Love and Light

Polar Bear by Jacek Zmarz

“The last album is night and this is day… I wanted to make an album that hopefully would lift people and myself, too.”

U.K. avant-jazz outfit Polar Bear have released their sixth album, Same As You, exclusively on Bandcamp. It’s something of a natural progression from In Each and Every One, which was shortlisted for the 2014 Mercury Music Prize. It is also a distinctly more optimistic and uplifting offering. The album features lauded saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings (who has also played with Courtney Pine’s Jazz Warriors, Mulatu Astatke and the Heliocentrics, and Melt Yourself Down), as well as spoken word from London shop owner Asar Mikael, vocals from Toronto-born songstress Hannah Darling, a fully formed choir, and drummer/bandleader Seb Rochford on the very catchy crossover “Don’t Let the Feeling Go.” I caught up with the latter to discuss his influences, his method, and the making of the album.

Bandcamp: Same As You feels like a particularly optimistic, direct and personal album, almost as if it represents moving from dark into the light. Is there some truth in this?
Seb Rochford: Yes, the last album is night and this is day–the moon and the sun—because of certain situations in my life and all of the heightened war, greed, racism, and prejudice in the world today. I wanted to make an album that hopefully would lift people and myself, too.

BC: There’s a kind of serenity and feeling of being at peace on this album. How did the place you recorded the album and the people you recorded it with influence that atmosphere?
SR: This album was very much influenced by the desire to share positivity and love, but also by my experience in the Mojave desert, where I found amazing inspiration and perspective. The vastness of nature there gave me a heightened sense of awareness. The album was mixed by Ken Barrientos, an amazing producer and musician from Los Angeles. We spent a couple of days at his place and then headed to the desert for a week to mix at Red Barn Recorders, a studio in the Morongo valley. I think Ken really captured how the desert feels, and being there was a hugely important part of the sound of this album.

Polar Bear by Jacek Zmarz

BC: The album also has an almost classical feel, like every track is a movement of a more cohesive body of work. Was this intentional?
SR: I thought a lot about how we could deepen the communication of what I wanted us to express and give to people on this album. Feeling it as a whole was important to this process, and at the same time, if people want to listen to one track in isolation, then that’s their free choice. Each track on this album holds the emotion of the album as a whole—this was my intention.

BC: Following on from this, how relevant is the idea of “the album” to you?
SR: Personally, there are some songs I love to listen to in isolation and some albums I love listening to as a whole. For me there is room for both, and I’m sure both ways of listening will continue to coexist. One of the beauties of music is that there is no right or wrong way—everyone’s expression is valid no matter what. I don’t feel the need to lock down where I think a certain music trend is going. There is always an exception to the rule and, as someone who creates music, this is an integral part of my growth.

BC: Same As You is your sixth album in just over a decade. With the output of contemporaries Melt Yourself Down, Roller Trio, Matthew Halsall, and more recently, Mammal Hands, Sons of Kemet, Zara McFarlane, and GoGo Penguin, would you classify this period as being somewhat of a “golden age” for British jazz—be it improv, avant-garde, vocal, or otherwise?
SR: I feel like this is not something I can comment on since I’m involved in some of these. But U.K. music, in general, seems in a very healthy place to me. If you look in the right places and see music as one, then it’s always a “golden age.”

Polar Bear by Jacek Zmarz

BC: How have the previous generations of British jazz artists, from Courtney Pine back to Ian Carr and Tubby Hayes, influenced your take on the genre?
SR: I’ve seen Courtney play and consider him to be a master of his instrument. He could play for days and never run out of ideas or energy. I think the most influential people for me, in terms of U.K. jazz, have been Django Bates, Julian Arguelles, Stan Tracey, Steve Buckley, Martin France, Gene Calderazzo, and the people I play with. From the little that I know, we, like generations before, have mixed influences to make our own flavor of improvised music.

BC: Do you think there has been a more open-minded stance to jazz from the mainstream music press, and the music industry in general, in recent years—especially in light of the Mercury Music Prize nominations for both GoGo Penguin and yourselves?
SR: Open-mindedness is always a positive thing in my mind. In these times I’m aware there seems to be a promoted leaning toward closed-mindedness and prejudice, which is reflected in some of the music media, but also I feel there is a big move toward being open-minded, which is also reflected in the music media. I guess what I’m saying is that I feel both. I do feel that younger generations can sometimes have less stigma attached to jazz and are able to just like what they like.

BC: Did the nomination for your last album ramp up the pressure on this one? If so, how did the musicians around you, and your label, help alleviate that? Did you feel it was important to get this album out quickly?
SR: We had already recorded the next album by the time we found out about the Mercury Music Prize, so I didn’t feel any pressure at all. My relationship to writing the music for this band is that I can’t force it. We make albums when it becomes clear to me what I wish to express.

BC: I’m sure you’re already planning album seven. Any clues on what we can expect from your next opus?
SR: I know what it feels like and have some colors, even a couple of tunes, but it’s still forming in me.

When he’s not running the excellent Wah Wah 45s label, Dom Servini also writes for Echoes.

Photography by Jacek Zmarz

Better Late Than Never

Stratford 4photo by Bart Nagel

“The album was a very obvious elephant in the room for the band and I think it’s only natural that we’d get together, have a drink and say ‘what if…?’ It would be harder to not talk about the album, really.”

For any resident of the San Francisco Bay Area, the idea of voluntarily going to the East Coast in winter is insane. You need a pretty good reason to ditch the sunshine for the arctic chill. The Stratford 4 found one: getting to record their major label debut. In January 2004, the four-piece headed to Electric Lady Studios in Greenwich Village to record what would become their third album, Keep Your Crazy Head on Straight, for Elektra Records. Hot on the heels of their feedback-drenched, gloriously messy Love and Distortion, the band had caught the ear of Cars’ frontman Ric Ocasek, who signed on to produce the album. Throughout its 11 tracks, their mix of frontman Chris Streng’s nonchalant singing and distorted guitars finally came into sharp focus. The melodies cut through the feedback and the guitars rang with fervent energy. “We really nailed it,” Streng said at the time. Nothing could derail their career, it seemed. And then their label fell apart.

Stratford 4 by Anthony Georgis
photo by Anthony Georgis

In the same breath that The Stratford 4 struck gold, Elektra went under. Ocasek was able to return the album to the band, but unsure of their next move and plagued by internal tensions, they split up. They got jobs, had kids, and settled down. As bassist Sheetal Singh points out with a laugh, their time as rock and rollers became “cocktail party fodder.” Like Tolkien’s One Ring, Keep Your Crazy Head on Straight disappeared from sight. But it wasn’t quite forgotten.

The Stratford 4 formed in San Francisco in 1999, solidifying their lineup in a rock club on Valentine’s Day. Streng says he wanted to make a record that “sounded like My Bloody Valentine produced by Wilco.” The band’s resulting debut LP, The Revolt Against Tired Noise, wasn’t too far off the mark. Surging layers of feedback and distortion were balanced by Streng’s nimble vocals. Over and under his Lou Reed-affected voice, songs sprawled and spiraled, walking a line between straight-ahead rock and roll and something more mysterious. It brought to mind the trap doors and sharp turns of Wilco’s experimental breakthrough album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.

Love and Distortion followed in 2002, picking up where their debut left off, and the group toured with Beulah and the Walkmen. Ocasek stumbled across the record and signed the band to Elektra, where he was then working to find new acts for the label. During the recording sessions for KYCHOS, Streng likened Ocasek to an airplane pilot; he took the controls, allowing the band to concentrate on the music, and navigated them to what became their strongest record to date. And yet, it was a record destined to be heard by no one.

Stratford 4
photo by Anthony Georgis

This January, on her way home from a family vacation, Singh met up with Streng. They hadn’t seen each other in years. “The album was a very obvious elephant in the room,” Streng explained. “It’s only natural that we’d get together, have a drink and say ‘what if…?’” That’s exactly what they did. After talking to drummer Andrea Caturegli and guitarist Jake Hosek, the band decided the time was ripe to give the album a proper release. When asked if the record had been on his mind in the 10 years since recording it, Streng deadpanned, “Not that often, only every day.”

On the tender opening track, “Purple and Gold,” Streng picks a spare acoustic guitar figure over a woozy synthesizer. “I’m going to see my babe, I swear to God I will,” he states elegantly before the song moves gently forward, floating weightless like a magic carpet. But in the blink of an eye, the churning guitars and the cracking snare on “Just Sad Really,” the album’s walloping second track, shatter that tranquility like a wrecking ball. Later, on “Cracking Up,” the influence of less-distorted contemporaries like Belle and Sebastian gives the song a levity that helps distinguish it from the unrelenting guitar attacks on tracks like “Blissend” and “Summer’s Over.”

The band always had a knack for balancing Streng’s nonchalance with the fury of pounded drums and overdriven guitars. Yet while their previous albums found Streng’s voice buried a little deeper in the mix, Ocasek’s magic touch throws it in sharp relief. Streng’s even vocal cuts through the fireworks of noise exploding around him. On closing track “Drive Asleep,” guitars rise and fall while he sings simply, “I was dreaming / I was driving you home.” After the dense instrumentation and fast pace of the album, it serves as a resolution, a return to the calm established in “Purple and Gold.”

The Stratford 4 talk about getting back together with the eagerness of teenagers ecstatic to play their first high school battle of the bands. “I missed playing music,” Singh says. “I had this change where I went from not thinking about it to thinking about it all the time.” Will there be shows, a tour, a chance to make even more music? Only time will tell, but Streng is undoubtedly positive about it. “The whole project ended so abruptly,” he says. “Even this long after the fact, I feel like we still have something to prove.”

Stratford 4photo by Bart Nagel

If You Can’t Join ’Em…

MusicNOW by Keith Klenowski

“What I like to focus on is the idea of creative and detailed music that’s coming from different places.”

There aren’t too many places where one can see Arcade Fire’s Will Butler play his new solo project, hear the Cincinnati Symphony accompany Pulitzer-winning composer Caroline Shaw in the premiere of her violin concerto, and catch a concert from Perfume Genius—all in under a week. If that combination intrigues you, then it’s not too late to trek to Cincinnati for the MusicNOW Festival, which begins its tenth season this week. Under the supervision of guitarist and composer Bryce Dessner—best known for his work in The National, but also a formidable voice in his own right—MusicNOW has provided a haven for artists to explore unconventional projects and compelling collaborations.

Bryce Dessner by Keith KlenowskiBryce Dessner

Fortunately for those who can’t make it to Cincinnati, a MusicNOW commemorative compilation out today on Brassland provides a fascinating glimpse into the festival’s artistic bubble. “I wanted it to be a snapshot of contemporary music culture,” Dessner explained in a phone interview about MusicNOW. “It’s not in any way definitive—not some sort of doctrinaire look at what I think is valid in music, or whatever. It’s really just a statement about all of this music being important.” The compilation reflects this broad but personal vision, with 17 tracks of live recordings that represent each year of the festival’s history. The Books play tightly woven, postminimalist grooves with Dessner’s instrumental band Clogs; cellist Erik Friedlander unravels an intense, airily Appalachian solo performance; the Fleet Foxes’ Robin Pecknold croons a gorgeous, old folk ballad.

“What I like to focus on is the idea of creative and detailed music that’s coming from different places,” Dessner said. On the compilation, that might be exemplified in “Nobu Take,” a blistering and flickering solo from Colin Stetson, typically found playing massive saxophones but here on lithe clarinet. There’s also Sufjan Stevens’ track, “The Owl and the Tanager,” an intimate tour-de-force in which Stevens vacillates from hush to keen atop a rich, repeating progression.

Colin Stetson by Keith Klenowski

Dessner grew up in Cincinnati, and the off-the-beaten-path character of the midwestern city appealed to MusicNOW’s artists, who could explore projects distinct from their typical, relentless touring. “We don’t have a lot of money to compete with the big venues or festivals, so it’s usually something that’s being done off cycle,” Dessner said. “We try to take risks with that, in a way that would be difficult to do in New York or London or Los Angeles, where the media attention is so much bigger. I think certain artists feel comfortable coming to Cincinnati, because the vibe of the festival is very low-key, and it feels like there’s a place you can really, actually workshop things.” The festival’s relationship with arts presenter Chamber Music Cincinnati encourages a strong focus on contemporary classical music. This year marks MusicNOW’s second collaboration with the Cincinnati Symphony, a rare example of a world-class orchestra lending its talents to a non-classical festival. Performances take place in cozier spaces like the historic Memorial Hall, a very different atmosphere from the sprawl of a Coachella or Lollapalooza.

St. Vincent by Keith KlenowskiSt. Vincent

Commissioning new music—whether from classical composers or indie songwriters—is a crucial aspect of MusicNOW. “The festival really extended its hand to me early on, asking me to write music for other people to play that I might not have done otherwise,” wrote Richard Reed Parry in a recent email. Parry—a member of Arcade Fire and Bell Orchestre, as well as a soloist artist—pretty much became an instrumental composer due to his involvement in the festival, and he has attended every iteration. MusicNOW commissioned a series of chamber works from Parry, released recently on the Deutsche Grammophon album Music for Heart and Breath and represented on the compilation in an affecting performance by Parry and violist Nadia Sirota.

Richard Parry by Keith Klenowski

Projects conceived at MusicNOW frequently spill out into tours or albums. Dessner asked several composers to write string arrangements of Sufjan’s electronic album Enjoy Your Rabbit to premiere at the festival—“Not entirely with his approval, actually,” Dessner noted. Sufjan liked what he heard: the arrangements became an album on Asthmatic Kitty, and then even a score for a New York City Ballet production.

The live recordings here beautifully exhibit vocal feats, whether Owen Pallett’s angelic coo, Shara Worden/My Brightest Diamond’s glowing mezzo, or Justin Vernon’s falsetto pyrotechnics in a cover of Sharon van Etten’s “Love More.”

Justin Vernon by Keith Klenowski

Some tracks, like Andrew Bird’s “Section 8 City,” represent stunning, entirely self-contained musical moments. Others, like the contributions from Grizzly Bear and Dirty Projectors, are hazier allusions to performances that you wish you had caught live.

Asked about his most memorable MusicNOW experience as an audience member, Parry described “Tinariwen blowing a packed midwestern audience’s collective mind.” Tinariwen, the legendary desert-blues Tuareg band, have one of the best tracks on the album. “I don’t think I’ve ever felt so inebriated by pure, deep musicality as I did that night,” Parry added.

Tinariwen by Keith Klenowski

Most enthralling, though, is the album’s opening track, “Trials, Troubles, Tribulations.” Part of the Sounds of the South project originally commissioned by Duke Performances in North Carolina, it is the precisely correct combination of the precisely correct musicians for the precisely correct project. Inspired by John and Alan Lomax’s 1959 ethnographic collection of Southern folk tunes, psych-folk band Megafaun, Vernon, van Etten, and jazz ensemble Fight the Big Bull reimagine old hymns with rustic splendor. On “Trials, Troubles, Tribulations,” the band transforms an old gospel song into a laid-back roar. “That concert in and of itself was probably one of the best live concert performances I’ve ever seen, and I’m not just tooting my own horn,” Dessner said. “We were sitting there, like, ‘I cannot believe this is happening.’”

Sounds of the South by Keith Klenowski

Photography by Keith Klenowski

Dolla Dolla Bill, Y’All


Fans have now given artists $100 million USD through Bandcamp.

Fans give artists $3.5 million every month on the site, and buy more than 16,000 records a day, which works out to about one every five seconds, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year (there goes one now). In terms of units sold, Bandcamp’s share of the record industry is roughly the same as BMW’s share of the auto market back when Steve Jobs said this. Furthermore, sales on Bandcamp are up 30% in the last 12 months, at a time when the rest of the industry is down 11%. We see this growth as proof that if you give fans easy ways to directly support the artists they love, they’ll take you up on it every time. So a big, big thanks to everyone supporting artists on Bandcamp, and to all the artists and labels posting great music too. We wouldn’t be here without you.

P.S. We worked out of the public library for the first four years of Bandcamp’s existence. In May 2009, fans gave artists $12,823.12. It was the first time we’d crossed the $10K-in-a-month mark. I vividly recall sitting across from Kevin and Shawn,* being quietly stoked.


*Not pictured: me behind camera, Joe and Neal on irc.


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