Photography by Warren Katz
It’s 88 degrees in Manchester, Tennessee, and the four-piece jazz band BADBADNOTGOOD are dressed to reflect it as they close out the "This Tent" stage on Bonnaroo’s final night. Each member is wearing some version of a young-band-guy uniform—a basic T-shirt and jeans—and are differentiated by their instruments and their hair. The dyed-blonde drummer, Alexander Sowinski, acts like a hypeman as much as a musician, as Leland Whitty, James Hill, and Chester Hansen work through their complex, complementary melodies and riffs. Sowinski expertly plays percussion and stokes the massive crowd’s enthusiasm, yelling encouragement at them to dance, jump, and, at one juncture, “Get loose! One more time! TAKE IT UP!”
BBNG are known for a spirited, modern approach to their classical jazz training. The band, which has collaborated with artists like Snoop Dogg, Kaytranada, Tyler, the Creator, Kendrick Lamar, Ghostface Killah, and many other hitmakers across rap and electronic music, has a music-festival pedigree that speaks to their unique ability to motivate crowds within an unconventional genre for most summer-fest lineups. BBNG first served as the “house band” for Coachella in 2012, and has made appearances across big bills ever since.
Hansen, a shaggy-haired and genial bassist who resembles a young Michael Stipe, specifies, “We first played the Toronto New Jazz Festival, but Coachella was the first big summer music festival for us. We camped in a tent, sweat every day, and then you’d wake up and put these blankets on and be absolutely dying!” Sowinski cuts in: “Matthew got heatstroke! We played a show in the sun, and he didn’t eat anything or drink water. We went back to our manager’s hotel room, and he took a hot shower, and it was so bad.” They’re faring a little better at Bonnaroo, from the looks of things—the band is staying in kinder quarters in Nashville this time around, and you can tell the difference from their clean clothes and hair—and the fact that none of them appears to be suffering from sun exhaustion. Says Sowinski, “Summer’s definitely the festival side for us—we like playing them in winter, but it’s not as fun to stand under a heat lamp!”
They’ve learned a thing or two about festivals outside of their lodging decisions, as well. They let their personalities play off one another’s differences in approach: Though Whitty, who predominantly plays saxophone and other brass and is BBNG’s newest and shyest member, they decide to place him smack in the center of the stage, where a frontman would be. “It’s a classic jazz quartet setup,” Whitty says. “I’m like the lead singer—just with a saxophone instead.” Sowinski continues, “He might be shy, vocally, but with his instrument, he doesn’t f**k around! I can’t do that. I wish I could! He speaks beautiful melodies.” Hill, the band’s jocular keyboardist, says, “His saxophone’s like his talk box,” and Whitty agrees: “I should go get my saxophone for this interview!” Of how it feels to then play in front of colossal crowds, like the one who just got loose to BBNG’s Bonnaroo set, Whitty says, “I get self-conscious sometimes, because you can see people’s reactions. More than the rest of the guys, I’m definitely looking at people.”
In the time leading up to a festival performance, the band channels that pressure into practice. Although they know their music backward and forward, they’ll still sometimes practice beforehand to be sure everything sounds how it should, Hansen says, and discuss what they want from the music on a given night. Mostly, though, the guys in BBNG know what they’re doing onstage, and the alterations they make are usually improvisational. “When we’re playing all these shows, the songs are already written, so we kind of mess around. Right at the beginning of this one, we played the 007 theme song—that’s the first time we ever did that,” says Hill. “When we do little bursts of tours, we come up with little gimmicky things like that, that we find fun, interesting, or funny. The other material stays the same, and we play so frequently that we have a certain momentum that’s happening. Our knowledge of these compositions is so strong that we just go up and play them when it’s time to do a live set. The only parts that we have to rehearse are the gimmicky things—like playing ‘Tequila’ by the Chumps, or, for one tour, we learned to play all the iPhone ringtones!” Tonight, they’ve kept it pretty traditional, sticking to songs from their last two records, III and IV. “After each group of shows, we change sections of songs to make them more exciting to the audience,” says Whitty.
That worked out in his, and the band’s, favor this time around: The buoyant crowd bore light-up signs, one emblazoned with a red maple leaf as a tribute to the band’s hometown, Toronto. “This was my favorite festival we’ve ever played,” continues Hill, “so right now I’m feeling pretty good about Bonnaroo! Right now, we’ve all got stars in our eyes. The layout is really awesome—even though it’s a huge festival, you can get to everything really quickly, and the lineup’s great. The energy here is really nice.” The band’s love for their genre is present onstage and off: “At this point in the interview, can you play ‘Stars in Your Eyes’ by Herbie Hancock?” jokily interrupts Hill, before breaking into the melody. “We played some cool festivals in Europe, and last year, we got to do Coachella again, which was really fun,” says Hansen. “The festival experience for us is interesting because we’re mostly instrumental,” says Sowinski. “We put a lot of pressure on ourselves to create the energy and put on a really good show. It’s kind of weird to encompass the whole thing, because there’s so much going on! We’re looking at each other, trying to make it all work together. This set at Bonnaroo was a highlight, when it comes to having that work.” Continues Hill, “We want to grant the audience permission to jump around if they want to!” This time around in Tennessee, the crowd very much did.