The identity of Toronto fusionists BADBADNOTGOOD has largely been shaped by the company they keep. This is, after all, a group with the stylistic fluidity and instrumental dexterity to bring Ghostface Killah’s ’70s-funk fantasias to life, turn up the heat on Charlotte Day Wilson’s slow-burning R&B ballads, and allow Future Islands’ Samuel T. Herring to channel a past life as a cabaret soul singer. But in contrast to 2016’s star-studded IV, BADBADNOTGOOD’s Talk Memory is conspicuously lacking in vocal features. Rather, the group’s first album in five years is an all-instrumental affair that puts the focus squarely on their most crucial quality: the ever-present tension between compositional sophistication and freaked-out improvisation. That said, Talk Memory still boasts the sort of enviable guest list only BADBADNOTGOOD could assemble. They built a dream team of instrumentalists—including Brazilian composer Arthur Verocai, ambient icon Laraaji, electro-psych voyager Floating Points, and Kendrick Lamar saxophonist Terrace Martin—to infuse their grooves with a cinematic grandeur (and also help fill the space vacated by keyboardist Matty Taveres, who left the band in 2019). But while the album’s lustrous string arrangements and psychedelic harp flourishes speak to the group’s ever-expanding musical vision, Talk Memory is also fueled by a primal energy that’s more conducive to head-banging than chin-stroking—when bassist Chester Hansen activates his fuzz pedal and starts shredding on the colossal nine-minute opener “Signal From the Noise,” BBNG practically resembles a free-jazz Death From Above 1979. “We come from a background of listening to a lot of rock music when we were younger,” Hansen tells Apple Music. “When we started to play our instruments, [saxophonist] Leland [Whitty] was learning Iron Maiden solos, and [drummer] Alex [Sowinski] was playing a bunch of Rush and Led Zeppelin, so it's nice to be able to incorporate some of those elements on this record.” Here, Hansen talks us through his memories of Talk Memory, track by track.
“Signal From the Noise” “In the years of playing shows [after IV], we did a lot of improv stuff, and the intro to this song was a bass interlude we did on stage—I would essentially play stuff that sounded like this. And then when we were writing stuff for this album, we wanted to build it into a full song. So we added the arrangements and the bass solo, and our engineer Nic [Jodoin] made a tape loop that he faded in over the end. We also had some additional production from Floating Points at the very end to make it even more psychedelic.”
“Unfolding (Momentum 73)” “I think the idea behind this title was that the human body is 73% water. And the 'unfolding' part refers to the fact that the main sax part sounds like it's actually unfolding. Leland had the first arpeggio that you hear on sax, and we wanted to build a song around that. We finished the song right before the pandemic, and then, over the last year, we sent it to Laraaji, who's a legendary ambient artist. He has vocal songs but he also plays zither and other instruments, so we thought it'd be a cool twist to get him to play zither on this.”
“City of Mirrors” “A lot of our favorite records have incredible string arrangements on them, but logistically it's sometimes difficult to work them in. We've been really lucky in the past because Leland plays violin and viola, so previously, we'd just record him a hundred times stacked on top of each other to make an orchestral sound. But for this album, we were able to reach out to Arthur Verocai, who's a massive influence on us and a true legend. So we sent him every song and then he sent back all the string arrangements that you hear, which really took everything to the next level.”
“Beside April” “Mahavishnu Orchestra was a big influence on this song. In the past, we haven't really had a lot of songs with riffs like this, so it's cool to be able to include some stuff that has a lot of riffs. It made sense for us to release this as a single before the album came out, because it has a pretty epic energy. Karriem Riggins played on this with us. He came by when we were running through it in the studio, and liked how it sounded. He's obviously an amazing drummer, but for this one, he was like, 'Just give me a snare drum!' So Alex played the drum kit, and then Karriem had a snare drum with brushes and we just set up a mic for him. He was making sounds that I had never heard from just a single drum before. It was really amazing.”
“Love Proceeding” “I was out of town, and Leland and Alex got together and jammed an early version of this. One interesting thing about this album is that it's the first thing we've done with just the three of us, because Matty—our keyboard player and founding member of the band—went his own way a couple years ago, so this is us trying to figure out what we're going to do, and if we can cover all the parts. For this one, Leland played guitar for the first half and then ran over to the sax to play the solo, and we did it like all in one take, which was pretty fun.”
“Timid, Intimidating” “Another difference about this album in general is that we would bring in stuff that we had written individually and take it to the next level with the rest of the group, instead of being there for every part of the writing process all together. I was trying to write songs that had crazy riffs in them, basically. I had a really funny MIDI demo version of this that got deleted, so I had to remember it and teach it to the other guys. And then it turned into what you hear. It was just a really good framework for a couple of solos. It has a Steely Dan vibe now that I hear it—I wasn't really thinking of them at the time, but they're a big influence on us."
“Beside April (Reprise)” “Before we had recorded the original version of 'Beside April,' I was visiting my mom and I was playing on her piano and came up with this alternate version of it. We had some extra studio time one day, so I just recorded the piano part and then Verocai did his thing on it.”
“Talk Meaning” “It was one of the last days in the studio and Terrace Martin came by for a couple of hours. We had run into him a lot on the road, but never got to do anything together in the studio. He was very generous with his time. Leland and Alex wrote the main melody and the chords for this, and then we wanted to play it in a jazz context, so we just showed Terrace the melody. This song had the most old-school mic setup: There's maybe a couple mics on the drums, one mic on the bass, and then one mic for both saxophones. So Leland and Terrace were both standing behind a baffle, and they had to move [toward the mic] and back depending on who was taking the lead. Then we added some keyboards and Verocai put an amazing arrangement on it. And for the finishing touch, we sent it to Brandee Younger, who's an amazing harpist, and she really took it to the next level and played a beautiful outro. It's really the most in-depth collaboration on this record.”