Band To Watch: Adult Jazz
Adult Jazz make wonderfully unique music — trim yet expansive, alien yet familiar, mannered yet driven by intangible urges. Their songs often feel like the sonic equivalent of spare, ornately designed blueprints springing to life and spreading out in front of you. There are traces of prog, folk, post-rock, and chamber pop in the mix as well as, yes, jazz. All of those factors fizzily dissolve into a unified aesthetic that, despite a handful of clear precursors (Dirty Projectors, Grizzly Bear, Joanna Newsom), feels new and refreshing.
The Leeds quartet’s debut album, Gist Is, uses that distinct sound to explore Big Ideas about the nature of morality, communication, and knowledge, juggling postmodern concepts about the futility of language while navigating a spare, free-flowing musical landscape. That might sound like a brainy academic academic pursuit, but in reality those kinds of questions are universal; we’ve all felt some deep internal reverberations that we can’t quite express, and Gist Is represents an outpouring of such resonant sensations.
When he called from the UK last month, fresh off grading some homework assignments by 9-year-olds, frontman Harry Burgess was eager to expand on the album’s themes, and the musical exploits and inspirations that led his band to such a stirring sound.
STEREOGUM: So, I understand you were grading papers before this?
HARRY BURGESS: Yes, I was marking. I’m a supply teacher, basically. So I kind of walk up to schools when teachers are ill. I’m doing a bit of solid work at one school, because they’ve lost quite a bit of teachers. But the bad thing about being there more is they give you more responsibilities, in terms of what you have to mark. So I have a lot of marking, but it’s quite banal, because they’re only nine. So there’s a limit to how in-depth it can be, which is what the slightly mind-numbing aspect is — although that means that when you get a good piece, it’s a real cause for celebration.
STEREOGUM: I imagine that that job allows you to leave for tours more easily, then?
BURGESS: Yeah, it’s good. While we were up at Leeds Uni together, we — me and Steve and other members of the band — stayed on and did another year’s teacher training last year, which was pretty intense. But it’s meant that now, we’ve luckily both got quite flexible arrangements. We can keep people up-to-date with when we’re going to be in, week-by-week, which means that if we get to go play somewhere nice, we can do it without annoying too many people. Which is good, works really well.
STEREOGUM: Speaking of touring, are you planning on coming to the States at all, this year?
BURGESS: We haven’t got anything booked, but we’d love to. At the moment, where we’re at, it’s too expensive. But I think that hopefully next year, after the record’s out, we might be able to have a kind of running budget, which means we can go to places. At the moment, we haven’t even got a van that we can use. We usually have to hire a three-person van. We’re working on it, basically.
STEREOGUM:Let’s go back to the beginning. How did the band come together?
BURGESS: I have known Tim since I was quite little. We weren’t really friends, but we went to the same school and did a few of the same clubs and things. We kind of reconnected when we were 15, started hanging out again, and at the same time, started hanging out with our friend Steve as well, who is also in the band. We played a bit of music around then, songs I’d written when I was about 18. They were more computer-based. Tim and Steve stepped in and helped arrange them for the live gig we played. Then I went up to Uni with Steve, and Tim followed a year later. While we were there, we met Tom through a friend at York, a school in a town an hour away. He started to help us record these songs, and after a few years he joined the live set-up as well.
STEREOGUM: When you were first playing together, in secondary school, how similar was the music to what you’re playing now?
BURGESS: It was a bit different, rhythmically. We’d all been in rock bands, but I got this software on my laptop, which meant I could record and try to make things a bit more left-field. It was a little bit derivative. I think in every track I was trying out new things. I think the biggest thing was the drum machine. It was so nice when we started playing and writing together to have a human on the kit. The amount of dexterity and then freedom that gives you is great. They were, I would say, not similar, but it was me singing, so you can hear that. It was a pit proggy, I guess, in the way that we might be considered. It was just a little bit more pegged down because of the rhythm being from a drum machine.
STEREOGUM: It’s hard for me to imagine your music being tied to a metronome, because it feels so free-flowing and alive.
BURGESS: I think that’s what restrained those songs a bit. I mean, they’re all right. A few of the old songs we definitely considered trying to rearrange for the new stuff, but it never really worked. One of the first songs we played as Adult Jazz — we played at friends’ parties up at Leeds — was called “Sketch 2,” which is nice. It’s a nice old one. Lots of it felt quite exploratory and self-conscious and not very assured. It was more like an attempt to look at a certain genre. It was fun. I was really proud of it, but it was a bit juvenile. I’ve never recorded and written songs just purely by myself, so that had a few impacts in terms of how you don’t self-edit as well.
STEREOGUM: Yeah, that tends to be how everybody starts out.
BURGESS: It was important for how I wrote songs. If you do something strange un-self-consciously, within that process, those songs I always did really intensely over a weekend where there wasn’t much going on and I was bored. So I’d start a song and I’d have to finish it. I’d barely sleep or eat. And after the weekend, I’d come back into school like, “I’ve made a song.” It taught me that if you’re assured and you say, “This is what I’ve done,” you get away with stuff. You can make strange music as long as you’re into it. Sometimes with experimentation, there’s all this, “What do you think of this?” kind of tentativeness that opens it up for people to pick it apart. When you’re confident about it, people just take it for the experience.
STEREOGUM: Let’s talk about the record, Gist Is. Do you feel like there are any thematic ideas running through the lyrics? Were there certain topics looming over you when you were writing the album?
BURGESS: Part of it was looking back, retrospectively, seeing that lots of things were tying it together. I think morality is a big one — what counts as being virtuous. The reason the record’s cool is this idea of looking at approximation and intuitive truth versus something that is transcribed or written down. Like there’s a song about my dog, talking about the idea of implied communication where you feel some kind of reciprocity, but we basically set the terms of the semantics of the relationship. We can make Fido say whatever we want — “He’s basically doing that because he’s happy” or whatever. That was one way we explored the idea of the ambiguity of meaning. The overall vibe was that when things are written down, there is a loss of meaning, and maybe there’s a more vital truth in intuitive stuff. The more full-on theme is looking at spirituality and religious ideology -– anything to do with how to decide if someone’s a good person, or right. Our video for “Springful” is based on this book called Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse, which is a story about this guy who is a Sufist mystic who goes off into the desert and is into this self-denial, self-restraint, not eating, smearing himself in ash — that kind of stuff. There’s this practice of pole-sitting where holy people would sit on really high giant poles in the middle of the desert to prove that they were not of the world and not tempted by worldly things. We’re talking about how self-denial and asceticism isn’t always a virtue. A couple of the songs are suggesting that it’s maybe an indulgence in itself to be willing to be so publicly retrained. Lots of the record is about how we decide what’s right, looking at things based on scripture or any kind of ideological maxim or statement that is supposed to be true. It’s quite funny because every time I talk about this, I haven’t got ways to express. in every song, there’s a line where we’re trying to sum up the content of the song in a pithy way, and it always fails, and that’s kind of the running joke of the record -– any time there’s a big proclamation from me or the character who’s singing, it never quite hits. The only one that does is a line from this song called “Donne Tongue,” which is what gave the record its title. “It does if you say it does, or gist is exactly enough.”
STEREOGUM: I get the sense that the image of the hands on the album cover is trying to communicate the same idea?
BURGESS: That is a little bit more specifically to do with the laying of hands in a church setting. But also, we were definitely considering the idea that hands and gestures are such semantically ambiguous things. We asked around, and so many people thought they were reaching in, like it’s kind of a group high-five, or some people thought it was really desperate laying on of hands, which is nodding back to that idea of culturally decided morality and the difference between morality that is grounded in writing and the morality that’s this intuitive twinge of what’s right and wrong.
STEREOGUM: Your music feels particularly intuitive as well, like there’s an unspoken connection between the musicians.
BURGESS: That’s nice to hear. We didn’t do B-sides of this record, we kind of just wrote these songs and let them be loads of different things before they were what they are now. We were definitely very open the whole time. We had no set idea of “this is this kind of song.” I think you can hear that as well. It was pretty free. The parameters of what we were going to end up with weren’t set at all, we were confident in each other’s aesthetic decisions. The reason that vibe fit, and the title fit – there are so many times I sing a big vocalization that leads off a line and takes over. In the song “Am Gone” there’s this quite free-flowing vocal part I sang. We spent a really long time grafting the guitar to play exactly the same thing with the same articulation. Which was a little tableau of the idea — that free intuitive voice and then this transcribed, clunky, awkward guitar that tried to mimic it. All those things contribute to that vibe in the record.
STEREOGUM: Your music is fairly unique. There are definitely moments that remind me of Grizzly Bear or Dirty Projectors, but were there particular inspirations for you on the musical end?
BURGESS: In terms of songwriting, when I got that Joanna Newsom record, Ys, that let me decide that long songs aren’t always annoying, and that you could have a simple basis to a song and try a lot of different melodic ideas over that. So she’s been an influence there. Van Morrison for that purely inarticulate style of singing he does — in fact, he’s got a record called Inarticulate Speech Of The Heart. That record was a godfather to ours, not in terms of sound, but in the thematic stuff. There’s a song to do with John Donne the poet on there, and there’s one on our record. It wasn’t a substantial influence, but looking back on it, some of the themes and ideas on that record crept into this. Wildbirds & Peacedrums as well were inspirational for us in that they created really exciting, challenging and nice music from voice and drums and few other things. They showed us that minimalism doesn’t necessarily mean restraint, it can mean a skeletal setup with expansive or maximalist ideas.
STEREOGUM: You guys mastered that. The ground that “Spook” covers with not very many ingredients is pretty impressive.
BURGESS: If you’ve got confidence in a thing, and you set a precedent for not owing the idea of repetition anything, unless you want to, people can be quite patient. You can get a lot of different expressions out of the same melodies and sounds. People can be patient if you give them the opportunity.
STEREOGUM: Anything else you’d like to say about the record?
HARRY BURGESS: It’s quite philosophical in its grounding, looking at what is possible to know. Like epistemology, how you find out what is true, how you relate language to meaning. The lyrics are a good place to start. I hope people spend a bit of time looking at them. One thing that worried me was a few reviews of these first songs have said they’re impenetrable or impressionistic lyrics. I don’t feel like that. To me, if you take a look at them, they feel pretty impressionable, emotional and up-front. Of course it’s easy for me to say that. All the characters are trying to work out if they’re good people, or work out what counts as good conduct. They’re songs about trying to secure meaning within relationships. That’s a good place to start with it.
Gist Is is out 8/5 on Spare Thought. Adult Jazz plays Electrowerkz in London’s Islington neighborhood on 8/12; get tickets here. They’ll also support Tune-Yards at Electric Brixton in London on 9/3 and 9/4; those tickets are available here.
[Photo by James Pearson Howes.]