The Upshot of Adult Jazz

Published August 6, 2014

ABOVE: ADULT JAZZ. PHOTO COURTESY OF JAMES PEARSON HOWES

Gist Is, the debut album from British quartet Adult Jazz, is a pop album unlike anything else you’ll hear this year. It’s sophisticated and self-assured in its totally idiosyncratic sound, which treats traditional pop structure as a starting point to be diverged from as often and as creatively as possible. In its exploding time signatures, rich and often beautifully fragmented vocals, and maneuvers that ensure spareness doesn’t equate to emptiness, Gist Is bears some comparison to albums by Dirty Projectors or Volcano Choir, but it’s really best considered—and enjoyed—sui generis.

ALEXANDRIA SYMONDS: How much have the songs on Gist Is changed in the four years you’ve been working on them? Do they tend to let you know somehow that they’re done, or do you have to make a conscious decision to stop tinkering with them?

HARRY BURGESS: It was a funny mix of both. Because of where we were at in terms of studying and doing music around that —just recording in our houses and all over the place—I think we knew we were blessed with quite a lot of time and limited pressure to have a complete piece. So we definitely didn’t rush to say, “All right, it’s done, let’s move on.” But then it surprisingly got very rushed towards the end: you’ve got deadlines and things. By then, we had faith that the songs were good and interesting, but it was much more then about getting four people to be all positive about all the songs, and for that to coincide. Because often, if someone says, “I think this is done,” there will be someone else who’s going, “I’m not into the sound of the cymbals,” or “I’m not into the vocal sound,” or something. So we were waiting for that alignment of the stars and the moods of everyone in the band, so everyone was putting a seal on it while feeling quite positive about it. Some songs have stayed pretty true to the original intention. Some have morphed quite a lot. But we didn’t really do B-sides. Every idea that we have, if it sticks for more than a couple of days, we’re quite keen to pursue it until it becomes something we’re proud of.

SYMONDS: When you got to university, did you have the experience first of saying, “I’d like to be in a band,” and then ending up with people who wanted to play 4/4, guitar-driven, garage-rock things? How did you come to find each other and all of you come to agree on such an unusual modus operandi?

BURGESS: Me, Tim, and Steve in the band are friends from our hometown—I knew Tim since I was very little, and he introduced me to Steve when we were about 15. And then I think we willingly joined boring 4/4 indie bands. We did the classic, be-in-a-rock-band-when-you’re-16 thing. Then when we were just getting ready to leave to go to uni, Tim and Steve helped me play some songs that I wrote for this one-off show that I booked. I guess it was the first time I made music with the computer, so I had more freedom and less pressure of equipment and a bit more of a wider palette, and so that’s when we first played together —for those shows—and then we went after it. It kind of made sense because we had always talked about doing it.

Steve did a maths degree, but Tim and I did arts degrees. We had a lot of free time, which meant we played together a lot. And then it was while we were up in Leeds that we met Tom through a friend. He first started getting involved in helping us record the songs we’d written, and then he morphed into a full-on member of the band because it seemed so integral to the process of the record, having someone who had the expertise to produce and record it.

SYMONDS: You can tell listening to it that he’s very talented. It’s a really well produced record, and it’s such a delicate suspension—it would be easy for one thing to fall by the wayside.

BURGESS: Yeah. We know what we like and are clear with our ideas, and Tom, being a member of the band and being a friend, it meant that we didn’t have that awkward disjunction between what the band wants and the stupid non-technical terminology. Because, you know, I’ll be like, “It needs to sound more…” and then it will be some ludicrous metaphor and Tom is just so good at finding out what that meant in terms of what you do with it.

SYMONDS: “It needs to sound more purple!” or whatever.

BURGESS: Yeah, more purple. It’s not a very purple record. It’s kind of woody-brown and orangey.

SYMONDS: What kind of kids were you and Tim, growing up together?

BURGESS: We did drama together when we were seven or eight. On our website, there’s a little picture that I found from an old performance that seemed really funny because we weren’t very close. When you’re young at school, your friendships are quite based on circumstance and common interest, which I think is the way that most friendships, irrespective of gender, happen. I work as a teacher as well, and it’s really interesting to see how we expect relationships between girls and boys to be different and how actually maybe they’re not that different. The typical one is boys want to play football together but then they won’t really care about each other’s feelings. But boys are very emotional. I work in a school, and boys are very conscious of who their friends are in a way that maybe the typical gendered idea doesn’t support. Anyway, it was fun when we were little, but obviously there’s a limit to how emotionally advanced you are at that stage. But we’re very close.

SYMONDS: Do you remember any of the roles you played when you were little children doing drama together?

BURGESS: Yeah. This is just me and Tim. I think Steve wasn’t a thespian, and me and Tim weren’t really either, but we did this little bit of youth theater with some people from the school we went to. My aunt actually ran it, so I went from obligation. There was a musical adaptation of the Greek tragedies, based around all those quite exciting adventure stories, and I was Theseus. I had the little yellow jumper that unwound, and I think Tim was Perseus or Heracles—another one of those male heroes. We were quite little boys at the time—we were seven or eight—and the joke for the adults was that we were meant to be playing these big, tough guys and we weren’t that. We were quite sweet little boys. I had a bit of a lisp at the time, I think, as well, so it was probably quite sweet. But I didn’t like it, because I knew that it was a joke. I wasn’t that naïve. I knew that they were laughing at me because I was a sweet little boy, and I hated that. I wanted to be the actual hero.

SYMONDS: Oh my God. That’s a very precious story. [laughs] But you’re showing them now! You’re a rock star.

BURGESS: Yeah exactly. Isn’t that the toughest profession? Heroic. No, probably the least heroic thing a man can do.

I think when we first started hanging out when we were 16, it was really exciting and it was really enjoyable and we were on the same page about stuff. We were super into Radiohead—

SYMONDS: You don’t say. [both laugh]

BURGESS: Yeah, and Arcade Fire and that stuff. That was when we first got interested in each other in the musical sense, as well. It’s weird—I haven’t really thought about it because we’ve been in each other’s lives for a really long time, now. So it’s weird to mythologize. Although I’m the one to do it—I’m very sentimental, whereas they’re perhaps less so. I definitely remember a lot of the time driving in cars and stuff, that’s when we’d have a record on. If we were going on a trip or something, I’ll have an “our song.” I think, “This is our song!” And everyone else says that, but I’ve got so many of them. [Symonds laughs]

SYMONDS: Do any come to mind immediately?

BURGESS: There’s this one by Van Morrison called “Rave On, John Donne,” which we listened to a lot. The first Wild Beasts record. I’m trying to think of something cooler. When we first started, that Radiohead record came out, In Rainbows, which I still think is still a really good pop record. Maybe two years ago, we were at Glastonbury, they played a surprise show, and it brought all the memories coming back. I’ve got a really stupid video of us—we did a little address to the 16-year-old versions of us in a video from the future.

SYMONDS: In the song “Spook,” which is beautiful, there’s the line, “I write these songs to trick god, and I do not take it lightly.” What does that mean to you, not to take it lightly?

BURGESS: Triviality is fun—

SYMONDS: [laughs] Sure.

BURGESS: By nature, I guess! I definitely don’t like the idea of a record that is super serious. There’s a fun line at the end of “Pigeon Skulls,” which includes the line, “Kick ass,” which is not much in my vernacular but seemed very funny at the end of a quite sad song and quite sad line about what would happen if you died, and then it’s fun to leaven. And I guess it’s a self-conscious thing, but I think if you leaven something quite serious with a bit of lightness, it reflects human experience a bit more, which is that you don’t stay sad forever and things aren’t serious forever and things can’t be deep all the time.

SYMONDS: First as tragedy, then as farce kind of thing?

BURGESS: The line is “I write these songs to trick god, and I do not take it lightly,” the idea being that maybe by commenting on spiritual issues, you shield yourself from fully considering things. Basically, I was thinking, it’s quite a big thought, that song, and then you think maybe writing a song about that is just a way of not doing it in your actual life. But it’s probably worth saying that “Spook” itself is based on—do you know much modern Christian worship music?

SYMONDS: No, not at all.

BURGESS: Yeah, no one does. And that’s kind of a good thing, because it’s quite rubbish. This isn’t at all a criticism of religious communities—I think they’re great sometimes—but it’s more being aware of how music makes people feel special and can be quite manipulative. That song was set in a church service where this character is really trying and at the end really reaching towards being able to speak in tongues and have some kind of spiritual awakening or epiphany. The song’s structure kind of reflects that music, and also pop music in general. Lots of bands have this worshippy, service aesthetic where they’ll take you down, slow and reflective, and then they’ll bring you right up with a repeated refrain, and then they’ll take you down again, and then there’ll be a joyful explosion, and then it’ll go down again.

That’s the reason “Spook” is such a shifting song, with lots of different parts. It opens with that quite intense, personal stuff, and then it goes into that joyful explosion and then it comes down really low and there’s this serious, sad bit—that’s what everyone hears it as—and then it goes to this endless build to this big explosion. It’s a way of making the form fit the sentiment: this guy responding to this music and trying to be spiritually moved or transported, and he can’t, because he’s too consciously aware of what’s happening. He’s aware of the quiet bit, he’s aware of the joyful bit. It can ruin the magic a bit.

And I guess the question there, on a more philosophical level, is: If I understand that I feel spiritual and godly when I hear the fourth note going down to the first note, which is the classic chord change that feels really empowering and beautiful, if I know that’s why it feels beautiful, is it not beautiful anymore? And did you know that speaking in tongues has a dialect? It’s supposed to be this really pure, spiritual language, but if you go to one corner of a country, it starts to become a language, with loads of rules and grammatical things that happen and certain sounds that are popularized. So feeling spiritual is probably just serotonin, right, in the head? But does that mean it’s not valid or it’s not real? How far do you push the metaphysical and naturalism and how far do you make it a thing where if you know this is matter, is there room for anything lovely after that?

SYMONDS: I think it’s really scary to figure that the only way to have authentic joyful experiences is by not being aware of the processes by which that happens. I mean, Leonard Cohen wrote “Hallelujah” along those same lines, and it ended up being a very beautiful song even as it comments on its own structure of beauty, right?

BURGESS: “Hallelujah.” That’s a good point. I’d never made that connection before. We don’t want it to come across as sarcastic. When we started playing that song, we thought those bits were beautiful, but then it coincided with the idea that we’re actually quite aware of how we’re making this beautiful feeling. I think some people are afraid of the explanation undoing the magic, whereas I don’t think it does. I don’t think that makes it less special. I think that everything’s got to have a metaphysical grounding in actual stuff.

GIST IS IS OUT NOW. FOR MORE ON ADULT JAZZ, VISIT THE BAND’S FACEBOOK PAGE.