Bitchin Bajas :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

Bitchin Bajas emerged from Chicago’s improv-experimental scene in 2010.  All three principals were from Columbia, Missouri, a progressive, college town oasis in a conservative state, and all made their way, eventually, to Chicago.  Cooper Crain and Rob Frye formed the instrumental drone experiment Cave, while Dan Quinlivan had hooked up with the antic, Afrobeat-influenced Mahjongg. Their new project together combined elements of both groups, delivering mind-warping repetitive grooves, leavened with non-western polyrhythms and tonalities. Immensely productive through the teens—the band released seven albums in the eight years between 2010 and 2017—Bitchin Bajas has collaborated with a diverse and occasionally surprising range of artists, including Bonnie Prince Billy, Natural Information Society and Haley Fohr. 

Like nearly all bands, Bitchin Bajas hit a snag in the early 2020s, slowed by COVID lockdown and supply chain breakdowns. An interim project of Sun Ra covers was meant to tide them over until their current album Bajascillators could finally be released, but it ended up one of 2021’s highlights. The same could be said for the long-awaited Bajascillators, whose four long-form grooves find stillness and motion in reiterated syncopation. 

We spoke with Cooper Crain just before Thanksgiving, as the band was preparing for an East Coast tour and moving forward on two new recordings: a second collaboration with Natural Information Society and a 12-hour improvised jam made last spring in the Azores. We talked about how these three make their music and how their audiences receive it, about starting over after a setback and about how music works best when it’s a bit of a mystery. “I think we all like when someone in the audience will say something afterwards, like they weren’t sure who was making what sound and where the sounds were coming from,” says Crain. “It’s nice to have the mystery to it. | j kelly

Aquarium Drunkard: Music can mark the passage of time but also stop it or transcend it. I’m hearing an endless, meditative now on your album Bajascillators. Does it feel that way when you play it? Is that something that you think about or strive for?

Cooper Crain: We tend to lose track of time, or at least don’t keep a focus on time. We don’t have to make long songs. That’s just what tends to happen. We’re all patient people, and maybe we ask that of our audience as well. When we’re happy with the music and we think it’s done, it has its own space. You can focus on it or you can get lost in it or it can be in the background. It’s not meant to be at the forefront all the time. This happens a lot, that people will say exactly what you said. I take it as a compliment.

AD: Tell me about the relationship between recorded Bitchin Bajas and the live version? Do you play the same pieces live as on the records?

Cooper Crain: In the past, we’ve done a lot less live. A lot of it was recorded and manipulated in ways that were really hard or even impossible for us to see through live. So, everything is always a version. On the last two albums or so, we’ve been able to do more live. On this one, we technically could do all four tracks live, though the second track is a microtonal piece and it requires tuning the organ oscillators and all the synths totally differently. So, we aren’t going to be doing that one live. It would have to be for something special. But we’re able to do all of them now, or a version of them.

There are only three of us, and on the recordings, we usually do a live take with all three of us will do overdubs live. That kind of doubling up is impossible to do live. We find a balance, but it’s always fun to make it different, change the tempo or add variation.

AD: How do people respond? Because it’s very calming music and I think you’re often in places where people are standing up when they go to your shows?

Cooper Crain: It’s a good mixture of seated and standing. I think on this last run of shows we just did, all but one show was seated. We were okay with that. But we actually feel that with these shows that we’re involved in right now, there’s more of a rhythmic elements in the songs. So, we felt like, oh yeah, this is great. It’s seated and everybody’s comfortable. We would have visual accompaniment like we did on the last one.

AD: What did you have for visuals?

Cooper Crain: We have a collaborator, Nick Ciontea who has done visuals for us for a long time. He’ll always do the shows here in Chicago, but he was able to do most of the shows on the last run. It helps. I don’t think we’re the most interesting to look at, but if you shut your eyes or have something to watch then it’s great. But I think people like to sit down while we play, but we adjust, so that if we’re in more of a dive bar scenario, we’ll adjust the set accordingly for that environment. If we’re in a seated, more open space where sound is bouncing all around, we’ll do a set for that type of environment. We’re pretty conscious of that part. We try to pull off a good show for the audience every time.

AD: What would you consider a good show?

Cooper Crain: Everybody having a good experience. It’s a fair deal for everybody all around, the audience, the band, the venue. Everything’s smooth. I think there are issues sometimes where things can be out of your hands, but we try to take care and we book our own shows, so we are involved in what’s going to happen. We generally have a good show for audiences and everybody involved.

AD: I heard that you almost completely restocked your equipment before you made the current record?

Cooper Crain: That’s a bit of overstatement. We’ve always had a lot of gear at home. And when we were on tour in Europe in 2018, we had an unfortunate event where we were in Italy, early in the tour, and all of our equipment was stolen. And, you know, it’s like old synthesizers, a lot of electronics, a lot of customized things, a lot of things that we really understand more than other gear for our sound. Everyone was saved one instrument in a way. Like the thieves didn’t take everything.

We bought a bunch of stuff on the road to continue that tour, which was a wash after we lost all our gear, but we were able to use the money that we had and just buy things along the way for the next week, and then, you know, make shows happen. Actually, it was really kind of enjoyable to live in that. It was horrible at first but then it became triumphant in this way. We only had to cancel one show.

We’ve always had a lot of equipment at home that we use on recordings. We bought back some of the old stuff, we used some of the new stuff that we’d bought on tour, and we just ended up having a large surplus of synthesizers and sound devices. That was a little more helpful. The last full length we did on our own was a while back, and just generally, we all individually buy gear on and off. So, if we spend four years between albums, we’re going to have new equipment. It’s not like we bought all new equipment from the ground up. That’s been overstated. But some new sounds, sure.

AD: What are some of the new things?

Cooper Crain: I also do some recording, so I bought some more equipment to better the sounds that we make at home. And then each of us probably got a handful of new synthesizers and sound devices and things like that. It’s a lot to list, and it all kind of lives in our space, so it always is there. All across the board from recording to sound sources to mixing and everything. A lot of new stuff was involved. For the better. Higher fidelity.

AD: Were there fewer woodwinds on this album than usual?

Cooper Crain: Yeah.

AD: What does Rob do when he’s not playing flute or sax?

Cooper Crain: Rob plays a lot of synthesizers these days. But he actually got in a lot of woodwind sounds on the new record. It might not be as obvious. He might do a sample of it and run it through a synthesizer or would play through filters and effects and get more of a processing going. It’s not as obvious. But yeah, there’s only woodwinds on half the album, and it’s just a part of it.

AD: Is that act of processing sounds an important part of what you do? Would you rather that people don’t know where a sound is coming from?

Cooper Crain: I do enjoy keeping it a mystery. I think we all do. I think we all like when someone in the audience will say something afterwards, like they weren’t sure who was making what sound and where the sounds were coming from. That’s enjoyable for us because it’s not that we don’t know ourselves. But that’s the flow within the group. We’ve been making and creating music for a while as this group and there’s a flow and things seamlessly happen without a lot of talk. Obviously if Rob is playing a saxophone or flute and you hear that, that’s obvious. But everything else, I could be playing the bass. Rob could be playing the bass. Dan could be playing the bass. Everybody does everything.It’s nice to have the mystery to it.

AD: I was noticing an almost gamelan-like effect in “Geomancy,” and I was wondering are you influenced by the music of other cultures, and if so, which ones?

Cooper Crain: Oh very, very much so. The majority of Bitchin Bajas’ music is somewhat inspired by music of other cultures and world music. That piece in particular, as I was saying earlier, was a microtonal piece. We actually went for a gamelan…an Indonesian scale, which we reduced because I only have 12 oscillators on an organ. I can’t make an 18-note scale, but I know I’m not going to play a few of those notes, so I can reduce it. Then we write down the hertz and we tune all the synthesizers to the right hertz. We’re in a microtonal world where gamelan exists. Gamelan has its own pitch and its own tuning. That’s something that really inspires us, just having a group of sounds that are all related in a more interesting way than standard tuning. The rhythmic qualities to all that are very up our alley.

AD: I know that some of you have roots and connections to Chicago’s jazz scene. How does your music relate to jazz if it does?

Cooper Crain: Maybe it’s more connected to the improvisational world. But I guess we’re getting almost as jazzy as one can get as an electronic band. That comes from our interest, as a group, in other stuff. We’ve all lived here for a while, and some of us have been in that scene as a player. Some of us have been in that scene as an audience. We know a lot of the people. Even though there are a lot of great musicians who are at the top of the field, it’s actually kind of a small group that knows and works around each other. You just go out and see other performers, and it gets you motivated and inspired to work harder. I think that’s where it comes from, for me at least. I like to incorporate that a little bit. It’s not so much like the changes or the chords or the scales. It’s more the free form of it and having the trust. I trust everybody that I’m doing it with. And that opens it up and makes it like a conversation musically.

AD: I’ve never played a synthesizer, so I don’t know this, but it seems like playing electronics would be less visceral than playing a sax or drums or bass? Do you think that’s the case? Is there a layer between you and the music?

Cooper Crain: Yes and no. All of us do play other instruments like drums and guitars and other keys, and Rob plays a bunch of woodwinds, obviously, as well as the other stuff. None of us want to be robotic about it. I play the organ mostly live, and that’s definitely an instrument I can feel and dig into. The synthesizers we’ll use for rhythmic textures or percussive textures or melody lines to double things, if needed. We don’t want to feel like it’s too in the box or too robotic. We want it to feel loose. I come from the rhythmic perspective. Everything I play is rhythmic, me personally, and I can do that as much on a synthesizer as on a drum.

AD: I know you were in Cave. Were you in Mahjongg, too?

Cooper Crain: No, that was Dan. Dan was in the tail end of Mahjongg, but those are old friends of mine. I would go on tours with them doing sound and stuff.

AD: I loved that band.

Cooper Crain: Yeah, agreed.

AD: I also really enjoyed the album of Sun Ra covers. Can you tell me a little about your connection to Sun Ra and how you got into it and what it means to you?

Cooper Crain: My personal experience was just like in junior high, early high school, there was definitely the older guy who ran the record store, and he would turn me onto stuff. I got a few CDs and it was kind of interesting, and some of my older friends had seen him. I grew up in Columbia, Missouri, which is a college town, and he had come through before. I had some older friends who had seen him, and it was just such an interesting idea about everything. Being from Missouri, that was a pretty far out existence for a band.

Even then it seemed like so much output, and now it’s more than ever. They keep releasing new things and unearthing more and more and more. I think he’s definitely become or has always been hip, but now there seems to be a lot of hype around his imagery.

We had messed around doing some of his songs live, and then we recorded one for the Bajas Fresh album. We did “Angels and Demons.” So, we were already kind of experimenting with that. Then when we wanted to do something fun while we waited for Bajascillators to be made, Dan had this idea. We just did it in a month. It was so fun and enjoyable. We all had listened to his music individually and as a group for a long time, and we picked out a bunch of songs. It was a really fun project. We do it live sometimes, and that’s super enjoyable. I’m amazed how wide the audience is for that record, but it’s not surprising because his tunes and his melodies are so great.  

AD: You’ve done a bunch of collaborations, some of them with people you wouldn’t necessarily expect. Tell me about the record you did with Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy. What was that like?

Cooper Crain: That was his idea. We had done a tour opening up for him, then he invited us, at the end of another trip where we were ending in Louisville, he invited us to stay and see what happened. I think we were a bit hesitant, as we weren’t really sure what would make sense. He had this idea to use fortune cookies. We just hooked up a two-track, recorded at his house onto a reel-to-reel. I had a little mixer for us, so I gave us a track and him a track, and we were just attempting to lay down some ideas or demos and just have fun in a day. We ended up with a whole album. We did some minor overdubs and then we did a tour for it. It was just really loose and fun and enjoyable. It was very much a successful collaboration in the sense that it was a real, full-on collaboration.

AD: You don’t usually have singing on your records. That must have required some adjustment.

Cooper Crain: Which is why it was able to work. He could just be that. And we didn’t have that ever. We were like, wow, it’s so easy to just sit in the same groove or the same repetitive thing if the audience has a singer to pay attention to. It gives you the support.

AD: And then, not the band, but you personally. You were on that Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy/Bill Callahan record from last year, Blind Date Party. You did a very strange Iggy Pop song (“I Want to Go to the Beach”). I was wondering how you picked that, if you did?

Cooper Crain: Actually, all the songs were picked by Bill and Will. I don’t know how they picked them. I don’t know how they paired them with the artist, but everybody was given a track. It was interesting because at first I didn’t know how to approach it, and I think it was Dan from Bitchin Bajas who helped me get it going. He helped me with the idea of it. But that was a fun thing. I love soul and R&B covers done, like, by a reggae artist or a rock steady artist. It’s always a beautiful rendition, and I was just trying to attempt something like that myself.

AD: I was watching a video of Iggy performing the song, and it’s really different from “Lust for Life”. It’s kind of a velvet crooner thing. What was the process like?

Cooper Crain: I was trying to bring a brighter, heavier idea to the song, because it’s not the most sunshine-y attitude, his version, and with the lyrics…. I’m not really sure. It was deep in those early months of 2020 and just having a lot of time to experiment and think about an idea. When it landed on that, I dove in and I sent it to Will and Bill, and they added all their vocals, and they sent it back and I mixed it. I think they had a really good time with it because they weren’t expecting that. They kept one-upping each other. Like this person would add three vocals, and the other one would say, well, I’m going to add more. And by the end, there were six of each of them. I think they had a lot of fun with it.

AD: How did you do during the lockdown? Some people were really productive and others kind of shut down.

Cooper Crain: Yeah, hmm. I think I was busy. It gets hazy, but I think I really dove into the recording and mixing side. I did that a lot more than being a musician myself. I was working on Bitchin Bajas stuff throughout because we all live in the same area and have a shared space, and so we were doing stuff every other week. But I think I really dove into the work side of my life more. I love doing that sort of thing. I felt like I got deeper into it. But you know, there were some ups and downs, wins and losses, of course. Trying to move on.

AD: How did it feel going back out after all that?

Cooper Crain: I realized that I missed it so much. We did a couple of trips this year. Like in the spring, we did two very short trips, and then we did another short trip, and we’re just about to embark on a two-week east coast tour. I think we’re all anxious now because we’ve all enjoyed having the next day to perform. So, if you do a show and you’re like, oh, I missed this, or I could have done this better, you’ve got the next day on tour to keep getting better and keep dialing it in. Anything that I did during the lockdown was a one-off. It wasn’t ever as rewarding. And I didn’t do a lot of them. We were kind of waiting it out. And I think we waited as long as we could without diving back.

AD: It was long time, though. I didn’t think it was going to last as long as it did. So again, with the collaborations. You did one with Natural Information Society which seems like a natural pairing. How did that come about and what was it like?

Cooper Crain: We’re all just friends. At the time, most of them lived here. Now that’s not the case as much. This was done probably eight years ago, that first one. Lisa Alvarado who plays harmonium in the group. She’s an artist and makes these beautiful tapestries that are multi-color, multi-pattern, very intense, very amazing pieces of art. She was having an art show opening. We just had the idea of playing with them as a large improv group. And then we decided to book a day and I got in there early and we set it up and folks just kept coming as the day was going. At one point, we had nine of us. It was really great. We’ve done a few shows with them and it’s always been great. We’re trying to make a new record with them now and trying to vary up the sounds a little more. Everybody’s schedules are pretty busy, so we’re working on it in a slow way, but there is another one in the works right now.

AD: Are there other artists you’d like to collaborate with? Who’s on your bucket list?

Cooper Crain: We definitely have a little list of artists we would love to do stuff with. Rob and Dan and I worked with Haley Fohr of Circuit des Yeux on her project Jackie Lynn. We were just the band. And we were Will’s band on that album. And I think we really work well together, and I would love to collaborate with more people to utilize what Dan and Rob and I have as a group. We can play all types of instruments. Hopefully, we will do more of that. It’s an interest of ours. We always have a little list of, like, that’d be awesome to do something with this artist. We don’t really act on it very often, but we love to do that. It opens it all up, when you add one more idea into the mix, one more brain.

AD: I know you’re getting ready for this tour to the East Coast. Is there anything else you’re working on that you want to talk about?

Cooper Crain: We have a long-form piece we’re working on. I’m not sure when it will get done. It’s been in the works for multiple years. We did a 12-hour performance of it in the Azores Islands this spring. It was very psychedelic.

AD: Wow, twelve hours. Did you take breaks to go to the bathroom and stuff?

Cooper Crain: Yeah. There was sound going a lot of the time. All of us were able to take breaks. We did have some extra hands, musicians on the island that were helping. We’re working on it still.We’re not really sure where the end is at yet.

AD: Are you going to do a 12-hour CD?

Cooper Crain: No. I think it can be done in less time. The album, of course, will be a lot less time. The idea would be, if we would release it in some way, that we would arrange some shows in a more long-form type of way, where we’re playing maybe four hours and we’re doing more subtle movements. It’s a whole piece. It’s hard to explain because it’s still evolving. But that’s something that we’re working on. Another Natural Information Society collaboration. We’re just hoping to get back out there on the road doing more live stuff. And hopefully, we’ll start interacting with people again and we’ll get ourselves out there more.

AD: What are you listening to these days? Anything good?

Cooper Crain: I was just listening to This Heat, like a bunch of This Heat. We all love J.J. Cale a lot. We listen to him on the road. I’m always listening to all types of music. Everybody listens to a lot of music. That’s all we do in the van. That’s all we talk about. It’s all over the place. That’s why I think we can incorporate a lot of layers and textures into our music because of our love and passion for it all.

AD: What do you think makes a great song a great song?

Cooper Crain: I don’t know if I’m the one to answer that accurately. I don’t know if I’ve ever made a great song. But a great song for me as a listener is just one I enjoy listening to, one that sparks energy and interest and gives me ideas and feels good.

Aquarium Drunkard presents Bitchin Bajas in Los Angeles, Sunday, February 12, 2023, at the Lodge Room in Highland Park. Tickets available now ….

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