Canadian trio BadBadNotGood have been making some serious waves since starting up their hip-hop/jazz fusion project two years ago. Comprised of drummer Alex Sowinski, bassist Chester Hansen, and keyboardist Matthew Tavares their forward thinking music is pushing the boundaries of contemporary beats.
If the idea of blending two seemingly disparate modes of music is a little frightening to you, then it’s OK, we were, at least at first, in the same boat; when we discovered them after the release of their first album BBNGLVE1 (recorded at their first ever gig, no less) we didn’t know what to think- except that what we were hearing hit the spot. As a fan of both the avant- garde jazz movement of the 50’s and contemporary hip-hop beats, I, in my naivety, didn’t know if it was possible to blend long time favorites such as Mingus and Coltrane with, say, Waka Flocka Flame. And really, who would think to do such a thing?
Obviously, Sowinski, Hansen, and Tavares not only imagined it but had the talent, drive, and technical know-how to pull it off. I met up with the trio on their first visit to Glasgow in the basement of Broadcast, and over a couple of beers discovered what makes them tick and how, in their early twenties, they managed to rise from building their own studio to international acclaim.
Off stage, without the glamour of their instruments (Hansen’s SG bass is something to envy), the light show, and that raised platform that makes everyone look like they are sprinkled in magic dust, BBNG look like ordinary twenty-somethings. They talk rowdily and swing their heads back with every sip of beer, still enthused from the success of their performance, wearing Nike trainers and t-shirts they laugh at the original confusion of their crowd.
“I feel like because we’ve never been here people didn’t really know what to expect” Alex tells me, “they think they’re going to see a jazz band with a fucking chill vibe!”
Although they do retain some traditional jazz changeovers and masterful shifts in tempo, their set is comprised of covers from producers such as James Blake and Flying Lotus, as well as original compositions featured on their second album BBNG2.
The trio met while studying at the prestigious Humber College jazz program in Toronto, and although learning the intricacies of classical jazz music has given them the edge when it comes to technicalities, it was their desire to transgress the strict formal structure that led to their innovative sound.
“We were all jamming, it was a change from being in jazz school and having to learn all these jazz songs and jazz history” Sowinski explains. Dropping out of education to give BBNG a real shot while all in their late teens was a gamble that many young musicians have to face, but few actually make it past.
“We had to get my dad to help us pay for shit and help us build [our studio]” says Sowinski, “at this point we’re just so grateful everyone’s been so supportive and really appreciative of what we do, and coming from our parents who are not really the kind of people where you can say ‘hey, I want to drop out of school’.”
From humble beginnings playing in the basement of Sowinski’s family home, to spending two months renovating a space previously used by the Cowboy Junkies, it’s been one long learning process for the trio. “It was a huge shithole, we really just used to pee outside all the time” Matt Tavares describes their past previous dwellings before Alex Sowinski adds that “[there was] no running water, just like cement”, they laugh.
The energy bouncing around the room as they all talk to each other, over each other, and to me not only reflects the energy of their performance, but the eclectic nature of their musical influences. Sowinski’s position behind the drum set doesn’t hinder him from shouting encouraging obscenities to the crowd, giving a nod to John Bonham before ripping into an accompanied drum solo only minutes before a heart-poundingly good rendition of Fly Lo’s ‘Putty Boy Strut’ with a perfect bass lead by Chester.
The addition of samples to the usually mellow keyboard sound is one of the main evolutions that I noticed in their recent sets, and something that is driving their sound to ever more uncharted territories of electronic music.
“[James Blake and Flying Lotus’] music really inspired us” Sowinski chimes in, “and we were just like ‘fuck this is really good’. The way they use minimal sounds, or a lot of sounds, and these crazy rhythms and crazy flows.”
“We were playing [Putty Boy Strut] for a while now and the first time we tried it we were like ‘oh this is really tight’, and then we slowly tried fucking with it and chopping a song into little bits and making it our own version.” he continues, “It’s not very easy to do with three people [because] we all like tons of different music.”
“Right before we went on we were asked to do this mix for Red Bull” Tavares quickly drawls, “like 15 songs that influence us or whatever, and the end cycle was ridiculous. It was like Drake and then Coltrane and… well basically everyone from Drake to Coltrane.”
Yet despite this mish-mash of influences, the natural way which their songs come together now has a stable outlet win the form of a place to regularly write and rehearse. Currently working on a new album, the trio is focusing on using analogue recording equipment to get their spontaneous sound.
AS: “the biggest thing is it is very analogue inspired. We get all the tape and we mix it on all this analogue equipment and then we mix it to tape again”
MT: “Also our last two releases before this point have taken so little time”
Chester Hansen: “We’d go in there for like ten hours and then Matt would fix it for a month”
AS: “The first album was basically done in like four hours.”
MT: “We spent so much less time writing the songs and arranging them then we’re doing now”
AS: “So for the last year its just been crazy and getting everything perfect [for this album].”
With help from producer Frank Dukes, who made beats for artists like GhostFacePurp and Danny Brown’s 2011 XXX, eight hour recording sessions over the last eight months and 2am rendezvous with Dukes have become the norm. Although they joke that the lengthy recording process is comparable to the infamous White Album, it is no wonder that the fledgling band has knuckled down in an attempt to really define their sound after their whirlwind initial success.
“Well the biggest thing is we just write a bunch of songs and we say this is a really cool sound, and a month later we’re like fuck all those songs” Tavares explains, “It’s just basically been a serious process.”
Recording on analogue, however, is no easy feat, and in an industry dominated by digital recordings it is testament to the high esteem they place on the original jazz greats that they chose to use this old school method. “It’s basically something we’ve always wanted to do” Sowinski tells me, “and the time and place that we’re in with what we’re listening to, one of the things we really appreciate is really good analogue recording where you can fucking hear real moments and musicians playing.”
Although some digital intervention was used, backing up certain tracks that needed to be fixed onto ProTools and such, the ethos of analogue was very much in their minds.
“It’s difficult because there are a couple of songs where the takes were amazing but there were one or two small things that we wanted to fix, and doing really intricate editing is impossible on tape, and if you fuck it up the whole thing is gone.” Tavares laments. “Well that’s the hardest thing, deciding do we do another one, well then we’re going to lose the original, and that’s where tape is the best because it makes you really evaluate what you did instantly, you can’t just fucking keep everything.”
Ultimately, their success lies in the very combination of old and new, mixing classic techniques with contemporary sounds to create forward thinking genres which aren’t afraid of their roots.
“We really wanted to try and get different sounds, fuck with different direction styles and play with different techniques we listened to and always wanted to do” says Sowinski.
“Even when we were recording the album” Tavers adds, “Frank Dukes would come in with a thirty second snippet of this record that sounds crazy, and say let’s try and get these exact sounds today.”
And the secret to their high-stress success? Hansen has the answer: “Drink a lot of coffee and a lot of beers, beer was a big thing, case after case of beer.”
Words: Alexandra Embiricos