Led Bib: It's Not Lady Gaga
Led Bib: a short, sharp shock of a name for one of the hardest-hitting bands on the UK jazz scene. But the name doesn't tell the whole story, for this is also a band that's capable of inventive and intensely emotive music as well as the riff-laden numbers that have helped it to earn the label of "Punk Jazz," among others. In the runup to the release of the band's fifth album, Bring Your Own (Cuneiform, 2011), the band's amiable and articulate founder and drummer, Mark Holub, spoke of Led Bib's development and its growth as a unit, his thoughts about the Led Bib sound, and the secret imagery of the mysterious Bring Your Own cover art.
Holub, pictured below right, is a native of New Jersey who moved to England to study, gaining his Bachelor's degree at Leeds College of Music and then his Masters at Middlesex University. Basing himself in London, he formed Led Bib in 2003. The lineup that has featured on all of the band's recordings was established soon after that: Holub is joined in the rhythm section by bassist Liran Donin; Toby McLaren plays keyboards, Fender Rhodes in particular; and the front line features the twin alto saxophones of Pete Grogan and Chris Williams.
The band spent its early years developing its reputation around the British and European jazz scenes, and also garnering some fans from outside jazz. The first album, Arboretum (SLAM Products), was released in 2005, followed by Sizewell Tea (Babel) in 2007 and then a limited-edition self-produced live album, Led Bib Live, in 2008. All well and good, but the big breakthrough, as with the vast majority of jazz ensembles, proved more elusive. Then, in 2009, Led Bib gained a Mercury Music Prize nomination for its fourth album, Sensible Shoes (Cuneiform, 2009), bringing it to the attention of a much wider audience.
The nomination's impact was positive: as Holub puts it, "From the nomination to the actual award ceremony, everything was crazy. It's an odd world for a jazzer to find himself in. Usually when I'm doing interviews, it's with people who have a knowledge of the music, then suddenly you're doing press with people who have no frame of reference for you at all. It's quite weird. But obviously it gave us a platform to reach people we wouldn't ordinarily reach."
That platform extended to television, a medium that is rarely open to British jazz bands. Holub recognizes the impact of TV, especially in terms of audience numbers: "It's striking just what a difference being on television makes. You can be on Radio 3 [BBC Radio's specialist music station, which is mainly devoted to classical music but also hosts jazz shows] so many times, and it's great, but it is still that specialist audience. Three minutes on television and you immediately sell a couple of thousand CDs more."
The "Mercury Effect," if that's what it could be called, still works in Led Bib's favor two years on, with the band's profile continuing to benefit from the exposure. But Holub is realistic about what that means for a band from a minority-interest genre: "We're still jazzers; we're not selling millions."
Holub's use of the word "jazzers" makes his feelings about Led Bib's musical standpoint clear, but it's an intriguing contrast to the adjectives applied by many critics and reviewers, who seem to have struggled to pigeonhole the group. It's been variously described as "punk jazz," like Test Department or The Velvet Underground, free improvisation, and avant-garde. So how does Holub feel about these descriptions? "Well, I think there are lots of different influences, but it does become a sticky question. Some people are rather quick to throw away the jazz title, to say we sound like Radiohead or whatever. But in my gut, I don't feel that way. I feel that what Led Bib does is jazz. Jazz is something that's continually evolving, taking on outside influences. But then you tell people who don't listen to a lot of jazz that this is what Led Bib plays and they have this clear idea that we'll sound like '40s or '50s bebopand we're not that. But we have become rockier, I guess, especially Bring Your Own. But we're also more confident in what we feel is right musically."
As Holub discusses this confidence, it becomes obvious that to him confidence does not simply equal a decision to play music that is more complex. Confidence, for Holub, is refreshingly linked to the idea of playing more simply: "We can trust our judgment: instead of thinking, 'I have to play some clever jazz thing here,' just play what you think sounds good. I think that's a problem with contemporary jazz, big time. ... You should always be serving the music, but sometimes it can become a bit too clevermaybe because everybody goes to university now."
Holub is willing and happy to embrace rock and jazz, as a fan as well as a playerjust prior to this interview he had discovered John Cale's Paris, 1919 (Reprise, 1973)but an oft-cited early influence on him was John Zorn. "I listen to a lot of stuff and feel that everything is an influence in some way. When I started this band, Zorn loomed large for me, but over time that's changed. I was impressed with his output and his spirit ... his ability to make something of the downtown New York scene."
Led Bib: Toby McLaren, Pete Grogan, Mark Holub, Chris Williams, Liran Donin
Ornette Coleman is often seen as another influence on Holub and on Led Bib. Holub is a huge fan of Coleman, but is somewhat surprised by references to him with respect to the band: "I love Ornette. In a lot of ways, he was my route into jazz. I'd been listening to a lot of Grateful Dead and Frank Zappa, and to me Ornette was a natural extension from that. But again, it's also his spirit. ... I think people can focus too much on how fast he could play something, but who cares, who cares? The great thing about himabout lots of major jazz musiciansis that he just sounds like himself. He sounds like Ornette."
Holub was responsible for founding Led Bib, and he remains its leader and main writer, but he also acknowledges that as the band has become more established, the others have taken on more responsibility for the sound. "Over time, I've learned to step back as a band leader and let the others do their thing, to be less prescriptive. In the beginning I would be, 'Oh, can you make this weird sound like on this Anthony Braxton record?' Then I realized that wasn't maybe the best way to do it. All the guys are into lots of different musics: it all comes into the band."
One of the most recognizable aspects of the Led Bib sound is its twin alto front line the responsibility of Williams and Grogan. But this wasn't always the intention, as Holub explains: "It started life with guitar, trumpet and alto, but that was brief." This lineup never recorded: "No. Thankfully," says Holub, laughing. The twin alto setup came at a time when Holub was listening to Zorn and Tim Berne on their album of Coleman tunes, Spy v. Spy (Electra, 1989). As Holub describes it, "It's super full-on thrash metal-y versions of Ornette tunes, with Zorn and Berne squealing away. It's a very harsh sound, but in that harshness there's a lot of beauty."
Holub is keen to stress that Grogan and Williams are not simply mirroring each other, but bringing different sounds to the mix: "They both play very differently, and over time they've both developed so much. Even though they sound really different, they kind of speak with one voice."
Led Bib's members have been together for some yearsthe same line-up appears on each of the band's recordings. Every member of the band is now so integral to its sound that Holub is never happy at the prospect of having to arrange deputies if any of the quintet has to miss a gig: "Occasionally one of the guys will be ill, so we have done gigs with deps, but it's really tough. It's not that we can't play, but the band really is these five guys."
One aspect of the band members' development that comes over strongly on Bring Your Own is the playing of bassist Liran Donin (pictured right), who seems much more at the fore than he has been previously. "Yeah, someone else said that recently as wellyou're not the only one. ... It isn't intentional, but it has developed naturally. Liran has always been great, but he's always tried to reconcile his interest in heavy metal or soul with more open jazz playing. He's now come to the point where he knows what he wants to do, how he wants to sound, and you can really hear that on the record."
Keyboard player Toby McLaren seems to have broadened his tonal palette on the album, adding a mix of new sounds that integrate well with the other instruments. On the album sleeve, he's credited just with the Fender Rhodes, but it's hard to believe that he isn't using more keyboards. "Toby's also been finding out what it is that he wants to sound like. It is just Fender Rhodes, but he's running it through all sorts of weird gizmos like ring modulators. That's really changed what we sound like. Toby is much more subtle than Liran, but he's the glue that holds it all together: if his sound wasn't there, then we wouldn't make so much sense."
Holub is clearly pleased with the outcome of the Bring Your Own sessions, even if he's a little more circumspect about his response as time passes: "All the stuff we've been working onit kind of feels like it's all come together. That's it; we're done. I feel we've really achieved what we all wanted to sound like. Maybe five months down the road, I'll want to burn it, but for now it feels pretty good."
One tune in particular, "Hollow Ponds," shows a different side to Led Bib: a more organic, reflective side. Donin's double bass playing is superbly lyrical and reflective. "That whole bass-and-drums introduction was improvised in the studio. I think that's where the magic of that track comes from: we're both playing like we don't know what the other person is doingit's a nice contrast for the record."
"Hollow Ponds" counters the view held in some quarters that Led Bib is simply the producer of scary sounds. It's a view Holub is aware of, and disagrees with: "Sometimes we receive a really positive review, but it seems like the writer doesn't quite get it. A lot of the time, they'll write something like, 'This is the most terrifying music you'll ever hear'and I don't think it is. I think it is quite listenable, quite accessible. Okay, it's not Lady Gaga, but I hope people get it, approach it with open ears."
Led Bib is also a band with a keen eye for visuals. The band's publicity shots for Sensible Shoes portrayed the members as tweed-clad English country gentlemen; those for Bring Your Own show them dressed as intrepid Victorian explorers. The cover art is similarly intriguing: Bring Your Own features a seemingly random collection of objects, each given a number that appears to correspond to an album track. Holub is happy to explain the artwork's concept, at least in enough detail to add to its attraction: "The people who did the artwork, Imagist, also did Sensible Shoes and the live album, so we've been working with them for a while. I asked them for something quite bright, because I think this is a cheery record, and they came up with the idea of a sort of science diagramlike lots of bugs in a tray, and each one has a number. So they took each track, thought of an object that could be associated with it, then thought of something associated with that object. So it's like two degrees of separation. With some of the objects you can pretty much see the link, but with others it's pretty hard." There are clearly hours of fun to be had trying to work out those links.
The same could be said of Led Bib: sometimes it's easy to see the links, sometimes it's hard, but it's always fun trying to work them out.
Led Bib, Bring Your Own (Cuneiform Records, 2011)
Led Bib, Sensible Shoes (Cuneiform Records, 2009)
Led Bib, Led Bib Live (Self Produced, 2008)
Led Bib, Sizewell Tea (Babel Label, 2007)
Led Bib, Arboretum (SLAM Productions, 2005)
Page 1, Top: Matt Crossick
All Other Photos: Bruce Lindsay