“There’s so much crazy stuff about to happen,” Jon Bap says with a laugh, describing his forthcoming debut album, What Now?, out July 29. The Buffalo singer-songwriter’s style, a free-flowing blend of jazz, funk, r&b, and soul, has always been a little crazy, and he does it all — play every instrument, produce every track — himself. But for the upcoming record, he delegated his percussion to 21-year-old drummer Mike Mitchell.
Before the collaboration, Bap had been feeling stymied by his own perfectionism. “For a long time, I’ve been trying to make the best album ever,” he says. “I had this goal that everybody would like it. I was not focusing on music at all, but how I wanted it to be and how people would perceive it.” Bap’s been a musician from day one and often obsessive about it, honing his singing and drumming chops in church. He went to school for recording engineering but dropped out (“I felt like I didn’t need anyone to guide me through anything”) in favor of a largely DIY career, including the self-release of his 2014 EP, Let It Happen.
Bap linked with Mitchell through the latter’s younger sister, a fan of Bap’s. After cultivating an online friendship they met in person for the first time when Mitchell, who lives in Dallas, came through Buffalo with the Stanley Clarke Band. Bap invited him to a late-night jam session at the Antioch Fire Baptized Holiness Church, where Bap had spent his childhood Sundays. “We were just jamming; I didn’t know what I had in mind for this project yet,” recalls Bap. At the time he was listening to Hall & Oates, the Beatles, and Mac DeMarco, contemplating making an experimental pop record but not committed to the idea.
Those leanings disappeared as the jam session progressed. Bap played prerecorded abstract sounds (he calls them “avant-garde time signature loops”) and asked Mitchell to invent rhythms to match. The drummer was perplexed at first. “They weren’t in a specific beat or meter,” Mitchell says. “They were, like, as if you were watching TV and you heard a random beeping.” But it didn’t take him long to catch on. “His face was like, What am I supposed to play to this? for two seconds,” remembers Bap. “[But] then he was just in the zone.” It helped that the two have similar working styles. “We play what’s played immediately and what we feel,” says Mitchell. “We build from it instead of a more cohesive way of working. Random ideas.”
Mitchell headed out of town the next day, leaving Bap with over three dozen sequences of raw drumming. Next came the hard part: turning these strange soundscapes into songs. “I do usually lay down the drums first, [but] his drums were crazier than I’d normally do,” says Bap. “So it took me a minute.” He spent the next six months adding his own vocals, guitar, and production.
Mitchell’s intense drumming dominates What Now?, so Bap chose to begin the record with the spoken-word track “Guided Meditation” to prep his listeners. It’s the calm before the hyperspeed storm of licks and guitar stabs. “If you listen to the project in order, listen to the meditation first,” he suggests. “Sit and actively be involved in it. It prepares you for the craziness that’s about to happen.”
The “craziness” is twelve songs that overflow with frenetic, breakneck beats, from the Prince- and Rick James–inspired “Gotta Be Your Lover” to the melancholy “Ghost in the Wintertime.” Even subdued cuts like “Other People” feature intricate grooves, and Bap finds clever pockets to cozily fit his smooth tenor into Mitchell’s onslaught.
Despite the complexity, Bennett Kuhn, co-owner of Brooklyn label Astro Nautico, which is releasing What Now?, says the record arrived fully formed. “Jon had a really strong vision for what he wanted. He didn’t rely on us as a label for feedback.” Mitchell adds, “I heard pretty much the whole thing, just unmixed. He’s a freak of nature. He’s the first person that I’ve worked with in such a reckless format. [But] it always comes out perfect, regardless of how it starts.”
Funny that it turned out that way, considering Bap’s growing aversion to perfection; he sees What Now? instead as his liberation from that exact constraint. By filtering his expectations and letting Mitchell’s free-association style guide the way, Bap made a record that thematically embraces the very notion of being flawed. “[It’s] just about being OK with failing. You need to be OK with that to make something great,” he says. Mitchell sees it more as a snapshot of that church recording session. “Whatever happened that day happened that day. Just swing right now, or don’t swing at all.”