Interview: Dave King of Happy Apple, Bad Plus & Halloween, Alaska

Interview: Dave King of Happy Apple, Bad Plus & Halloween, Alaska

Dave King gives James Brown good reason to worry about the title "hardest-working man in show business." Just this year, the Twin Cities drummer has released three terrific records with three different bands—two of the jazz world's hottest trios, The Bad Plus and Happy Apple, as well as the indie-rock combo Halloween, Alaska. He's even found time to guest on new records by Mason Jennings and Meat Beat Manifesto. The genial King talked to The A.V. Club by phone on, appropriately enough, the afternoon of Oct. 31. An shorter version of this interview appeared in The Onion's November 17 Twin Cities print edition. King will play in Minneapolis twice this week, with Halloween, Alaska Nov. 23 at the Varsity Theater, and with Happy Apple Nov. 25 at Cedar Cultural Center. He's also in the midst of a series of dates with The Bad Plus, including a show with Ornette Coleman in Newark, New Jersey, on Nov. 26, which he notes is the first time in quite a while that all three of his bands will play in such a short span of time. (See also the Bad Plus blog, Do The Math.)

The A.V. Club: There's a local Twin Cities band, Belles Of Skin City, who wrote a song called "Hey Dave King, Leave Some For the Rest of Us." Have you heard it?
Dave King: [Laughs.] I did! I thought it was funny. I viewed it as pretty light-hearted. I doubt I could be a threat to anyone.
AVC: You've had a pretty prolific year with Bad Plus, Happy Apple, and Halloween, Alaska. And you're working on a new Love-cars disc. How many projects are you actively in right now?
DK: I'm really only in three working bands. Halloween, Alaska is more of a studio band. Even though we've played live, we haven't really toured yet. And I think that's going to be starting a little bit. Love-cars has sort of been on a hiatus for a few years—it's not really an active band, so I don't really count that. Sometimes it's overblown how many projects I've done. I play the drums, that's what I do. I'm here to play music, I'm not here to fuck around. I've never been a one-kind-of-music sort of person. I like to play all kinds of music. Not many people are all-kinds-of-music people, so you end up having to have four or five different bands to cover that. [Laughs.] That's one of the reasons why I have a few projects. Obviously, Halloween, Alaska doesn't do a lot of improvising, and that's a huge part of my personality, but I also love rock, pop, hip-hop, everything.
AVC: And it must be rewarding working with acts like Mason Jennings and Meat Beat Manifesto, who are pretty different from your own bands.
DK: Exactly. I feel super-fortunate to be someone that is considered open to all kinds of music. Because I'm not really a music snob—I'm interested in what people are doing, and if I feel like it's real and I can contribute something to it, then I get really excited. I should note, because I'm really into this record, [that I did a record with] Craig Taborn, who's an avant-garde pianist, very big in New York. It's called Junk Magic. And it's really a fantastic record, really a heavy combination of electronic music and jazz. One of the first times I think it's really been done on a high level. The reason why I bring this up is because he's someone who's interested in all kinds of music, and working with them naturally, not forcing them together, making collages and that sort of thing. More like music coming straight from his real-life experiences, which is what I try to do myself.
AVC: So, what attracts you to a particular project? If someone says, "I want you to play drums," what would make you say yes?
DK: Well, as far as doing a record, I wouldn't be able to take on really any other group stuff at this point, I don't really get asked to join any working bands. I got asked to join a Jeff Beck band. [Laughs.] I couldn't do it, though I wish I could have. I would have had to cancel a lot of my own stuff. That was one of those times that I was like, "Man, should I do this for a little while?" I'm still doing my own ensembles, that's really what I want to do, but every now and again, it's fun to be asked to do something.
AVC: And it's great to have the option of turning stuff down.
DK: It's a blessing, of course. I'm not saying that I'm getting phone calls all the time, because I'm not. Most people know that I do basically all my own ensembles, so I'm not really a sideman-for-hire. I used to do that when I was a lot younger, but now only if the time permits, and I'm into the music. I'm not really the guy to call if you just wanted somebody just keeping time. If you wanted me to do something, you'd ask me to bring something to it and then I'd be interested. And not because [mock-pretentious voice] "I need to create! I need my personality!" [Laughs.] So, when Mason called me I was worried a little bit about that. And he was totally like, "Man, do your thing." It's not about being busy, it's more like just having the freedom to bring more of a personality from the drum chair, instead of an anonymous person back there. My favorite bands have always had a personality behind the drums. In the world of studios and programmed things, there's this huge amount of personality missing from some of the instrumentalists.
AVC: Especially since drums are so often literally played by machines.
DK: Exactly. Take any rock band from The Beatles to [The Rolling Stones], Led Zeppelin goes without saying. The drums are a huge part of the sound, the way that those people played. The John Coltrane Quartet wouldn't have been anything close to what it was without Elvin Jones. That's one of the cemented facts of life.
AVC: And The Beatles never would have become big if they hadn't gotten Ringo.
DK: Exactly. People really playing with personality, it doesn't have to be complex music, it's just playing with some juice. It's such a vital component, and so often it's like really not sussed out. As far as studio work is concerned, I fall into that zone, it's almost like a Jim Keltner-type zone, where it's like you wouldn't hire Jim Keltner to play on some record where he's not supposed to bring something, a sound or a style. He's on the highest level of someone that you'd hire for that reason.
AVC: How do you keep your projects separate creatively? Do you ever play something with The Bad Plus and think, "Oh, this should really go in a Happy Apple song"?
DK: A few times. Usually when I'm writing, I feel like the voicing is for that ensemble, especially because one of them has a piano, which is what I write with. When I'm writing for The Bad Plus, I'm thinking a lot about what Ethan [Iverson, Bad Plus pianist] is going to be playing. But there's been a couple things that Happy Apple has done that I thought after a few performances, "I just don't think this is the right instrumentation or the right approach." And then it'll switch to The Bad Plus and it will be perfect. And vice versa. But usually I have an idea as the tune is going along. In Happy Apple, you're dealing with a less strict harmonic concept, more intervallic harmony. There's tons of harmony in Happy Apple, but it's in the tradition of Ornette Coleman. You've got a lot more freedom with that.
AVC: Neither of your jazz trios features guitar. Was that a conscious choice?
DK: It's so much more about the personalities and less about the instruments—the openness, the iconoclastic nature of it. I think if Ethan played zither, he'd still be in The Bad Plus. [Laughs.] It's just the way that these people approach music; we weren't sitting there going, "We can't have a guitar." It's more like, "You gotta be in the band." The sound is created by the idea that these people are fearless, non-focused-in-one-kind-of-music people. Happy Apple and Bad Plus are very similar in that way. Everyone comes from such different life experiences, and we all meet as improvisers. We meet in the field of jazz. It's most important that the person is willing and able to handle the task. Plus, jazz guitar sucks, other than Bill Frisell. [Laughs.]
AVC: The members of both Bad Plus and Halloween, Alaska live in different cities. How do you deal with that? It must be next to impossible to get together to practice.
DK: The Bad Plus doesn't rehearse; we rehearse at soundchecks. And now Reid [Anderson, Bad Plus bassist] lives in Barcelona, so it's even more separate. But we're together all the time, and it usually comes pretty quickly. And Happy Apple all lives in the Twin Cities. We've all been together for so long that the language is so there at this point… We'll get a couple of rehearsals before tour and everything's fine. That leaves a lot of room to be fresh.
AVC: Since there's such a heavy improvisational element with jazz, is rehearsing as big a deal as it is elsewhere?
DK: Definitely, just as far as connecting, and some of the music is pretty complex. The players are usually a little more accomplished—and that doesn't mean [jazz] is better than rock. But there's a little more of a technical demand, so people are going to be a little quicker at getting things together. With rock, it's about the tightness of the arrangement—there's no room for anything, so you've really got to know what the statement is going to be.
AVC: It seems like for a jazz musician, it might be a better career move to live in another town other than Minneapolis. In fact, you used to live in Los Angeles. Why do you stay in Minneapolis?
DK: Well, I work all over the world. I'm in New York all the time, the supposed jazz capital, I play with a lot of different people. When I moved back to the Twin Cities in 1995 or so, I didn't have plan to stay there. My wife and I were in the 1994 earthquake in L.A.; we had a bunch of stuff wrecked. We were just like, you know what, we've done some time out in California. I wanted to focus on my own bands. I really wanted to get some people together, because that's not really a band culture out there. And so it was like, "Let's go to Minneapolis and we'll see what happens. And if not we'll go to New York or wherever." I love playing in New York, but I need some sort of peace when I'm living somewhere. New York is just so full-on all the time. It's so expensive, and my wife and I wanted to have kids. [Minneapolis] is off the beaten path, but it is a great music scene. I ended up staying because I met Mike and Erik of Happy Apple and I thought, "Man, these guys are world-class musicians." It was really like fate. We ended up touring the U.S. a lot, and doing that whole thing and building a cult following and getting on the critical jazz radar. We did it from Minneapolis. That's something we're super proud of. We didn't leave some place to make it, we just pounded away and people started paying attention to it. And then we ended up getting a lot of people paying attention in Europe, and that's been really the godsend for that band. We don't actually tour America very much anymore. It's very difficult to tour that shit in America. You bust out the 30-minute songs on people in Columbus, Ohio, you're asking for trouble! [Laughs.]
AVC: They're not ready for it?
DK: Well, no, it's not that. The people are into it, but it's getting promoters to believe in it, and people that actually have to make money off it. [Laughs.] In fact, Bad Plus is one the very few jazz groups that regularly tours the U.S. It's a new thing for me. I've always toured the U.S. in a van and three people to a room are sleeping on floors and whatever. It's been really nice to have a group that developed an audience in America as well as in Europe. But Happy Apple, at this point, sustains itself with European audiences and playing in New York and Minneapolis.
AVC: What do you think it is about The Bad Plus that makes you able to tour in America?
DK: We've had a lot more exposure. In America, people really need to be told it's a good thing, they need to read about it a bunch of times in order to believe in it enough to go down there and pay $8 to see it. In Europe, you play Strasbourg, France and the whole fucking town comes out. You know, they don't have to read about it in every magazine in order to want to check some shit out. And that's really the difference—and it's not like I'm saying it's [all bad] in America, but it's really true, the difference. You have the diehards that are always on that scene who read Cadence and Signal To Noise religiously, and they know who you are, but getting families out? You look at these audiences in Japan and most of Europe and everyone is there to check some stuff out. And in that way, we found it very difficult in America. Even with The Bad Plus, with the hard press buzz which we've had for a few years now, on this tour already we've played some not-as-big markets, like San Diego and Santa Barbara, [and it's] always half full. And that's with press in every town. We're talking about small rooms, 150 people, if we're lucky. And then we hit bigger cities and it's a lot better, but I don't know what it is in San Diego. [In Europe], most of the time they'd rather own a painting than a car. It's like a whole other scene. Their governments all give the bands money, and so improvising musicians tour all over Europe on the dimes of their governments.
AVC: Yeah, and that just doesn't happen here.
DK: It doesn't happen at all. You spend all your time writing grants. Jazz was sustained by Europe for the last 50 years. That's a fact. Europe has kept jazz alive almost single-handedly. If it were up to [America], jazz would have died in the '70s. That's just a fact—in 1974, you'd have Keith Jarrett playing concert halls with 5,000 people in Europe and then playing in front of 40 people at the Village Vanguard.
AVC: The same thing happened with blues, too. That was going nowhere in America and then the Europeans gave it new life and kept the old stuff from being forgotten.
DK: American audiences are super-enthusiastic, and they're awesome and they're always in your corner, but it takes two or three or four times rolling through a town before you start to see anyone paying attention. I understand it's not for everyone. But at the same time, it's like, how about checking something out that you weren't told by Spin magazine is the hippest shit? A band like Happy Apple can just barely tour America. We were dropped from our American agent this year just because we couldn't get shit happening. We'll do some Midwest stuff and we always do well at colleges, but you roll into Milwaukee, even with press, you're lucky to get 40 people to a show. That's another thing that's incredible about the Minneapolis response to Happy Apple. You know, Happy Apple is an avant-garde jazz band, not a jam band, and it regularly draws 500 people to the show. It blows our mind.
AVC: How long did it take for that to build up, though?
DK: It didn't take long, that's the thing. We're not super-popular, we can't roll into the Fitzgerald Theater and sell it out or anything, but we played two nights at Cedar Cultural Center and we'll draw 1,000 people. Minneapolis has been such a great support system for this kind of music. It really shows the strength of the Minneapolis music scene. You travel the country, and you realize that you're spoiled in Minneapolis.
AVC: I was talking to someone a couple of months ago who had the theory that a big part of the reason for that is that it's 400 miles to get to the next largest city from here, whereas if you live in Ohio, for instance, you can reach a large city in 100 miles, so if you want good live music, no matter what genre it is, you kind of have to make it yourself or find friends that do it.
DK: I'm sure something to that. I think that there's an interesting lineage of like, really inventive new shit, from Hüsker Dü to Prince, or whoever in their genres it's like new stuff. You take Atmosphere and what they're doing, we're really proud to be aligned with it. Even though The Bad Plus is really a New York-based band, it still played many of its early shows in Minneapolis and gets some of the greatest support to this day in Minneapolis. So, we notice the difference when you roll through Minneapolis, and a lot of musicians know that about it. It's a picky crowd and when they dig it, it's like you're doing something profound. So if Happy Apple could just take Minneapolis with it on the road.
AVC: Both the Bad Plus and Happy Apple have often been characterized as the young Turks out to storm the old staid jazz world and shake things up. Do you see yourselves in that way, or do you think that's kind of overblown?
DK: That's totally overblown. There's no bigger straight-ahead jazz bands than all of the members of those bands. What we're doing is not a reaction to anyone's music. What we're doing is trying to take the music someplace else. There's so much left to be done on these fronts. I think it's a really super exciting time. So the fact that we're known as the bad boys, it's just so funny—the fucking pianist of The Bad Plus is the biggest jazz snob in the world. He can go head-to-head with any one of these critics that's going, "This isn't jazz!" This guy is like Art Tatum, he's a jazz encyclopedia. We just laugh our asses off at it. But then again, there's a certain amount of pride that goes along with the love-or-hate relationship. It's like, we must be really doing something. All of our heroes did this, you know.
AVC: It's so interesting to read that reactions to your bands from old-school jazz guys were so intense, because with other kinds of music it's not a big deal. When Los Lobos fuses Tex-Mex music with rock, no one bats an eye.
DK: No one says anything. And what's cool is then you have some guys that are open. The Bad Plus receives a lot of good praise from guys that are really straight-ahead critics. We're just playing stuff that's honest music to our life experience. We're not wearing the suit and trying to be the John Coltrane Quartet. We're trying to do this other shit. And then it gets blown out of proportion, where people think The Bad Plus is rolling around in a limousine. We're out here in the van, man. This kind of music is always indie, no matter what label you're on. What do you think, because we're on Columbia Records there's a division devoted to us over there? We're the lowest priority there is, man. They're psyched if our record sells 20,000 copies. That's a huge deal in jazz. That's like, you're instantly dropped in rock. It's hilarious. But yeah, I don't understand why sometimes it gets so intense. Rock critics aren't saying to Radiohead, "Man, you guys don't sound like you've checked out enough Roy Orbison, man. You gotta go back and check out Roy Orbison before you start doing this shit."
AVC: Has that lessened over time?
DK: It's evening out with this record. I think the reality of the group is hitting people. I think a lot of naysayers never really listened to us. It's sort of like, you see a couple of glossy photos and somebody says we're loud and we play rock. Then all of the sudden they see it live. Just the other night, Keith Jarrett's manager was at our show in Santa Barbara, and you know, there's a guy who's seen a little music in the last 30 years. And he was like, "Man, I had no idea that it was like this. From reading the stuff you're expecting some guys to pull up playing a set of Nirvana covers." Number one, we've always been 90 percent original music, and number two, jazz musicians have always played the popular music of the day. We're not the only group playing rock music. It's like somebody decided because we have Tchad Blake as a producer and we've actually played some rock music in our lives that we are making a mutant race or something.
AVC: In Halloween, Alaska, both you and James Diers write lyrics, though James does all the singing. How does it feel to have someone else giving a voice to your feelings?
DK: I'm so fortunate to be working with him. With James, it's always been easy. He's always just been like another part of me, an extension of me. His music hits me like it's mine, like I wrote it. It's really been a great thing for me. He's a really close friend—the godfather of my kids. It's a tight thing.

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