It was while enrolled on Humber College’s Music Performance programme that Canadian jazz quartet BADBADNOTGOOD first met. Feeling held back by the environment in which they found themselves, Matthew, Chester and Alex stuck to their guns, broke loose of the restraints of academia and started creating their own jazz reinterpretations of tracks from Odd Future, A Tribe Called Quest, Gucci Mane and Kanye West. Quickly their live instrumental covers, which melded traditional jazz with hip-hop and other mainstream styles, caught the attention of some crucial listeners, which ultimately brought about collaborations with the likes of Frank Ocean, Tyler the Creator and Earl Sweatshirt, and last year they released a full album with Ghostface Killah from Wu-Tang Clang.
In between their viral covers, they’ve released three albums of original material and today marks the release of their fourth, which is aptly titled IV. Hailed as their best yet, Matthew, Chester, Alex and Leland’s latest offering presents 11 tracks of eclectic material that give a lesson in mood, and features contributions from producer-of-the-moment Kaytranada, Future Island’s Sam Herring and avant-garde saxophonist Colin Stetson, among others. We caught up with BBNG backstage at Barcelona-based music and technology festival Sónar to talk chasing saxophonists around the globe, words of wisdom from Ghostface and why Canadian producer Frank Dukes is an amazing mentor.
We’re publishing this feature on the day of the release of your new album. We’ve heard a few tracks already… What else can we expect? What can you tell us about the process you went through to put this album together?
Alexander: We recorded everything in Toronto in our home studio, which we’ve been building over the last couple of years and collecting gear for. All the features came through to our space and we did them all in person. Matt engineered and recorded the whole thing. What to expect, I don’t really know. It’s a little home of eclectic, very different stuff with different artists. It’s something we’ve tried to make cohesive and that has a flow to it. It’s hard to speak on because it’s a weird little project.
Leland: Something for the kids, something for the grandparents…
And how did all the collaborations come about? We’ve already heard tracks featuring Kaytranada and Sam Herring.
Matthew: They are all friends of ours, except for Colin Stetson, who was someone on our wish list. He’s a very chill guy.
Alexander: Where did we meet him? What was the name of that festival?
Chester: Was it in The Netherlands?
Alexander: We met him at a festival a couple of years ago and then we emailed him asking if we could potentially work together. After that, we saw him again somewhere and he told us he was going to respond to our email, and that he’d been really busy. And then, when was the next time we saw him?
Leland: Was it in Vancouver?
Matthew: Well, it was somewhere in the world…
So you had to chase him for a bit?
Matthew: Exactly.
Alexander: But it came through!
Chester: Everyone we worked with on this album was someone who we had some sort of connection with, we weren’t just cold emailing people. I feel like Colin Stetson was the person we were going in cold with most because we hadn’t really gotten to know him at that point. But it was an amazing experience; a very intense, musical scenario.
Alexander: He’s one of the most virtuosic, progressive saxophone players of our time…
Chester: We just jammed for six or seven hours straight and then he was like, “OK, see you guys tomorrow and we’ll record the song!” Then we recorded the song!
Is there anyone you’ve worked with who has said something, perhaps given you advice, that’s really stuck with you?
Chester: I remember Ghostface had that long conversation with us about not letting money get to our heads and staying true to the music and staying true to our friendships. That was super cool – getting to have a real talk with him for half an hour. It was actually one of the first times we met him.
Alexander: I think just getting to be around all these creative people who have such different ideas, but yet were open to coming into our world and working with us and helping us to rewrite the music we’d made, gave us confidence in what we were doing and helped put the material in motion.
Matthew: I think everyone was on the same wavelength as well. The way we work is through memory. I remember growing up and playing with people and if you weren’t on the same wavelength… It was incredibly hard to do form-based things through memory because it’s a lot to remember and you really have to be crafting the song in your head while you’re playing with other people. When we were working with Sam or Colin Stetson or Kaytranada, we’d play it and then everyone knew exactly how it should be even though we hadn’t written anything down. That’s a really hard thing to come across.
Chester: We like to improvise, so tempo and dynamics are important. Every artist we worked with was really good at understanding dynamic and taking away and adding things and emoting the song with us in terms of the arrangement of the piece. Obviously someone like Colin Stetson makes these extensive, amazing long pieces on saxophone, so it’s a crazy dynamic, but that was apparent that that was going to happen.
Are there ever instances where you have someone in mind who you really want to work with but then it just doesn’t work?
Matthew: No, not really. I think we’re really adaptable. Even if somebody has a totally different method we will adapt to them.
Chester: Yeah, if we get to the stage where we’re in the room working with someone, most of the time it goes really well. The worst that can happen is you reach out to someone and they don’t want to work with you or they’re too busy.
You’ve worked with and are good friends with Frank Dukes. I was reading about his Kingsway Music Library he’s launched. Are there any other challenges facing producers/musicians that need to be addressed or areas of the music industry that need to be democratised?
Matthew: The library has been in effect since we’ve known him. We’ve all played on a lot of its content. It’s pretty amazing. Dukes is not only an amazing beat-maker and songwriter and producer, he has these amazing ideas. It’s the perfect outlet for what he’s best at, which is really great ideas, and people can take those ideas and do whatever they want, which is amazing.
Alexander: His ability to adapt… He came from sampling records for a long time to eventually having access to stems of these albums and trying to make original beats and compositions. Then getting into songwriting, then into sample writing, going full circle. He’s constantly developing his ideas and progressing as the industry changes. He's an amazing mentor.
You didn’t have a very encouraging experience at school and Leland was the only one to finish his degree. Would you discourage people from studying music in an academic environment give the experiences you had?
Matthew: This sounds super hippy-dippy, but there’s this dude who’s a Buddhist teacher and he has this thing about how self-destructing traps are the best teachers. If you go to music school and learn what you need to learn but eventually break out of the ideas of it so that it falls apart, that’s the best education you’re going to get. You gain all the knowledge from it, but then all the bullshit will fade away. That’s the problem with music education or any education, people get trapped and it doesn’t self-destruct. Then they find themselves making music that’s music school-based and music school-sounding when they’re 30 and they’re like, “Why am I not successful? Why does no-one like my music?” They’re using the tools but they’re not expressing themselves. They haven’t broken out from all of the ideas they’ve been indoctrinated with.
Alexander: Similarly to any art school or secondary education you can get, you have to really create avenues for yourself. It’s really easy when you’re studying something to get immersed in the language of it and all the factual knowledge. You have to find avenues to play, ways to express yourself. It’s easy to get wrapped up assignments and homework. It can be a really great thing. Some people get trapped. We found a different outlook and avenue half-way through school, which we didn’t even know would become available to us.
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