Bambara Turn Southern Gothic Into Brooklyn Noise
Bambara’s Reid Bateh
Bambara arrived in Brooklyn five years ago, trailing Spanish moss and cicadas from Athens, Georgia. Brothers Reid and Blaze Bateh, along with childhood friend William Brookshire, have made sinister, noisy music since 2009, songs that captured the claustrophobia within expansive Southern landscapes.
In Brooklyn, Bambara's music took on a griminess, the lyrics reflecting the desperation and loneliness of metropolitan life. After two under-the-radar LPs, the first recorded in Georgia and the second here, the band will release its third album, Swarm, via Arrowhawk Records on April 1. It is their most focused and purposeful record yet, and one long in the making.
By mid-2014 the album was almost finished and the band was storing about half the tracks on Reid's laptop when the brothers returned home one night to discover that a roommate's friend had stolen the computer from their apartment. "We're very meticulous and take a long time, so we had already tweaked it and tweaked it," Blaze remembers. "We were pretty frustrated [about losing the material], so we decided to take a break from the album." They stepped away to experiment and made Night Chimes, an EP of pure noise. "We ended up getting a lot of the [noise] out of our systems," says Blaze, "so that when it came time to re-record, we did a more stripped-down version of Swarm. [The EP] helped us hone our noisemaking ability and use it more effectively."
Like previous Bambara releases, Swarm effects an ominous atmosphere through the use of long reverb and distorted guitars, but the album shows off the band's musicality instead of burying it. The first two records obscured Reid's vocals almost completely: After running them through effects pedals, the mix heaped on layers of heavily processed instruments and samples, rendering Reid's voice a hazy impression of itself. On Swarm the lyrics aren't much clearer, but the vocal track bursts through the wall of sound. The result is that, more than either of their previous records, Swarm leans into the "rock" part of noise-rock, with a focused aggression pulsing from tracks like "An Ill Son" and "All the Ugly Things."
Achieving this balance — between their signature murk and a new interest in clarity — required some unusual recording methods, as Blaze explains. "Reid was pretty wasted, and to push it over the edge, [our producer] suggested that we just kinda push [Reid's body] around while he was singing. If you listen closely you can hear shit falling over." Reid had no objections. "I actually really enjoyed it — it felt like a show," he says. "I think it helped because I wasn't so worried about singing. I was just trying to get the words right while I [was] getting thrown around. It was nice. I liked it."
Although Reid is quick to clarify that Swarm is not a concept album, there is a story of sorts, a snapshot of a set of characters. The cast includes a narrator, "I"; Touya, a tragic figure lifted from Polish writer Bruno Schulz's story "The Street of Crocodiles" (Reid is an avid reader and short-story writer); Touya's invented, unnamed sister; their father, who is an intimidating presence despite sometimes being in jail; and the constellation Orion.
"Orion is a character because the [narrator] always feels like he's being hunted by the constellation," Reid explains. "A few years ago when I was writing some of this stuff, if I was wasted trying to stumble home from a bar and I didn't know where the fuck I was, [I would] look up at the sky and would always see Orion. I always felt like he was hunting me or something."
All the characters on Swarm grapple with some sort of Southern Gothic internal struggle — Reid cites Flannery O'Connor as a major influence — set against seedy urban life. They feel lost, as the band did when they first arrived here. Although noise-rock started in New York and has thrived here since 1970s No Wave and formative practitioners like Sonic Youth, Bambara didn't find the scene for years. Back then, they resigned themselves to partying heavily and playing anywhere that would have them, regardless of whether the bill made sense. "We would just get trashed and play these really noisy shows," remembers Blaze. "[Eventually] we realized we can write songs all we want, but if people can't tell what we're doing live, then what's the point?"
Embracing this epiphany, they retooled their shows and released an LP, Dreamviolence, in 2013. Their contemporaries took notice, and soon the band was playing alongside established noise-rock artists. Ben Greenberg, who leads the Men, a critically acclaimed Brooklyn postpunk outfit with a national fan base, signed on to produce Swarm.
New York is known for whipping people into shape this way. In Athens, time was slow enough, and rent sufficiently cheap, that Bambara could toy with arrangements and tracks for months without committing anything to tape. Brooklyn, however, has a short memory when it comes to bands whose releases and shows are infrequent. Where many groups lose their identity to the city, Bambara have insisted on editing instead of reinventing. Their shows are still zealous, just more focused; their music is still aggressive, just more thoughtful. They are not quite transplants (they still identify strongly with Georgia), but they love being here. Anonymity is possible in a way it wasn't before, and the grotesque elements of daily life are a better match for their musical sensibilities. In the misery of city life, Bambara see beauty — and so the noise they make is gorgeous too.
"There's just rats and shit everywhere," says Reid. "But there's something beautiful about looking at disgusting things so often it becomes normal."
Bambara play Union Pool on March 10. For more info and tickets, click here.
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