Out of the blackest night imaginable, something wicked this way comes. 'Stray', the latest album from Brooklyn's post-punk meets noise-rock titans Bambara, is another stunning collection of seductively dark tales that could easily be ripped from the pages of the likes of Raymond Chandler himself. Twin brothers Reid and Blaze Bateh (frontman and drummer), and William Brookshire (bass) are no strangers to the dark side of life, as long-term fans of their gothic tastes will know. But having stayed below the radar for some time this time of the water, 'Stray' promises to be easily their most accessible release yet, and with a major UK tour scheduled for May, this is one dark little secret that is going to be uncovered for the whole world to see. Upset held tightly onto Reid's hand as we walked through the shadow of his valley of darkness.
When the High Priest Of Post-Punk, known to his mum as Steve Lamacq, picked them as his Best Of SXSW 2019, 'Shadow On Everything' was perhaps the first to prick ears up to the forbidding promise of Bambara. This time around, they once again retreated to a windowless basement in Brooklyn, reconvening with the unenviable task of living up to the sudden wave of hype. Reid, far from the brooding and intense Nick Cave-esque figure that he is on stage, brings us up to speed on what it's like to work in this fashion.
"It was just a complete immersion, working nearly every hour available for seven months. It's gonna take a little while for it to come out of my system," he explains before dropping in a contender for understatement of the year as he describes the process as "very intense". Avoiding the easy pitfall of merely treading the same path again, this time the band played with their usual song structures and formulas. Not for the last time in our chat, Reid sounds as much like a novelist as he does a songwriter as he describes the process as "just allowing them to be the songs they were born to be."
When it came to the lyrics, Reid found inspiration in an unlikely location. "I called off from work for a month, and told everyone not to call me or talk to me or anything. So for that month, I would wake up and write until I was too tired, and then it was back to sleep. I bought a bunch of random photographs from a thrift store, just like random people's pictures, from all of different years, just random shit."
Plastering them all over his walls and mirrors, they acted to continually bring him back to his story-telling frame of mind. "Whenever I ran out of steam, if I sat back to relax, I would be sucked into some other random piece of the story. Because I knew I wanted each song to be their own little story."
With the photographs acting as anchors and tethers into the strange world that he was creating, it gave the stories within 'Stray' much of its texture and sense of realness.
A series of mini-stories that often intertwine in hidden ways, this is a record that demands repeat plays. It is obvious that Reid's confidence at telling these vivid tales has increased exponentially with each release since Bambara's early days.
"I always wanted to [tell stories], but I was scared of it for a while. I didn't know how to do it," he admits, "I guess the first time I really messed with it was the record 'Swarm', which was more like a poetic abstract collection of stories. That had three characters, but I wanted to make something a little more literal. 'Shadow On Everything' was one long narrative from beginning to end, with each song being kind of like a progressive part of the story. I really liked that, that was fun."
For 'Stray', he has developed further. "I wanted each song to be a narrative from beginning to end, but to connect with each other also. More like a collection of short stories with characters and settings and themes overlapping."
There is almost a Tarantino-esque messing with timelines, adding untold depth to already captivating songs. A throwaway line on the opening 'Miracle' about a character's parentage, suddenly bursts into new life and meaning on 'Ben & Lily', as new layers are added. It's a trick that is performed throughout 'Stray', almost acting as Easter eggs for the careful listener.
"I think on the last record, if you missed some details it almost diffused the song and I didn't want that here. There's plenty of little details that you'd never see unless you were really looking, but it doesn't harm the songs this time."
But there is one theme that is unmissable throughout the whole record, whether it is through the eyes of a murderer peering through windows on 'Machete' or the traffic repercussions that rebound through latest single 'Sing Me To The Street'. Death with a capital D calls often in Reid's stories. When asked whether it is a subject matter that he is often drawn to, he chuckles.
"Oh yeah, definitely. I mean, I don't ever really try to decide really what I'm going to write about. I just sit down and what happens, happens. So in that way, they are obviously kind of themes that are just innate with me. I'm always exploring them whether I want to or not."
A sense of isolation and a search for connection also carries through much of the album, regardless of whether the characters are in the big cities or not. "Looking for a connection, it's almost amplified in the city. It becomes very tangible I think, people have lost it in a lot of ways" he considers, "You're so defensive, all over each other, crammed in these small places. You end up always being on the offence, and at a certain point, it's hard to even understand how to make connections." These are huge timeless themes, but presented in an intoxicating and atmospheric way that wrap the listener up in a strange, yet familiar, world. The bands' familiarity with tones and pulsing noise rock adds to the unease. So perfectly does the atmosphere bleed into the finished songs, a strange and unsettling sense descends at times to make it feel as if it exists in permanent night-time. Reid chuckles again as this point is raised. "That's overall what we strive for, to give a song an environment or place, so it feels like it has an atmosphere. I mean, we would definitely prefer most of these songs to feel like they're in the middle of the night."
With their largest UK tour to date planned for May, talk turns to how they will channel this atmosphere into a live experience to match. For a band renowned for their live shows, this seems like one of the easiest challenges of them all. "We kind of view the live thing as a whole different experience. When we are recording, we don't want to be limited in any way. Figuring out the live versions is cool. Sometimes when I hear a band and I'm into their record, and then I go to see them, and it just sounds the same then it's just like… well, I could have just stayed at home, y'know? If there's not something visceral, or new, or something more engaging than the record, well it kind of already did its job y'know?" Admitting that the band have already started to "mess" with some of the album versions for the tour, it promises to be a fascinating experience and one that attempts to shine a bright light on the deepest blackness. Hold on tight in the dark.
Taken from the February issue of Upset. Bambara's album 'Stray' is out 14th February.
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