The Underground Sounds Of America: Bambara
If it’s menacing but beautiful, Bambara are here to write a song about it. With bookish description and dramatic flair, the Brooklyn-based trio, formerly of Athens, Georgia, perform driving death rock that could play behind both a John Cheever story or a David Fincher movie. Sonically, it’s all haunting reverb, revival keyboards, throbbing bass and moaned vocals; lyrically, it’s an exploration of backalleys, oil rainbows, and tobacco-stained fingers. This mixture of gut-instinct emotion and literary illustration made their 2018 release Shadow On Everything a favorite of members of bands like IDLES and Daughters; now, with their upcoming record Stray, the band goes harder on their gritty world-building, creating characters that feel realistic in their windswept insanity.
“I definitely draw a lot of inspiration from Southern Gothic writers, especially Harry Crews and Flannery O’Connor, who are both from Georgia,” says vocalist and guitarist Reid Bateh. “The character Miracle on [Stray] has a tattoo that says ‘Meanness’ on the inside of her lower lip as an homage to a line spoken by The Misfit in one of O’Connor’s famous stories, A Good Man is Hard to Find. It goes, ‘No pleasure but meanness.’ It’s a line that has stuck with me since I was a kid. I also draw inspiration from many other types of writers such as Yusef Kommunyaka, Bruno Schulz, Maryse Meijer, Lazlo Krasznahorkai, to name a few off the top of my head.”
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Stray keeps up this literary tradition, filling the band’s world with figures who are especially attractive to the ugly and broken. Where Shadow On Everything felt in touch with Bambara’s southern roots, dusty with road grit and scraped by sticker-bushes, the new album has looming urban decay throughout it, more caught in the shadows than the night. First single Serafina bursts with momentum, telling the story of two pyromaniacs in a whirlwind romance, while Sing Me To Street, released just this morning, has a mambo-touched eeriness that would feel right at home in a blood-spattered drive back to LA.
According to drummer Blaze Bateh, the new material is about the band finding more solid footing and telling their stories with a distinct voice.
“On Stray, most of the songs have a more defined structure and heavier use of instrumentation,” he says. “We wanted to spend more time in the atmosphere of the songs on Stray and that allowed us to develop parts for organ, trumpets, female background vocals and other layers that we had never used or only slightly dabbled in. The recurring female background vocals were something we used as a kind of Greek chorus that interplays with Reid’s lead vocals. As usual we focused heavily on the bass lines and rhythm section and bolstered it with the use of more percussion. Lyrically, the songs are still mostly connected, but they our more self contained than the songs on Shadow On Everything.”
Unable to dog-ear the pages of their tale even if we tried, we reached out to Bambara about what drives them so far down in the dirt.
1) If you had to play a newcomer one Bambara song to introduce them to the band, what would it be and why?
Stay Cruel, from the upcoming record Stray. It really captures a lot of what we were trying to do in writing the album. The song is wrapped in all kinds of atmosphere, and its constant groove is a great backbone for the vocals. It’s lush but still has some teeth to it. We wanted to experiment with a lot more instrumentation and female background vocals on the record. Sean [Smith]’s trumpet playing really brought this one to life, and Drew [Citron] and Ani [Ivry-Block]’s vocals just elevated the whole thing. Conceptually and lyrically, it’s a great introduction to Bambara as well.
2) Who would you say are Bambara’s biggest musical influences?
Here are some people/bands that have been a constant source of inspiration for us:
- Laurie Anderson
- Leonard Cohen
- Kate Bush
- Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
- Angelo Badalamenti
- Scott Walker
3) You guys are Brooklyn-based now, but hail from Georgia — do these different places have individual influences on your music, and if so, what are they?
They definitely do. In the South, everyone has a lot more time and space. As soon as you step outside, you can be surrounded by a drone of cicadas and the shadows of looming trees. It’s a special feeling, and it may be the reason we try to always maintain a strong sense of atmosphere in our music.
New York is influential for opposite reasons. There is constant commotion, and you have to keep moving just to make ends meet. Everyone works too hard, moves too fast, and all the niceties are left behind. Trade the trees and cicadas for trash and rats. It’s an environment, but a darker, harsher one.
4) How does a Bambara song get born — lyrics first? Music first? A riff or a line?
It usually starts with a simple idea, like a riff or a line, maybe even a chord progression. Then we’ll work on parts and structure and see how big we can make the idea with instrumentation and noise before it needs to be cut back down. Lyrics always come last. Once the record has a cohesive feel, and there’s a solid connection between all of the songs, Reid can start putting words to the music. On Stray, Reid spent a month straight in seclusion writing lyrics up until the day we drove down to Athens to lay down the vocals.
5) The characters of your songs feel specifically united in a weird way. What qualities make for the protagonist of a Bambara song?
They are drifters, outcasts, criminals, and lovers. All looking for some sort of true connection in the world to make it worth while. They are united by a sense of isolation and longing and, for the most part, they are doomed from the start.
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Bambara’s new album, Stray, comes out Valentine’s Day, 2020, and is available for pre-order.
Catch the band live at one of the following dates next year:
19 - Union Stage - Washington, DC
20 - Boot & Saddle - Philadelphia, PA
21 – Space Ballroom – Hamden, CT
22 - Great Scott - Boston, MA
24 - Bar Le Ritz - Montreal, QC
25 - The Garrison - Toronto, ON
26 - Beachland Tavern - Cleveland, OH
27 - PJ’s Lager House - Detroit, MI
28 - Sleeping Village - Chicago, IL
29 - 7th Street Entry - Minneapolis, MN
03 - The Sunset - Seattle, WA
04 - Fox Cabaret - Vancouver, BC
05 - Doug Fir Lounge - Portland, OR
06 - Cafe Du Nord - San Francisco, CA
07 - The Echo - Los Angeles, CA
09 - The Rebel Lounge - Phoenix, AZ
10 - Lowbrow Palace - El Paso, TX
11 - Barracuda - Austin, TX
12 - Ruins - Dallas, TX
13 - Hi Tone (Small Room) - Memphis, TN
14 - The High Watt - Nashville, TN
15 - The Earl - Atlanta, GA
17 - Cat’s Cradle Back Room - Carrboro, NC
21 - Music Hall of Williamsburg - NYC, NY
05 - Sneaky Pete’s - Edinburgh, UK
06 - Stereo - Glasgow, UK
07 - The Cluny - Newcastle, UK
08 - Brudenell Social Club - Leeds, UK
09 - The Sound House - Dublin, IE
11 - YES (The Pink Room) - Manchester, UK
12 - The Exchange - Bristol, UK
13 - Clwb Ifor Bach - Cardiff, UK
15 - The Bullingdon - Oxford, UK
16 - Bodega Social Club, Nottingham, UK
18 - Portland Arms - Cambridge, UK
19 - Hare and Hounds - Birmingham, UK
20 - Dome Tufnell Park - London, UK
21 - De Zwerver - Lefﬁnge, BE
23 - London Calling Festival - Amsterdam, NL
25 - Bumann & Sohn - Cologne, DE
26 - Molotow Musikclub - Hamburg, DE
27 - Urban Spree - Berlin, DE
28 - Sunny Red - Munich, DE
29 - Kulturclub Schon Schön - Mainz, DE
30 - Trix Bar - Antwerp, BE
01 - Rotondes - Luxembourg, LU
02 - L’Aéronef - Lille, FR
03 - L’Espace B - Paris, FR