The Bad Plus: Drama, Joy, Humor, But Not Irony
If you had the remotest interest in contemporary jazz music in 2003, the chances were very, very high that you had heard of The Bad Plus. The odds were just as good that you had an opinion, positive or negative, about the merits of the collective trio of bassist Reid Anderson, drummer David King and pianist Ethan Iverson.
The band was everywhere that year. Here was an acoustic instrumental trio with a heavily promoted recording on Columbia Records, no lessa major label with a legendary, if faded, jazz history. The band's cover version of the 1990s alternative band Nirvana's touchstone, "Smells Like Teen Spirit," gave the popular media a hook for their features: acoustic jazz band deconstructs modern pop (These Are the Vistas also included covers of tunes by new-wave icons Blondie and electronica artist Aphex Twin).
l:r: Ethan Iverson, Reid Anderson, David King
Some listeners noticed that the group's own compositions, written by all the members of the Bad Plus, were memorable and unique songs that showcased the players' strengths, be they Iverson's facility with both classical and boogie-woogie piano vocabulary or King's agile muscularity. And some mistook the wryness of the band's delivery, and their willingness to celebrate and push to the limit the inherent tendencies of the genres they straddledwhether they were progressive rock, floridly rococo classical or, of course, modern jazzfor ironic, deprecatory satire.
And, of course, there were those in the jazz world who resented the group. These guys had only been together since 2000, and here they were on a huge label, playing prestige gigs. Actually, although The Bad Plus had only existed a few years, the musicians had known each other for decades, going back to their adolescence in Minnesota, and each of them had paid serious duesAnderson gigging and recording in the New York City jazz scene, King doing recording sessions in Los Angeles, Iverson serving as musical director for the Mark Morris Dance Group. The group hadn't been idling before signing with Columbia, either, having released their self-titled debut CD in 2001 on the Fresh Sounds imprint as well as a self-published live recording the same year. And by the time the musicians recorded Vistas, they had performed a lot of shows.
A lot of shows. Because The Bad Plus is one of the great current live bands, and in the last four years, they've performed hundreds and hundreds of concerts. The 2004 Give album and the 2005 Suspicious Activity? CD solidified their reputations as composers (while the covers of Black Sabbath's "Iron Man" and Vangelis' "Chariots of Fire" theme encouraged some to continue to consider the group no more than fun-poking ironists), but The Bad Plus toured, toured, and toured some more.
And slowly, many of their detractors were converted. Because if you went to the show, you got it. The Bad Plus wasn't making fun of anything; they played music they liked. And they were a savagely powerful band. Their multisectioned, progressive, often dauntingly technical pieces were thrilling live, and at the same time, they were a lot of fun. People who went to a Bad Plus show often went out of their way to go see the band again when they came back to town.
Suspicious Activity? was The Bad Plus' third and last CD for Columbia. The disc was, without the group's knowledge, one of the Sony CDs that was encoded with computer-endangering spywarea corporate affront especially at odds with The Bad Plus' grass-roots reputation. The band's reaction to the spyware was a very public horror and shock, and the CD was not promoted by the label.
So Prog is the first on the band's own imprint, Do the Math Records. It's a fantastic record with a more dynamic, natural sound than the Tchad Blake-produced Columbia records, and contains both some of the group's most brilliantly executed covers (Rush's progressive-rock anthem 'Tom Sawyer," David Bowie's glam-rock classic 'Life on Mars") and some of their best-yet compositions. I spoke with Bad Plus drummer David King about the group's new label, the new record, the fact that this is not an ironic band, and much more.
- Columbia, Spyware and the New Label
- Prog: Working With Producer Tony Platt and the Sound of the Record
- Thoughts on Cover Tunes
- Songs: '1980 World Champion," 'Physical Cities" and Prog-Rock
- This Is Not Ironic
- Songs: 'Mint" and 'Thriftstore Jewelry"
- "Tom Sawyer"
- The Process of Covering Tunes
- Band Growth and Not Taking It For Granted
- Prog: Working With Producer Tony Platt and the Sound of the Record
All About Jazz: You've got a brand new Bad Plus record, Prog, which I am happy to say I like very much. I want to talk about it top to bottom, but before we talk about music, let's talk about the utterly fantastic music business. Your Columbia/Sony era seems to have ended with your 2005 Suspicious Activity? CD; you're now on your own imprint, Do the Math Records. That's a pretty big change from the 'majorest" of major labels. So, before we talk about the musichow'd this come about?
David King: Well, at the time Suspicious Activity? came out, we had survived the big head-chopping that went on over there when they merged with BMG. After we put out Give, Sony merged with BMG and we lost everyone that was really working the bandor at least, the people who were left all had to shift their focus to all the BMG classical stuff, or other things.
But we had survived the merger. I think we were one of those bands on the label that they just let do their thing because they liked the music. See, when we signed with Columbia, we already had such a reputable independent music career. Between the three of us, we'd already put out something like twenty records, either on small labels or on our own dime. So the only reason we did the major-label thing was that they left us alone.
And, of course, they did a great job with us. We used them for what a major label is good for, which is getting the bread to be able to record a record that you want to make, getting the time you need to make it, and having it look and sound the way you want it to. And when we started to get good reviews for [the group's 2003 Sony debut These Are the] Vistas, they really jumped on it started throwing some money into publicity.
But by the time Suspicious Activity? came around, that merger had happened, and they put that spyware on the disc.
AAJ: Oh, yes, you were one of those bands who got that that copy protection put on their records that year that automatically installed spyware on the user's computers and opened them up to security dangers like viruses to boot. That must have been a horrible situation.
DK: Yeah! It was horrific for us. Because, obviously, we're not a band that relies as much on record sales as we rely on the integrity of what we're doing. And the spyware thing came as a big surprise to all the artists on the label. It was especially ironic to us, because the art packaging for Suspicious Activity? was done by one of the most politically irreverent cartoonists in the world, David Reese [creator of the Get Your War On strip]. On the inside, it even said, 'Brought to you by Bob's Warning Labels, Inc." And then you look at the back of the record and there's an FBI warning. The day we got the record and saw that, we said, 'Whoa." And then we were hearing trickling reports for the next few weeks about what the whole thing entailed, the rootkit and so on.
So what we did was put a statement on our website that said, 'Don't buy our record." We just decided we weren't going to go down with this Sony ship. Obviously, Sony was a little bit upset about that. We demanded that the record be taken off the shelf, and put back on the shelf without the rootkitwhich they did, from fear of getting sued by some heavyweights, not by us.
AAJ: Right, they were probably more afraid of Neil Diamond than they were of you.
DK: Yeah, and of people like My Morning Jacket and all the other bands they did it to. But there was a big article about it in Rolling Stone and our manager was quoted in it, and we were definitely in the fray; we were one of those bands that getting a backlash because of it. Some fans even thought we did it, which is kind of incredible. Like we held the meeting at Sony and demanded it.
AAJ: Sony didn't want to put the spyware on the disc, but The Bad Plus put their foot down.
DK: Exactly. It's incredible. So we put as much information about it into the world as we could, and then we decided, 'This is done." We asked to be released from the label. And during the whole hubbub, the guy at the label, Jeff Jones, who really loved the band, wanted to honor what we wanted to do and just let us go.
So it was an amicable scene. And when we got out of there, the first thing we wanted to do was just cleanse ourselves of the experience. So we decided to take out a loan and just do it indie again, like we used to, and we were lucky enough to have licensed the record to Heads Up in America and Universal for the rest of the world. So we're able to own the record, but have some of those mechanisms in place where we don't have to be humping the phones all day ourselves like we used to.
AAJ: And you might actually see the record in a Borders.
DK: Absolutely. We have a good chance of getting into those places where the music needs to be heard. So it was a gamble, because we took out a big loan, and we were thinking, 'My god, are we going to be able to make this back?" We're a band that exists on touring, basically. That's what produces our income.
It was a sweaty period, because we had talked to a few labels like Nonesuch and Blue Note, and they were really interested at times and at other times their interest would wane because of what they had on their roster. Nonesuch was really wanting to work with the band, and then at the last minute they sort of realized, 'Oh, we have Pat Metheny nowwe have all these Warner guys." There were only fifteen or so people that worked on Nonesuch, and they knew how much work they were going to have to do for us.
So all of a sudden we were sitting with this record we were hoping to license to someone, and this label Heads Up shows up, which is more known for electric jazz people like [guitarist] Mike Stern and [keyboardist/composer] Joe Zawinul, and they really loved the band and wanted to do. So we said, 'Let's do it. These guys are psyched, we'll retain our own aesthetic, and we can do our own thing with them." So that saved us, and that's how it happened.
It really was a period of sitting there going, 'Oh my god!" Six months after we made the record, we didn't have a deal with anyone for distribution or anything. And it cost something like fifty grand. It was really something, because we're all just salary men. We live off the road. It's not like there's extra money sitting around to use to make a record.
AAJ: It all comes in from t-shirts and tickets, right?
DK: Exactly. It's just jazz touring, in a van. And it has worked out really well. Heads Up is doing a great job. Picking up Universal for Europe is great too, because it's very different from the Statesthey're not as totally commercially focused. So we've got some heavies over there working as well.
It's just nice to have done the record and know [laughing] that there's not a spykit on it. We know what's on this record. We needed that. I don't know what the future holds, but we've been indie guys for so long that this is actually more normal for us.
AAJ: It's like taking off your tuxedo and putting your jeans back on.
DK: That's it. And you know, Columbia is one of the great jazz labels of all time, and we were so proud to be aligned with that label historically. But what that landscape has become is not cool, as we all know. It's become a really crazy scene, with pirating, and they just don't know what they're doing.
So it was a good time to get out. But they treated us great at Sony and Columbia before the rootkit scenario. We were just hiding in the corner making records. It's a great place to beyou're kind of the art band on the roster, and they all like you: 'We believe in this, because it's real music! Now that we've paid J-Lo's perfume bill, we can feel proud of at least one band!" It had that energy to it, maybe something like what the Flaming Lips occupy somewhere.
AAJ: There used to be a bunch of those groups on labels, but now if there's one of those groups, there's just the one.
DK: Yeah, a white rhino, for sure. We were like Columbia's little pet art band.
AAJ: Right. 'They actually play their own instruments!"
DK: Exactly! 'They make records and we just leave them alone! They're not expensive! They do their own artwork!"
AAJ: When you leave a label like that, what are the chances of the records you did for them staying in print?
DK: Ours have a pretty good chance, I think. And there's some clause where we can attempt to buy them back at some pointnot that they'd be down with that. But I think our records do okay enough, at least These Are the Vistas and Give. What happened with the rootkit with Suspicious Activity? killed that record. A lot of fans didn't even know the record was out because they didn't do a publicity campaign on it. So we've been touring on that record for two years, and people are always like, 'You've got a new record?" We're like, 'Uh, yeah! It just came out!"
So we soaked that one on the road. We sold more of that on the road than we did in stores, guaranteed. So we're hoping the records stay in print. We love those records, and we're so proud of them, and that era with [producer] Tchad Blake. We hope to be working with him again in the future, but we really felt it was time for a full cleaning of the house down to the sound of the record. It was time.
AAJ: You recorded Prog in Minnesota in September of 2006a little closer to home than the last three studio records, or for that matter, than Blunt Object, your live Tokyo recording .This is produced by the band with Tony Platt, who also recorded it, and who's got an enormous resume. But it's definitely a drier sound than with Tchad, or perhaps just a less-expensive sounding mix, although I think it demonstrates that what people took as rock production on the previous records was just the fact that you hit your drums hardand still do. What sort of sound were you going for, and how long did it take to record the album? It sounds pretty livein fact, the only overdubs I notice are on '1980 World Champion."
DK: That's pretty much the only one. There is a mellotron that comes in on the David Bowie thing ['Life on Mars"], but that's only four notes.
We met Tony in London. He came to our show and was a fan of the band, and that made an impression, because we knew we were looking for someone that knew the music and liked what we were doing. We also wanted someone that wasn't coming from a jazz world, and this guy had recorded orchestras, and Bob Marley, and all these heavy rock records.
We did have an idea for this record sonically. We had a vision of what we wanted, which consisted of basically trying to capture the dynamic elements of the band. When you see The Bad Plus live, it actually isn't hitting all the time. It's a much more dynamic band at times than the Tchad Blake records showed. While I do play hard in a Tony Williams kind of way, I also play very softly live at times. What we noticed on the Tchad recordswhich we, of course, loveis that even the ballads sound big. Even the ballads sound like I'm kind of thumping away, which I'm not. That truly is the way Tchad mixes; he's a drum-heavy mix artist. And we love what he did, because we feel that those records stand out to some extent because of the way they sound, because of the way that Tchad did them.
But we thought this time aroundand after seeing us live a few times, Tony agreed we should dowas go in and have those moments of that explosive thing that the Bad Plus does, but make it so you can hear the arcs much more. Make it so you can hear that the ballads are ballads, and that there is this large dynamic expanse that we cover. And of course, we are into extremes, so it does get up there in volumebut it also goes in the other direction. This record shows, more than any of them, how this band actually sounds if you're sitting there in the [Village] Vanguard or something listening to it.
AAJ: One does notice more, say, brush work on your part, and a wider range of sound in general. And it's a more realistic sound.
DK: Yeah, and it was time. We had made these kinds of boldly-mixed recordsI would look at Tchad and say, 'Man, that snare is huge!" And he'd say, 'Yeah, but it's bold." I love Tchad. I was the reason we worked with him, mostly, because I worshiped his records. But what feels so good about Prog is that we feel it shows that other kind of thing. When you hear that Tears For Fears tune ['Everybody Wants to Rule the World"], when you hear that side stick, I'm not wailing on anything over there. I'm playing really softly.
So this record kind of represents that idea, and Tony wanted to get back to that idea of the band, where the instruments really sound natural. It's treated in a way that you would hear if you were to see The Bad Plus live.
AAJ: How long did the recording take?
DK: Just a couple of days. We recorded for about two or three days, and it was mostly first or second takes, as usualwe really try to go in there and get it. Then we did those few overdubs, sitting around listening to things to see what they needed. We recorded it at Cannon Falls, Minnesota, at this studio called Pachyderm, which is famous for doing the Nirvana record In Utero and a couple of other records. Then we went up to Minneapolis to mix it; I think Tony was mixing for about four or five days.
We actually recorded a lot more music than is on Prog; we originally envisioned a double album since we were going to be putting it out ourselves and labels hate double albums. But we started thinking about all the different ways of putting your music out now, like iTunes and everything, and so we decided to put out a single record and have all these extra tracks to put on things, like iTunes. We're just trying to be more modern about the record industry.
So we ended up recording fifteen tunes, so there are five extra tracks that floating around that are going to appear on different things. So it would about four days to mix, and that was it. We had Tony in from London for almost two weeks total.
AAJ: I notice that after including only one cover tune on Suspicious Activity?, the 'Chariots of Fire" theme, you're back to including a good number of them on this record. About half the record, actually, is covers. Was there any thought behind that, or is that just how it ended up?
DK: That's pretty much how it ended up. One rule we have is that we're just making the music we want to make. We don't have discussions like, 'We need this ratio of this." We try to just let things happen the way they always have. The way this band started was very relaxed, without any manifesto. It was more like a refugee camp, a sideman world. So we decided to not mess with that at all by being analytical, or messing with things much. We go with what we play at the time, and what we were touring with at the time were those tunes.
And with the idea being making a double album, we naturally had a larger amount of cover music. Usually, it's about two or three cover tunes on a record, and seven originalssomething like that. Here there are four covers and six originals, and we did about that same percentage with the extra tracks. We just picked what we thought were the ten strongest, most balanced pieces. Four happened to be cover tunes.
But we try not to think about it like, 'Oh, this is someone else's tune!" We're again trying to possess that music, to make it our own thing and our own way of playingour own standard, in a way.
AAJ: Well, let's talk about some of the tunes on the record. Let's start with the last song on the CD, which you wrote, '1980 World Champion," the latest in your series of odes to, ah, time-specific endeavor.
DK: Yeah [laughing], the athletic trilogy.
AAJ: I love this one, and if I heard it without identification I'd know it was a Bad Plus tune. It's sort of in this agitated, vibrating 4/4, I think, and when it explodes out of that into that epic phrase it's particularly great. You and Reid are especially together on this. Any thoughts?
DK: This was the conclusion of the 'athletic three." There's one on Vistas ['1972 Bronze Medalist"], one on Give ['1979 Semi-Finalist"], and this one. Basically, they're all kind of celebrations. This one really embodies the spirit of what the Bad Plus is trying to dowe're trying to celebrate progressive music in a way that's not looking down at our feet, or looking at charts all the time, or whatever.
This one has kind of a tube-y, going-to-church kind of thing. I actually played in a lot of churches growing up, so it was fun for me to connect with that kind of feel. And it's got that kind of triadic harmony I've been using for the whole trilogy, so it's all tied together, in a way. But on this one, Iverson plays that great stride, boogie-woogie style of piano. A lot of people think of him as this guy that's very influenced by all this contemporary classical music, which he is, but really the first music he played as a kid was boogie-woogie piano. He played that for years.
See, we've known each other since we were kids, so we know all these things about each other. So we kind him in this place to play that kind of style sometimes; I think he plays it so well. A lot of it was based on what I feel we do well at times, which is have a little bit of a sense of humor, but with a really direct focus on joy. The focus is on celebrating the music, and it's not meant to this tongue-in-cheeky thing; it's actually very earnest. It's really a celebration of someone's final victory, and it ties in with us sending this record out: it's kind of us being freed, in a way. It has that energy to it.
But it's a very celebratory vibe. We put that clapping in on his solo as an ode to Sun Ra, or something like that. So that's what that tune is. But it's a fun tune to play on the road. We have a blast with that song
AAJ: Well, I congratulate you on concluding your trilogy.
DK: Yes! It's done! He finally won. After celebrating bronze medalists and semi-finalists, I figured it was time to give one to the winner. We were celebrating the underdog for a while, and now it's just flat-out victory. We won one.
AAJ: Reid's piece 'Physical Cities" is one of three long ones he contributes to the record, and certainly has a progressive-rock element, speaking of prog. This goes back and forth between two sections which I'll call 'The Chase" and 'The Riff." 'The Chase" has those triplety melody figures over your almost Bill-Brufordy drumming and Reid's bump and run bass figures and 'The Riff" has that one-note staggered downstrokey riff which reminded me initially of Metallica, although maybe King Crimson's more accurate.
DK: Oh, Crimson, for sure. Reid and I discovered some of the more progressive elements of jazz through progressive rock as kids.
AAJ: You and me both.
DK: Exactlyfor so many people of our generation, the door was opened by Yes, King Crimson, Rush, Bill Bruford's Earthworks, and shit like that. So this was definitely an ode to some of that period. We most certainly feel it would be very difficult to deny the very direct influence of prog rockat least the musicality, if not the theatrics. Obviously, we're not dressing up as unicorns and poppies, or anything like that. But that Brufordism is in there, and that Alan Holdsworth-y thing is in there as well. That stuff is in Reid and me on some tribal level.
So Reid really wanted to jump in and write this kind of three-sectiony, almost prog-rock type thing, and of course it's got those signature Bad Plus-type of momentsstops and starts. One of the reasons the record was called Prog was that tune.
AAJ: This one seems pretty composed. Your drums have some freedom, and so does the piano, but it's something you pretty much have to play as is.
DK: Right. It's a sectional piece that exists to be a certain length, and we play within it, of course, but it's done very much in that tradition ofwell, like you said, Crimson. You nailed it. Or early Genesis, where it goes, 'bah-da-doom dah da toom," and you can hear Peter Gabriel going over that. And it's a tune that's really smoking live; people like it. It's a fun tune to play live, because we do that long ending live, and it's that long figure that keeps going.
AAJ: The riff just goes, and goes, and goes.
DK: Yeah. It's wild; it keeps tumbling over itself. And then there's that big drum thing at the end. It's another tune that's just an ode to our vast influences. By the time we were into jazzfree jazz, modal jazz, sixties shit, bebopwe were in high school. But what led up to that was Reid and I playing Rush. Playing 'Spirit of Radio" in my basement.
So we're really informed by that, and so are many people of our generation. From [pianist/composer] Vijay Iyer to all these other people, we're all coming from a lot of that place. It's a very natural, honest place to have come fromjust prog rock and all that shit.
AAJ: And it's such a maligned genre of music. I never reached a point where I only liked it ironically. I always thought it was good.
DK: Oh, of course. I'm with you. And I think it's making a little bit of a comeback, with bands like the Mars Volta, that do these long song forms with vocals.
AAJ: Or Tool.
DK: Yeah, Tool has always had a prog edge. We feel very aligned like that. It's in groups like the Flaming Lips, too; there's that fantasia character is in a lot of the hipper music today. I was never one of those guys that bashed prog rock; I've always found it fascinating. I was also into punk, but I didn't feel the need to worry about that 'punk is a direct reaction to the excesses of prog" bullshit. To me, early Genesis is some punk rock! Check that shit out. That's this caterpillar running around, playing this noise with distorted organs. I think Ornette Coleman's pretty punk rock. There's a direct line between all that stuff and The Bad Plus, for sure.
AAJ: Somehow you always do seem to choose to do covers of songs I really like. The David Bowie cover, 'Life on Mars," has a nice contrast between its initial rubato statement of the familiar verse melody, drifting into some 20th century sort of clusters, and that epic statement of the chorus melody and an accelerating 4/4 time. It's got a lot of pomp and majesty.
DK: Right. You're on it, I have to tell you. Thank you [laughing] for being on it. Some people, I think, miss the point, but you're really hearing what we're trying to dowhich is to embrace all of that shit, to embrace the drama of that and try to live in those space. To be willing to do that thing.
AAJ: Well, The Bad Plus gets pegged as being this ironic band. But I don't think some people understand that you can play something with a humorous sort of pomposity and at the same time not be ridiculing it at all.
DK: Well spoken, sir. One of the great things we read recently was [pianist] Brad Mehldau being asked about his favorite bands. He said we were one of his favorite bands. He said something like, 'People peg this band as being ironic, but have you ever seen this band live? That is not irony. They're throwing down! They believe in this stuff very unselfconsciously."
And that's very true. We're these guys from the Midwest. We're not these hipster irony dudes. We're something else, and I'm glad you're hearing that, because music can possess all of those emotions, and all of those feelingsdrama, joy, humor, whateverwithout having a lower vibrating energy to it. And I think when people hear us live, and they connect with our music, they're most certainly connecting to the fact that we are not making fun of Black Sabbath when we play 'Iron Man." We love Black Sabbath.
AAJ: As should everyone.
DK: Yeah. And Black Sabbath knows we're not making fun of them, because [Sabbath bassist] Geezer Butler came to our show in L.A. and told us it was the best cover tune of a Black Sabbath song he's ever heard.
AAJ: Your month must have been made.
DK: Oh, it was incredible. We had our photo taken with him. He's a huge fan; we saw him in interviews talking about us: 'Man, you've got to check this band out." We thought, 'There it is! Anyone want to talk about some irony?" Here's this piano trio being touted by Geezer Butler.
AAJ: Who on earth is going to get in a van and do a hundred dates playing music they don't think is good?
DK: Yeah, we'd really have to be demented and bored. 'Hey, man, let's go stay at a Best Western in Fargo so we can have jokes! We can make fun of Rush's 'Tom Sawyer! Isn't this funny?"
AAJ: Well, it's funny when you say it.
DK: Well [laughing], we're not humorless dudes. We know how people can view 'Chariots of Fire." We're not stupid, you know. It's just that that's a fucking great melody! There is no way around it. When that song hits, the most hardened cynic remembers it: 'Yes!" That's a triumphant moment in music right there.
AAJ: It's also, whatever its musical qualities, a completely unique-sounding record. When you hear it in a bar or airport, it's striking. I assume Vangelis' other records sound similar, but I haven't ever heard them.
DK: Me neither. But you're rightit was new. The synths, and that drum pattern he has going, are something else. Actually, his soundtrack to Blade Runner is incredible. That's an amazing score.
But we can recognize humor, and irony, just like we can recognize it in Thelonious Monk. We can recognize it in Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry wearing plastic, red cowboy hats when they were playing their music in New York in 1959. But they weren't joking when they started to play that music. And we're in that tradition, really. We love the drama, and the theatrical nature of doing something like 'Life on Mars," and the idea that that tune is based on a form of theater, in a way. And we're going to try to embrace that, and try to bring our own thing to it. That's what the band does.
AAJ: Ethan's one contribution here, 'Mint," is one of my favorites here, and, to me, the most inscrutable piece here as well. I'll call it a mixed-meter boogie concerto.
DK: That's perfect.
AAJ: It's got that stride piano you mentioned, but at the same time it's got a lot of his classical playing as well, and it's all glued into one tune. It sounds pretty impossible to play.
DK: Yeah, it's a very complicated piece, for sure. You're hitting it out of the park with the style; that's where Iverson is coming from. He's a guy who likes to write in these sections and a guy who views some music very intellectually. This is a band that embraces complexity with the same energy that we embrace simplicityto us, those are all tools. We don't think complexity is a necessary thing to prove something. So, for Ethan, it's very natural to write that way.
Again, that's how we approach it: if it's honest to our life experience, how can it be bad? We just play it. But that's where that one's coming from. Again, it's sectional. It's dealing with some metametric, polyrhythmic stuff, and that's something we do in the band from time to time. He loves to write that way; there's a tune called 'Boo-Wah" on Vistas that has that same kind of boogie-meets-classical thing, and Ethan is just in that zone. He listened to Jelly Roll Morton and then Messiaen organ improvisations, and with the exact same ears. He processes it all the same.
DK: Yeah, and it's the same thing with the band. It's what the band is all about. That one is also a great one to play live, and we open with it often. We can break the ice with something like that.
AAJ: Seems like a hard one to start off with.
DK: We've done it a bunch, and it makes an impact because it has that 'wow-where-is-that-coming-from" effect; you know immediately you're not about to watch a Nirvana cover band if we start with that one.
AAJ: When it comes to prog, who fits in better than pop composer Burt Bacharach, who's got more time and key changes in his tunes than Yes ever did. You do a cover of his 'This Guy's in Love" that sort of underlines those changes by dividing the sections up.
DK: Well, we all loved the tune. It's got great changes, and any time you deal with Burt Bacharach, you've got some great harmony. Sometimes, when you're dealing with certain rock covers Sabbath's 'Iron Man," sayharmony isn't what you're dealing with as much as you with raw emotion or melodic content.
So every now and then, we like to pick something from the pop canon that has more of a harmonic base. And that's where this one comes from. We all love the tune; we know it's been coveredit's kind of a swinging sixties standard. Our arrangement is almost an homagethat six-beat and the little side stick is very Bacharach. Then we kind of bludgeon it a few times [laughing]. It's like a hummingbird hitting a big picture window; you're just floating along and wham, all the molecules get shaken up. Then we piece it back together. And we thought Burt would enjoy that.
AAJ: He would enjoy it because you played it right. He only gets made when people get the changes wrong.
DK: Yes, we played it right. And we put a nice solo in there, there's some drama in there. It's an amazing song. We could do a whole record of Bacharach tunes. There are so many, and it's got all the stuffgreat harmony, great melodies.
AAJ: 'Thriftstore Jewelry" is another one of yours. It's very up-tempo and Latin, a sort of four against seven feel, maybe, although the times change. It's just a great piano-trio piece that's as jittery and driving and technically hard as something by Bud Powell.
DK: Right, right, he's really threading the solo.
AAJ: There is some heavy drumming here, of course, and you up that ante by going into the record's big drum break.
DK: Sometimes, with some of my writing, we get into these kind of angular things. Like on the last record, I wrote a tune called 'The Empire Strikes Backwards," where the harmony gets dense, and there are these polyrhythmic kinds of elements. And I wanted to continue that, with this almost 'songo" feel. I used to live in L.A., and I played a lot of salsa and Cuban music, and I've always been interested in interpreting it in a way that's not necessarily like, 'Hey! This is my Cuban style!" It's more like I'm borrowing elements of that stuff compositionally, but making it more of my own thing. And there's a prog element to that, and a jazz element. The way Iverson's threading it sounds almost beboppy, which I love.
You know, I'd never put a drum solo on any of these records. I just didn't like drum solos on records. But Tony said, 'You've just got to hit it. If you're going to do a drum solo, it's just got to be exciting."
AAJ: It was time.
DK: It was time, so I decided to do it. And when we came around to that section, I just played that thing, and I thought it turned out really okayit's not that boring! I did ask, though. 'Are you sure it's not boring?" I tried to go for that flat-out parade-is-rolling-by thing, and the tune has that feelingwhere does it begin and end? So we decided it had this kind of May Day parade effect, with the drums just blasting past you. Tony Williams said, 'Drumsthey've really got to be pounded. If you're doing to be playing by yourself, doing a solo, are you going to really going to play all these neatly entwined vignettes on your snare drum, or are you just going to hit it and make it exciting?" Something like that.
That's what I was definitely trying to do, and I am definitely using some progressive technique in itbut the way that that it enters is just, 'dah-dah-dah-dah-dah-dah!" A 'Come here, listen to this" style of opening.
AAJ: You're clearing your throat.
DK: That's what it is. And then it gets into some more complex scenarios on the way out, but it comes in like a lion'please don't switch the song just yet [laughing]. There will be an out head melody!"
AAJ: And there is.
DK: And there is!
AAJ: Well, this drum solo does not suck.
DK: Well, thank you. I like it as well. They were really pounding me to do it, because I do it live. So we did one take, and there it is.
AAJ: I think the last song I'll mention is your cover of Rush's 'Tom Sawyer." What I really love about this one is that it is just an arrangement.
AAJ: All the salient features of the original recording are thereReid takes the vocal melody for that 'Today's Tom Sawyer he gets high on you" part, so Ethan can handle the descending synth melody, for example. Or Ethan' frenzied, psychotic piano solo approximates Alex Lifeson's guitar solo on the original.
DK: Yeah, that's insane. My favorite part of the record, easily, is that solo. And we're doing the ostinato just like Rush, and he just takes off on thatit sounds like Steve Reich or something. When he did that, we were all like, 'well, that's done.
We love the tune. 'Tom Sawyer" was in the wind for a long time for the band before we actually attempted it. Because everyone loves that song; you can hate Rush and love that song. It's okay to like 'Tom Sawyer." It's a great song. And it's also a great arrangementthere's a great guitar solo, there are all these little odd meters here and there, and there's a drum solo that we thought we'd do exactly the same. I thought I'd do the four-piece kit version! I didn't analyze it too closely, but I think it's pretty close to the original. I think I missed one or two little accents, but hey, [Rush drummer] Neil Peart had, like, nine cymbals. I only have two, so I'm going to miss one of the cymbal hits here and there.
There's an interesting story about this tune, though. We played the North Sea Jazz Festival last year, and they had a thing where they had us doing an open-form question-and-answer. What we thought we'd do was arrange a tune in front of them. So there was a whole forum of people, and we just sat on stage arranging 'Tom Sawyer."
So it got arranged live in front of an audience. And we weren't even addressing the audience [laughing]; we were just talking to each other, arranging a tune. And that was the clinic!
AAJ: Well, it is a clinic, because the tune couldn't be better arranged using the tools you had of piano, bass and drums.
DK: Yeah. Like during that part with [singing] 'the world is, the world," we were trying to make the elements more dramatic. I'm glad you like it, because we worked hard on it.
AAJ: That 'the world is, the world is" section is where you sort of let the rhythm dissolve.
DK: Right. It gets very chiming, and Ethan's kind of playing it rococo, with that Liberace tendency every now and then. And that's what makes him so awesomehe's so willing to go there, and put his whole heart into it. The melody needs to be spoken that way [singing the phrase in a florid Liberace phrasing and laughing].
By the way, we played that in Toronto and, oh my god. Think about what it means to Toronto. That bandthat's the band from Toronto! Rush is the band from Toronto! We were playing with [trumpeter] Roy Hargrove in February, and we ended the night with it.
And people came up to us after the show that know Rusha couple of Neil Peart's friends were there, and everyone was reacting so positively. We thought, 'Thank god," because Reid and I loved that band. We would hate for anyone to be taking that ironically, because that is a flat-out homage to that band.
AAJ: Again, you wouldn't bother to so perfectly arrange a song you were ridiculing.
DK: Right. And a lot of these guys are going to come see us when we roll into town, because they know we're a sort of progressive bandwe're not a straight-ahead jazz group or a rock group. And those friends of theirs thought Rush was going to love it. So we were very happy that night.
AAJ: I have this image of fans besieging you at gigs with what they think are brilliant ideas for songs you should do. 'You should do 'Shine On You Crazy Diamond!"
DK: Yes, we do get that. 'Shine On You Crazy Diamond?" Oh, that actually might be the one.
AAJ: Well, would you play all its parts or play an abbreviated version?
DK: Oh, that's a tough one. We have been discussing Pink Floyd for a few years now. One of theirs we were just tossing around, which almost made it to the rehearsal phase, was 'Run Like Hell." Because of that part [sings the central guitar riff]we could make that a moment that keeps reappearing.
AAJ: You guys could murder that rhythmically.
DK: It would be fun. But people definitely throw suggestions in the hat.
AAJ: Do you ever listen to them?
DK: Not really. It's a very delicate process to cover tunes. Because Iverson doesn't know any rock music. That's actually really true. He never listened to rock music.
AAJ: So it's just you and Reid. Do you just play Ethan the record of 'Tom Sawyer," say?
DK: Exactly. Basically Reid and I come up with an idea. Sometimes Ethan has an idea for something he's heard recentlyand he has no sentimental attachment to it. There's none of that 'Oh man, I danced to that at the prom." He's got none of those feelings, so he approaches everything like, 'Hmmm, Kurt Cobain liked to use open fifths, just like Stravinsky does."
And he always wants to see the lyrics, because he wants to know what the statement is. When he was listening to 'Tom Sawyer" for the first time, he loved the lyrics. We were in an airport in Poland, I think, and he's standing there with these giant headphones on his head, talking really loud: 'Is he saying 'the myth?' What is he saying there?" Yelling these Neil Peart lyrics across the airport. ''Catch the mystery'? What does that mean?"
But doing a cover does require that Ethan love the tune as much as we do, because we don't want to do anything that everyone doesn't love. Also, there should be a melody and some harmony that can stand up to some sort of deconstruction or rearrangement. So that's where these covers come from. And I think it was Iverson that thought of doing 'Chariots of Fire." He said he'd played it on the piano in grade school, and all the girls went crazy. So he did have a reminiscence about that one.
Anyway, we have this sort of invisible criteria about whether to do a song, and we might discuss it for a while, or try it out, and then roll with an arrangement. But it is a challenge to do. It's not easy for us, because every arrangement is totally different. We don't follow any formula with the cover tunes. So for the Tears For Fears tune, we wrote a bridge. That's our bridge. We reharmonized this kind of jazz bridge on it because it didn't have a bridge, and we wanted one.
And sometimes it takes a while just to get the conception for one off the floor. Right now there are a couple of new things in the works that we might begin rehearsing. One is [Led Zeppelin's] 'Kashmir." We thought we'd swing 'Kashmir." That's righta swinging 'Kashmir."
AAJ: I am having a hard time picturing that. It's very off-beaty, but it's not swinging.
DK: Well, like this[sings some of the familiar syncopated phrases from the song in a jazzy scat:] zah-zah-zoo-zah-zah-zah-zoo-zah.
AAJ: I think I get it now.
DK: It's got to have the exactly right tempo to make it work. And there are some other things we're talking about, but nothing in the rehearsal stage now except what you hear on that record and the extras from the recording. We did a Bee Gees tunewe recorded 'How Deep Is Your Love" as a ballad, and that is an incredible song. The changes are amazing. We do it as this dark, tears-on-the-dance floor ballad. It's pretty effective. We also recorded a tune called 'Narc" by the rock group Interpol.
AAJ: Oh, I love that band. I remain deeply impressed by the Interpol album 'Narc" is on, Antics.
DK:: Oh, me too. Reid and I were really into it, and we threw that tune to Ethan, and he liked it too. That's actually another zone that Reid and I come from in a waythat kind of Joy Division/New Order/Depeche Mode early eighties sound, which Interpol draws from.
AAJ: Well, I have to tell you, on a more general note, that you don't sound very bored by playing in this band.
DK: No [laughing], it's exciting. And honestly, it's great to have anyone interested in what you're doing. We're all in our mid-thirties; we didn't just come out of nowhere. We spent fifteen years pounding out there, making records. So to have people call on the phone and ask about the music is a real gift, and none of us take it for granted. We know it can be taken away at any time. We're not these guys who were just handed shit. We all appreciate the chance to do this. It's exciting to be able to roll into cities and play your music. That's the dream.
AAJ: After all this time together, is there any dynamic of the band that is changing. Is there anything you do that's different from, say, the way you did it in 2003?
DK: I think so. We've been able to chart the growth of the band musically, professionally, and in every other way. I think because we play so much on the road, our language is that much more solidified. We've played together on and off since our teens, but never in as focused a way as we have since 2002. We started the band in 2000, but it was just a very roughshod beginningwe were trying to book concerts in New York, do whatever kind of touring we could, and be in Minneapolis too.
l:r: Ethan Iverson, Reid Anderson, David King
I would say that dynamically, we are so much more able to possess different colors. We're able to play more articulately loudly and more articulately softly. I think that's one of the ways that this record documents the growth of the bandI think this one really represents the last four years of touring. All the records seem to keep moving in this way where we're honing our conceptand we believe that concept is our own. We're confident that we do something that is different. We're not confident that it's great all the time; we're not confident that everyone should dig it. But we are confident that it's us, that it's a recognizable sound. That's a great victory, and we're not willing to let that go. We want that to keep growing.
And we want to keep expanding compositionally. Remember, we have three people writing in the band, so there are all these weapons that we have. It's a leaderless trio with three composers, three alpha personalities that battle for positionand that's where that energy comes from. But it's a high-functioning thing; we've been friends for so long that we're not friends because of the band, and that's what makes it so nice. Because at the end of the day, we're friends firstwe were friends way before The Bad Plus. The Bad Plus isn't a reason for us to stay friends.
AAJ: There are a lot of bands who are not in that situation. And I've seen how those bands act at sound check.
DK: Oh, exactly! This is easily the highest-functioning band I've ever been a part of. At the end of the day, it's that history that we have. We don't have an agenda against each other. We know that it's a delicate chemistry that makes this thing happen, and we have to trust each other and allow each other room. And then it just happens. We get onstage and it works somehow.
The Bad Plus, Prog (Do the Math/Heads Up International, 2007)
The Bad Plus, Blunt Object: Live in Tokyo (Columbia, 2005)
The Bad Plus, Suspicious Activity? (Columbia, 2005)
The Bad Plus, Give (Columbia, 2004)
The Bad Plus, These Are the Vistas (Columbia, 2003)
The Bad Plus, Authorized Bootleg (Self-released, 2001)
The Bad Plus, The Bad Plus (Fresh Sound New Talent, 2001)
Top Group Photo: Courtesy of Heads Up International
Bottom Group Photo: Courtesy of AAJ Visual Arts Gallery
David King (drums) Photo: Juan-Carlos Hernandez
Ethan Iverson (piano) Photo: Eduard Markovich
Reid Anderson (bass) Photo: Courtesy of AAJ Visual Arts Gallery