Bambara “It’s so fun to write entire songs and EPs based around noise and loops.”

Photo: Sean MacNeil

The world of Bambara is not a beautiful place. Their music and aesthetic reflects a reality few are willing to confront. Born in Atlanta, Georgia from a lifelong friendship, brothers Reid (vocals/guitar) and Blaze Bateh (drums), and bassist William Brookshire migrated to Brooklyn after forming Bambara in 2009, honing a sound that integrated Swans’ severity into the Birthday Party’s depraved cabaret mold, with post-Wire guitar work. Part of their musical chaos comes from their use of vocal loops, processed to the point of breaking.

Bambara just released Swarm (Arrowhawk), the follow-up album to the band’s debut, Dreamviolence. The band finds inspiration in cinematographic imagery, their decaying surroundings, and literature. The recording process was plagued by many setbacks that forced the band to adapt into a fiercer unit and work in different ways, including recording in a studio with a producer for the first time, with former The Men/current Uniform member Ben Greenberg. On Swarm, Bambara arranges their sound to reflect the ugliness they see in the world.

Tiny Mix Tapes had a chat with Reid and William about Swarm.

How’s everything with Bambara right now?

William Brookshire: Great, man! We got to do a nice little tour down to SXSW, and now we’re back in Brooklyn, kinda playing as many shows as we can, and we’re working on a European tour for the fall.

Will this be your first time playing Europe?

W: Nah, we went over a couple of years ago with A Place To Bury Strangers and METZ. I think we played like 25 shows all over the continent with APTBS, and then we met up with METZ in Germany and Poland for a few others. It’s amazing playing over there, so we’re very excited to go back.

So let’s talk about the recording of Swarm. It was a long process due to outside circumstances. Can you talk about what happened?

W: We started recording it originally a couple of years ago in our basement in Bushwick. We were basically approaching it the same way as with our last LP, Dreamviolence. We got pretty deep into the process, decided it didn’t sound so great, scrapped it, and bought a few new pieces of equipment. We started over, got a little further into [the process], and one night Reid’s laptop got stolen. After that we took a break from the record and made a 12-minute noise EP that we’ve called Night Chimes. That sort of refreshed us, and when we got back to Swarm, we went into a studio with Greenberg and knocked out all the basic tracks with him in a couple of days. It definitely required a lot from us.

So Swarm seemed doomed from the start; though, listening to the album, it’s safe to say the experience proved to be for the better, it’s really focused and goes further into exploring your sound.

Reid Bateh: Thanks, man. I think the whole process helped us realize what things were important about each of the songs, so we were able to strip off some of the unnecessary layers and things.

Was that part of the reason why you scrapped your first crack at the album?

W: I think with that first draft, we were writing the songs while recording them. It ended up seeming like more of a demo to us.

Right, the vibe wasn’t there

R: Yeah, it just didn’t sound right.

W: Having the laptop stolen turned out to be sort of a blessing. During the recording of Night Chimes, Reid found a song he’d written on an old hard drive which we reworked into our first single, “An Ill Son.” Also, working with Ben was great, so I’m glad it worked out like it did.

Can you talk a about working with a producer as opposed to working by yourself, as you have usually done?

R: It was nice to have a perspective outside of our own, especially after taking two cracks at it from home. He gave it new energy.

Was there something you were able to do that you couldn’t have done before on your own?

R: He kept the process moving, whereas we often find ourselves getting stuck on the details.

W: Also, being in the studio, Ben was able to record bass and drums to tape, and we were able to make use of a huge live room with a slew of instruments at our disposal. Ben came in with some great ideas of his own as well. He was enthusiastic. He was great at getting solid vocal performances out of Reid. When we were recording “All the Ugly Things,” Ben felt like it could be more intense, and he sent me, Blaze, and the other engineer, Davey, into the room with him to push him around and fuck with him while he tried to sing. If you listen to the isolated vocal tracks, you can hear shit falling over and Reid stumbling all over the place.

You should upload the isolated vocal track.

W: [laughs] Yeah, it would make a great b-side or something.

You mentioned the Night Chimes EP. It’s not uncommon for you to get a bit more experimental on EPs; how do you think they contribute to your songwriting and your albums?

W: Yeah, the EPs are entirely based around noise and vocal loops. Making Night Chimes sort of helped us get a little bit of the noise out of our system so we could record Swarm with a more focused approach. Also, the way we approached writing Night Chimes helped us when we went back to Swarm. We were building everything around vocal noise, and that can be a really fun, different way to write music. That’s how we came up with “Her Dreaming” and the two noise tracks on Swarm, “Like Waves” and “In Bars or Something Moving.”

Vocal loops were a big part of Dreamviolence as well. Did you manage to focus on it more?

R: Pretty much every song has an element of vocal noise, or looping of some sort. This time we were just able to incorporate it as more of an instrument than a wash.

You’ve become better at writing with that element in mind?

R: It’s a little more condensed now.

W: I think we’ve started to work it into our songwriting better than we have in the past, but that’s also why it’s so fun to write entire songs and EPs based around noise and loops.

How does your connection from playing since you were kids factor into what you’re doing?

W: We clearly have a connection that allows us to write music together. There’s no bullshit. If one of us doesn’t like something, we work on it until we’re all happy. New bands with more fragile relationships can’t do that as easily.

R: It also makes touring a lot easier for sure.

You have mentioned in the past that films factor into your creation process. How do you integrate that influence into your music?

R: It’s really more mood-based, not images we’re trying to replicate in sound. I think there are definitely directors that portray moods that have influenced us, though. Wong Kar Wai and David Lynch, for example.

What about the themes of your songs? Are they all based on personal experiences and observations?

W: Reid’s lyrics come from personal observation and there’s definitely influence from literature as well. With Swarm, there is some clear influence from southern gothic themes and from Polish writer, Bruno Schulz in that the character Touya was taken from his collection of short stories, The Street of Crocodiles, and dropped into a modern, urban environment.

What is it about these themes that makes you want to explore it with Bambara?

R: They’re themes that interest me in whatever I’m doing. I write a lot on my own as well, and the themes that appear in my lyrics in Bambara are similarly explored in my writing.

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