INTERVIEW: Bambara on the creative process behind “Stray,” their early days and their approach to the live set
This last week has been scary for the state of the music industry, of course, as well as for many other industries, but it’s breaking our hearts over here. With so many tours being postponed and taking money/income directly out of bands pockets, we don’t want to let us get it down and plan on continuing to post content and get us all amp-ed up for when all these tours play those postponed dates.
One band that we were lucky to sit down with before the craziness began was NYC living via Athens, GA, Bambara. The group stopped in Cambridge early on in the tour and are currently probably making the long drive back from Memphis to NYC today as their show got canceled last night. Blaze & Reid Bateh and William Brookshire have been hitting the road hard with the release of their junior album, “Stray”, an anthology of stories and characters that come to life on stage. Just hours before their performance at the Great Scott in Allston, one of my favorite venues in town, I sat down with the trio where they broke down everything from their early days of Bambara to the creative process behind their latest body of work and hopes for the next few months.
In these crazy times where obviously very few if any shows will be happening in your respective cities, find solace in their new record and if you can let music be some serious therapy in these moments. I’m sure many of your favorite bands are currently taking this time to create some seriously beautiful art for your ears and we here at NES can’t wait to take in all of it.
A lot going on right now. You just released the new album a week ago yesterday, “Stray.” You just started this tour; you’re only a few days in. From listening to the record, I can tell it’s going to be a big huge throwing your heart out on this stage set. It’s not just you up on stage playing your instruments. So going into planning this set, having an anthology of stories be this album, how did you go into approaching this set? Being on this headlining run.
Blaze Bateh: One thing with this record, we didn’t want to feel constructed by how we pull it off live. If we wanted to do more on backing vocals and stuff, we just wanted to do it on the album, and we’ll figure it out later. So getting ready for this tour, we’ve kind of had to go back to the drawing board on all the songs and figure out how to pull it across live. And that’s been fun to do. William (Brookshine, a fellow member of the band) is singing a lot of the backing vocals which we had never really done before.
Reid Bateh: Never.
BB: And Brian, who plays guitar with us also. We found ways to emulate the horns.
RB: We have an organ now. It’s just a whole different experience than what’s on the record. I think it lends itself better to a live setting because we could just go up there and have all backing tracks. But I think it would be a lot more boring then just trying to figure out how to make it work with what we have.
BB: And in that process, you come up with new and exciting parts that you didn’t have on the recording.
RB: Yeah, sometimes there’s shit where I’m like damn, I wish we could have put that on the record. But it’s cool because then you have a whole different version of it live.
William Brookshire: Yeah, it’s just a process of adapting it.
And is it something, being that the album is so new, is it something where you’re focusing on this record, bringing this record to life. Making it something unique, or are you finding yourself still playing songs from the other albums?
BB: We’re definitely still playing songs from our previous records. I think the majority is “Stray” but not a vast majority.
RB: Mostly focused on “Stray” but it’s still like an hour, so we’ve got to have some other stuff too. It’s a nice mixture of the last record and this record. A few from “Swarm” we’re playing too.
WB: Just a couple.
BB: Every once in awhile, yeah.
RB: It’s a pretty good collection I think of songs from all these records.
Is it pretty much non stop just straight music? I prefer that over like, “How’s it going Boston’.
RB: I hate the talking, it’s not for me.
BB: We wanted to have an established mood that you don’t want to dip out of the whole time.
RB: I might drop a “How’s it going Boston” just out of respect.
You’re not going to try and take a picture with the crowd.
BB: Oh yeah, a lot of that.
RB: Tell them what hashtag to use throughout the show.
WB: It’s the majority of the set, actually.
Just about self-marketing and trying to get them to tag you on IG stories so you can go watch stories later.
RB: Yeah it’s free. Have a good time.
Then I believe you’ve done kind of the classic two years between albums cycle. This one was out in February, but the last one was in April 2018. It’s a lot. There are a lot of stories on this record and a lot of characters that you meet. When did you start conceptualizing “Stray”? When did you start working on this album together?
RB: Didn’t take as much time as you would think. I knew that with “Shadow on Everything,” I wanted to tell a long story that was a narrative arch throughout the whole thing. But with this one, I liked how it felt to be telling a story like that, with connections and stuff like that, but I wanted each song to have its own narrative arch. It was a bunch of short stories connected and that’s really the only thing I had in mind until we had recorded all the music. And then Blaze, you went away to tour with Uniform? And I just had a month’s time to write all the lyrics.
BB: Yeah, because I was subbing for this band and we were on tour for exactly one month. So the day I left, Reid pretty much started his process.
RB: And that’s all I did for a month. I didn’t work, I called off work, I didn’t leave my room. I didn’t talk to anyone on the phone. That’s all I did was just work on the lyrics. Then I finished the day we went to record it.
BB: Yeah, the day I got back from Europe.
RB: I was still finishing ‘Serafina’ the day you got back.
BB: Yeah, and the day after I got back, we drove straight from New York to Athens, GA to record everything. So we had to get it done in that time period.
RB: There was no margin for error on any of the stuff. As far as the time was kind of laid out. And I thought that was cool. It made us compress how we work because usually it takes us a really long time to make a record. We put all those hours into it but as far as days go, we did it in a way smaller amount of time. Everyday was just intense work. Which was good. I think it was better overall.
I know you live in New York now, but you started in Athens. Do you tend to go back there to record the records? Or was this the first time around?
RB: Well, we just like working with Drew Vanderberg at Chase Park Transduction studio. We’ve worked with him a good amount over the years. He mixed “Shadow on Everything” as well and we just did it all with him this time. He’s just really amazing at what he does. His work ethic is insane, and it kind of matches our sort of drive. Which is hard to find.
BB: Yeah because we were doing like twelve to fourteen hour days back to back for like three weeks straight. And nobody else would do that shit with us.
RB: We never left the studio. We would just work and get hammered at the end of the night and never really left the studio.
BB: Because we slept there too. So it was this weird kind of prison-y feeling thing.
RB: But I feel like every single part of the process was completely insulated to where there was nothing else on our minds except that, and I think that helps. The sole focus on it really helps you get in there and do it in a sort of compressed environment,
BB: It keeps you in the mindset for sure,
Then I know you two are brothers obviously, but William has been in the band since the beginning. It’s over ten years now. I know it probably started running after a few years but you’re still very young. Maybe something you would have told yourself then that you wish you had done or something you wish you had avoided?
RB: We were pretty fucking young when we first started. We were like eleven, but that was all different variations of shit.
BB: Bambara, this iteration, was like 2009. That was in Athens, and then we moved up to Brooklyn in 2011. We were kind of stubborn back then. We would bring all of our own gear to our shows, we would crank everything as loud as possible—shit like that.
RB: I think it was also how we’d try to make the songs come across live. Because we would just get completely obliterated and just go fucking wild, turn everything up as loud as it would go.
BB: We thought because we were having such a great time, everybody else was. But we kind of plateaued for fucking ever because of that.
RB: Because it was fun energy, but nobody knew what the fuck was going on.
BB: Just so much noise. So I think as we got older, we just got smarter and realized that things aren’t coming across and you need to focus on those things.
RB: Because we’ve always really cared about songwriting in general but you would have no fucking idea. It was fun, though.
It was a fun period. Well then obviously things are really picking up, you have the record, you announced the tour in Europe in May and June, you have some festivals. I only saw one, but I’m sure there’s more to come.
RB: Yeah, totally, you know how that works.
All the secrets. Maybe focuses or goals for Bambara in these next few months? You just started this tour; it’s only like the fourth show. The sparse days off, I’m sure, are like sixteen-hour drives.
RB: Exactly, and I think there’s only four of them too. I think we have to get from Minneapolis to Seattle in two days, and the morning we get there, we have a KEXP session. Bright and early. After non-stop driving for two days.
But it’s important, I mean, that’s a big one. With “Stray” being so new, are you just going to be out on the road, have some breathers?
RB: We don’t really have any breathers this year. We have a month off in April, so we’re going to try and get a lot of writing done.
WB: We’re not really big on breathers, to be honest. We’d rather just keep going.
RB: Yeah, we just want to keep it going, keep touring, keep working. Most of the next year is planned out. Which really is the first time ever for us.
That’s a great feeling, I’m sure.
RB: Yeah, it’s a great feeling. After working on it for so long.
BB: Yeah, seriously.
PHOTOS: Bambara @ Great Scott in Allston, MA 02.22.20: