Bambara: “We’re stronger and hungrier, and keen to make up for lost time”

Like so many other bands, Bambara’s journey over the past two years has been plagued by instability, loneliness and existential worry. But with excellent new EP Love On My Mind, the Brooklyn post-punks are ready to move on and bring their art to the world…

Bambara: “We’re stronger and hungrier, and keen to make up for lost time”
Paul Brannigan
Pooneh Ghana

Reid Bateh is only half joking when he admits that he’s currently checking his phone every five minutes, anticipating a flurry of notifications that will crush his soul. His band, Bambara, kick off their European tour in Paris this month, but as regulations related to minimising the transmission of COVID-19 across the continent remain under constant review and subject to revision, he and his bandmates, his drummer brother Blaze and their bass-playing childhood friend William Brookshire, are stealing themselves for potential 11th-hour blows.

This anxiety is understandable, given that Bambara’s last scheduled European excursion, booked for the spring of 2020, fell victim to you know what, killing the hard-won momentum they’d accrued over a decade together, culminating in rave reviews for their bleakly beautiful Valentine’s Day 2020 release Stray. By their own admission, the past two years have been intensely challenging for the trio, shaking loose so many of the constants in their lives, not least, at times, their faith in their own creativity.

Having sought to find a measure of solace and stability during lockdown by channelling their energies into a new EP, the three musicians, temporarily displaced from their Brooklyn, New York base, and isolated from one another, came to the stark realisation, as they were about to send the tracks off to be mixed, that the remotely-recorded material they’d collated wasn’t up to code, was hollow, soulless and inconsequential. For the first time since their band’s formation in Atlanta, Georgia in 2009, the trio felt dislocated and unmoored, confronted by the sort of debilitating existential crisis often faced by the sharply-rendered characters populating their striking, cinematic noise-rock vignettes.

“I never imagined that there could be something that would rip away everything important in our lives at the drop of a hat,” Reid admits. “We had to exist in a way we’d never existed before, as everyone did, and suddenly nothing you did seemed to matter. It was a huge blow, emotionally and existentially, and when we got back to New York it felt impossible to create when there was nothing to experience: no intake, no output.

“The whole reason people live in New York is for the city’s vibrancy, and the idea that everything is happening all the time, and you’ve the option to do whatever you want, at any time. That’s why you pay the crazy rent, and work your ass off to earn that rent money. So when you’re sitting here in a shoebox with everything shut down, it’s a pretty shitty place to be.”

In an effort to re-ignite that visceral, feral energy unique to the metropolis Frank Sinatra famously hailed as the city that never sleeps, Reid immersed himself in old photos of the five boroughs, finding particular stimulation in Washington, D.C.-born photographer Nan Goldin’s 1986 book The Ballad Of Sexual Dependency, a chronicle of men and women living, loving and experiencing loss and loneliness in ’80s New York, against a backdrop of drug use, and AIDS, decadent nightlife, and broken homes. From these intimate images he began to spin his own narratives, pivoting around a passionate but ultimately doomed relationship between a female photographer and her male partner, and the unfolding stories of friends, peers and ex-lovers drifting in and out of their orbit. Layering these snapshots over atmospheric instrumental evocations of the ebb and flow of city life, sometimes jarring, sometimes beatific, new songs began to take shape, capturing life's chaos and joy and heartbreak and regret. The result is the new Bambara mini-album, Love Is On My Mind, a vivid, widescreen tale of intense human connections condensed into just six songs and 22 minutes of music. Fans of Nick Cave, The Afghan Whigs, Swans and even Tom Waits will find much to absorb in its rich, dense tapestry.

“I had already started writing a little about some characters that I wanted to portray in this EP, but they were existing in this city that I had no access to anymore,” Reid reveals. “So fleshing them out into any sort of reality initially felt impossible, until I explored and found inspiration in Nan Goldin’s work. I wanted the female photographer character to provide the same sort of feelings that Nan Goldin’s photos inspired in me in lockdown. I wanted every line on the record to be interesting and beautiful in its own right.”

Though the trio are reluctant to ally themselves philosophically or spiritually with any other current musical artists – “we’ve always felt like our own unit operating outside of any scenes” insists Blaze – they speak warmly of their close friendship with Bristol’s IDLES, and acknowledge that with post-punk acts such as Fontaines DC, Dry Cleaning and Wet Leg gaining traction in the U.S., new opportunities are opening for an emerging generation of ‘alternative’ artists.

“It feels like people are ready for something new,” says Blaze.

“We definitely took some risks on the new album, and the reaction to the first single [Mythic Love] was really encouraging,” adds Reid. “With just six songs on the album, each song has to pull its own weight, and you don’t get the full picture until you hear the full record. As we didn’t really get the opportunity to share Stray as we would have wished, I don’t think we were emotionally ready to make another full-length album, but there’s a lot going on in this EP and the length allowed me to focus in on a small-scale, intimate story which was really fun for me. It was a nice challenge, in many ways. Now we just want to bring this story to the world.”

With their return to the UK for a full month of live shows scheduled to begin on April 1, Bambara will confess to feeling apprehensive about factors outside their control right now, but the three musicians’ renewed confidence and pride in their art after a period of turbulence and uncertainty is tangible.

“Last time out the timing sucked,” says Reid flatly, to wry chuckles from his bandmates. “But we’re stronger and hungrier now, and keen to make up for lost time.”

Love On My Mind is out now via Wharf Cat

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