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Bambara: In Conversation

Photo by Kevin Condon
10 February 2020

Photo by Kevin Condon
Founded in Athens, Georgia by twin brothers Reid and Blaze Bateh, and bassist William Brookshire, Bambara are now based in Brooklyn, NYC and have been steadily attracting attention since the release of their 2013 debut.
A thunderous squall of a song, “Serafina” provides an arresting introduction to their new album Stray. Channeling the anarchic energy of The Birthday Party and The Gun Club, in combination with Reid Blateh’s dramatic lyrical style the track imbues the story of a pair suburban misfits with apocalyptic weight. Bambara’s rhythm section rattles and bursts behind a frantic descending guitar lead as Reid, in a fraying baritone, weaves a tale set in his home state of Georgia that acknowledges the history of the place with subtle Civil War allusions, while conjuring an immediate atmosphere of backwoods unease.
Death is a central theme that permeates the entire record. It’s everywhere and inescapable, abstract and personified. Death, however, won’t be the first thing that strikes you about the group’s fourth album. That instead will be its pulverising soundscape; by turns, vast, atmospheric, cool, broiling and at times; “Sing Me To The Street” and “Serafina” being stand outs.
The album began when the band locked themselves in their windowless Brooklyn basement to write. Despite the success of their preceding full length Shadow On Everything (Wharf Cat Record, 2018), decisions were made early on to experiment with new instrumentation and song structures, even if the resulting compositions would force the band to adapt their storied live set, known for its tenacity and technical prowess. Throughout the songwriting process, the band pulled from their deep well of creative references, drawing on the likes of Leonard Cohen, Ennio Morricone, Sade, classic French noir L’Ascenseur Pour L’Echafraud, as well as Southern Gothic stalwarts Flannery O’Connor and Harry Crews.
Once the building blocks were set in place, they met with producer Drew Vandenberg in Athens, GA to record the foundation of Stray. After recruiting friends Adam Markiewicz (The Dreebs) on violin, Sean Smith (Klavenauts) on trumpet and a crucial blend of backing vocals by Drew Citron (Public Practice) and Anina Ivry-Block (Palberta), Bambara convened in a remote cabin in rural Georgia, where Reid laid down his vocals.
The finished product represents both the band’s most experimental and accessible work to date. The addition of Citron and Ivory-Block’s vocals create a hauntingly beautiful contrast to Bateh’s commanding baritone on tracks like “Sing Me to the Street”, “Death Croons” and “Stay Cruel,” while the *Dick Dale*-inspired guitar riffs on “Serafina” and “Heat Lightning.
While the music itself is evocative and propulsive, a fever dream all of its own, the lyrical content pushes the record even further into its own darkly thrilling realm. If the songs on Shadow On Everything were like chapters in a novel, then this time they’re short stories. Short stories connected by death and its effect on the characters in contact with it.
But it would be wrong to characterize Stray as simply the sound of the graveyard. Light frequently streams through and, whether refracted through the love and longing found on songs like “Made for Me” or the fantastical nihilism on display in tracks like the anthemic “Serafina,” reveals this album to be the monumental step forward that it is. Here Bambara sound like they’ve locked into what they were always destined to achieve, and the effect is nothing short of electrifying.

Stray is out on Wharf Cat Records on February 14th, 2020. Many thanks to Tom Avis at Mind Hive PR for arranging the interview.

James Broscheid: Congrats on the release of your new record Stray! Your fourth album since your 2008 debut on Emerald Weapon correct? Can you discuss the band’s approach to writing / recording this album compared to previous works? Any specific changes you wanted to implement or tried to implement on Stray?

William Brookshire: Thanks. It’s actually our fourth full length overall; Dreamviolence (self-released, 2013), being the first. I think we self-released our first EP (Dog Ear Days on Emerald Weapon), back in 2010, and we really had no approach to recording back then. We would just give engineers the most ridiculous notes, like “We want the drums to sound like Bonham but with an Al Green snare!” Some very patient folks helped us make our first recordings, for sure.
Once we moved to Brooklyn, we started recording and mixing everything ourselves, and the result was Dreamviolence in 2013. It’s pretty unapologetically foggy and brutal, but it’s a clear testament to what noise rock was like in the DIY scene in Bushwick back then.
On the next two records, Swarm (Arrowhawk Records, 2016), and _Shadow on Everything, we enlisted a lot more help for the recording/mixing process. After mixing Shadow on Everything with Drew Vandenberg, we knew we wanted to do all the basic tracks and mix with him again on the next record. As always we did a lot of the work in our basement in Brooklyn; all of the songwriting and overdubbing, and a lot of editing was done up here as we fine tuned the songs before Reid could get to work on the lyrics. We knew we wanted to venture into new instrumentation and backup vocals on this record, so when we took everything down to Georgia for the final stretch we had a lot to work with.

JB: To me, Stray expands on the sounds you were going for on Shadow On Everything (brass touches, etc.), without being redundant. It is this record’s use of space (like on Miracle and Sing Me to the Street), that is more head-turning. Does having a second release on Wharf Cat offer the band some stability as far experimentation in the studio? Maybe more time to hash out ideas too?

WB: We definitely did a lot more experimenting for this record. The idea was to set no limitations on the writing process, even if it meant reinventing some of the songs for a live format. All of that experimentation took place in our space in Brooklyn, though, and it’s more accurate to say we just did a lot more work in less time. We were pretty much at it every day for 8 months leading up to the completion of the record. Kind of crucible actually, but I think we’re all happy with the results!

JB: As the band’s sound get increasingly expansive, will the upcoming tour feature an expanded line-up similar to the tour for the last album? If so, could you tell us about the musicians joining you?

WB: For the most part, we’ll be performing as the same five-piece band as we did for the last record. Bryan Keller Jr. on guitar and Sammy Zalta on guitars and keys. We always get together before tours and see what we can do to reinvent the new material and make it suitable for a more traditional setup with less instrumentation. For our release show in Brooklyn, though, we plan on doing everything as heard on the record with strings, horns and backup vocals. That’ll be at Music Hall of Williamsburg on 3/21.

Blaze Bateh: We were a 3-piece live band since we first started playing together back in 7th grade. We were playing a show in 2016 opening for Girl Band and Reid broke his hand on his guitar at the end. We had a few more shows coming up after that one and didn’t want to cancel so we asked Bryan and eventually Sammy to fill in on guitar. We ended up liking the dynamic so much more in a live setting. Bryan and Sammy are both great musicians and they have really great projects of their own!

JB: Also, what has it meant for the three of you to not be (so) burdened with solely having to replicate the album’s sound in a live setting by bringing in touring members?

WB: It’s been great! Before we incorporated Bryan and Sammy, Reid was having to do a lot at once. Since handing over the guitar and noise duties, Reid’s been able to connect with the crowd a lot more.

BB: Yeah, Reid used to have to juggle guitar, making and triggering noise loops and singing. Each show was 50% chance that something would malfunction. The sound is more spread across the stage now and everything breathes a little more. It also gives Reid the freedom to do whatever he wants up there.

JB: Given the scene’s history in Athens (R.E.M., B-52s et al – though I prefer Pylon and nearby Deerhunter myself!), what prompted the move from Georgia to Brooklyn? Can you compare the two scenes and good/bad aspects of each’s support networks?

WB: There was really no decision to move to Brooklyn. I think we were all just on the same page and happy to try something new. Athens has an amazingly supportive music scene. There’s always a steady flow of new bands, given the university, and there are tons of clubs to play. The quality of the music being made there is excellent, and I think a lot of that has to do with how cheap and slow-paced the town is. In New York, it’s all quantity over quality, and it’s an unforgiving scene in that you absolutely have to play a ton and constantly remind everyone that you exist. That said, the bands that stick around and survive in New York are some of the coolest, most uncompromising people doing it!

BB: The Athens scene is truly unique. It’s such a small town, yet there are tons of bands and sub-scenes within the whole. Everybody plays in multiple bands. It definitely feels more like a family. And just like with family, there are grudges and tiffs as well. When we moved to Brooklyn, I don’t think we realized how hard of a reset it was going to be.
I’m glad we didn’t because it might have deterred us from coming! But yeah, when we moved here, we pretty much started all over again and it took us a loooong time to start to feel like part of the community. But by playing shows constantly, you start to meet tons of cool like-minded people and it grows from there. Another thing, in Athens because of the size, you have to really spread out your shows. Here, when you’re starting out, you have to play as much as possible.

JB: The imagery and story-telling of this album’s lyrics read like short stories (the intensity of Serafina is outstanding!). How do you go about crafting lyrics for Bambara records? Is it a matter of settling on a theme (death here), and branching out from there?

Reid Bateh: The lyrics for Stray built off each other one story at a time. The theme of death just kind of bubbled to the surface as the characters’ narratives started to take shape and intertwine. After I wrote “Heat Lightning”, I realized that death would have to be present in all the songs in some form or another. It was unavoidable.

JB: Can you discuss the band’s evolution from its inception in a song structure sense? What prompts you to explore different instrumentation like horns, female backing vocals (Stay Cruel & Death Croons are wonderful!), etc. when the basic foundation is coming together?

WB: I think more and more, we just don’t want to limit our songwriting. We try not to consider how difficult it will be to reproduce live, and that gives us the freedom to utilize any instrumentation we need to help make the song the best it can be.

BB: We knew we wanted to go further down the same path that we started down on Shadow, so we ended up using way more synth, organ and trumpet than before. We also discussed early on how it would be cool to have a recurring call and response throughout the album between Reid and the same female backing vocalists. We asked our friends Ani and Drew Citron to sing on the record and they were perfect. I love the sound of their voices together.

JB: Although Bambara is categorized as post-punk, I understand there were more diverse influences for this record from Leonard Cohen & Ennio Morricone (who I hear throughout with a subtle spaghetti-western twang – especially Ben & Lily and Heat Lightning), to film noir like 1958’s Elevator to the Gallows. I for one am pleasantly surprised by the influences for this record! What is it about the genre of post-punk that drew the band to it in the first place? Do you consider the band to be post-punk?

WB: Post-Punk for me is such a huge umbrella. It’s a great term to help describe to people the general idea of our sound but, I never feel like it gives people an accurate idea of what we really sound like.
It gets them in the right ballpark, at least. Personally, I love how hard-hitting a lot of the rhythm sections can be in post-punk music.

BB: I personally don’t like to consider genres with our music. I don’t mean I think that we’ve created something indescribable by any means. I just don’t like to think in terms of labels when writing. The possibilities immediately shrink down when you do.

JB: I read an interview online about the connection the three of you share and how nothing gets released without all three of you being happy with it – no room for ego-driven decisions. Is that the secret to Bambara’s longevity? Was that connection there from the day the three of you looked at each other and said, “Right, let’s start a band!”?

WB: I would say that our comfort in pushing each other to make the best music we can has been integral to our longevity. It’s always been there, and it insures that we’ll never be unhappy with anything we put out.

BB: It’s hard to say what the connection in writing was like when we first started because we were so young. Like 12 I think! But we definitely didn’t take it as seriously at first. We just wanted to make music that sounded like Blink-182!!!

JB I understand Drew Vandenberg (who mixed Shadow On Everything), produced Stray. Was it an easy transition for the band (and Drew for that matter!), to have him produce this album? How do you go about choosing a producer to work with?

WB: We knew we wanted to work with Drew after he mixed Shadow on Everything. He’s an old friend and one of the most skilled engineers out there, so it was a super easy transition.

BB: I honestly don’t think we could have done it with anyone else. He shares our level of focus and is willing to work with us on an idea until we’re happy. We were working 12 to 14 hours a day nonstop for 3 weeks with him at Chase Park Transduction in Athens.
Then at the end of each day, we would get hammered and pass out on the studio futons. Super dark times but, because we’ve all been friends for so long, Drew included, we could revel in the shared misery.

JB: As I understand, the foundation for this album was recorded in Athens and the vocals were recorded in a rural Georgia cabin. Some records seem grounded to where they were recorded and Stray has a similar feel. How different a record would Stray be had it been recorded in a metropolitan area like the NYC-area vs. getting away from it all?

WB: A lot of Stray was actually recorded in New York (overdubs, violin, trumpet, backing vocals, etc.), but it was definitely beneficial to get away and isolate ourselves down in Georgia. Had we stayed entirely in NYC, we probably wouldn’t have had the luxury of working with Drew.

BB: I think if we made this in New York entirely, we might not have had the time and money to explore all the ideas we had!

Catch Bambara on tour:

2/19/2020 – Union Stage – Washington, DC
2/20/2020 – Boot & Saddle – Philadelphia, PA
2/22/2020 – Great Scott – Boston, MA
2/24/2020 – Bar Le Ritz – Montreal, QC
2/25/2020 – The Garrison – Toronto, ON
2/26/2020 – Beachland Tavern – Cleveland, OH
2/27/2020 – PJ’s Lager House – Detroit, MI
2/28/2020 – Sleeping Village – Chicago, IL
2/29/2020 – 7th Street Entry – Minneapolis, MN
3/3/2020 – The Sunset – Seattle, WA
3/4/2020 – Fox Cabaret – Vancouver, BC
3/5/2020 – Doug Fir Lounge – Portland, OR
3/6/2020 – Cafe Du Nord – San Francisco, CA
3/7/2020 – The Echo – Los Angeles, CA
3/9/2020 – The Rebel Lounge – Phoenix, AZ
3/10/2020 – Lowbrow Palace – El Paso, TX
3/11/2020 – Barracuda – Austin, TX
3/12/2020 – Ruins – Dallas, TX
3/13/2020 – Hi Tone (Small Room) – Memphis, TN
3/14/2020 – The High Watt – Nashville, TN
3/15/2020 – The Earl – Atlanta, GA
3/17/2020 – Cat’s Cradle Back Room – Carrboro, NC

 

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