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

By Published: September 17, 2007
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'Tom Sawyer"

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.

DK: Absolutely.

AAJ: All the salient features of the original recording are there—Reid 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 that—it 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 arrangement—there'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.

The Bad Plus

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 awesome—he'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 band—that'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 Rush—a 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 band—we'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.

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The Process of Covering Tunes

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 recently—and 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."

The Bad Plus

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 right—a 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 tune—we 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 way—that kind of Joy Division/New Order/Depeche Mode early eighties sound, which Interpol draws from.

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