Photo courtesy of Innovative Leisure
BadBadNotGood are well aware people are quick to dub them a jazz band. After all, the four Canadian-born musicians who have become festival titans and earned the respect of musicians of all colors and disciplines, met in a jazz program at Toronto’s Humber College. Yes, they’ll admit, they still speak in jazz terminologies when writing music. And they’re prone to vibe out to some John Coltrane and Charlie Parker when the occasion fits. But when you’re a band whose debut album featured covers of A Tribe Called Quest and Waka Flocka Flame, who have collaborated with everyone from Tyler, The Creator to Sam Herring of Future Islands, and who made an entire album with Ghostface Killah in last year’s Sour Soul, it’s safe to say you’re hardly staunch traditionalists.
“We just look at it as we make a smorgasbord of music,” drummer Alex Sowinski says of BBNG’s no-holds-barred approach to their craft. “We sit in a weird pocket.” Adds bassist Chester Hansen with blunt assessment: “We’re not trying to be a jazz band. We’re just trying to make music.”
Such a genre-blurring approach goes a long way in explaining why the band, which includes keyboardist Matthew Tavares and Leland Whitty on saxophone released an album like this month’s IV—the seasoned musicians’ fourth full-length offering and a bold offering that sees electro-soul instrumentals paving the way for collaborations with the likes of Herring, experimental hip-hop producer Kaytranada and burgeoning MC Mick Jenkins. It’s their most widely inventive and risk-taking effort yet. “It’s not your typical album,” Sowinski admits. “ We almost never have a unifying kind of idea or theme,” offers Hansen. “We just work on the music that seems to come out of us at that time.”
When I rang up Sowinski and Hansen on a recent morning, BBNG were on a rare break from the road, but one half of the ever-experimenting band naturally still had music on the mind. “When we work on music it’s the most fun for us when we’re not sticking to any one thing,” Hansen says in a conversation that touches on the band’s rollercoaster of a new album, collaborating with some of the music-industry’s hottest artists and why a band like theirs could not have existed in any other time. “We just try and be open.”
Noisey: IV is undoubtedly your most eclectic album to date. Were you worried that with all the features from collaborators of varying styles it might feel disoriented?
Alex Sowinski: When we started to look at it and see how different some of the songs would be between the most soulful groovy songs versus something that’s much more crazy with an up-tempo jazz improv vibe. It was looking kind of weird. We were like “I don’t know if it makes a lot of sense.” But I’ve grown to appreciate what it is now and how everything comes together. There is cohesiveness because it’s us playing, and it’s our instruments and our studio and all these flavors. I’m quite proud of it, but it’s taken a bit of time to develop it because it such a different-sounding album. It’s not your typical concept album where it’s a few themes that are regulated throughout. It’s just straight up very different between song to song.
Chester Hansen: It was definitely working on it track by track. We almost never have a unifying kind of idea or theme. We just work on the music that seems to come out of us at that time. For this one, especially since we put out III, we’ve broadened our horizons a lot in what we listen to and also gotten the chance to work with a bunch of different people and experiment. At the end of a period of recording we looked back and were like “Wow, we have 20 or so songs that are so different and a bunch of amazing songs with all these people that we’ve collabed with.” Initially for a while we weren’t sure if it was just going to be instrumental or not or if the features would even fit, but we put the songs together in the combo they’re in now, and it seemed to work out.
What is it that works so well with BBNG and hip-hop artists joining forces?
Sowinski: I don’t know. I can’t really think of one thing because different collaborations have come at different times. But early on when we were doing rap covers it was just cohesiveness with being able to create familiar feelings of beats and then being able to add solo-y functionality to that. We don’t really know. We’re just appreciative of anyone who somehow responds to something that they’ve heard of us. We never really know at the end of the day what they’ve heard from us that got them into what we do. That’s kind of the best part: There’s some kind of connection that gets made and we all come together and see what we can do.
Your ability to cross genre lines feels very 2016 and of the internet age.
Because of the internet and all this accessibility and promotion that you can have intentionally it just creates this crazy cohesive world. And then you play festivals and meet these people. Then you’re at a show talking to a rapper you admire and being inspired and having your mind blown. It’s just this amazing time. And with the rap world specifically, all these young kids are making beats, creating folders, sending them out and getting rappers to listen to them and potentially selecting them for their albums—production credits for new rap albums are always changing. There’s always some new producer or singer popping up somewhere. That’s just because of the creativity of our time and the internet and the connection that we can create, which is absolutely incredible.
To that end, I know you guys hadn’t even met Ghostface Killah in person when you started working together.
We met him halfway through Sour Soul. Frank Dukes had that idea for the record and invited us to come out to New York for our first time. We wrote songs for three days and recorded 50 percent of Sour Soul, and then a year and half later we built our studio in Toronto and finished the rest of the instrumentals. We were huge Wu-Tang fans and huge fans of Ghost. And then we finally met him while basically performing with him at a show.
Hansen: It was crazy. The album itself took over three years to make. We were going back and forth and working on the beats with Frank. Then we would send them to Ghostface, he would send back verses, we would change the beats, etc. It went through a lot of periods of evolution. The first time we met we didn’t even talk before playing. We were playing our own set. He shows up while we’re playing and just gets on the mic. He had told us to learn a few beats from his back catalog so we played those. And from there we just started this really cool chemistry onstage. It’s amazing to see that he is actually getting this energy from what we do and getting really into it. Even though some of the beats sound a bit different because we’re playing them as a four-piece live band, it adds a cool element. The fact that we can extend it or put solos over classic Ghostface songs… it’s been a really cool time. He’s been all for it.
Is that natural to work remotely as you did when recording with Ghostface? I know a lot of young artists are growing accustomed to it.
Sowinski: I think it’s becoming more natural. I don’t think it was at first. In terms of music school you don’t really learn about that kind of a world being the predominant industry that we have now. I think early on—dating back to when Tyler, the Creator came into our space and we jammed—you just realize that you have to create these opportunities for yourself and you have to build this confidence in what you do. Because in music school you’re in such a learning and absorbing environment that it’s hard to believe you’re at a certain level or your ideas are worthwhile. Once we started putting stuff online and realized “Wow, this little idea that we had and started doing for fun is actually something that is somewhat interesting to people.” We just kept going with that and building up this weird repertoire of things we were trying to do and have fun with.
You guys met in jazz school, but I know you bristle at the idea of being considered a jazz band.
Hansen: We come from a music school background where we were learned jazz heavily, and to this day the approach to learning music that jazz musicians have and the approach to playing is a part of what we do. We try to keep that jazz spirit, but it’s combined with so many other things. It’s a lens that we look at other music through. We’ve been labeled jazz a lot obviously because it makes sense, but so many people have their definition of what jazz means to them. Someone might hear our music being called “jazz,” and then they listen to it and it doesn’t fit their idea; it can lead to some confusion. We’ve had great responses and not-so-great responses from people in the jazz community, but we don’t really mind either way. We’re not trying to be a jazz band. We’re just trying to make music.
Sowinski: We look at what we do as approaching music with jazz training. We use the jazz language when we’re writing, but we’re not proficient. We’re not the top musicians of the genre, so we don’t try to assume ourselves as prolific innovators because jazz has this history of boundary-pushing limitless constant progression, eight hours a day of practice. We’ve learned to find different interests—whether it’s production, recording techniques, writing, exploring totally different genres of music—instead of progressing our instruments per se as soloists. We listen to Coltrane and Sun Ra and all these progressives, but for us because of the internet and the age we’re a part of we love to study everything. It’s this weird ongoing thing for us to keep being educated and learning.
People often feel the need to compartmentalize music into genres.
As a music fan myself, as soon as I hear something I do associate it with one artist or two artists because you want to somewhat log in your brain what familiar sounds or feelings you might be hearing. But at the same time that can be a stubborn way of approaching it and not reading into the depths of where the music is coming from. Familiarity is an important way of understanding, but it’s hard.
Dan Hyman is a writer based in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter.