Soul Controllers: An Interview with BADBADNOTGOOD

A "trilogy" three years in the making, BBNG talks to Dean Van Nguyen about recording SOUR SOUL with Ghostface
By    March 30, 2015


Badbadnotgood came together while studying jazz at Toronto’s Humber College, but would spend their downtime jamming out covers of celebrated hip-hop beats. That ethos carried on in the trio’s earliest recorded work, with instrumental versions of rap tracks by the likes of Gang Starr, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Slum Village, Kanye West and Gucci Mane filling their first two records, BBNG (2011) and BBNG2 (2012).

Having put out their first album of all original compositions last year with the excellent experimental jazz LP III, the group have come full circle with Sour Soul. The teaming of BBNG–made up of Matt Tavares (keys), Chester Hansen (bass) and Alex Sowinski (drums)–with the legend that is Ghostface Killah feels natural, particularly as Tony Stark has made a habit these past couple of years of making album-length collaboration records with production teams that shun programmed beats in favour of live instrumentation. The Adrian Younge-produced 12 Reasons to Die and 36 Seasons, helmed by The Revelations, found Ghost settling into middle age nicely, but Sour Soul might be the best of the lot.

While he doesn’t summon “Shakey Dog”-levels of intensity, it’s a smoked-out, blurry-eyed set that reminds why Ghost is one of the greatest rappers ever to spit over a soulful cut. Chatting via Skype, Badbadnotgood ponder their year, the lengthy process behind Sour Soul, and reveal their struggles trying to get a lock on DOOM for a guest verse. — Dean Van Nguyen 

How did the opportunity come back to record an album with Ghostface?

Alex: When we played our first show in Toronto, we met this guy Frank Dukes. He’s a producer who made a lot of music with 50 Cent and Ghostface and stuff for Apollo Kids. We started a little connection there and then he had this idea for a project to potentially record these instrumentals for an album with Ghost. He was out in New York recording at Dunham studios, which was the first home of the Manhattan Street Band and Charles Bradley, so he’d been working with those guys and getting into, like, instead of flipping 45s to doing more production with like a live band with live musicians and stuff like that. So he wanted to continue the work he was doing. He invited us out there to record these instrumentals. We just met up and for four days we wrote and recorded songs every day, referenced different recordings and just vibed out. That was the birth of the project and the connection with Ghost; the reason the whole thing started to roll through.

Would the approach in creating this music be a lot different than the approach of recording, say, your third album because there’s an extra collaborator?

Matt: Yeah totally. The challenge and fun thing about this record was trying to create a lot of space. Ghost tours a lot so a lot of it was done over email, but that also means you have to use your imagination while you’re making something knowing that the person isn’t there to make it with you. So there was a lot of us thinking, “Yeah this would sound cool if Ghost was on it,” sending him an email, him sending it back, and then sometimes being like “we could have done this way better.” Taking that vocal track and totally writing something around that. It was a really cool process.

So you guys weren’t together at all for any of the recordings? It would have totally been done via email?

Matt: We’ve met him a bunch of times now and hung out with him, but all the music stuff was done over email. Because he has his own studio too. We live in Canada, he lives in New York, so it was just easy for us to do our thing in our studio, and then when he’s comfortable and writes something he really likes, he could record it and send it to us really easily.

In terms of the process, do you very much have to take what he gives you or could you send feedback and say, “Well what if you did it like this” or “like that”?

Matt: Since Frank Dukes has a really good relationship with Ghost, he was doing a lot of that. Saying, “Maybe this track would be cool if you did something like this,” there was a lot of back and forth between them two on the lyrics.

Alex: He toured with Ghost for the couple months as his DJ and they’d hung out in different capacities so many times, so he’s heard so many stories about these crazy things that happened, so he had these things he almost wanted to see if Ghost would reference in different parts of the songs, talking about being paranoid or going through some shit or some better times in life. So he really could give him some kind of direction, knowing him personally and having that connection [to] reference ideas that he knew had happened. That’s where most of the direction came from in terms of “Oh we have this idea for this instrumental” and then he would say “Oh what about referencing something like this lyrically.”

I think this is his third album in two years that’s done with live instrumentation. Were you aware when you were working on it that he had other similar projects going and did it make you feel you had to be on top of your games? It’s almost like a trilogy.

Chester: The pressure is always there to do the best stuff we could and make it great. At the point when we started we had no idea about the other ideas that he put out recently. Actually 12 Reasons to Die, I think the process started after we had already started, so ours was first and then he started doing that. Combined with a bunch of other things, that’s what caused it to take three years. But that’s a really cool record, Adrian Younge did his thing, and we think ours hopefully stands up as well in its own way.

Alex: Because we also had some extra time between these albums coming out, we realised that to make this feel special in its own avenue, [we needed to] approach features that might not be directly affiliated to Ghostface but would actually work in context and make it special in its own realm.

With Ghost, a lot of his stuff is very soulful; he’s probably got one of the best ears for a soul sample in the history of hip-hop. Were there a lot different reference points for you? Did you look back at the music he’s tended to gravitate towards and did that become part of the process or did you guys shut yourself off from that?

Chester: There’s no way to create something for someone without knowing what they’ve done before, and we’re all huge fans of Ghostface and we were really into all of his catalogue of work. I think the fact that he sounds amazing over raw soul samples and literally rapping over actual records–not even loops, the whole song–really influenced the whole project because we wanted to create something that had a similar soundscape to those old soul records that we all know and love, but also bring in influences from other things.

Alex: We also took all the references of different soundtrack albums from the sixties and seventies that we liked. Being aware of all these ideas and instrumentation and arrangements, we really just approached every song as we would write anything–just write the music, vibe it out and jam it through and complete the idea without necessarily [saying], “Let’s go for this song where Ghost did this, that was a classic song.” We just made music we thought would work and lay down the best possible instrumental for him to write and record to.

A track like “Ray Gun,” can you tell me a little bit about where that came from? It’s kind of got that snappy feeling to it. It’s almost like a seventies pop song. Was that what you were trying to do.

Matt: Every song on the record, except for a few, were all cut at different times or changed at different times over the three year process, so that’s why a lot of the songs sound different. But with “Ray Gun,” with that one we were listening to a lot of Brazilian music at the time, and that’s why I think it’s got that forward movement, funky [feel]. That’s basically what the influence for that was. Yeah, I guess it has like a seventies pop song vibe as well. We had an awareness that DOOM was going to be on it, because Lex, which is DOOM’s label that he’s on now, they had the record at this point. They put DOOM in contact with us, we sent him the instrumentals. We wanted to create something that would feel like a clash of both worlds–DOOM sampling everything from Brazilian to soul music to weird psyche shit, and Ghost being more of a soul base of sample selections. We tried to cross pollinate two little ideas there.

Right, because it does sound like an instantly recognisable DOOM beat. Was that something you had in mind? Did you know he’d be on that instrumental when you were putting it together?

Matt: We had hoped he’d be on it, but he’s notorious for being enigmatic. We only got his verse maybe a month before we finished the whole record, which we’d been working on for three years so that was really cutting it close. That instrumental was done for at least a year and we’d be like, “hopefully we get that DOOM verse soon,” and then we got it. But to answer your question, yeah it was totally in our mind the entire time, but we had an awareness that it might not happen. But it did, so that’s amazing.

Just to pick out one more specific track, can you tell me a little about where “Tone’s Rap” came from. It’s kind of Isaac Hayes-esque. Was there any of that influence on it?

Matt: Do you know the Ghost track “I Can’t Go to Sleep”? I guess it’s a Wu-Tang track but it’s mostly Ghost. His cadence on that–obviously it’s “Walk On By” by Isaac Hayes–his slow flow, that’s what Dukes said when he sent him notes for that track, he really wanted him to go in that direction, which I think he did. That was something that Chester and Dukes wrote.

Just to move it on a little bit, you did a reinterpretation of Future Island’s “Seasons (Waiting On You).” Can you tell me how that came about?

Chester: Back in, I think it was April of last year, we were gearing up to go on a month-long tour of Europe. Our label head, the owner of Innovative, is good friends with Ben Gaffin who manages Future Islands and is A&R for 4AD. He tossed around the idea of us remixing “Seasons” and we were really stoked on it, obviously, because it was getting to be a big song at that point and it was really cool and we thought those guys were great and Sam had an awesome voice. So they sent us the vocal stem and we really didn’t know what to do with it at first. Basically, we just looped it up by itself with a metronome and jammed around and tried to see what would work with it and ended up taking it in a soul direction, and played it in half-time as opposed to the upbeat feel of the original song and it turned out really cool.

It kind of became universally recognised as the best song of last year, everyone seemed to have it at the top of their charts. Did you feel you were catching it as it was becoming this huge thing? Was it post-Letterman when you put that out?

Matt: Yeah it was definitely post-Letterman. Because the remix came out six months after we actually finished the track. The Letterman thing basically happened right when we got offered to do it. It was right after SXSW.

Chester: I think we did it in the first week of April, or something.

Matt: So it was literally right on the cusp of everyone talking about it. “, Future Islands, Watch this,” or whatever. It was really exciting because the track is amazing and the trajectory it had and that we could be a part of it in some way was awesome.

Let’s talk a bit about your last album together. It’s still relatively recent. Looking back on it now, how do you feel about it in terms of what you went in to try to achieve and how it came out for you?

Matt: I think it’s a really cool album still. It’s seven months old to most people but for us it’s two years old, because we spent a lot of time working on it–I guess like a year-and-a-half almost. So to listen to it now, and also playing the songs so much, it’s really weird to hear the album versions because we play them so differently live now. It’s still really cool, it’s just a documentation of a time and place. We learned so much making that record and really spent all our energy on it. Now we’re working on another one. It’s going to be cool, I hope [laughs].

Listening to III, it feels like a lot more traditional jazz album. But then you’re also known for doing a lot of hip-hop covers. I was curious about how you balance all these influences. Like when you came together was one guy the hip-hop guy, one the jazz, one the soul and it all just kind of meshed? Or did you all come from the same influence/background and it felt natural together?

Alex: Well Matt was really into nu-metal and Chester was really into reggae rock. It was like you know the Reese’s commercial where the chocolate and the peanut butter collide? [Laughs] Just joking. I think the reason we all became friends is we met out of music school. It’s jazz school so your playing all these jazz songs and they encourage you to meet people and jam and do whatever, but we all kind of met just talking about rap music and artists we liked at the time because a lot of people [at the school] are really, really into jazz and other stuff, but the hip-hop community in the school is short. We all connected on that and that’s how we became friends and started playing these ideas and these rap covers and stuff. 

Basically we’re all on the same page. Going from covers to writing music and stuff–I think we realized after playing all these covers–the reason why a lot of these songs we were playing had such a great impact, and we could play the simple instrumental versions, when we were starting out and why they would have resonations with people, was because the music that was sampled or looped up was really powerful, it was a simply melody, like Dilla’s [Slum Village track] “Fall In Love.” Then we started getting into more Brazilian music and shit that Madlib has flipped–so many producers, I can’t even get into that–but then we realized that all this music that we love to play, that we can do in this hip-hop setting, comes from this greater picture of all different cultures and sounds all over the world, from all different eras. That’s kind of where I feel like where we’re at currently.

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