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Interviews

The Bad Plus: Drama, Joy, Humor, But Not Irony

By Published: September 17, 2007
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This Is Not Ironic

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 do—which 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 feelings—drama, joy, humor, whatever—without 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.

The Bad PlusAAJ: 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 right—it 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.

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Songs: 'Mint" and 'Thriftstore Jewelry"

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 simplicity—to 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.

The Bad PlusAAJ: Well, he should!

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," say—harmony 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 covered—it's kind of a swinging sixties standard. Our arrangement is almost an homage—that 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 stuff—great 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.

The Bad Plus / Reid AndersonDK: 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 okay—it'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 feeling—where 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, 'Drums—they'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 it—but 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.



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