This week, NPR Music is streaming the entirety of Never Stop, the new album by The Bad Plus. Hear the full album preview as part of our Exclusive First Listen series.
The Bad Plus is, L-R, Dave King, Ethan Iverson and Reid Anderson.
The Bad Plus is, L-R, Dave King, Ethan Iverson and Reid Anderson. Cameron Wittig
The Bad Plus may be forever saddled with a certain meta-conversation about itself. What's with the postmodern covers of rock songs? Is this stuff really "jazz"? Why do these three white guys get all the press — and all the gigs?
A thought: Some people actually just like the band for its music. Listen for yourself: You can hear the band's new album, Never Stop, in full until its release on Tuesday as part of NPR Music's First Listen series.
Over a conference call, I sat down with the trio to talk about its new album, made up of all original compositions. Reid Anderson, Ethan Iverson and Dave King were happy to talk about their new collection of 10 songs, and a bit about what it means to play in a trio together for 10 years. I offer some more thoughts on the record, based on our discussion, on the First Listen page itself. And here's their track-by-track commentary on the album, which re-imagines fashion show techno, teenage angst and the interior lives of stuntmen:
1. The Radio Tower Has A Beating Heart (King)
Dave: As a tune, to me it's important that it exudes the joy that the three of us have playing together. It's almost like a naively simple melody, like a folkloric melody. And I think the rubato rhythm surging along from section to section is something that you can really do well if you spend a lot of time with a group of musicians. I think that it's something that shows how simple we can be, and how complex we can be, in the same song with our long relationship. It's sort of like a tumbling river, you know? And then it come around at the end with this wide-beat clave. To me, it reminds me of Led Zeppelin's "Fool In The Rain," or something, where it's got this great "pocket" on the very end, but it's actually a bunch of odd meters, and with the same simple folkloric melody that's stated throughout the tune. And there's a nice "B" section of free music where we change the music up a bit, and it shows a little bit of that side of us.
But I just like that it exudes a real explosive joy. It sounds like the three of us after 10 years, developing that language of common purpose that is purely our sound. And also do so in a way that's got a childlike melodic concept.
2. Never Stop (Anderson)
Reid: I think the title certainly does lend itself to interpretation, as far as being the title of our 10 years on record. However, it wasn't written with that in mind — it's actually fashion show music that we've played for a couple fashion shows. This was my contribution for the last one that we did. In a way, it's a very direct piece of pop candy — it's certainly very referential to that techno, almost cliched fashion show music, you know?
The title resulted from — it's kind of that reference too. It just seemed to me like the kind of title that that kind of music might have. And maybe there are plenty of actual techno tunes that are called "Never Stop." ... It put a smile on my face to call it "Never Stop."
Dave: At the same time, it's got these parts of it that are very much parts of our language, you know? We have a song-oriented concept. And I just love that it's like — the acoustic instrument might be considered derivative of techno music, house music, whatever. But the human element of the bass drum and piano, and the undulation of the feel — yea, I think it really lends to the idea of taking that music as a text to play in this context. That's one way I really connected with it.
Reid: And also, it references that kind of music, but I still feel — and the reason that it ended up on our record — is that it still has something in it that is our language. The structure, the phrasing is not something that you would find in that kind of music. There's something there that's familiar, yet unfamiliar if you look at it in terms of the reference that it's making. That's something that we like, that kind of complex relationship.
3. You Are (Anderson)
Reid: Well, I would say in the spectrum of all the things that we do, which I think is pretty wide-ranging, this is kind of a thornier tune. There are shifting time signatures, and even a pretty thorny bass and piano double line at the end. ... I feel like the word "joyous," like Dave was using for the first song — there's something in there too. There's something in the harmony which is almost Romantic classical music harmony. I don't know, I find it to be a joyous kind of expression — it still feels to me like happiness.
4. My Friend Metatron (King)
Dave: I have to say that a lot of our music, mine in particular, comes from some sort of cinematic storytelling. When we come up with a tune, we like to paint a picture for each other. Sometimes it's just an emotion that we can all feel at the same time, but sometimes we like to fill in the blanks on an emotional directive, maybe with a story. I think a lot of people who work within instrumental music do this.
I was intrigued by the name Metatron when I saw that name in a text. You have the classic archangels: Michael, Gabriel and all these names. And then you have Metatron, and it's like a Transformers character or something. And I was like, "Wow, that's fantastic." Metatron. Like, he'd deck chakras. And I felt like it'd be fun to have a tune that sounds like a battle is going on to save your chakra from some evil. So it's a dense piece of music that kind of, at the end of the day, has a proud element to it.
And again, we definitely don't title things just to slap a title on, or to have overly technical titles, like "Applied Science Tone Poem No. 4," you know? We're definitely trying to lead, on some level, the audience to hear what we're hearing.
5. People Like You (Anderson)
Reid: It's a pretty heart-on-your-sleeve kind of tune, really. Originally, I demanded that it be called "People Like You," but over the course of time I'm more intrigued by the way those three words can mean different things. It's definitely a piece of music that has to do with sincere feelings. ... And the simple, repeating theme that it culminates in — it's meant to be sincere, and to draw you in in a sort of minimalist way.
6. Beryl Loves To Dance (Anderson)
Reid: It's so important to engage motion and dance in music. Even though our music is a bit abstract to be classified as dance music, it's still something that has to be confronted and acknowledged and celebrated. But "Beryl Loves To Dance" is a more specific, cinematic idea too. There's this girl named Beryl, who is young and awkward, and privately, goes into her room, and goes crazy to the music. The song is structured where the dancing is going along fine, and it just keeps falling apart because she gets overexcited or something like that. But just a release, a real celebratory, private release of energy. ... That sounds like masturbation, actually, but that's not what I was talking about!
7. Snowball (Anderson)
Dave: Every time I play that song, I hear the midnight snowfall. Reid and I and Ethan come from the snowiest place [Minnesota and western Wisconsin] — I hear that every time I play that song. I'm going for that crystalline — the way the snow looks at nighttime, and the space, and the way that it can build up and sneak up on you. Everything about it is where we come from, for me.
8. 2 p.m. (Iverson)
Ethan: It's a piece of free jazz — there isn't really any form to blow on. You can take it wherever you want. Speaking of the Midwest, I do think there are some Midwestern qualities of The Bad Plus. Like, when we're playing free jazz, it's got some element that's connected to the surreal, or David Lynch, or Coen Brothers — that sort of thing. Two p.m. isn't quite tea time, right? But somehow I think of it as that.
Dave: Didn't it have a sort of double meaning too? Isn't it a sort of ode to Paul Motian too? Or am I just misremembering that?
Ethan: That's true, but — well, that's a secret. Reid and I played that tune at the Village Vanguard with Paul Motian, and we called it "Dave King." It's really just a tune to blow free on. So when we brought it to The Plus, we first called it "Paul Motian." But that's not a very good title, and Paul would be the first to agree. So we decided to call it "2 p.m." instead.
9. Bill Hickman At Home (Iverson)
Ethan: Bill Hickman is a stunt driver, and a sort of B-actor. But he was an A-level stunt driver — a master of car control. If you go to Wikipedia, that's what they say, a "master of car control." [Ed. No longer, but close.] He's responsible for the famous chase scenes in Bullitt and The French Connection.
It's just sort of a blues tune that imagines what this powerful stunt driver might do at home if he isn't doing anything very exciting. He's relaxing. He might be a little lonely. We don't know what the inner lives of these people are. What was Bill Hickman's inner life? No one knows. But he had one.
10. Super America (King)
Reid: That's not a sample of handclaps. That's actually us.
Dave: That's our old hands, man. We inject a feel on those handclaps. That's some guys who have lived it. [laughs]
To me, it's another one of our tunes which could have a small political bent. Well, SuperAmerica is the name of the gas stations in the Midwest — you see the big SuperAmerica sign everywhere. We grew up with the Snickers bar from the gas station. The tune obviously has a very Americana-like feel and structure. It might have an odd bar here and there — kind of like a Delta Blues like structure, but the melody is actually very melancholy, and it's sort of a sad song, I think. I feel that it's a real complex emotion in such a simple song — it's got this two-beat, really good feeling, Americana feel, and then it has this sad melody, and "where's America going," you know what I mean?
We love being American artists, and we love the history of American art and music. At the same time, we're probably all questioning the grandiosity of our nation, and where it sits in the world. It's just a play on the words Super America. Maybe there should be a question mark at the end of it.