The Bad Plus' Dave King on How Touring in a Jazz Band Is Different From Touring in a Rock Band
The Bad Plus visits the Bay Area on a regular basis, and we are grateful for this. As drummer Dave King told us in a recent conversation, that feeling is mutual. "San Francisco is one of the cities we've felt huge support from over the years," he says.
Reid Anderson, Ethan Iverson, and Dave King (L-R) are the Bad Plus
As one third of the Bad Plus, King anchors many of this hard-driving experimental jazz trio's tunes with a ferocity and physicality that's heard plainly on the group's recordings, but is even more evident live. It is largely because of King's contribution that the Bad Plus is often characterized as a jazz trio with a rock edge; the group also boasts the lyrical, harmonically complex piano work of Ethan Iverson and graceful, inspired bass of Reid Anderson. The trio operates in a truly co-equal fashion, with each member sharing in composition duties. Live, the communication of the unit is palpable as it establishes three things in parallel: restless innovation, musical sophistication, and an enormous sense of fun. King recently spoke with us by phone prior to the Bad Plus' performances at Yoshi's Oakland, today (Tuesday, April 30) through Thursday, May 2.
When did you start playing music? And did you start on the drums, or on something else?
I started playing piano when I was five. I got pretty heavily into piano until I was 10. I still play piano, and I studied it for much longer than that. I started playing the drums in a school band in fifth grade. I have several brothers, and we all started out on an instrument, but I was really bitten by it early. I continue to use piano as a compositional tool, of course -- I think it's a wise thing to do if you're going to play any instrument. I think you're overtly more musical when you really get your piano chops together, no matter what you end up playing.
How did you and Reid and Ethan all meet and start playing together?
Reid and I have been playing music together since we were 14 or 15 years old. We grew up together in the Minneapolis area. We met Ethan when he was 16 -- he's three years younger than us. We spent the 1990s being fans of each other's stuff. I lived in Los Angeles, and they lived in New York. Reid came out to L.A. to make a record with me. I'd bring my bands to New York and Reid and Ethan would be at the shows. They were leading their own groups. We put the Bad Plus together in 2000 because we'd known each other for so long and were fans of each other. We got together and played a weekend in Minneapolis as a trio, and it was immediately this other energy. We could recognize it was heavy between us.
As far as the music business is concerned -- and being in business as a band -- is live performance still the heart of it for you? Are recordings still, well, I don't know if "secondary" is the right word, but for a jazz group it seems like the road is still kind of the main thing.
When you're not selling huge amounts of records, records become reasons to put something new out to support touring. With the kind of music we play, the live experience can't be duplicated. We've always tried to make our records more special than just a jazz record where you set up in a room and play the tunes, because we feel that there's no way to get that energy that you get when you're in a room and improvising, where every show is unique. So, we're making a sort of declarative statement through a record.
We've always made sure that our records have an element [that makes] you want to check in on our recordings and know that we're putting a lot of thought into them. I'm a person that still buys records and really looks forward to the bands I love putting out a new record, whether I can go see them live or not. Our business, where we feed our families, is touring. It can be difficult to be on the road as much as we are, but at the same time, with the kind of music we play, it services us in a way where it might not a rock band. I've toured doing rock music as well, and in a way you're in a Broadway play when you're in a rock band, because you're not doing a lot of improvising. You're relying on that visceral crowd energy to get you through playing the same tunes over and over again. Whereas with The Bad Plus, we have a catalog of about a hundred pieces of music that we can pull out every night -- eight studio records, plus music we've not recorded. So when we get on the road, we're writing different set lists every night, and there's an improvisational element to every piece of music. So every night we're trying to push it into some new space, and that keeps us fresh.
How did you work out the use of electronic sounds on your new album, Made Possible? The electronics are pretty spare. I don't think at any point you're playing melody with anything electronic.
Was there a lot of experimentation before you arrived at an approach to using those effects on the record?
We'd been making a succession of concept records. We made a record called For All I Care that had a singer. We sometimes get unfairly labeled as a band that covers rock tunes, but that's always been a fairly small proportion of what we do. Every one of our records is mostly original music; in fact, our record Suspicious Activity from 2005 has only one cover tune, which is the "(Theme from) Chariots of Fire." So after we made For All I Care, which was all [covers] with a singer, we pulled back and made an all-originals record that was really live-sounding, like an old jazz record would sound -- and that was Never Stop.
What we wanted to do was follow it up with another originals record that we treated a bit more like a studio album. Reid has always messed with electronic music; in fact, that's one of his passions. He's quite serious about doing electronic music and composition. He has a whole studio scene in his house, and he really just sheds this stuff all day long. We thought, "What if we try to incorporate small elements, and let Reid be in charge of that?" The band has always been good about playing roles; whoever has the strength in that department, they do it. We recorded the record the way we record most of our records. We had some different separation with the drums, but really we just played the tunes down. In fact, most of them are first takes. We only recorded for a day and a half.
Then Reid and the engineer took the tracks, and here and there added some of these electronic elements using vintage gear. They checked in with us on what they were doing, and we said things like, "A little more here, a little less there." We were very conscious of not having it be something that you would really miss when you see us live. So the core of our sound is always represented -- we're very dedicated to the piano-bass-drums classic jazz trio thing that we've messed with over the years -- but you won't say, "Where's the synth player?" when you see us live.