Bambara and I could've kept this up all day.
I met with the brothers Blaze and Reid Bateh and William Brookshire in the back of an idyllic coffee shop patio, huddled around a table the size of a dinner plate once my laptop got done with it. It was halfway through Brooklyn's Northside Fest, a mostly hometown-oriented indie rock marathon. Our chat was casual and unhurried. Bambara, named after a semi-useless character from MTV's Aeon Flux, first came up in 2010 with the growling debut, Dog Eared Days, and have continued to darken and muddle their sound since. After the vocal loop/feedback experiment, RINGS, the group released their proper sophomore record, Dreamviolence, earlier this year.
Dreamviolence (to be released on vinyl August 27 courtesy of Arrowhawk) largely got swept under the rug through no fault of its own, but outside of the internet that’s not really true. It’s a relentless, beautiful thing, starting off like the orphaned bastard of The Jesus Lizard’s Goat or the more ponderous moments of A Place To Bury Strangers’ debut before descending into a wild nightmare that only Swans could trip on. The go-to adjective for the band’s sound is “noisegaze,” and that’s only true to a point. Bambara have a very distinct method: the guitars and drums elevate the high end and level the low-end, but it’s the bass and the vocals that provide all the mid-range parts of the spectrum, resulting in a full and toxic sound. Even more baffling is their off-stage temperament: when they're not maniacally fuming or getting fireworks shot at them, these dudes are fucking sweethearts, masking their desire to make hellacious music with the Southern trademark of being laid-back and easygoing. How these Athens, GA natives wound up in Brooklyn chatting with Ad Hoc next to a Koi fish pond is anyone’s guess.
Ad Hoc: You guys have a long history of playing together, right? You’ve pretty much been playing together since you were kids.
Reid Bateh: More than half our lives, right? That’s pretty much how it works.
Blaze Bateh: Yeah, more than half our lives. In 2001, we started playing together and just kept going. We actually formed Bambara in ‘09, I think? The beginning of us playing together was just like any band, just like playing covers. When we formed Bambara, we kind of had a vision of what we wanted to make. We just wanted it to always have a nice balance of heavy, dark, and also pretty. Just like, brutality and beauty.
Ad Hoc: Do you guys feel weird about the fact that really dark, noise-tinged rock is all of a sudden getting big after you guys have been making this for a long time?
BB: It is kind of weird, because it seems like it has more of a market or something now, while I feel like we’ve kind of [been] pecking away at it. But now it’s... there’s so many hardcore bands now, punk bands, pop bands…
William Brookshire: A lot of noise being integrated into lots of different styles of rock.
Ad Hoc: What would you say is like, the Bambara blueprint as far as influences go? I noticed a Dick Dale influence.
BB: Yeah, the Dick Dale thing. We use a lot of the just, like, [sings “Misirlou"] and warp it into drone-y stuff. What we listen to is all over the place. I know Swans is one of our favorites.
RB: I know I draw a lot from Nick Cave, The Birthday Party, stuff like that.
BB: Rhythmically, a lot of my drum parts have the swing beat and stuff. A big Birthday Party influence.
RB: Even like, a lot of movie soundtracks and shit. Like David Lynch is a big influence, for sure. I used to listen to his ambient noise album, Air is on Fire, a lot.
Ad Hoc: Yeah, I was listening to your guitar parts the other night, and for whatever reason I was reminded of 2001, and the stuff by György Ligeti.
WB: Oh, really? That’s pretty rad.
BB: I thought you meant the year for a second.
WB: Nooo!!!! [laughter] 30 Seconds To Mars, maybe.
BB: Man, that's a no go. Speaking of which, that video of the Seinfeld theme slowed down by 1200%, did you hear that?
Ad Hoc: Yeah. It almost turns into Sunn O))).
RB: Dude, that’s like my favorite song. I couldn’t believe that. I thought it would be fun to listen to as a joke, but fuck.
Ad Hoc: No, the really fun one to listen to is “Never Gonna Give You Up” by Rick Astley, slowed down by 800%.
RB: No way. Is that one, like, dark and mysterious?
Ad Hoc: Like you wouldn't believe. It's really euphoric.
BB: Those tunes always turn into really dark drones. It’s awesome. It actually sounded like Swans, a little bit, that Seinfeld one.
Ad Hoc: Swans is one of the most ubitiquous influences on your catalog. Why do you think they strike such a nerve with Bambara?
BB: I’ve always just liked how brutal they are.
RB: Relentlessly dark-- they don’t care if they’re just fucking wallowing in it. But it seems real, not like some contrived thing.
WB: Across their discography or their history, [it’s remarkable] just how diverse they are, what they’ve done. Like that ah, what was that record about the soundtrack? Yeah, that blew my mind when I heard it. And then I found out it’s early in their career. Those guys are just brilliant!
Ad Hoc: How much of that has bled through to Bambara in terms of arrangements?
BB: It’s hard to say.
WB: More recently with the newest stuff.
BB: There’s a lot of it in the back end of Violence.
RB: A lot of our songs are just built off of vocal loops. We’ll get an idea for one, and kind of build off of that with a certain idea in mind. I think that’s a Swans influence, where it’s kind of like a drone, just an endless embellishing on one idea.
BB: The first half of the album is more or less straight-forward songs that we’d written before. We’ve had ‘em for a couple of years. We eventually started just writing new songs by forming a vocal loop and building on it.
RB: I would go down [to the basement] and do an hour’s worth of just live vocals, like improv, with all the pedals, and we’d just sift through that shit all together.
BB: Yeah, that’s the majority of the sound for the record: just vocals with loops and stuff. I know a lot of people think there were synths or something.
RB: Yeah, someone said some shit about us having, like, a symphony of chords, and shit like that. I’m like, “dude, there’s not one guitar on this shit. Not one."
Ad Hoc: How have people responded to Dreamviolence so far?
BB: What I like about it is that we have some people who absolutely hate it, and we have some people who love it, so that’s kind of exactly what we wanted.
WB: Yeah, I’d rather have the dichotomy than everybody just being like, yeah, good job!
BB: We’ve had people say it’s been too scary.
Ad Hoc: One thing I did notice about the record: the first half is a lot more structured, with the second half getting more chaotic, dark, and abstract.
BB: Definitely. On the vinyl it’s like that, especially.
RB: That’s kind of how we’ve been going as a band. Those first songs are all older, pretty much. “Train Days” is new, but all the other ones are pretty old.
WB: And the second half are all newer ones. Like, ones that were more or less written all in our basement.
Ad Hoc: So they’re sequenced chronologically?
RB: Almost. More just like sonically. The first half sounds more together, just because we wrote all of them around the same time. We tried fucking with [the tracklist], moving them around and stuff, so [the songs] were more equal, but in the end we decided that it would be better if it was like, you have this vibe…
BB: Two different experiences.
RB: It kind of lets up, your head gets above water, and then you go back down.
Ad Hoc: How was the album recorded?
RB: All in our basement. Very minimal. We didn’t have any like, professional gear or anything. Any effect on anything was through one of my guitar pedals or an amp.
WB: It was a lot of trial and error, because without a lot of good post-production tools, we had to know we liked the sounds perfectly. We had to go back and re-do a lot of shit. A lot of people will just say, we’ll fix it in post, we’ll fix it later, it sounds good but we’ll make it better. We can’t do that.
BB: We’d spend hours at times to get the drum sound.
RB: Oh yeah, and whenever you used the drum machine, we didn’t use any computers or anything, we didn’t have any, like, sequencers. We had this little SR16; it just came through my amp. “Train Days” is purposefully not really on beat the whole time; the tempo kind of fluctuates. So that was a fucking nightmare. The last song on the record was the hardest we’ve ever done.
WB: I can’t explain it, but something was wrong with the software, so you couldn’t see the wavelengths. So we were off the grid, just moving beats...
RB: Me and Will were sitting down there all fucking night, just like, “Nah dude, just a little bit later, just a little bit later!”
WB: Average cups of coffee a day went up over the course of the record.
RB: I heard Dave Grohl had to go to the hospital recently for taking too much coffee.
Ad Hoc: Is there any reason the bass serves less as low-end and more as mid?
WB: It’s mostly because Reed’s vocal loops take so much space, and there’s so much low-end and high-end out of what’s usually the guitar’s mid, so I do the mid-range shit to cut through all that. It’s a pretty greedy sound. A little delay sometimes, and every once in a while I’ll make it ugly, and put a lot of fuzz on it.
RB: You’ve got that brutal-ass amp, too. You can’t even turn it past two before it’s like...
WB: Yeah, it’s so goddamn loud.
RB: I play all the way up, and he’s always at fucking two.
BB: With our music, Reid’s end is really amorphous most of the time-- just like, textures and loops. We need the bass and drums to really cut through everything, and let you know where you are in the song.
RB: I’m just adding like, textures and things and like, moods-- little licks and things like that. Mainly, I’m not like, the structure of the song.
Ad Hoc: What drove the move from Athens to Bushwick?
BB: We’d just lived in Georgia our whole lives and wanted to try something different. We love Athens.
RB: Athens is the fucking shit, but so’s Brooklyn, so’s Bushwick. It’s just a completely different vibe, you know?
BB: Also, it’s just grimier here. Everything’s so nice in Athens. It’s almost hard to like, dive deep into that darkness we want if everyone’s fucking radical, everyone’s just hanging out, having a good time. We need struggle. We need assholes.