Published Oct 05, 2011Toronto trio Badbadnotgood have had an unusual rise to fame for a jazz band. Their bop covers of Odd Future, Slum Village's "Fall In Love" and Gucci Mane's "Lemonade" exploded on the web before Humber music students Matt Tavares, Alex Sowinski and Chester Hansen had ever performed for a crowd. A few days after their live debut at Toronto's Red Light and the Bandcamp release of their debut BBNG, I sat down with drummer Sowinski and pianist Tavares to discuss rap versus jazz, their unique aesthetic and how they pick covers.
What was the feeling when you all met?
Alex Sowinski: I guess it was fun when we all met and connected with the same music. It was amazing.
Matthew Tavares: When we first played [Miles Davis songs] "Milestones" or "Footprints", that was cool. I remember playing with another band earlier in the week and then playing with [BBNG], and it was so good. Totally different levels of hype. I think the thing we bonded over was how much we hate [traditional] jazz.
What jazz do you like?
T: Bill Evans. Can you put that in bold? Eric Dolphy is great, Out To Lunch. I listen to more jazz than you... Shouts out to John Coltrane, shouts out to Miles Davis.
S: Obviously A Love Supreme is pretty sick. You ever heard Black Codes by Wynton Marsalis?
T: There's a lot of jazz that's good. The problem is, most people don't make that kind of music anymore. In that traditional sense, jazz is something that's already happened. Bebop was good because we have all these great bebop recordings from the '50s, not because Pat Lebarbera plays bebop now.
S: When that shit was coming out, it was fresh and new. No one had done A Love Supreme before, so when that came out, it was amazing. People just want to recreate that and can't do it justice.
T: It's so annoying that anyone who wants to play jazz now sounds like Bird or Coltrane. I feel like everyone who's pushing the format is either making it cheesier or pushing it into some weird electronic. No one's doing any major landmark in the music anymore.
Did you hear the Colin Stetson record?
T: Yeah, Modern Warfare Vol. 1. It's awesome. But it's the same problem, I have a bunch of Evan Parker albums and it's kind of the same thing. There's a lot of people that like jazz but hate free jazz. The [Stetson] record is definitely groundbreaking, just that he can use his sax that way.
I know you guys like Robert Glasper too, who does a few hip-hop covers..
T: He's awesome and lame at the same time. I can't get behind the use of the vocoder at all. And the last few tracks on his last record aren't jazz or hip-hop, they're just straight-up lame.
S: He's great but I feel you can only hear the arrangements as a trio, with Chris "Daddy" Dave, so many times before it gets boring. That's probably why they added the sax with vocoder.
T: He does do hip-hop but he just plays the beats. He's not really interpreting them, they don't change anything but recreate the beat. When Charlie Parker plays a standard, he doesn't recreate the shitty Broadway tune.
Glasper also did J Dilla covers, and you cover Slum Village's "Fall In Love." How do you find a way to play with the odd time signatures of a Dilla or Flying Lotus beat?
S: I just try to be rhythmically aware of what they do, not even learning all the beats, all the stuttered sounds. More the mentality. He's going to play a beat and it's going to be off-kilter, and I'll just think about that and try to do it with my drumming. But try not to think about it, just try to push it, speed it up or slow it down or literally add a pause that's off-time because I know I can do it. I take it from the philosophical aspect of doing those things in [Dilla's] music, instead of the strict dimensions of time.
What do you look for in a song to cover?
S: There are a lot of cover bands but there's not many people taking hip-hop beats and writing arrangements for them. There are standards in every genre but not in hip-hop.
T: People think covers are lame when it's just the same song by a different person. That's why it's something you can get away with in jazz, people can play a jazz standard and it will sound different.
That's why you can play a Waka Flocka song.
T: For me, the reason you can play jazz standards is because old people know those melodies. They can hear "Stella By Starlight" on Jazz FM and know how it goes. So if you play a hip-hop song that people know, they can hear your version and appreciate what's happening. A young person doesn't give a fuck how you play "Stella By Starlight."
S: I get that jazz standards exist but why are they still coming up? The people who teach us music [at Humber] make their living playing the same standards.
Take me through the process of playing a cover of something like "Hard In The Paint."
S: The first time we recorded, we were just jamming while we waiting three hours for the mics to be set up. At our first show, we went totally crazy playing "Electric Relaxation." It's supposed to be a more laidback song but we just went fucking crazy. Dynamically I guess I'm more in control because I'm playing an acoustic instrument, and I know they'll be right there.
T: It's all listening. I listen to Alex because I know if Alex crashes somewhere, if I'm not there with him, I sound like I'm making a mistake. So I'm always making sure I'm building the same intensity as Alex so it seems like I'm not doing anything wrong. We didn't know when anything was supposed to end that show.
S: Sometimes I'm ending a song and they have no idea so they just listen and watch. I'll lift my hands up and they'll stop. There's been a few times where we're like, "Ah, fuck" [laughs].
Where did the idea for the YouTube videos come from?
S: For the [first] Odd Future medley, that was something we did four takes of. I had actually played the same songs for a recital and got a 70. Like, they don't know what [Gucci Mane]'s "Lemonade" is!
T: The videos were progressively less and less rehearsed,
S: The pumpkin and the masks, that all stuff [the cameraman] had lying in their apartment.
T: The lion costume, that was my friend Mitch.
S: He was like, "I just bought this lion costume for $50 off Craiglist, let's use it." No correlation to what we had done, just thought we'd put it in there. The pig mask was a joke. Since you use the face so much for signaling, having it covered shows how good [Matt and Chester] are at listening.
What about the 40 oz. in the "Electric Relaxation" video?
S: That was a streak of luck. We were going to go to the Odd Future show. So when Chester came down to record that weekend, we jammed the [Tyler, the Creator's Goblin] medley number two a few times and then we recorded it. After that, we ran to the Beer Store and grabbed a couple 40s. Then we were like, we have some extra time, let's do "Electric Relaxation." I'm like, cool, put the 40 on my drum, didn't even think about it. So we start playing and I use the 40 and Chester says, Okay, I'm going to stop playing because that thing is in perfect tune.
T: It was perfectly in E-flat.
Did the sampler come in the same way?
S: Just the Friday before the show, I thought I'll sample some stuff for the show and see how it works out. I think it added a sick element to the show. Even the [MF] Doom medley we recorded, there was no a cappella. I thought it'd be cool to drop the a cappella to [Doom song] "Vomitspit" for a second before going into the song.
T: I think it adds that extra level of entertainment. Any time you thought it was going to get boring, you just drop a funny Lil B sample and it's like, ah, that's hilarious. We were worried that people wouldn't be entertained. Obviously a five-minute YouTube video is different from an hour-and-a-half long live show.
Do you see yourself working with rappers?
T: That'd be amazing.
S: Hopefully with the connections we made at this show, we can do some more beats and work with people. Anyone can sample what we put online, that's a free-ass mixtape. We'd totally be down. If it sucks, we're going to know! But yeah, do it up.
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