In Essential Albums our favourite artists dig up five records that they consider “Essential” by any definition. This week, Toronto jazz exploders BADBADNOTGOOD discuss the importance of moving forwards, not backwards, working a few degrees from Drake (uncredited), and how Blink-182 introduced them to sex, rock and roll and swearing.
BADBADNOTGOOD might seem like the obvious choice for Essential Albums - after all, the trio were plucked from obscurity (and Toronto's Humber College jazz program) when Tyler, The Creator discovered their Odd Future cover sessions and came to jam with them in the same suburban parents' basement. By rejecting the typical standards for rearranged rap hits and Legend of Zelda ocarina medleys, the dudes got kids moshing to jazz, and became sought after producers and arrangers by the likes of Ghostface. Their Essential Albums are written all over their music.
But that was then. This past May, BBNG released their new album III, their first non-mixtape album (i.e. the first you can actually pay for) and the first dominated by originals. "This one's like the first 'real' album, in the sense that the first two we weren't really a band and we didn't know what we were doing," says keyboardist Matt Tavares at Toronto's Field Trip festival, sitting alongside bassist Chester Hansen, drummer Alex Sowinski and, for good measure, frequent guest horn Leland Whitty:
"We were just friends goofing around, jamming hip-hop tunes we like. This time it was like 'let's really spend a lot of time on it, make a great album.'"
So are we cruelly taking them back in time by making them big-up their influences? No, they're more than game. "We're always listening to new shit, and we love to share music," says Tavares. But they purposely avoided any songs they've covered (with one notable exception). Instead, they focused on albums that shaped their spirit, mindset and style, each in its own unique way. It's not just a list of hip-hop tunes they like (or even any My Bloody Valentine). There's pop punk, a French spoken word concept album, a Bandcamp find and, yes, despite their Kill Yr Idols reputation, even a jazz classic. It's all in the DNA of BADBADNOTGOOD and they're more than happy (tongues loosened by free beer) to explain how.
Bill Evans Trio, Sunday at the Village Vanguard (1961)
You have a reputation as a sort of iconoclastic "fuck the standards" kind of jazz band, but the first album you chose is a classic jazz album.
Alex Sowinski: We’re in 2014. This is not 1961. These songs have been played a million times and we’re trying to… we love those recordings, we listen to them all the time and they’re fantastic, but there’s a lot more music to explore with. So that’s kind of where we’re at personally. And it’s not a decision based on "fuck this, fuck that." It’s kind of just where we are.
Leland Whitty: Bill Evans was playing the pop tunes of the day. These dudes are playing the fucking pop tunes of the day.
Alex: And early Bill Evans with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian, the way they played standards people don’t play now. It’s such an inventive, improvisational, totally unique, totally freeform style. A lot of group soloing, where it sounds like one person’s soloing but everyone’s doing their own thing. Very, very of the moment. It’s just amazing. Dude, that was my instruction on how to play jazz.
Matt Tavares: Everything is tasteful and amazing, but the best thing about that trio is the interaction and musicality between three people. And simplicity as well. No one was trying to do something intensely intellectual. It’s just so musical all the time. Not like "I can do this," but "I’m feeling this." That’s sometimes hard to find, but hopefully that inspires other people. And it inspires us.
Chester Hansen: Especially in terms of them playing jazz standards that have been played a million times. You’d be hard pressed to find another group playing like they did, even today.
Matt: Even their arrangements of standards, they had these iconic ways of playing them, which is almost ironic because how they played those standards is so… Especially the extended box sets of those things. Listen to take 1 of “Come Rain Or Come Shine” and then take 5, it’s totally different. The one that was on the album is the way everyone plays it. But that was just totally a unique, of the moment style.
That was them pushing forward, right, but now the popular conception of jazz is as an old-fashioned genre cast in granite.
Chester: Even if you look at each individual member, they were totally new and inventive. Like, Scott Lafaro revolutionized bass playing in the short time he was alive. And every bass player today now is like "oh, I gotta play high up, high on the frets." Same thing with Bill Evans, "I gotta play these weird voicings." You really learn that in jazz school, how he played the voicings. Like a Flat 5 Minor or whatever. So it’s neat how in such a short time these guys revolutionized jazz forever.
To the point that it’s now being taught in schools.
Alex: Yeah, exactly. And what they were doing wasn’t "oh, I’m fucking trying to make this chord sound cool." It was "this is how I want to express myself in this inspiration with my own ideas and sounds." Well, when something like that gets taught it becomes an educational moment, but it should be one for you to learn and grow upon. I think people need to make their own expressions of ideas, make their own thing, and maybe those things will be taught.
Matt: It depends who your teacher is. I got taught in piano class some Bill Evans voicings. You have to take it with a grain of salt. What they were doing was just the way they thought the music would sound and how they were feeling it. You don’t need to always fucking have those extensions or those clusters or those bass fills, Paul Motion’s very simplistic but intense comping. It’s all just about music.
Alex: Yeah, find something you like and if it sounds great, take what you think is the core of why it works and why it sounds great and then keep that as a presence of what you do. Don't take it too seriously and literally, but use it as a tool to find your own ideas. And that’s probably what they did too from people who inspired them.
Serge Gainsbourg, Histoire De Melody Nelson (1971)
Matt: Ultimate badass album. Just the musicians he had, it’s the exact same thing as the Bill Evans album, just dudes who fucking (sorry to keep swearing, we’re buzzed off these free beers), just guys who really understood what it was to be a musician and really contribute to the vibe and the sound of a record. You put on that album and you’re instantly into the vibe of that specific record. It’s so unique. And it’s just bass, acoustic guitar, drums. And electric guitar for some of it. And Serge Gainsbourg talking.
Chester: And then these amazing lush string arrangements, timpani hits and stuff that kind of come out of nowhere and give this whole flow. There's nothing else like it.
Matt: And no offense to Beck – I mean, I don’t want to say anything bad about Beck’s version of it but, it kind of seems like he just took the musical elements of it and said "I can play this in a better studio with a bigger band and a better arranger." But it’s not Jean-Claude Vannier, it’s not fucking Serge Gainsbourg, it’s not the original session musicians.
Alex: We just perceive it differently than he did.
Matt: And Sea Change is a classic Beck album.
Chester: I found out about that Serge Gainsbourg album through “Paper Tiger,” which is a huge homage or tribute or whatever. It’s just an interpretation.
Matt: The vibe is different. And to me the vibe of Melody Nelson is what makes that record. Nothing else. Everyone’s trying to contribute to a vibe. And it’s only like 28 minutes, and with two like 8 minute songs you only really have a couple two minute songs on there. Just genius. And everything else he’s done is amazing. Just the best dude. Serge Gainsbourg, forever. He said he wanted to fuck Whitney Houston, that’s cool. On national French television. Bridget Bardot, Jane Birkin. She’s on the cover of it. Melody Nelson was written about Jane Birkin. The whole album is a tribute to her, which is cool. It’s also super sexual and weird for 1971.
Blink-182, Take Off Your Pants And Jacket (2001)
Alex: I think the four of us can agree that these were our young anthems.
Chester: This is the first album I bought on CD ever as a kid.
Alex: Learned a lot about sex, rock and roll, swearing.
Leland: That’s one of the first bands I listened to before I started playing music. That was one of the reasons I was so psyched to start learning an instrument. 11, 12 maybe.
Matt: Even listening to it now though, it’s great. So much fun.
Chester: They’re doing it still. It’s not the same vibe. It’s a different place, you know. They’re not taking off their pants anymore.
Matt: Even the self-titled album, that was pretty great.
Alex: Yeah, shoot, Blink forever.
Matt: “Feeling This” is the jam.
Alex: “Feeling This” has an 808 on it. They were ahead of the game.
Didn't Travis Barker have a hip-hop mixtape?
Matt: In Grade 8 I went on a band trip to Ottawa or Hamilton or something. It’s like the first time you stay at a hotel, first time you talk about sex or whatever. All through the hallways there was this Travis Barker remix, played on the shittiest phone. Probably an mp4 or mp2.
Jerry Paper, Vol. 1 (2012)
Alex: Jerry Paper is a friend of ours via Matt’s internet research. We found him on Bandcamp, is it?
Matt: I found him on a forum.
Alex: And then we started listening to his Bandcamp and he had this album called Jerry Paper, Vol. 1. Amazing, cool, quirky, weird, robot rap kind of thing.
Chester: We were on a road trip and we listened to it like 20 times.
Alex: It’s like Hawaiian island synthy, poppy...
Chester: The only way to describe it is like... cool. Kind of like Brian Wilson if Brian Wilson had synths, you know what I mean.
Alex: He’s just an amazing guy and we met him in New York through the internet after finding his music. He’s a rad dude. And we’re actually playing a show with him on July 3 in Toronto. And that’s all you can really say. You just gotta check it out. If you like it or hate it he’s an amazing musician and what he does is so unique.
Matt: It’s rare that you just find an album, especially nowadays, that was made recently and it’s so unique. How is this not on a forum or a blog or on Pitchfork or something? You know, with the Internet it seems like everyone knows everything now. But yeah, just this amazingly unique album that no one knows about.
Freddie Gibbs and Madlib, Piñata
Alex: Newest one on the list. Just amazing album, amazing sampling. Freddie Gibbs really sounds amazing over Madlib’s beats, brings a lot of great stories and a lot of good heartfelt lyrics, and then also just his real street vibe, where he’s coming from, where he’s at as a rapper now, where he’s going. There’s nothing more to say than it’s just a fucking great album. We actually had a chance to do a remix for that album.
Matt: We also played “Thuggin'” with [Freddie Gibbs], for a very rare, never archived Boiler Room. It was never played on YouTube.
You recently did a record with Ghostface...
Chester: It wasn’t so recent in the sense that that song was done two and a half years ago. But it’s finally coming together.
And you did stuff with Earl Sweatshirt. Are people starting to reach out to you now?
Chester: Once in a while. We’re always willing to do more stuff with guys. It’s a mutual thing. The more stuff we do the more people know about us, vice versa.
Is there anyone else you'd really want to work with?
Matt: Drake. Although this boy, here... You know the song "0 to 100"? Chester and the guy we share the studio with, Frank Dukes, co-wrote that song. He’s a great producer but he makes a lot of his original samples. So we co-wrote a thing and then Boi-1da put some drums on it.
Is it credited?
Chester: No, because they sampled what they did. So when you sample something you don’t credit it in the production. It’s always like "produced by Boi-1da" even though it could be a sample from like the ‘60s soul record.
Matt: Even if it’s a new thing, no. So it’s a weird space. But those bongos, that guitar, is like Chester and Frank Dukes. Everything but the drums is basically them.