The members of BadBadNotGood amble into the lobby of the Billboard offices behind schedule, looking equal parts sleepy and sheepish — they planned on eating at Le Pain Quotidien, but their orders took forever. “We just left,” they explain, standing there sans sandwiches or drinks. The night before, they took the stage at Brooklyn’s House of Vans, where they played their special blend of jazz, funk, hip-hop and everything else they consumed as youths growing up in an increasingly wired world, where jazz greats are as accessible as today’s top 40 hits.
The members — Matt Tavares, Chester Hansen, Alexander Sowinski and newest addition Leland Whitty — have risen from doing jazzy Odd Future-inspired pieces, which were lambasted by professors, to working alongside the outfit’s founder Tyler, the Creator himself.
Before the release of their album IV, which features vocal work from Future Islands’ Samuel Herring and Mick Jenkins, BadBadNotGood sat with Billboard and discussed the trappings of higher music education, appearing on Rihanna and Drake songs, their friendship with Kaytranada, and the eternal Backstreet vs. *NSYNC debate.
Leland, I know you’re new to the group — how did you transition from a featuring guest on tracks to a full-fledged member of the group and going on tours?
Leland: It was kinda from when we started playing shows and touring with Ghostface [Killah], I started playing guitar with them and I just became a necessary part of the set, so I just ended up doing all the tours from there and then all the recording sessions and then all the studio stuff, and now I’m a full-time member.
How did the recent album come to fruition? I understand you’re doing more collaborations, working with acts like Kaytranada. Was there a focus on collaborative energy on IV?
Matthew: It just kinda happened. Everyone on the album is a friend of ours, basically, so…in some cases, the sessions were like, “Oh, we’re doing this for the record,” but a lot of times, like with Mick Jenkins or Kaytranada, we’ve worked with those people a bunch. We had songs before we even started the record, you know, so we’re just like, “Oh, we got these songs, toss ’em in!” It just seemed like the obvious thing to do.
Which collaborations from your discography came together the easiest, and which ones took the most work?
Matt: Easiest was Kaytranada. That was the most organic thing that’s ever happened.
Alex: He did a huge solid for us and gave us a remix for one of the songs off of III named “Kaleidoscope,” and then he came to one of our shows when we were playing in Montreal and then did a huge solid for us and came to Toronto and played a surprise DJ set at our show, which is pretty intense because he’s a pretty expensive bill and he’s a legend. The next day we went into the studio right away and made a bunch of stuff.
Chester: We’ve probably made like 50 songs by now or something.
Matt: It just feels like we’ve always been friends, you know what I mean. And then hardest would probably be, not necessarily [hardest] to work with but just because technical reasons, MF Doom I would say. He’s just notoriously mysterious. He wanted to work with us and do this verse on the Ghostface thing, but logistically it just took a while to do it, but much love for him — hopefully it doesn’t come off like we’re complaining.
You listen to a number of artists across genres, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’d work with each and every one of them. What makes you want to work with an artist?
Chester: Honestly, a lot of the collaborations, especially on the record, they just fell into our path. [They’re] people we ended up meeting, or friends of friends, and just kind of making these connections and actually all getting in a room together and writing music.
Alex: I think we always had these lists [of people we want to work with], like, “Oh this person is so cool,” and we still kind of do, but the more we get into songwriting and production work and extensive management of our ideas and materials, I think we realize how amazing the process of being in the same room is, being in the same space, being actually able to personally connect with the person you’re working with and feeling a vibe of a song and idea and letting something go and hearing their opinions. Because sometimes when you do the email chain and stuff, it can be really neat, but you don’t get the like, ten minutes into the song, “Oh, I don’t like that.” It’s like you might send ten [songs] and get an “I don’t like any of these.” It’s almost more elaborate to get something solidified up front and ride the wave through. We also don’t make beats every day, like ten beats a day, so we don’t have these massive discographies or folders to send out.
You guys will be sharing a stage with Herbie Hancock — how did that come together and how did you react when learning about it?
Matthew: We only found about it for real a couple of days ago. We knew it was in the pipeline a few months ago, but then we saw the poster with everyone [listed], ’cause Terrace Martin and Robert Glasper are also super important, and then us! You know! So we’re on there too.
And that poster cemented it.
Matthew: Yeah, in a way, but it also is strange, because I feel like — at least personally — those people are such legends, you know what I mean? So it’s a bit of like…I’m having imposter syndrome where I’m like, “Why are we playing this show?” [Laughs.] You know what I mean?
What’s the general reception from the more traditional end of the jazz musician community?
Alex: It’s just kind of mixed. It’s just another set of perspectives and opinions, to be honest. We met a lot of cool people in the jazz community that totally understand what we do and our vibe and our kind of energy, and there’s just a whole lot of — I guess more of, especially with jazz, it’s like way more critique of this era, this style of playing, this arrangement of a band set up and stuff, so it’s just so much more to hold on to for your ideals in terms of what you like, and I feel like if people have really strong standards of what they like then chances are they probably won’t like our band.
Matthew: People who are really into [jazz], especially jazz musicians, are very cerebral, ’cause it’s a very multifaceted kind of music. You can hear the music, but then also, if you really get deep into the theoretical things of what people are doing, you hear so much more. You hear all the inverting and playing sequences and using notes and doing kind of interesting things where you really have to listen incredibly intently to really pick up on it. You’d never notice just being like, “Ah, I’m just listening to this.” So people who get in that cerebral mode of listening might not like our music, ’cause it’s like, we’re not trying to be like super intellectual, complex, avant-garde, you know what I mean? It’s just like we’re doing what we like and it’s not necessarily very advanced.
For people trying to look too deep.
Matthew: Yeah. We can analyze anything. Some people look really deep into stuff like that, they wanna hear something. They wanna hear something complex or interesting that they don’t know how to do on their instrument, and we might not provide that for them. Not that there’s not layers to our music, but it’s different.
What’s been the most surprising reaction?
Matthew: We got hate mail from a few of our teachers. That was kinda funny.
Alex: Sometimes someone gives us a compliment on a song that you would have not expected that person to hear or to really have a connection to. That’s always really interesting, because sometimes we’re like, “Oh, really?”
Chester: Or a song that we did three or four years ago and we’re not into it at all. Everyone’s like, “Oh my God, that’s my favorite thing.” That’s pretty cool.
Matthew: “That changed my life!”
Chester: “It’s my wedding song!”
How did you all stumble upon jazz?
Chester: I think it was definitely a big part of learning all our instruments, because when you’re learning an instrument, you’re gonna lean towards all these different genres that either your parents listen to, or your teacher is telling you to check out, and jazz is a common way to advance on your instrument and just learn more about playing music in general. I think we all got into it from people around us listening, friends or parents or whatever, and then also playing.
Alex: And then post high school, if you wanna study music in an institution, it’s literally classical or jazz. And there’s standards to that — if you’re playing classical music it’s tons of reading, it’s all sectional kind of work, and the other option is jazz, which is a lot more freeing in terms of having improvisation- not that there isn’t that, but it’s kind of the biggest difference. For drums there’s not really a drum set classical music. if You wanna play funk or like country, if you’re going to school for jazz you’re likely to be able to more expand your palate on things.
You guys met at college and eventually left before completing your degrees — was that a scheduling thing, that it didn’t fit into your lives anymore?
Chester: I think we were just departing from it mentally a bit just because of what we were into, the music we were making together…like we could’ve still obviously learned a lot and had a great experience but just wanted to do our own thing and learn in the world.
Matthew: I was gonna say going to jazz school you learn so much, but you reach a point where, like sometimes it takes forever, but at least for me personally it’s like I reached a point where even though I was by no means great on my instrument I kind of realized I would rather teach myself than be taught by other people. And you get enough tools that you’re like oh I think I can do this, I’ve got enough momentum now where I can build an improve without the guidance of someone else. And that’s important because that’s how you learn how to be a unique musician.
Alex: Personally for me too, I was like not into it after two years, not even a negative thing, I was just looking at the career paths of these teachers that were trying to share their lanes and their history and knowledge and ideas, and I would have many times where I would just not connect or I would ask questions they would have no answers to. And I was like well if I’m trying to get these answers, this is definitely not the right place. Like I would always be so curious on drum production, and I’d ask all the drum teachers at this college like, “how are they getting these sounds on these old 70’s records”, and they’d have no answers. And that’s fine, that’s not their field of expertise, and now I have all that knowledge and I’ms super stoked because it’s something I’ve always loved to do and it’s translated into just more inspiration, and hitting walls is kind of shitty when you’re super into something and someone keeps feeding you, “Oh, it’s not something I know about.” And the lack of like knowledge on recording music was so extreme. Like a lot of teachers wouldn’t know. And to make music, especially now, you see it so much in terms of all the young kids making beats, rock bands or whatever, knowing how to record themselves and progress in that field is also so important if you look at all these musicians like Tame Impala, Mac DeMarco, all these people have a second part to just songwriting and being a performer in a band. So having that knowledge is incredibly important, and school doesn’t give you that at all. They’re giving you the wrong advice about recording, at least in school they were. Buy certain microphones, buy certain things, you need to do this and this and this, and that’s just not how you do it. Not showing you the beginner way and being like, “There’s different ways to do this, check this out,” and giving you more inspiration instead of being like, “Oh, you need to get to this level, or spend all this money to record out of this studio and do it this way.”
Okay, time for some lighter questions. You’re all from Canada: what baffles you the most about America?
Matt: I’m really used to people in Canada constantly apologizing. I’m the same way — if someone really brushes by me, I’ll be like, “I’m so sorry!” And they’ll say, “I’m so sorry!” Even if you’re not in the wrong at all, it’s just this weird social thing where you apologize as well, and that never happens here, especially in the hustle bustle of New York City.
Alex: The ownership of so many weapons. [Rest of the group: Yeah.] It’s horrible. It’s scary. Not that there aren’t guns in Canada, but [it’s] not even close to the extent over here.
Backstreet or NSYNC?
Matt: Definitely NSYNC.
Alex: Definitely a way bigger Backstreet Boys fan. “[Everybody] Backstreet’s Back” is one of my favorite songs of all time. The music video is incredible.
Matt: Justin Timberlake had the strongest solo career of anyone. Justify is a perfect record.
Instrument you wish you knew how to play?
Chester: Cello would be cool.
Lester: I kinda wanna play cello too.
Alex: Harp for me.
Matt: Sax, actually.
Favorite pop song of 2016?
Alex: [Rihanna‘s] “Work” is an amazing song.
I read one of you had contributed to a Rihanna song. Was it Chester? How did that come together? [Chester is credited as a writer on Rihanna’s “Sex With Me.”]
Chester: Frank Dukes has been doing all these samples and all of us, if we have free time, we’ll get together with him and do random stuff, and that was just one of those ideas we did two years ago that PartyNextDoor wrote a song to and sent it to Rihanna.
Alex: Chester also did “0 to 100” for Drake.
Chester: The process of that was so weird. It’s just something me and Dukes did and we were just hanging out, and then two years later, I’m like, “Oh, shit! Song of the summer!”
After IV, what else is on the plate for you guys?
Matt: We have so many songs, it’d be cool to shape that up. Maybe like 30.
Do you have a full arsenal you’re just waiting to release, or do you scrap those when it comes time for a new album?
Chester: It’s kind of important for us to have all the writing and recording to be from a specific time, ’cause it reflects our personalities and lifestyles, what’s going on with us. This album was all done in a two month period even though we had been prepping for it over the last two years, working towards recording the album and writing ideas, but a lot of the stuff that we had written a year ago just ended up getting scrapped, and the majority of it was done in that short period of time.