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


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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 less—a 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 straddled—whether they were progressive rock, floridly rococo classical or, of course, modern jazz—for 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 dues—Anderson 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 spyware—a 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.

Chapter Index

  1. Columbia, Spyware and the New Label
  2. Prog: Working With Producer Tony Platt and the Sound of the Record
  3. Thoughts on Cover Tunes
  4. Songs: '1980 World Champion," 'Physical Cities" and Prog-Rock
  5. This Is Not Ironic
  6. Songs: 'Mint" and 'Thriftstore Jewelry"
  7. "Tom Sawyer"
  8. The Process of Covering Tunes
  9. Band Growth and Not Taking It For Granted

Columbia, Spyware and the New Label

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 music—how'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 band—or 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.

The Bad Plus

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 rootkit—which 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 now—we 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 States—they'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.

The Bad Plus

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 be—you'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 point—not 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.


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