Matt Tavares, Chester Hansen and Alex Sowinski never really enjoyed their time studying jazz at Toronto’s Humber College. The trio were more passionate for the bars of Mos Def than the standards of Miles Davis, more interested in covering hip-hop hard hitters like Gucci Mane or Tyler, The Creator than the old jazz cats taught on their course.
They decided to do just this. Under the moniker BADBADNOTGOOD, the Canadian gang uploaded various covers online of the aforementioned rappers, showcasing their style of jazz that was fearless, vivid and ambitious. It wasn’t long before people took notice, hundreds of thousands in fact, including one of the very artists they covered, Tyler, The Creator, who shouted them via Twitter and linked up with them for a number collaborative covers of his discography.
This incident was just one of the many catalysts for their remarkable rise, and the group has continued to push the boundaries of the genre, linking up with some of music’s most exciting talents, including Kaytranada, Little Simz and Danny Brown. There’s also the small matter of a joint album with Wu-Tang’s Ghostface Killah, entitled 'Sour Soul', a riveting melting pot of hip-hop, soul and jazz nuances, which even features a verse from hip-hop’s most elusive, MF DOOM.
Now, their attention has turned back to their solo outputs, releasing their fourth record, aptly titled ‘IV’, which sees regular guest and close friend Leland Whitty join the group full time for their most ambitious project to date, featuring the likes of Kaytranada, Colin Stetson and Mick Jenkins.
Following the recent release and ahead of their upcoming show at London’s Electric Brixton on November 1st, Clash sat down with bassist Chester Hansen to chat about their remarkable rise from classrooms to concerts.
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Hey Chester, nice to meet you. What are you and the gang up to at the moment?
Hey! We’re at home in Canada at the moment. It’s been a real busy few months since the album, so it’s good to have some time at home to chill.
You played a show in England the other month, right?
We did, that venue (Village Underground) is amazing. I think we’ve probably been the UK more than most places whilst touring, so it’s always good to head back.
Your first few releases were covers, was it simply a natural progression when you starting putting out your own music on your third release, ‘III’?
Yeah, it was super natural. Learning how to write your own music is a process, some people can write songs straight away and then for others it takes years to get it right and finish something they’re happy with. For us, I think learning about music in other ways, such as playing covers and mucking about was the best way to learn about music in general and what makes a song work or not work. It was a very valuable experience, but I think we’re very focused on making original stuff right now, just trying to explore a whole bunch of different sounds, as you can hear on the new record especially.
Early on in the band there wasn’t a whole lot of intent or real thought put into what we were doing, we were playing songs we knew and liked just because it was fun to do. The fact it caused so much buzz and people checked it out was really cool so we just carried on doing it for a while and then switched it up to making our own stuff.
And when did you first think that this could become your career?
I don’t know if there was one definitive moment where we thought ‘oh we could do this full time’, in reality it was just a combination of everything that happened for us. We had all been in a million other bands before this, so to go from recording a cover video in one of our classrooms to having hundreds of thousands of people watching our videos was just in itself the craziest experience. London played a huge part in our progression, actually; our first show outside of Toronto was at Gilles Peterson’s Worldwide Awards in 2012.
Gilles certainly has a good ear for music, doesn’t he?
He really does! When you have people like that picking up on you so early on is just amazing. People like him are so important for music.
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Then there was the small matter of your collaborative album with Ghostface Killah, how did this come about?
Frank Dukes who produced the album is a good friend and collaborator of ours. Shortly after we met him, we started sending him some samples and beats, this was like four or five years ago now, and one of those early times he asked us if we’d like to come work with him in New York at a studio. So we went down and met him there, he wanted us to do some hip-hop instrumentals with a soul flavour and his goal ultimately was to get Ghostface on it. Though many years of going back and forth, it came through. It was a vision he had and bought us into it – it took almost three years.
How tricky was it getting DOOM on the album?
Ha! DOOM is notorious for taking a while to get back to people on things… which is true! So we ended up waiting for his verse for quite a while, but other than that it was fine. Once it came through it sounded amazing and took the track to a new level.
Let’s talk about the latest album, ‘IV’. Sonically it certainly covers a lot of styles – what was the thought process behind this?
I think our first projects were very heavily influenced by hip-hop obviously as they were covers, and also jazz because we were at jazz school at the time so spent lots of time studying and playing it. I think now jazz is more a mentality, we often improve and keep that spirit in what we do. Hip-hop is also still very much present, but we’ve also discovered so much great music in the past years, whether that’s from Brazil, the UK, Japan or wherever. We’re often listening to some crazy old soul music or spiritual jazz – it’s kind of a giant melting pot of sounds, and I think that’s influenced what we want to play.
I read Colin Stetson was one of your idols, Chester. What was it like working with such an iconic musician?
It was really inspiring. We started working with a publishing company in Montreal who had been working with him for years, and one of the first things they suggested was that we get together. We were obviously thrilled because we’ve been fans for so long and he’s one of the most amazing musicians out there! So he came to our studio with all his instruments and we just kind of jammed for two days and that song came out of it.
You guys have stated that you’ve made lots of music with Kaytranada, so how did you settle on ‘Lavender’ over all the others?
It felt like a complete piece. A lot of stuff we’ve done with him is definitely interesting and good to listen to, but it’s more kind of beat-based stuff where it would be taken to the next level with a vocalist. It actually came from a demo that he sent us, it was one of our drum breaks and Kay put the bassline over that and then we took that and kind of re-did it and replayed more drums that had a similar feel. Then we bought Kay to work on it some more, who put that insane synth over the top. I think Lavender just stood out the most, and fitted the vibe of the other songs well too.
Any chance of this other music surfacing?
Ha, well as you said we’ve got lots of stuff in the vault with him, so it’s definitely on our to do list!
As well as releasing five studio albums, you have also played at some of the biggest and most exciting festivals – from esteemed Jazz events to Barcelona’s Sonar. Do you tend alter your set to fit the vibe of the festival?
We try not to too much. I think naturally it might happen if we’re playing at like 3pm outdoor somewhere it might not be as crazy at midnight in a small club like in terms of the way we approach the music. But we just try to keep that improvisational spirit and play off the energy of each other and of course the crowd and just go for it.
Thanks for your time. Before you go, could you name one great new jazz artist, one electronic musician and one rapper for Clash readers to check out?
Kamasi Washington, Kaytranada, Vince Staples.
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BADBADNOTGOOD are also featuring on Channel 4’s ‘Four To The Floor’ programme, aired on October 13th at 12:10am.
Catch BADBADNOTGOOD at Electric Brixton, London on November 1st.
Words: Nat Diamond