BadBadNotGood are living the dream. Plucked from obscurity thanks to their own entrepreneurial spirit, the group formed in the wake of posting a video of their own instrumental arrangement of Odd Future’s work while studying at Humber College in Toronto, garnering them instant acclaim. Since then they have played with Tyler, The Creator, Frank Ocean and Roy Ayers as well as recording a full-length LP, Sour Soul, with the Wu Tang Clan’s Ghostface Killah. Through their work with Toronto-based producer Frank Dukes their writing credits include spots on everything from Rihanna’s Sex With Me to the new Jerry Paper album.
Their most recent release, IV, sees keyboardist Matthew Tavares, bassist Chester Hansen, drummer Alexander Sowinksy and newest member saxophonist Leland Whitty drawing from an even broader set of collaborators – including Future Island’s Sam Herring and Haitian-Canadian wunderkind producer Kaytranada – to create a smörgåsbord of sounds ranging from louche, loungey grooves to electronica-infused jazz to driving funk, all shot through with their trademark humour and instrumental sophistication. When we caught up with Hansen, the band’s bassist, they had just had a quickfire round of releases including an upbeat collaboration with rapper GoldLink and a brooding and intensely political piece, Drowning, with rapper Mick Jenkins who also appears on IV. A video for their own song, Chompy’s Paradise, where Whitty’s saxophone is involved in a conspiracy to kill and supplant him had also just appeared online and so we delved right in…
So, the Chompy’s Paradise video, going with that instrumental song for a video release is probably not the most obvious choice?
No it definitely isn’t. Our friend Conor directed the video and came up with the whole concept. When he came up with the idea I think he was thinking about it being over that song because of the dichotomy of the super slow, laid back song and the really silly, dramatic concept of the video and thought it would be funny so we went with it.
Where does the track name come from?
A nickname for Leland is Chompy Lee or Chomps Louise for some reason. It’s like something someone called him years ago that we adopted. After we wrote that song – and because Leland is heavily featured on it playing the melody and a little solo and stuff – we figured that it would be funny to incorporate his nickname in there.
Can you tell us a bit about how you hooked up with the collaborators on this album?
Everyone on the album, with the exception of Colin Stetson, was someone that we had met and been in contact with a bunch previously. We met Colin super briefly before the album but he was the most cold-call person on there. We started working with this music publisher named Third Side from Montreal who he works with and the first thing they suggested was that we get together and we were really thrilled about it because we have been fans of his for so long and he’s such a legendary musician.
And Charlotte Day Wilson [who sings the vocal on In Your Eyes] was in school with Alex?
I don’t know if that’s why we hooked up with her. We started to get to know her in the last couple of years and her band played a couple of shows with us. So in fall or winter she came by the studio and we wrote that song and that was a super easy one, she’s from Toronto and is a really laid back person and we just connected really well.
Sam [Herring], I guess that was because someone at our label knows someone at his label and a couple of years ago they had contacted us to do a remix for Seasons. It was when we realised how soulful and cinematic sounding his voice was… you just wouldn’t expect it over the like four-on-the-floor dance tunes that Future Islands do, which is why I think their band is so cool.
Then Kaytranada has been a good friend of ours for the last couple of years. We first met through a remix he had done of Kaleidoscope from our album before this one and we really clicked. We’ve probably done 15 different studio sessions together over the past little while and he is the best dude to work with, so talented, and this is just one of the 50 things that we’ve done together.
What gave you that instant rapport with him in the studio?
I think that even though he comes from a different place than us musically his influences are so similar to our own with his fanaticism for digging for records and his taste in general. He listens to a lot of old Brazilian music which we absolutely love and he’s always digging for cool samples and trying to do something a bit different from every other beat maker and he’s so good at it. I can’t even like say enough about how talented he is and the fact that he’s so humble makes him so easy to work with.
Are you trying to draw on more Canadian sources?
Yeah, kind of subconsciously, but I think there’s so much good music happening in Canada, and Toronto specifically, because that’s where we’re based out of. It’s a really special time for Canadian music. We’re seeing everyone getting this attention like Charlotte and a good friend of ours is River Tiber who’s also from Toronto and Frank Dukes obviously. There’s so many singers and beat makers… our friend Daniel Caesar – shout out to him, he’s amazing. It’s just really nice to be able to like hit someone up and be like, “Can you come to the studio in a couple days?” and end up hanging out and seeing where it goes instead of a super formal arranged session, because you have to do that when someone lives out of town and you only get to work together for a couple of days.
Can you talk a little bit about working Frank Dukes and how your samples have ended up on such big songs by Drake and Rihanna?
We share our studio with him and for the past four years we’ve worked on so much stuff in our spare time when we’re not working on band stuff. Like, me and him would work on something, or him and Matty, or him and two of us, or any combination of people… Actually a song came out yesterday with Post Malone and Justin Bieber that Frank and Matty produced and wrote.
Frank’s paved his own way in terms of what he does, like making samples for people instead of making beats which he was doing exclusively for years. It’s a little crazy because a lot of those ideas, specifically the Rihanna song and the Drake song, those were things that me and him did years and years ago. When you do something like that, you don’t really have the intention of it going anywhere, and then with the contacts he has now and the work ethic he’s had for the last little while, he’s been working with everybody and sending ideas to everyone and seeing stuff like that come out of it is crazy.
You’ve spoken before about attending music school and how it wasn’t necessarily the best preparation for the industry itself. Could you expand on that?
I think our views on school have changed a lot since we first started doing interviews. When we started to get busier and started playing shows we were still in school and getting fed up with it. I think it’s really hard to create a curriculum to teach art or music or photography, something so subjective, that relies a lot on the personality of the person doing the art. It’s so important to have experience and to try writing songs and be exposed to things that you can’t express in a classroom but I think what we did learn there was really positive. I mean, I was only there for a year and a half and it’s a four year programme. You learn a lot of technical aspects of music that we still apply to everything that we do like just being able to analyse music in the kind of way a jazz musician would. I think the tools we got there were super valuable but we were at the point where we really wanted to do our own thing when we dropped out and ever since we’ve just been learning on our own.
The story of how you went from putting that video of you playing Odd Future tunes on the internet to where you are now sounds like the plot of a movie. What were you really expecting to come of it?
I personally wasn’t hoping for anything, I was thinking maybe this will get a few hundred views and maybe our friends will check it out and that it would be fun to play a show with these guys and keep writing music, whatever. That video was probably like the third time we had played together or even met. We didn’t expect anything whatsoever so to see that reaction was crazy, but it was really the spark that spurred us into working together so much. What formed the band was how much attention that video got. We were like “Oh, this maybe could be something one day,” so we started playing more and writing music and kept recording. It’s weird because it’s a very atypical way that a band is formed. Usually you play with people for a couple of years before something like that might happen so we were super lucky and blessed.
Of all the people that you’ve met and collaborated with who were you most terrified to meet?
I think Ghostface because of the nature of the album. We met Frank Dukes shortly after we started playing together and he came to our very first show in Toronto so we had been working together almost since then. Not too long after that he approached us and said, “Hey do you guys want to record a full album of instrumentals? I want to get Ghostface on it,” which was crazy to us. We had played like five or ten shows at that point and we were still figuring out what it was we wanted to do and for him to say like, “Oh, let’s do this full album with Ghostface Killah from Wu Tang Clan” was like… oh my god! I mean I’ve been listening to him almost since I started listening to hip hop back when I was 14.
Were you wondering “can we do this?”
We had no idea what the direction would be, we trusted [Dukes] as a producer and what his vision would be. We started doing that and we didn’t meet Ghostface until the album was done which was two and a half years after that. We were supposed to play this show at the Alife Store in New York. There were a few hundred people there, it was a little, private thing and it was to announce the album and get to meet him and play with him. We had to go on and start playing before he even got there so the way we met was him grabbing the mic and coming on stage and us starting to play. So we were really nervous and thinking, like, is he going to yell at us? But he was so warm and inviting and nice to us. Stuff like that always happens, you build up your expectations of what this person’s going to be like or what might happen and more often than not they’re just this regular person.
Since this album came out has it changed the direction you want to go in? You’ve done some more indie stuff with the likes of Jerry Paper but then you’re also releasing more stuff with Mick Jenkins?
I think it’s always been our goal to figure out a way to express and create something out of all the different music we’ve been listening to. We really have no set style when we get in the studio, we just say, “Let’s make some noise on these instruments and see what happens”. I think building towards doing more stuff like the Jerry Paper album would be cool. Also shout out to Mick Jenkins – I know we didn’t talk about him when we were talking about our album but he’s one of the most talented young rappers or lyricists or artists out there now, period. Getting to see what his music’s doing and how powerful it is and getting to meet him and work with him has been really cool. He’s so focussed and dedicated and has such a vision, it’s so inspiring.
BadBadNotGood play the Metropolis Festival on Friday 4th November and their latest album, IV, is out now on Innovative Leisure.
Words: Emily Carson