the AU interview: Alex Sowinski from BADBADNOTGOOD (Toronto) talk Sour Soul, Wu-Tang, Jazz Fusion, and more

BADBADNOTGOOD have cemented themselves as a creative force to be reckoned over the past couple years with their powerful fusion of instrumental jazz and hip hop. Ahead of the release of Sour Soul, a new collaborative album with Ghostface Killah, the AU Review had a chance to chat with Alex (drums) about recording in an analog studio, the happy marriage between jazz and hip hop and why Wu-Tang is forever.

I guess first a congratulations is in order. I had a chance to listen to Sour Soul and it’s killer.

Oh thank you very much, glad you enjoyed it.

Can you tell me a bit about the album? And how the collaboration with Ghostface Killah came about?

Basically the album, we started it three years ago. We met this guy from Toronto at our first show ever and he was a producer and he’d been working with Ghost and toured as Ghost’s DJ for a while and did beats for his Apollo Kids album and on his mixtapes and stuff. So he had a really strong connection with Ghost and was talking to his manager, about maybe trying to do some more collaborative work and maybe putting together an album or something like that and they were into it. So when we went down to New York for the first time to play a show. we went early to meet up with Dukes at the Menahan Street Band studio. They’re part of this soul revival scene and they like were the backing band for Charles Bradley and worked with Sharon Jones and did the first Amy Winehouse record and stuff.

So he was recording and writing with those guys and he’s a hip hop producer so he was used to a lot of samples back in the day. So he was getting more into live arrangements and working with bands and musicians so we kind just joined him there and for four days we started writing and recording instrumentals which is something that we hadn’t really done a whole lot. There was this amazing 60’s soul sound that he was kind of inspired by for the record. Basically through Dukes, he linked us up with Ghostface and he just had a vision for the album and we came through and helped to create this bed of songs to send over to Ghost and see what he thought and if he would be down to write and record and it started from there.

Oh cool. So you’ve been in the process of this album for a while then?

Yeah yeah, almost like three years. We started it and then it kind of just got put on hold because everyone got busy and we also wanted to potentially find a home for a label and stuff for the album. Lex Records came through like a year and a half later and helped us get some more ideas and for features, that’s how we got DOOM on the record and then yeah. We just hustled and wrote some more songs that we felt were appropriate to chill up the vibe and just take some of the ideas to a few different places. It just took a little while between just us being busy and trying to do a million things ourselves and Dukes being busy and then all coming back together and putting out heads down and working through it.

It must be a good feeling to have it almost out.

Yeah definitely, it’s been a long time so we are very stoked. Some of the songs are almost three years old but other songs are less than a year old now so we can build a bit of timeline just for ourselves to look back and hear how differently some ideas we had are then and now.

Has your music writing process changed at all over the years? Or does a lot of stuff still just come from jamming?

It kind of actually started when we went to New York to record in the studio, because it’s an all analog studio. That’s the first studio they had, they have another one now. But yeah it’s an all analog studio, really amazing 60’s kind of sound for soul and rock and that kind of stuff. And we were just so inspired by hearing drum sounds and guitar sounds and bass tones that sounded super authentic like oh shit this legitimately sounds like 60’s music. So we were just so inspired by how you don’t use a computer and you’re using a tape machine and you really have to use your ears and you play.

You produce the sound that you get. And we really just fell in love with that kind of process. So we just slowly started getting our own gear out over here and now we actually have our own studio that’s quite similar in some of the gear and set up and we just keep building it up. That was kind of our first introduction into this world of writing and recording and it really shaped our ideas as a band and it’s seeped into our music a lot. Being brought up on technology, it’s so easy to get a microphone and plug it into your computer and record. But when you have to get a tape machine, when you have to learn how to use a microphone at its best because the sound you are recording from it, is the final sound that goes on the record, it’s not like you can mess with it for hours and change it on your computer.

And yeah we just fell in love with that process because you really appreciate when you are recording and writing, the performance. We always record the three of us together, like always playing the song and then we will do some over dubs or add some parts. But you know if there is a little mishap that happens at one time, but there are some really special things that happen, you learn to appreciate this is a song not because you played a wrong note there but because we got this take that is really special so it’s this amazing experience and we really fell in love with music in that realm.

I think that kind of human element always comes across on really great records. Like the Stones recording Exile on Main Street in Nellcôte, and trying to find the right sound by recording the drums like up the stairs and the horns in one room.

For sure, for sure. I’m actually reading this biography about Mick Jagger and it’s talking about all the cool little stories where they’d be like oh we need to take a break and rent this mansion somewhere in England and just make this crazy album and have the best engineers and make all these crazy sounds and record in different parts of the room and yeah. We love that shit, we just geek out over nerdy recording stuff all the time.

*Laughs* well thanks for bringing it back.

Ha no problem, no problem.

Why do you think jazz and your music in particular has had such like a happy marriage to hip hop? Or is that something you always kind of drawn towards?

Well I think because we started playing covers as a means of just having material to play, not really knowing each other when we first started to jam and stuff like that. And having that very strong, cohesive love of the same music so it just made sense to play that kind of stuff. And over the past couple of years, moving on to trying to write our own material we realised that a lot of the songs we were covering and a lot of our favourite rap albums and beat makers and producers, the samples are always these special recordings and even if it might be just a one bar loop of one or two chords, it’s always kind of a special moment and they are able to do something with it and recreate it and have it make it’s own feeling.

So we’ve really been doing our research and just trying to find all the records that have been sampled and even other obscure records and just listening to all sorts of music from all over the world like Brazilian music and psych rock from the 60’s, 70’s and other jazz shit we haven’t heard and music from Africa and just kind of everywhere. There’s just so much unique, and all of it is on this similar analog sound and bands who would just play together all the time and make these albums, and give it their best shot and hope that their music would reach further back when there was no internet. And it’s just discovering all this music that has been sampled where you can see the marriage. Hip hop sampled jazz, people now play jazz covers of hip hop and it’s just this back and forth field of love.

Given that, do you think jazz still holds relevance in popular music culture?

Hmm that’s actually a really good question. I feel like yeah actually, I feel like jazz, I don’t know maybe not in all realms like it’s definitely not the same when Frank Sinatra was alive and obviously because electronic music is so powerful and popular. But it definitely is, I mean with guys like Flying Lotus and Thundercat, and I mean Herbie Hancock is still such a legend and widely known and working on lots of cool projects and the Robert Glasper’s and Hiatus Kiayote, from Australia.

Yeah I don’t think it’s ever lost total relevancy, I think it’s kind of coming back and I think that amongst young people who listen to tonnes of different music, everyone has access to everything, I feel like the respect for musicianship is coming back a little bit because people are seeing that amongst all this great electronic music and produced music, people are still really pushing boundaries on instruments and stuff like that. And jazz of course, because it’s such a freedom of how to play and how to express yourself, it’s seeping its way in. I don’t really know the relevancy but to me it’s all music, it’s all relevant. All towards a greater understanding and appreciation of people around you and what you are listening to and just having a good time.

So what does 2015 hold in store for BBNG?

Definitely lots of shows, we’re planning some shows with Ghost, doing some festivals with him this summer. We’re also just currently writing a lot of new music for ourselves, trying to find some different ideas and stuff, progress our song writing and what not instrumentally and hopefully just collaborating with a lot more people and reaching out to different artists and stuff like that.

Ahhh then alive or dead, who would you love to collaborate with?

Hmmm I mean that’s kind of crazy, there are so many artists in those realms. I guess it’s really hard, a big thing that we learned doing Sour Soul was it’s really, really nice to work with an artist that is so strong in their own sound and vibe and what they bring and know how to push their boundaries and continue to be creative, like having that certain level of self understanding of where they are at as an artist. I mean one person we would always love to make music with, but it’s always a long shot. We met him and hung out with him a bunch of times and he’s a great dude but he’s got his own vibe Frank Ocean. Excited to hear more music from him.

Well you never know. Are there any plans on coming back to Australia do you think? I know you were here over the New Year at Falls Festival.

Yeah. I haven’t heard much yet because stuff’s kind of getting planned in North America during our summer in Europe so maybe hopefully towards the end of the year we maybe could play a bunch of shows with Ghostface but I know he was also just there as well but hopefully not as long as we left it last time. We had a great time so we definitely want to come back there.

Ok I think I’m almost out of time so I’ll finish with one last question. In your opinion why is Wu-Tang forever?

Well I mean there is definitely thousands of reasons but I feel like maybe the most important thing is the energy that still stands from their first release in I think it was ’93 and you know how powerful it was world wide amongst all generations. And you know the message of this grimy New York scene of rap that kind of really stuck with people and yeah although it can be negative at times, it really brings people together. I think that’s why Wu-Tang is forever, just because as a unit and individually they bring such a cohesive power to bring music to people and bring energy in positive and negative realms all over the world and still continue to do so.

I definitely think that that energy resonates in your music and in the new album. Thanks for talking to me today.

Thanks and no problem.

And hopefully we’ll see you in Australia some time soon.

Absolutely, we hope to be back.


Sour Soul - BADBADNOTGOOD's collaborative record with Ghostface Killah - will be released through Warner Music Australia on February 24th.