalling that big gap in time back in 2021. “When we heard it, we listened to it together, and we heard it with fresh ears. And you can’t really remember playing it. You get that perspective of someone listening to it, which is really invaluable. You go crazy making records this way, I have to say. It’s just a big puzzle. Slowly but surely, you get all the tracks in a folder, and you can see how long it is. Each week it’s just getting shorter and shorter and shorter, so you can see the progress you make.”
Recording at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios might not have been as essential to the Comet Is Coming’s working process as the rest of their methods, but it proved to be a nice perk. “Real World is an incredible space,” gushed Hallett. “It’s out in the Cotswolds, a very beautiful part of the country, the countryside in the UK in the south of England, and it has an old water mill. It’s quite incredible when you come out after you’ve been recording and you step outside. There’s just this cascading of water. It’s almost like a cleansing white noise when you come outside and breathe the fresh air. I was really enjoying that, just having that facility with loads of water and white noise, kind of like resetting your brain.”
When Hallett and Leavers tinker and mix the music, they are performing a reset of their own, one in which Hutchings needs to play catch up. Does the trio have to, in a sense, “relearn” the music as it exists now? On the one hand, yes. Says Hallet, “you are learning stuff that kind of happened spontaneously at the moment, and then you’ve got to work out what you did.” On the other hand, the band doesn’t treat the album as the end of the story. “We will learn what happened on the record, but once it comes back into the live show, it really starts to change again, and it evolves because, in a live show, you’ve got to bridge all of the tracks. Things start to happen spontaneously in the show. Sometimes by accident, sometimes we allow things to happen. I think of that as decomposition, where you had the finished composition and now it’s starting almost to disintegrate.”
If the trio’s live gigs find the songs expanding, wouldn’t it be only fair to capture these live recordings? Hallett agrees. “We actually did a great show in New York, in the Bowery Ballroom. We recorded that whole show, and I think we videoed that as well. So we are talking about doing that, and there’s been a lot of people saying ‘you’ve got to make a live record’. Hopefully, that will happen. That’s definitely been a plan, we’re always fans of live records too.”
From there, Hallett took a requested stroll down memory lane to the time Hutchings first jammed onstage with Leavers and Hallett’s electronic duo Soccer96 (“I remember being kind of shocked!”), ruminated on Hutching’s articulate style (“I actually think he has transcribed a lot of rap and grime tunes. He can transcribe all of that stuff but on to the sax. It’s almost like the rhythmic language of a vocalist or an emcee”), and reflected on how Hyper-Dimensional Expansion Beam finds the Comet Is Coming recording without any outside collaborators or spoken-word passages (“I think we’ve scratched that itch quite a lot. For this record, it was like ‘what if we don’t do that thing that everyone does?'”).
Hallett couldn’t comment on the trio’s future, not because they have no future, but because the present is too intense to escape. “At the moment, we are deep in the tour part of the cycle. Recording will happen when it happens. I don’t know when it will be. Probably during a gap when there’s nothing going on. It’s such a different headspace. Right now, all of our focus is on working on the live show, building up the musical language, and enjoying it as well.” He still allowed himself to speculate, though. “Shabaka has been playing a lot of flutes, and I think that’s his next move; to make more flute music, flute albums. He’s going more in that direction. I’m not sure whether Comet will get more flutes involved; I’m interested to see what that would be like. We have flute on this album, and he plays this shakuhachi flute, a Japanese bamboo flute that happens to be what my dad plays as well.”
“We will record again,” Hallett assured, “but to do that, we need to be ready, but we also need to be blank. The canvas needs to be white; there needs to be nothing there, so we’re ready to do something new. I think it would be kind of crazy to do that right now.”