In the 1840s, Europe was set ablaze - not just by simultaneous liberal revolutions across the continent by a populace living through the ultra conservative, post-Napoleonic era, but by a social phenomenon known as Lisztomania. Lisztomania is described as the hysterical, almost comical reactions by fans of famed concert pianist Franz Liszt at his sold out performances throughout Europe at the time. Music had never garnered such fevered emotional reception by the youth before. It proved to be a standing point in history, foretelling the constant connection of sound with the adolescent.
This past month, I landed at JFK for the first time and headed down to Manhattan, New York City. In a little longstanding ballroom on the Lower East Side, I played eyewitness to the lisztomania that swept through the gathered audience at The Bowery. Over 600 people stomped, staged dived, pulled their hair, and moshed to a band with no vocalist. The headliners were BADBADNOTGOOD - a Canadian jazz trio. Exhibiting their versatility and hip-hop knowledge, BADBADNOTGOOD built a cult following for themselves by covering acts such as A Tribe Called Quest, Waka Flocka Flame, and Gucci Mane. They’ve since collaborated with and successfully channeled the rambunctiousness of LA outfit Odd Future, incorporating the instrumental structures they learned while attending Humber College in Toronto, and have achieved massive popularity on Soundcloud and social media.
We got to sit down with the three young men of BADBADNOTGOOD fresh off of tour, supporting their 3rd album, promptly titled III, while concurrently wrapping up their collaborative group effort with the Shaolin legend, Ghostface Killah. Backstage, we talked to Alex Sowinski (drums), Chester Hansen (bass), and Matt Tavares (keys) about the importance of their musical background, improvisation, this increasingly visible intersection of jazz and hip-hop, DJ Mustard, and the Sour Soul recordings.
SENAY KENFE: So we’re sitting here backstage of a grand night at the Bowery with BADBADNOTGOOD. How’s it going, guys?
Simultaneous: It’s going great.
It was a packed crowd, how was the tour for you guys?
Alex: It’s been good, it’s gone by in a whirlwind the past few days. We played two shows in Boston, then NYU here, and then Washington and then tonight.
What made you guys go the route of playing these covers? Particularly hip-hop covers and uploading them?
Alex: Just goofing around, meeting each other in school, and yeah, just hanging out and talking about music. You’re practicing your instrument all the time and learning all these jazz songs… So we were like, “Let’s just try playing some other shit,” and we were just goofing around and started playing these random beats and things.
I think it’s pretty epic to see a jazz trio having hundreds of people mosh in a ballroom.
Simultaneous: Yeah, it’s crazy. People were going ham tonight.
We’re at a very interesting intersection between hip-hop and jazz. Particularly in the sense of you guys and - not lumping together but - people like Taylor McFerrin, Brainfeeder. Even people like Robert Glasper and Jose James. Can you describe this interesting moment in time where jazz is relevant again? Because you guys obviously are touching multiple genres. Do you have an issue with me saying you guys are a jazz band?
Chester: We don’t classify ourselves as a 100% jazz band. Obviously, we use a lot of the influence from the genre, like the ideas being improvised and that kind of thing. We don’t really care what people want to classify - they say it’s jazz or experimental or hip-hop or whatever. There’s a lot of great stuff going on with modern music and stuff like that.
Matt: I just think it’s really cool all these people are coming up, ourselves included, where all these kids are checking out improvised music. Ten years ago, I don’t know if that was the case. People would go to a show and hear a ton of solos. But free form kind of music that doesn’t really have identified form or a start and finish, just flowing with it? It’s awesome.
Chester: I guess it’s just things going in weird cycles because now, today, you’ll have a few thousand people watching a Thundercat show, which is pretty insane live improvisation for an hour. It’s just neat that stuff like that is getting back into the limelight a little bit.
How important is improvisation to you guys as a band? Because I feel like there’s moments where you go off, you go off, and you go off… [and] it’s crazy because it’s not structured to have a “leader.” How important is that element in your live set up?
Alex: It’s the best way for us to play just because we like to play all sorts of genres, but for when we like to do our own thing, it’s nice to have room for error and let someone take their ideas somewhere and kind of figure out what we’re doing or how we’re playing. If it’s time for bass heaven, we just sit back and let him do his thing and try to keep that energy going. So we just like to keep it really open and figure out where we can take it by just playing with each other rather than knowing “here,” or “there.” Or a “your turn, my turn” type of thing.
Matt: It’s also sick too because with a lot of bands - let’s say you’re listening to some music that day - it might take a year for that influence to go into the next album, and then you play that album cycle and that’s there. But if we listen to something and we’re like, “Oh, this is crazy, I like the vibe of this.” We might get ideas and use those ideas the night we play a show. So it’s fun to just be like, “Oh, I’m going to try and do this tonight.” It’s a cool way to just express yourself and let it out; everything, all music.
This is the first album of yours… that’s completely all compositions. I don’t want to say you guys were in a comfort zone of doing covers, but how does it feel to go from, “Okay, we’re doing songs that we know of others, and now we’re in this realm where it’s our own material.” Can you describe that transition?
Alex: I guess it started here because we started the Ghostface record with our friend, Frank Dukes, in Brooklyn at the Daptone studio - it’s called Dunham. And we barely knew him. We met him at our first show in Toronto and he had been working out of their studio. I had been friends with those guys, so he asked us to start this Ghostface project, and we just went there for four days and started writing all original music. Which was not something that we had focused a lot on, so being in that studio and writing all these, kind of, soul tunes. Matt was playing mainly guitar and just working on ideas and stuff, which just started, more, to work on crafting our own sound and taking different ideas and fleshing them out between the three of us and whatnot.
Also, I feel like through doing that and taking other peoples’ music - we don’t just try to play it exactly, we try to put some flavor of our own into it. So just building on that and trying to figure out how to play other people’s music, we felt that we had a little basis of how we could create some of our own vibes. At the time, it was just kind of like, “Oh, what’re we going to do for the next project?” We’re like, “Maybe we should try and do some more original stuff.” Then we started writing more and then we were like, “Maybe we should just do the next one all original and see where we can take the ideas and whatnot.”
I know you guys, earlier, did the tracks with Frank Dukes… [were those the ones] Danny Brown used for his album?
Alex: Matt and Chester produced the -
Matt: It was mostly Chester.
Is that how that relationship existed?
Alex: We had been working with him since the Hybrid, which was his album before XXX.
Chester: And he did two beats on XXX, which was pretty dope. So they’ve known each other for a while. And then they did a thing for Danny, and then we started doing the Ghostface record and got Danny to check out the track and see if he would vibe on it, he gave us -
Alex: It was actually a swap - we gave him a beat for Old and he gave us the verse.
That’s sick. And it developed into a whole album, what’s it going to be called?Simultaneous: Sour Soul.
And it’s coming out -
Alex: February 28th I think.
How do you guys feel about working with other artists? Particularly vocalists, rappers, whatever you want to call them - over your guys’ production?
Chester: It’s really cool. Obviously we started the Ghostface album a couple years ago and it’s been a process of completing it and getting more creative input from him and vocal parts. So now that it’s finally all coming together and we’ve released a couple songs, and people seem to be enjoying it, we’re really proud of how it’s coming together and the sound of it. It’s just super fucking cool to work with a rapper that we were listening to since we were teenagers and getting into hip-hop. We hope to do a lot more because it’s a lot of fun creating a basis for someone to put something vocally on. Rather than having to create a whole piece instrumentally and figuring out where we can take it. Which is also a fun thing too, but it’s nice to go to both worlds.
And you guys are already making an important mark in terms of the outside production that you guys have been doing.
Matt: Our friend [Frank] Dukes - we made this song, this funny psych song - actually it’s kind of tight. Then he made it into a sample and YG just released a Grammy diss song today using the same -
Chester: It’s like a picture of all the nominees for best rap album and then just a big, red, caution-style font that says “YG 2015 Flow.”
Matt: The funny thing is that it says, “Produced by DJ Mustard,” because I guess DJ Mustard took the sample and linked it.
Alex: They were making beats back and forth. It’s literally just the sample looped, there are no drums on it.
Matt: It’s cool, it’s dope. But there’s always random shit.
Chester: That’s on the Logic album [Under Pressure] too.
Alex: Yeah, it’s like a random song… Just something me and Dukes made got sampled for it.
How’re those checks looking from that kind of work?
Simultaneous: It takes like a year to get paid.
Because you gotta track them down.
Matt: Yeah, it’s not like a song comes out and you just get a check immediately. It takes at least a year, sometimes two years. But hopefully good.
Alex: It’s obviously more valuable to spend time working on our own music. Doing that stuff is really great but we’re just not making 15 beats a day.
That is the college drop out lifestyle you know. Five beats a day, three summers.
Alex: There’s just too many boys killing it now.
Chester: DJ Mustard’s killing it.
Alex: Yeah, every hit this summer and continued - or just every song sounds like it.
It’s like two or three chords.
Alex: He’s got a formula, man!
Matt: He’s the new age Ramones. [Laughs]
You want to talk about how you guys met up?
Alex: Yeah, we just met in a music school in Toronto in the hallways randomly. Me and Chester got asked to play on some random saxophone player’s weird project randomly. You’re in school and you’re just trying to meet people and work on ideas, trying to build and jam and have a session.
Chester: Matt came through the session.
Matt: Yeah, I came through the session. We have a couple trio jams before we were ever in a band. We just kind of met in the hallways of music school. Wearing rap T-shirts, only kids [in] Nikes and not boat shoes. There was big boat shoe craze - boat shoes and fedoras.
Chester: We’ll call it a jazz hat.
How important do you feel having a music background has been in terms of you building what is, today -
Alex: Incredibly important. We take it for granted a lot of the time, but when we’re in the studio and writing… it’s always like Chester plays something, I play something, you play something. And then we just all know music so there’s no need to go over to someone and be like, “It’s this shape, here’s the chord, it’s this form.” We all got it.
Matt: Yeah, we can give each other suggestions pretty quick or thoroughly like, “What if we changed that chord or key?”
Chester: Obviously, it’s not everything, but it’s just so nice to know those basics and fundamentals.
Alex: And there’s a lot of bands that don’t know and it’s weird because we all went to the same school even. So I think that helps because we all learned the same kind of theory because people teach theories in different ways. I can go Chester and be like, “Yo, what if we tri-tone right there?” And he gets it.
Matt: It’s not necessary for everybody because there are a lot of great composers and people who make a lot of cool stuff who don’t have a super in-depth knowledge of all the theoretical parts of music and playing an instrument. But it definitely is very helpful working together. Especially just knowing how we can figure out ideas or flesh things out.
Especially when you guys are creating together because you’ve been playing for so long that it’s kind of in transit.
Alex: It lets it be a continuous process of listening to music and picking up different chord progressions from other people and different shapes in whatever the hell we’re listening to.
Chester: At this point, we’ll do stuff on stage where it’s like, “How did we know that everyone was going to get quiet at that part?” We just know how everyone plays.
Alex: Chester has got perfect pitch too, which helps for Matt.
Matt: It helps me a lot, it helps me more than it helps him. [Laughs] Because I can just do whatever the hell I want and I just leave it up to you to somehow figure it out.
That’s good that you guys feel each other - it’s like one unit versus a three part.
Alex: It’s just about listening. If everyone listens to each other - that’s the key.
What’s next for you guys?
Simultaneous: Emmy’s, Oscar’s, Tony’s. We’re gonna be a triple threat. [Laughs]