One of my most memorable and inspiring interviews. Originally published in April 2012.
An interview with drummer David King of The Bad Plus
Modern jazz trio scheduled to perform at Mondavi this week
By LANI CHAN
Aggie Staff Writer
David King (drums), Ethan Iverson (piano) and Reid Anderson (bass), the three multifaceted musicians that make up The Bad Plus, will settle into Davis for four nights starting Wednesday before continuing their what seems to be their umpteenth international tour.
Their music has been described as ‘avant-garde,’ ‘audacious’ and ‘badass.’ As a group that has been together now for over ten years, the trio has long since developed a distinctive sound that stretches the boundaries of both jazz improvisation and live acoustic performance. Preferring to perform in more intimate venues to eliminate the anonymity of larger concert halls, The Bad Plus rotates from jazz clubs to smaller auditoriums, hoping the range will allow them to play for a variety of responsive audiences.
Although they have become well-known for their original re-interpretations of popular hits by artists such as The Pixies, David Bowie and Radiohead, each member of the trio is a dedicated composer. Their most recent album, Never Stop, is their first to feature all original compositions, each member contributing works that showcase their individual talents and versatility as artists.
The Aggie was lucky enough to chat with drummer David King over the phone while he was home in Minneapolis between tour dates and get a preview of what The Bad Plus plans to bring to Davis this week.
AGGIE: Some people, after listening to your material for the first time, have trouble attributing your music to a specific genre. How would you classify your material to a new listener?
KING: I would call us a modern jazz group. I think improvising is one of the key elements of the music. If I was going to be pretentious, I would say we’re a creative group – a jazz group of our era. [Classic] jazz captures the culture of that era in the text. We are stating that [today] there is a lot of text to work with as a composer, and that ignoring that is a sort of fake purity. We are three distinct composers, and each one of us is an improviser. I’m comfortable calling us a jazz group, but I’m uncomfortable limiting us to what jazz is. To be honest, we don’t care what it is. We’ve all been through a jazz snob period. And then at the end of the day you just want to make good music. We are an instrumental group – getting music out and getting an audience is hard enough as it is. Whatever people want to call it, it’s fine. It’s whatever you want it to be. If you want to call this shit straight ahead jazz, then that’s cool.
AGGIE: You’re playing four shows in the Vanderhoef Studio Theater next week, which seats 250. It seems that you generally prefer to play in smaller auditoriums.
KING: We definitely do. Smaller venues are much more appropriate for sharing music of this nature. But with our group, it’s interesting – the music has such breadth that we can accommodate different types of venues. Jazz bands can’t do rock venues, rock venues can’t do jazz clubs… our versatility allows us to do both. We try to spread it out. Some people are uncomfortable in the rock club thing… so we keep mixing it up so that we can get as many people we can to hear the music.
AGGIE: What kind of material can we expect to hear at the Studio Theater next week?
KING: Earlier in our career, we were primarily known for deconstructing rock music and things like that, but we’ve always been predominantly an original group. It got us a lot of attention, but the same time, the three of us are very serious composers. When we play live, you might hear one or two reconstructions, but we’ll play mostly new music – mostly original compositions.
AGGIE: What is your role within the Bad Plus? How do you contribute and how has that developed over the past decade with the Bad Plus?
KING: It’s all been the same. We all volley… we all have type A leader personalities, but somehow it works. We trade roles onstage and off stage. If one of us needs to stand up and steer the ship, we’ll do it. When you tour as much as we do, you really develop this really deep language… not just anyone can play this stuff. When we play for you, that’s what we’re trying to get across. In some other groups, if the drummer is sick or something and you have another drummer sit in, it’s not really going to sound that much different. That’s not possible with us.
AGGIE: What you contribute as a percussionist during sets don’t always involve the drumset, but rather unconventional objects for unexpected sounds. As an improviser and a percussionist, where do you find your inspiration?
KING: You’ve got to be willing to reset and keep searching. Rather than thinking, “I can do this well, so I’ll just keep doing this,” keep drama involved. Go for things you haven’t gone for before. It’s very much right in front of you. You’ve got to search for how many ways you can strike something. I always try to look for ways to make things happen in the songs with limited resources.
AGGIE: Do you have a particular approach for composing music? How do your original works come about?
KING: It can come from just tinkering or some form of inspiration. You’ll find something that’s worth adding to. It’ll just die sometimes. But it’s like choosing a tattoo. You’ll sit on it for awhile. You want the statement to be really impactful. Sometimes you land on a melodic idea and find that it’s worth fleshing out. Sometimes the process is like waking up after blacking out, and the song is there somehow. It’s how I know it was a real creative process if I don’t remember the labor involved in producing it. The piece is just in the world now; it exists.
AGGIE: How much of a piece will be completed before you bring it to the group?
KING: We write completely separately, but each piece gets arranged together. The composer has the right of way, but everyone’s involved in figuring out what they’re going to be doing in each piece. It’s a really great thing when you’ve got someone to play something and bring their years of talent [to the studio]. Those two are motherfuckers. Truly remarkable musicians. I could hand over anything and it could be understood and played. You can hand it over to anyone else, and maybe they can read through it, but are they understanding it on a molecular level? Do they really get it?
AGGIE: What influence, if any, do you hope to have on young musicians today?
KING: Well, you never say, “I’m in the world to make sure people think like I do.” But I would hope that people appreciate the craft of making music. These are real instruments that we are playing, not manipulated by anything. I would hope people will take away [the idea] that you can take an old instrument and do new things with it. Real, natural acoustic musicians are important to keep in the culture. To me, it’s really exciting that people will want to be a part of [maintaining that]. Nothing against music made with computers – there’s been some great music produced using computers – but there’s no video game that can teach you how to play the drums really well. There’s no shortcut to becoming a great saxophonist. When you’re in the room with someone playing the saxophone, you’re listening to the product of the work they have devoted their lives to. That’s something we’re inspired by… we want to be part of that experience rather than part of a fashion.
Two shows remaining until the group moves on to New York… get there.
Shit, those guys were cool.