The tradition of "drum battles" in jazz dates all the way back to the big band era, when Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich forever revolutionized percussion with their show-stopping rhythmic duels. They showed that pounding the skins could be more than tempo-driven accompaniment—it was an expressive language of its own. With the track "Drum Battle," five-piece jazz outfit Kneebody modernize the spectacle by putting their own Nate Wood's fluid beats in conversation with a computer programmed by none other than veteran electronic wizard Daedelus.
Included on last year's collaborative album Kneedelus, the thrilling instrumental was part of an overarching comment on technological singularity via a near-seamless integration of acoustic and electronic musical elements. It's perhaps a better display of bionic jazz than anything else ever released on Flying Lotus' Brainfeeder label, which has sought to humanize dance music and digitize organic sounds since its inception in 2008.
Today, Kneebody and Daedelus premiere their in-studio "Drum Battle" music video on VICE. Over the phone, Daedelus and Kneebody bassist Kaveh Rastegar explained the creative process behind the album and spoke to the jazz awakening that Brainfeeder is currently instigating in LA.
VICE: Can you start by telling me about the composition of "Drum Battle"?
Kaveh Rastegar: It was written by our saxophone player, Ben Wendel, but we were all closely involved. He actually got a grant to write a set of music with Daedelus, and this was one of the four resulting songs.
Daedelus: It's complicated because of the number of people involved. I think jazz is a spiraling sinkhole of sounds. A lot of people have these ideas that jazz is a brunch thing, or a cruise ship invention, and Kneebody does stuff that's so much more complicated. Ben laid the groundwork, Nate [Wood, drummer] enabled it, and then I was in the studio with them while they were recording it, adding sounds and direction. Not just the electronics, not just the editing, but also a lot of reference points towards other genres, things like techno and juke—electronic mainstays that I'm sure they're familiar with.
I tried to give them the sense of what constitutes those genres: Well if you put the snare here, it kind of means this thing, it's this gesture. We were experimenting that way, especially in the rhythm section, and so "Drum Battle" has that pulse that hints toward something like a manic techno song, and if you stripped away a few of the parts, it could actually really resemble that.
What role, if any, did improvisation play in the album's creation?
Rastegar: As a band, we're really driven by composition. We've been together for 15 years and developed a large body of work to pick from in our shows, and we design our set lists with very specific tension-and-release moments. Everybody in the band writes material, and some of it ends up being more programmed and well-defined, while other songs are designed as more open-ended, modular compositions.
With Daedalus, it was exciting because we got to play on it more than usual, just with having him improvise. It's not at all like the experiences I've had playing with hip-hop DJs, where it's like, You guys are just playing a record. His role has been an x-factor, enhancing our improvisation and adding bombast.
Onstage with the band, I'll play the most ridiculous music, launching into all kinds of strange genre play, and they're just right there with me. It's kind of scary. They shouldn't be that good. — Daedelus
Daedelus: Kneebody do tend to be thoroughly composed; it's like they're realizing classical compositions when they're in the studio. I think I added some chaos, not only in the way electronics can be so squirrelly, but I also gave them more space because of how rigid I can be on my machine. I gave them more of a framework [upon which] to weave their dynamism and magic.
How did injecting an electronic member into a largely acoustic setup force you both to change the way you play, the tones you produce?
Rastegar: Anytime you add new voice to any group, you want to give them space. Playing bass for Kneebody has been a really fun chair, in that I'm not always stuck playing low notes and get to play around with tonality, even playing in more of a guitar register lots of the time. But with Daedelus, I'm loving sticking to the low end, booming stuff for once.
Daedelus: So there was a whole process of being in the same audio space as them, and then there was nine months of me hacking at the material in post. That's where the sonic space really leapt and bounded. I turned in some tame versions to them at first, and they were like, No, we want this to explode, we want this to go further . They were ready to do something remarkably different. Onstage with the band, I'll play the most ridiculous music, launching into all kinds of strange genre play, and they're just right there [with me]. It's kind of scary. They shouldn't be that good.
With your background, what's your take on this whole new wave of LA jazz that Brainfeeder is spearheading?
Daedelus: It's phenomenal. It's always been an undertone, it's just not been as recognized as it is now. This live music scene is really strong and it's produced things like Thudercat, Ben Wendel, FlyLo, Nosaj Thing, and all these people who have chops on instruments—the electronics might just be louder in the mix. But you see that changing on the ground. You see people in the audiences who are just vibing because they're actually listening. It's not just a trill audience that's all lit and fleek, but engaged in active listening, and that's the most dangerous act that's going on at these shows.
Catch Kneebody and Daedelus on tour in February and March. For more on the record, visit the band's website here.
Follow Patrick on Twitter.