Pop Culture

Artist Spotlight: Adult Jazz

Adult Jazz is the London-based quartet composed of Harry Burgess, Tim Slater, Steven Wells, and Tom Howe, who all grew up in Guildford, Surrey before forming the project at the University of Leeds. In 2014, they made waves with their debut album, Gist Is, which is as off-kilter as it is poppy and as dynamic as it is idiosyncratic, earning fans among the likes of David Byrne and Björk. That record was four years in the making, and their latest full-length, So Sorry So Slow – the group’s first new material since 2016’s Earrings Off! EP – took even longer to complete. The album title stuck due to its tongue-in-cheek resonance but was not meant as an apology, Burgess explained, instead encapsulating one of the album’s main themes: how regret sinks in and is magnified over time. Exactly what kind of regret is hard to decipher, as Burgess’ lyrics remain cryptically abstract though more emotive than ever, blurring the line between the personal and the ecological, beauty and desolation. The music – brooding, swelling, shuddering, but always trudging on – is fragmented without breaking itself apart, beguiling without getting lost in the murk. It is not despite their love of warped sounds that it moves this way but because of it, reaping joy and wonder out of the process.

We caught up with Adult Jazz’s Harry Burgess, Tim Slater, and Steven Wells for the latest edition of our Artist Spotlight series to talk about balancing slowness and freneticism, how the personal and ecological collide in their new album, their collaborative process, and more.

You started writing So Sorry So Slow in 2017, which makes me wonder about slowness as a component of the album itself. I get the sense that it’s something the record adheres to, and there’s a lightness and a warmth that comes with that, even if it momentarily scrapes against feelings of dread, pain, and regret.  Was that pace something you felt you had to surrender to for this record to come together?

Harry Burgess: I think you’re right in that, although there are moments of quite frenetic and bright things, there seems this whole time to be this return throughout the record to this kind of slightly sluggish undercurrent. There were a lot of songs we spent a lot of time with that had no drums or anything, so we were seeking to balance that in some way. But there is an element of surrender, a kind of thematic element, in that we were thinking about the ecological situation on Earth and how slow some of the change that we’re witnessing is to a human observer. It’s subtle, sometimes, these shifts – and actually, that’s a privileged position; here in the UK, the shifts feel subtle, but they’re not. They’re insanely rapid in data terminology. There’s this Bob Wilson opera, which ANHONI did the music for and William Defoe was acting in, called The Life and Death of Marina Abramović. I’m not completely into her vibe, but the opera had her sitting on this plinth, incredibly po-faced and serious, with ‘Disintegration Loops’ by William Basinksi playing in the background. It’s a really austere, stoical brass piece, and it changes slowly, but in the rehearsal footage which you can find on YouTube, there’s William Defoe crawling, wearing a vest, singing – this wavering, cat-like singing over this really austere and grand Bob Wilson choreography, with loads of dry ice on the floor.

Making sense of it now, that image is the one I just kept coming back to, and I think it’s that sense of a kind of slow, austere, managed decline. This understanding of what is going wrong: everyone knows it and we’re all talking about it, and then they’re feeling like they’re not being the panic or yelping or screeching feeling, which I guess personally is the one that I am contending with a lot when it comes to like what the planet is going to be like in 10-20 years. I was feeling a lot about endings, and I think endings in music, when represented, are brass, they’re slow, they’re dirges. And that feeling didn’t sum up what I wanted to evoke really, so there had to be that slightly screeching and bright and unstable element that fought with that.

What does it look like trying to achieve that balance as a group?

HB: There will always be someone in the four of us who is advocating for simplicity, directness, beauty; there’ll always be someone in that same moment who is advocating for obscurity or complexity and difficulty. And what’s nice is that will always change, who that is. I feel like in the early days, when we were writing with Steve, I would find it quite hard to predict which side of that fence you will be on at any given point. I’ve got this idea, let’s take it to Steve. Is he going to give me the, “This needs to change because it’s too obstructive or difficult,” or is he gonna say, “Follow that route and go in.” I think there’s a balance that is struck just as a mode of operating as well for us.

Steven Wells: I think it’s fun to push with it as well and play devil’s advocate with it. That’s the fun of making music with other people, isn’t it, that you try and push things down a slightly different road.

Were the knottiest and most complex arrangements on the album, like ‘Earth of Worms’ or ‘I Was Surprised’, the most challenging to complete?

HB: This is an interesting one, because ‘Earth of Worms’ was incredibly easy and ‘I Was Surprised’ was incredibly challenging. In terms of the process, most of the songs, the first bit of recording was a live, off-the-grid, no metronome performance of two or three elements, or sometimes one, recording of something which is then like led upon. That was a technical challenge, which is how to create when you haven’t got the grid to help you organize rhythms; you’re really constantly teasing and pushing things around to feel where those nice, interesting moments of rhythm are. But ‘Earth of Worms’ was just guitar and drums recorded, and then I sang over the top of it. The bulk of that was done really quickly. ‘I Was Surprised’ was a much longer recording of Tim playing trombone and some harmonies that we stacked up there, and some live drums. That morphed for a long time; we’d been doing recordings of that since 2017. The first time we recorded ‘Earth of Worms’ was like a year ago.

I think one thing that can be frustrating regarding how the music is received is the emphasis on it being technically techy. But my music theory is appalling – I don’t know what time signature I’m in at all. Usually, anytime we’re in a funny time signature, it’s just because the melody needs to be that long at that point. Someone did their master’s thesis about Gist is and was asking us questions about it, which is really amazing that they wanted to do that, but it’s a musicology master’s thesis, they’d written out lots of the harmonic things that we’ve done, or time signature things, and I had no idea what any of it was. Apparently, there’s no functional harmony in Gist Is, which is amazing. I don’t know what that means; I think it just means singing over a drone a lot. But that’s never at the forefront of our heads. The main thing we’re looking at is feeling, instinct, and emotion; really trying to tease out a particular feeling from something. Perhaps in the way that we’ve spoken about it in the past, there’s this kind of intellectual kookiness that gets put forward, like we’re willfully trying to make clever stuff. But I just think it’s always about the feeling; even the conceptual, thematic stuff is about the feeling.

The only time where I kind of go into an intellectual mindset, as it were – I don’t think intellectual is the right word, but when I’m thinking about meaning more, would be with the lyrics. There’s a kind of baked-in, slight thinkiness about that. But when we’re looking for that balance, it’s always like trying to make something that is that slightly uncomfortable intersection of appealing and not necessarily appealing, which I think is just a sensibility that we have. But also, especially with this record, more than ever, it was about beauty and love, and how much, when writing the words, I love the earth and how it’s foundational to everything of value to me personally. But obviously, you extrapolate that out, and I think there’s this kind of elegiac thing about not knowing – are we saying goodbye to that? Do we have to say goodbye to that? Truly, truly do we have to do that? All the complexity in the arrangement or anything that feels knotty, it’s because the feeling’s knotty and the feeling is complex. And when you want to sing a line with a specific word that lasts and follows this melodic pattern, I’m sorry, Tim, you’re gonna have to play another beat on drum kit. [laughs]

Tim Slater: Yeah, the technical musicianship follows feeling. And I think that’s probably also the case in what we like in terms of references for the album. I generally find virtuosic musicianship a turn-off. I definitely like music that has it – one example I’ve been listening to this week is that new Adrianne Lenker record; she’s an incredible musician, but the technical musicianship is incidental. I don’t think any of us are into that, and often it gets in the way for me.

HB: It’s lucky none of us have any!

TS: [laughs] Exactly.

SW: Something that I thought was interesting as you were saying, Harry, with the recordings, that we’d start with two or three instruments and build up from that – none of the songs at any point did we scrap and start from the beginning, and some of the challenges around that was that there was a commitment to the foundation of every track. So when we got to points where we’re like, “This isn’t quite working,” at no point did we say, “Let’s just completely go from the start again.”

TS: Maybe that is a healthy way to do it, maybe other artists scrap stuff.

SW: I’m sure they do. But there’s a stubborness, I think – what was felt originally, thinking about all the things that we’ve made, is the most consistent thing to any Adult Jazz song. It’s the original intention of when something was jammed in a room that should always be honored.

HB: When people say that Arthur Russell thing of “first thought, best thought,” it’s always “Do it really quickly.” But I think there’s a “first thought, best thought” version, which is where you have this thought, and then eight years later, you have honoured the thought. [laughs] We all know we need to think of a way to do it so it doesn’t take quite so long next time, but yeah, Steve, you’re absolutely right about this fidelity to the idea at the start. Often there’s this sense of true artistry doesn’t compromise, but I think compromise is actually a really fertile space for ideas, because you’re forced to innovate and you’re forced to find unlikely points where things rub against each other in a pleasurable way, or they create a kind of friction which is interesting because you’re having to find the point between two quite disparate things. We never really have arguments about how the music should sound, we just wait until the compromise that is struck is interesting to everyone. And so compromise is at the core of how we work, because someone will have this really extreme idea, and then someone will also in their head want it to be like a pop song. That’s where the interesting grit is, from how ideas form around those little tears in the fabric of what you’re trying to do.

I want to zoom out and talk about some of the ecological themes that you mentioned, but one of the interesting “little tears,” as you put them, comes in the way you warp your voice in some moments. One example is ‘y-rod’, which stood out to me because the distortion is even reflected in the lyric sheet. Was that also a natural kind of impulse?

HB: The piece originally was just the strings, and it felt like there needed some kind of human thread in it. I really loved it without the voice, but it’s another point of compromise where you have to find this way of uttering something – because it needed singing, that felt true the moment it started. But the moment of uttering stuff like that was very instinctual, hence there’s this slightly preformed singing which finds clarity at certain points, roughly about what I was thinking about. A y-rod is a twig that you would hold to douse for water in the past. It’s a slightly mystical way of finding water, especially in times when water is scarce, and I was thinking about that and singing. It was really early ideas stage and I had a few nouns and words written down, I didn’t really know exactly what was going to come out. I guess the decision to do that was because I wanted that to be this main, bold, loud line throughout the piece and needed to situate the voice in the frequencies as well.

Throughout this whole record, there’s this figure of a special animal, which is a way to talk about human centrality and this idea of species exceptionalism, of how we relate to the earth. I think that has its roots in monotheistic religion, us as stewards of the earth. And I think this special animal was me trying to look at us from a distance – I was, early days, messing around, trying to make facial prosthetics to get a sense of what that animal would look like [laughs] – and the format shift on the voice is this idea of a quite lumbering, possibly quite sweet creature. I think I wasn’t being horrible about this creature, i.e. us. I think I was looking at that creature with love and compassion, but seeing this really strange exceptionalism it had. The moments when I’m warping the voice are often the times when that creature is in a period of pure expression. There’s something tragic in the traditional theatrical sense about the creature, and the slightly pitched-down and format-shifted things have this mopey, self-pitying sound to me. Shifting down the voice makes it sound kind of sweet, but a bit dim maybe.

And I think that is what we are like. There’s this not being able to take ourselves off the pedestal at the center of everything, even when we approach nature with a view to make ourselves feel small, like that famous Caspar David Frederick painting, Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, where he’s standing on top of the valley, and this Romantic era: the human is shrunken in the face of the sublime force of nature, but he’s still central in the frame. All the ways that we try to decentralize ourselves still absolutely smack of our complete inability to not be this special creature. I think most of the time the voice has shifted, that creature is in a kind of wounded and confused period, and that is just me looking retrospectively back at these instinctive decisions of what I want it to sound like and the slight theater of the character at that point or my theater at what emotion I want to convey. But also, it’s fun to warp your voice and it can make it sound better. [laughs] That’s the trick of AutoTune.

TS: I think it also reflects that we were quite conscious to breathe space into this record as a whole. I think we, by default, are busy with ideas – the kind of through-composed, proggy thing that people pick up on – and we wanted to give it time and space. And I think by making that vocal pitch shifted, it reads more as an instrumental to me, and therefore feels like a breathing space in the record.

Harry, you’ve talked about the conflation of the personal with the ecological throughout the album as something that happened as a result of writing about relationships. What I found interesting how that conflation often comes about as a sort of logical or poetic conclusion, particularly on the songs ‘No Relief’ and ‘Suffer One’. Were the personal and ecological always merged in your mind as you were writing, or did one lead to the other?

HB: The first half of the record tended to be songs about romance and relationships. Our first record was personally about having come from being queer in church and having come from a place where its main mode of operating, in terms of trying to hurt you, is to make it impossible to imagine a future. And it makes it impossible to imagine a relationship or happiness – that thought is extinguished before it can arrive at you. And I think this record is a time when I feel so far from those concerns and feel so happy as a queer person, and it’s kind of this ironic moment. The seed of the meaning of the record came from a book I wrote called Toffee Hammer, which has a lot of stuff, slightly tongue in cheek, about finally reaching this kind of gay peak with legislation and my own journey from religion – finally reaching that as the world begins to descend into crisis. There’s a party in the UK, UKIP, and they had this counselor who, around the time of gay marriage being passed, blamed all of the regional floods on that legislation. Also, looking at the history of the UK, there are lots of towns in the North which are drowned towns where a village has been evacuated to flood remake a reservoir for a large city. So I was writing a lot about that: having left that space of tension with gender and sexuality from a faith background, immediately it felt like the world was ending for other reasons.

So the first half of the record, what happens is, I write a song about love or whatever, and it’s nice because it’s not about passing out some form of morality and it’s not about the world, it’s about me. At the end of ‘Suffer One’, there’s this moment of pathetic fallacy where the sky starts blinking the word “suffer” at me, and at the end of ‘No Relief, there’s “The only earth aflame before me/ I don’t mind if he ignores me.” I think up until ‘Marquee’, it’s just been this tacked-on thing at the end, where suddenly there’s this flash of panic about that. But then the moment you get to the second half of the record, starting with ‘Dusk song’, the conflation seems much more enmeshed rather than this interruptive force. There seems to be this constant push-and-pull where metaphors could work on both those levels.

I was writing about unsustainable relationships in 2017, and then in 2018 the IPCC report came out, the one that said it’s really bad. And I think I was talking to a friend who said, “How are you gonna respond to that?” And I hadn’t really thought of that, I just kind of thought of it as news. It was actually Jack Armitage, who makes music as Lil Data with the PC Music crew. I just read it and felt terrified, and then I turned that into something which is – I guess the only way that it’s hopeful is you have to reckon with something as true before you can do something good about it. I’m not saying there’s doom, I don’t think doom is inherent. I think there’s the possibility of a good future. But I think you have to just reckon with it. You have to be true about it and bring your feeling to the table. And the first response, in ‘Dusk song’, is pure panic. [laughs]

I’m also fascinated by how love takes shape in the album: as a “breeze” or a “spasm” or hope, something you “whisk from the air.” Were you conscious of the language you used around love, given the weight of the word?

HB: I think I was trying not to be afraid of it. Maybe a younger me would have worried about the kind of cliche that has existed about that word. But I think there are sad ways to talk about love and nice ways. Spasms, whisked from the air – I think in those times love is viewed in a slightly derogatory way or something that is paper thin and maybe not embodied. But then there is a love in the record throughout, and it’s a love that is almost the absolute peak of that feeling, is in loss. I think that’s where love is expressed most in the record, is through the fear of loss. ‘Windfarm’ is this acceptance, maybe, that the story is over, and there’s a lot of love in that song. I was thinking a lot about the extremes of the earth, uninhabited places, mile-long big bits of granite and boiling lava, just the extremities of the earth, and I think that was an expression of love. A lot of the nouns in the record are about love, and they’re about things I love.

There’s this childlike love of animals that I think was actually a weird counterpart to the record, getting back into how much I used to know and love about animals. The lyric video for ‘Earth of Worms” is filmed on my phone through binoculars of a peregrine falcon nest I saw in Pembrokeshire, Wales. I sat there for hours watching it. And then the lyric visualizer thing for ‘Suffer’ is this barrel jellyfish from Wales, a massive jellyfish that was, I think, dead at the time, sadly washed up on the beach. There’s a lot of love in the natural imagery as well. The human love is maybe spoken about with more difficulty. I basically tried not to shy away from it and to feel it.

That’s a duality you bring up on the final song, between impulse and preparation, in how a life plays out. How does that resonate with each of you? Does it feel like an even balance, in your personal and creative lives?

HB: Personally, being a teacher, you’re kind of limited; for any job, you’re limited in how much impulse you can have. I think I’m happy when there’s a baseline and minimal structure to my life, but then I do enjoy being able to follow a thread. But if I’m too deeply in that without structure, I think you’re absolutely right about the balance. That’s maybe what the verse was trying to patch out: as you grow older, you feel calmer about the eddies and peaks and troughs of those forces in your life.

TS: I think my life is more preparation than impulse, probably more so as I grow up and get older, and as responsibilities mount up a little bit. I think music is a point of impulse in my life, which is why I’m still doing it. It feels like an antidote to career – to an extent, to having kids as well. Being a parent is a mixture of both.

HB: You have to be the structure, I guess, and they get to do the impulse.

TS: But also, conversation finds creative paths without you having to make it happen. Spending time with toddlers – my daughter’s four – takes you to very impulsive places, when a child is leading the space, but also, so much of it is drudgery, planning, prep, logistics, nursery. I’d say it’s a balance of both. But I think the reason I’m still drawn to making music is definitely around that impulse, feeling a need to balance.

Mine’s probably quite boringly similar to Tim, because I’m a new parent as well – newer than Tim. Definitely that idea that music allows you to be creative and impulsive, but I’d quite like to think that the other parts, what some people might conceive to be the more mundane parts, the bits where there’s more responsibility, it’s really important that you’re impulsive in those as well. Being a teacher, I definitely get the most satisfaction from my job and my life when you’re playful with it. I think music is one really deliberate outlet of that.

HB: I think you’re right about playfulness. That is at the core of the thing. I think that is also just a really nice way to spend time with your friends, being playful and loose and explorative. I think that is an important throughline in the project, is not questioning it – the word I would use in regards to music would be an instinct rather than an impulse, but just honoring an instinct and doing what it requires to find its expression.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

Adult Jazz’s So Sorry So Slow is out now via Spare Thought.

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