On the surface, it may be — and has countlessly been — argued that the Internet has fundamentally changed music.
Not simply in the way that music is recorded, distributed and consumed but also in the way music is composed: crossing stylistic, historical and geographical lines within a song. The wide access that the web offers easily opens up young artists to a wider range of influences and new tools to play with the sounds they make. Furthermore, the vastness of the online community instantaneously connects musicians, fans and supporters from the far reaches of the world. Success in music can then be just as fluid as the Internet is.
The story of Toronto-based BadBadNotGood’s origin is itself Internet famous. Founding members Alex Sowinski, Chester Hansen and Matt Tavares met at the city’s Humber College Jazz program in 2010. For one of their recitals, the trio incorporated jazz renditions of Gucci Mane’s “Lemonade” and Tyler, the Creator’s “Bastard” to the dismay of their instructors. Undeterred by the lack of academic support, the band recorded a new medley incorporating their renditions of Odd Future tracks and uploaded it online. Given social media’s speed and reach, the video went viral with Tyler, the Creator tweeting it the next day.
Since then the band has added Leland Whitty to the line up and released four critically acclaimed albums, not to mention a collaborative album with rap legend Ghostface Killa. Sour Soul (2015) embodies the larger capacities in music within the digital age; Ghostface and BBNG wrote the record together entirely over email, going back and forth between beats and verses. In a similar fashion, the band also clocked in writing and numerous production credits for hip-hop artists including Snoop Dogg, Kendrick Lamar, Earl Sweatshirt and Rihanna. But with their latest album IV (2016), the collaborations have taken a more direct form with the band inviting artists like Kaytranada, Charlotte Day Wilson and Mick Jenkins to the studio to record. Furthermore, the shift from covers in the first two albums BBNG (2011) and BBNG2 (2012) to entirely original compositions in III (2014) and IV reveals broader set of influences, not only in terms of musical references but also very real life experiences.
The last few years of touring offered the band the opportunity to meet their fans in person, outside the realm of YouTube and Bandcamp. Their busy international tour schedule in the last four years has given them an opportunity to encounter different scenes and meet record collectors from all over the world. These worldly experiences manifest in their latest release, a lush and soulful mix for the UK-based Late Night Tales series. The mix serves not only as a soundtrack for moments of reflection and meditation for its audience, but also for the band themselves. Spanning across Cameroonian experimental electronic, British soul, Ghanaian disco, classic Brazilian pop and everything in between, the compilation acts as a marker of the people and places that have inspired them thus far.
On the occasion of their Late Night Tales release, I caught up with the band between tours to reflect on where they are at. Since our conversation, it occurred to me that perhaps the element of the Internet already has a precedent in music writing —the playfulness with song structure, improvisation and incorporation of different sounds and genres are already present in jazz and hip-hop in a larger sense. The former has already been sampled into the latter from the get-go. But by visibly closing any seeming gap between the two, BadBadNotGood reminds us that this spirit of jazz and hip-hop are not that far apart. Moreover, it is embodied more broadly in the way that digital and online music making now allows.
You guys often reject the label “jazz band” in interviews and stories about the band, and yet you admit that your training in jazz conditions your approach to music. Can you explain what it means for jazz to be the lens through which you look at other music?
Chester: There are a few simple examples that can help explain some of that. Say you’re learning a song you really like: you go to guitartabs.com and check out the chords. Those will be THE chords that are on the recording and if you play those exactly how they are, it’ll sound like the song. But in a classic recording of any jazz standard, there will be twenty different versions that sound completely different because part of the approach is putting your own spin on it and slightly changing all those chords or the way it feels. The rhythm section and the solos will also interact differently — not to mention soloing, where you improvise completely on the basic chords of the songs.
Alex: It’s like a set of framework that you can go in and out of at any moment versus over in pop music, where the framework is unchangeable. If someone goes out of it, it’s like, “What are you doing?”
I guess that allows you guys to expand your sound quite a bit then, which for me happened from your first two albums to your last two. Does rejecting those genre labels allow for this growth in the music you make?
Matt: I think it’s almost the opposite in the sense that since we’re all jazz trained — and by virtue of growing and learning new things, listening to new music and having new experiences in life — we’ll always bring that kind of improvisational approach to the art we make. When we get together each year or whenever, it changes. It would always sound different. We’re not trying to create something that’s like, “Oh this is what the framework should be.” We’re just trying to express individually how we feel. That’s kind of closer to a jazz approach than anything.
Alex: I feel like the rejection is also about us not really being comfortable labeling the music we were making initially as “jazz”. It’s not necessarily the similar sound of jazz that is widespread in different ways; it’s not swing music or modern and contemporary jazz, which has more of a sound or feeling in other regards. As we get more comfortable playing music and growing and getting with it all, we’re just trying to create music and pull from every different aspect. We’re not going to say that it’s all just jazz or jazz-influenced.
You just put out a Late Night Tales compilation, which is a great way to get to the psyche behind a band. How did this mix come about?
Chester: Our manager was instrumental in talking to and meeting the people behind it, and they asked us if we wanted to submit some songs and be a part of it. We were stoked because one of our songs was actually featured on Bononbo’s Late Night Tales a few years ago. That was how I actually found out about them, and since then I’ve been checking in and listening to a few of them. It’s a really sweet concept! It was difficult — we probably could’ve submitted two hundred songs…
How do you even edit that, right?
Chester: Yeah a lot of it was edited for us because it’s hard to get the rights to all the songs, and they helped us choose things that went well together. It turned out cool!
Matt: For six months, it was a back-and-forth process of figuring out what songs we think worked well together that they could also clear because it’s hard to clear these songs. Both big songs and rare songs — some of these you can’t even find the publishing information on. Like on weird records, there’s a bunch of stuff they couldn’t clear.
It’s interesting to see how much your range of influences broadened, listening to this compilation compared to your “INSPIREDBOYS2014MIX”. It’s gotten more of an international scope.
Alex: Yeah it was fun to share because a lot of music on there was shared with us from meeting different people, travelling around and finding out that there’s this deep love of record collecting all around the world. Lots of great people with lots of great taste have had a lot of influence in the selection. Stuff that we didn’t know about years ago and then we were schooled on — that’s how we got into it.
How do you think touring internationally has influenced you guys? Not just in terms of exposure to different music but, given that it’s so easy to find music online now, getting to see it in context of how people grow and interact with that music.
Matt: It’s undeniably influenced us. You go to a different city and hear the music, but beyond that, you meet people who know about music — even if it’s someone in Ireland who knows Brazil — the countries don’t need to line up! We’ve met at least a hundred people who’ve given us USB hard drives of stuff to check out. We just always want to learn so we keep on listening to everything that anyone gives us.
Alex: Yeah, we’re really big fans of Brazilian music. Brazilian jazz, soul, funk and folk in the 60s and 70s — even in the 50s too — it’s beautiful what people would hear, what they take influence from music that was popular worldwide like the Beatles or really big bands, and then what music that they create based on that. There’s a really heavy jazz influence in Brazil, so the harmony in the music is very advanced and progressive. It creates this really amazing palette of great musicianship, cool psychedelic music, but also beautiful chords and harmony and unique sounds and feelings. We’ve been there a couple of times, and we go record shopping with a friend lives there full-time just to collect music. He’s such a big fan; he just loves it and he’s obsessed, so going to all these record stores and finding all these records that you might be listening to digitally — it’s just insane! It makes you appreciate different parts of the world for the beauty of the music of the scenes and all the different influences that happened there. Especially Brazil being a revolutionary country with a lot of political turmoil going on that creates such a tide ripple with the people and the sound of its music.
Chester: It’s also cool that like, we were eating at this place in Rio and there’s a guy coming around with a tambourine and essentially busking around the tables, playing and singing these songs that are on all these rare records that we like to listen to. They’re not even that rare but just stuff that we think is really cool that we’ve been put on to by great DJs and friends of ours. To see it be a popular song that a whole table of dudes is singing along to is super cool!
Alex: The album artwork also is a whole other ball game of unique, cool vibes. Obviously they have the beautiful landscape, beaches and mountains to shoot in so there are some really cool photos. It’s cool that amongst Brazil and other places we’ve been to, we toured through South America for the first time this year. We went to Argentina and Chile. Obviously we’d like to go deeper. It’s just cool to see other parts of the world and to see the youth culture and what’s going on. It’s so easy to get trapped in North America, North American music and the cool stuff happening here. Then you get to go to places around the world and you realize that there’s so much great stuff happening elsewhere. It’s great to connect with people and see what’s going on with local bands and stuff.
Yeah it must be refreshing to go somewhere that looks and sounds so foreign and different from a homogenous North American architecture and language.
Matt: I guess that’s the one problem, especially because I love Brazilian music so much. There’s a lot of amazing folk music that I hear but that’s hard for me to get because I don’t speak Portuguese. At the same time, it’s not like you’re going around each country or city and taking it all in. Aside from very certain instances over the course of the past five years, I haven’t experienced much of “world music,” for lack of a better term, in its home country or natural environment because you don’t see much when you tour. Going to Brazil and seeing that was cool, but that’s probably the only instance I can think of specifically. Sometimes you’re only in cities for less than 24 hours, and sometimes you’re not. I’m not complaining about it but it’s hard. For me, travelling is mostly about meeting people and them showing me stuff. It’s rare that I get the opportunity to walk around the city.
“I think it’s almost the opposite in the sense that since we’re all jazz trained — and by virtue of growing and learning new things, listening to new music and having new experiences in life — we’ll always bring that kind of improvisational approach to the art we make.” ∙ Matt Tavares
Since you guys are constantly touring around the world in these last four years or so, do you think that sense of transience has had an effect on you? How does it affect your relationship to home and your relationships with people at home?
Matt: It’s weird with tour. My relationship with the guys is static on tour, that’s like the only thing that’s not transient. I’m constantly with these human beings — when are you ever in this self-contained group going from place to place? I don’t think it was a lack of transience that made me dislike touring, I think it was more so the lack of autonomy. That would be the reason why I quit more so. I love when things are transient, I don’t like having a routine. I mean, I don’t have a routine when I’m here — I like going places on a whim, I like doing whatever really and changing my life all of a sudden. I don’t think transience really affected me at all.
Leland: It’s funny spending so much time with the same five people and having space from so many of your friends from home. I feel like it definitely has an influence on how we approach life. It’s definitely helped me grow an appreciation for Toronto. After spending time away from it, it’s still one of my favourite cities, one that I’m happiest to call home.
Chester: Yeah I agree with that.
Alex: It creates self-development too of looking at what you’re doing and trying to create a healthy relationship after running around all the time. When I get home, I don’t feel like I need to go away again. I’m so used to running around all the time, I really want to chill out and relax. It creates a really good understanding of comfortable spaces, and makes you appreciate having access to grocery stores and spots you like to eat and go to. In some places, you’re in totally different areas and you don’t have access to the same qualities or the same comforts.
Chester: And in a broader sense, it helps you realize what’s important because if you’re away, you’re only bringing a small bag of things and you don’t have all of your possessions in your apartment. When you get home you realize, “Oh I really don’t need this, this is not necessary.” If I didn’t miss it in a month, it’s obvious that I don’t need it. The same goes with personal relationships too. If you have a healthy relationship with one of your friends, it doesn’t matter if you don’t see each other for a few months. When you get together, you have so much to talk about and really connect with them.
Matt: It was definitely inconvenient and strange in a way because you start growing in a different direction than your friends are. If you tour for five years straight and come home for like a week here or there, your group of friends are self-contained growing together and they’re experiencing all these amazing things and learning about stuff. Obviously you are too, but when you drop in and swap stories, it feels a bit different. It’s hard to get a real intimate closeness with people.
Matt, you don’t tour with the band anymore. How does that affect your dynamic with each other when you all come back to write and record together?
Matt: It’s hard to say. Part of me still wants to tour because it’s fun, and when they’re on tour, part of them wants to be home. In a weird way I’m sure there is a kind of underlying jealousy going on. I feel it occasionally and I think that they do too. But 95% of the time it’s amazing! It’s cool to hear what they’re experiencing. I don’t think there’s anything that I’ve thought, “If only I was there,” and vice versa, especially because my life is more mundane now. Although who’s to say that touring if better than doing anything else. I think we’re growing in different ways but we’re all still together. I think when we make music it’s even better now.
Leland: He’s always bringing in a new perspective because he’s trying to grow in any aspect of his life. He’s always trying to learn new production techniques or expanding his knowledge of recording in general, checking out new music and experiencing life. Every time I see him — even if it’s just two days — he’ll have a crazy story of some life experience or some song he heard or whatever, so it keeps everything really exciting and fresh.
I guess you guys are spending a lot of time together on tour too.
Alex: And we have spent so much time together on tour with him as well. It feels so much better to have the space now for him to do his thing at home and be grounded, and for us to tour in a healthy manner and be functional and well. You want to be feeling all the positives of why you play music, why you tour. I’ve been reading more and more from different artists about how to make an album, and then tour it in a way so that it detaches from you and becomes music for everybody else.
I was reading it from the Kendrick [Lamar] and Dave Chappelle interview last night, and he talks about how once he’s finished an album and they release it and tour it, all the songs are everyone else’s songs. They relate to the experiences and they embody the feeling of the music as he’s performing it and it’s him, but he’s just sharing the moment. It’s cool to be amongst that world still and still feeling good about it as a group and as friends.
With your first two albums, your influences were directly hip-hop. Do you find other earlier influences creeping into your music now, in your writing now?
Chester: In the past five years we’ve all discovered exponentially more music than when we were younger, but it is cool to go back to things that you used to really love and remember how it made you feel, what it gave you musically and how it inspired you. You appreciate it in a different way. Listening to someone when you were younger, you’d think it was so badass and so sick. Now when you listen to it, you’re like, “Oh my god, this production or the song writing’s amazing or how it all plays together.” The more you learn, the more you have an appreciation for that.
Matt: It sounds so stupid but I listen to everything and I really just try to actively listen when I can. If there’s something I like in any song, I’ll try to remember what it is that I like about it. It could just be a pop song and it has a weird thing or structure there, or I never thought of having an intro be like that. It’s like having people say, “Oh I like this,” and then asking why do I like this and taking that and trying to create with that kind of mindset as a framework, rather than just saying this song inspires me. Otherwise you think that it’s the song, but what actually made the song good were the extra things that happen within a song.
What are some of the projects that you have on the go outside of BBNG?
Alex: I guess this year we’ve all been making more music individually, trying to make ideas and then come together at different times. We’ve all been helping record and make music for our friends: friends that have collaborated with the band, and outside friends as well, new bands and things like that. There’s this band Jaunt, who I grew up with in the music circle in Toronto and went to high school with — friends from those times are now making bands and making music, so I guess the circle is also slowly expanding but is also still the same. There’s so much great music in Toronto. Even though it’s been busy, we always still have a little time for some creativity going, which is definitely gonna help when we settle down from all the touring and are ready to make a ton of music.
Leland: It’s always good to go through the process of trying to write by yourself but working with these four guys, somehow we always land on a vision somewhere, even if we don’t talk about it. It’s a weird process to go through by yourself where every decision is up to you, but it’s also a growing experience.
Chester: It’s much more difficult because it’s easy to overanalyze what you’re doing.
Matt: I’ve always done my own thing. Two years ago, right before we recorded IV, I recorded a whole record for my friend Jerry Paper that was like a practice run for IV. I feel like I tried out a bunch of things on that record because it was a lower stakes environment — but also a higher stakes, because we had more of a deadline — in that I felt way more relaxed working on it. I just tried a bunch of things that we ended up incorporating into our record. I’m actually doing the same thing starting tomorrow; he’s coming back to record his new record with me. I’m sure we’ll do something or stumble upon one little thing that I can use for BadBad. I also have my own record dropping sometime in the near future. I love working with BadBad, but I feel like my main thing is producing. It’s my instrument as corny as that sounds; that’s what I like to practice and work on with people the most. Obviously BadBad tours and I have to do it with other people. It’s a role that intrinsically needs someone else. It’s a conversational art form, like talk therapy but with music.
What’s next for BadBadNotGood?
Chester: Pretty much 60 percent of the time between now and the end of 2017, we’ll be away on tour. The winter chills out a lot naturally. People keep telling us it will be a lot less busy next year but we’ll have to see.
Matt: The goal is also to make a new record at some point. I can almost guarantee that it’ll sound nothing like the other records based on the stuff we’re working on now.