Rafiq Bhatia is a guitarist that you need to go see. One third of composer Ryan Lott’s art-pop trio Son Lux, Bhatia has also performed with luminaries including Vijay Iyer, Billy Hart, Claire Chase, David Virelles, and many more. His music is electric, in every possible sense. On April 6, Bhatia’s new album, Breaking English, will be issued on the Anti- label; Bhatia celebrates its arrival with a show at National Sawdust on April 9, with drummer Ian Chang both in his band and performing as an opener. Bhatia recently took some time to tell National Sawdust Log about how the music on his new album took shape.
NATIONAL SAWDUST LOG: You mentioned on Instagram that “The central theme from this song [“Breaking English”] revealed itself to me in an improvised performance, fully formed, as though it had always existed.” What resonated within you to that initial idea? How did you transform it from the initial inspiration to the finished album?
RAFIQ BHATIA: Every so often, there’s a moment over the course of an evening-length improvisation where everything seems to come into exact alignment. The theme from “Breaking English” was born of such circumstances, and from the instant I thought of it, I’ve had a hard time forgetting about it. It has a cascading form that’s irregular but feels regular, resulting in a cyclical sort of inertia that’s patient yet unrelenting.
Even though I was really excited about the initial idea, it took me a long time to figure out how to realize a piece of music around it. I wanted each cycle to feel like a rebirth or evolution of the idea, but to do so while retaining the constant underlying momentum.
I was lucky enough to source some amazing ingredients, but they all required careful sculpting in order to be incorporated into the piece. Marcus Gilmore came in early and worked his magic on the drums, which I chopped and built a electroacoustic percussion section out of. There’s a sort of full-frequency explosive kick sound on that track that took a lot of experimentation to get right. Same goes for the processing on the multi-tracked choir of Nina Moffitt’s vocals, which are processed in ways that alternatively accentuate and destabilize the human qualities, placing special emphasis on her breathing. I’m also thankful to 60-cycle hum for its contribution—this was one of the only tracks on which I used a guitar with single-coil pickups. In addition to being the pillow that everything sits on, I had fun building waves out of the noise that crest over the ends of certain phrases.
On your previous album Yes It Will and EP Strata, you worked with Valgeir Sigurdsson and Alexander Overington. Who did you work with on this album, both on the production side and the players, and how was the working process different than on the earlier albums?
Breaking English is the first album I’ve produced myself, a factor that probably had the most significant impact on both the process of creation and the resulting music.
Those previous recordings you mentioned – Strata and Yes It Will – were the result of a bifurcated sort of approach: an ensemble would commit improvisationally driven performances to a recording, which would result in a fixed take that could be elaborated upon with production. The idea was to bottle the ephemeral kind of moments of real-time connectivity that feel as though they could only result from an improvising ensemble, and then be able to sculpt and enhance them slowly using the studio, without any sort of temporal or performative constraints.
But in making those recordings, it became clear to me that I would never be able to penetrate a certain surface level of interaction between those interests unless I learned to produce and sound design myself. I was increasingly drawn to the work of sound artists who use the studio as their instrument and for whom sound itself is the basis for composition—folks whose music transforms familiar sounds into evocative, breathing things that contain multitudes. In particular, I became interested in the interaction between sound and memory, using these techniques to represent and comment on my own experience.
So, in order to make Breaking English, I had to recalibrate my whole approach. I swore off of the kinds of methods I was most comfortable and familiar with, refusing for the most part to allow myself to write music from the guitar or with an ensemble in mind. Instead, I opted to focus on sculpting fragments of sound until I was able to create an environment that might inspire form. Almost all of the pieces on this album grew out of that process, and the ones that didn’t ended up being molded by it all the same.
Though in a very different way than my early work, improvisation plays an important role on the new record. Many of the pieces involve systems of interacting processes that affect sound in sometimes unpredictable ways, so many of the skills I’ve developed as an improviser came into play constantly. The same can be said for my improvising collaborators on this record, who I brought in at various stages throughout: Ian Chang, Marcus Gilmore, Jackson Hill, Nina Moffitt, Chris Pattishall, Anjna Swaminathan, etc. Often, their role was to “shock the system” with their own input, which I would in turn fold back into my process. Though there is very little group improvisation documented on this album, many of the attributes I love about music that usually arises from that sort of setting – the power of sound, transcendence, intricate yet fleeting interactions between various elements – are very much a part of the record.
Though I took the reins on production and sound design, Paul Corley ended up being an indispensable resource in that area, commenting on my drafts and contributing some additional layers of processing, which I folded into most of the tracks. Also, the finishing touches came into place during my time working on the mix with Alex Somers. I learned a great deal from both of them. The same must be said about Ryan Lott (founder of Son Lux), who has been extraordinarily generous with ideas, resources, and information over the past few years that I’ve been learning how to make music from this viewpoint. He and Ian were always listening to my drafts and weighing in often, which was crucial.
This was a new way of working for me, but the uncertainty, excitement, and dread all individually propelled me towards finding myself inside of the music I was making. In the end, it feels more vulnerable than anything I’ve ever put out there—[bites nails].
Part of what I’ve always liked about your music is the melting pot within it: it’s very modern jazz, but it draws almost as deeply from hip-hop, rock, soul, and pop music as well. You’ve mentioned in the past that two of your big early influences were listening to your grandfather singing Ginans and gangster rap. How do you combine these different elements? Do you even consciously think about it? Is it just “this is what the music needs?”
I think it’s worth recognizing that every music is the result of a combination of ideas—some combinations are just more stable/codified than others. Rather than accepting a certain genre constraint or pre-determined combination as a basis for my work, I’ve always strived to build my own musical identity – one that feels honest and personal – from smaller building blocks. In large part, I think that feels very natural to me because it mirrors the way I’ve gone about the rest of my life as a first-generation American, having to assemble an identity piece by piece with little in the way of precedent. Also, it comes from being an omnivorous listener who finds attributes appealing across genres (e.g. the physical power of sound, transcendence, contrast), and recognizes that genres are the commodified face of lineages and communities that are usually entangled with one another.
As a result of all this, that aspect of my work really doesn’t involve a whole lot of careful planning or premeditation in the moment that I’m creating music—again, I find myself naturally inclined in this direction. But on a bigger-picture level, I do also think critically about the way that ideas and components are organized within existing disciplines and consider how certain elements could be repurposed or replaced by others to form a hybrid.
Who is going to be playing the show with you at National Sawdust? Jackson and Ian? Anyone else? How has this music evolved from the recorded version to live performance?
Jackson Hill and Ian Chang are the core members of the live band at the moment, and the three of us will be playing most of this music together. But that being said, it’s an album release celebration and a hometown show, so we’ll be bringing out some surprise/special guests.
Rafiq Bhatia celebrates the release of Breaking English at National Sawdust on April 9 at 8pm; nationalsawdust.org
David Menestres is a bassist, composer, and writer currently living in the Piedmont region of North Carolina. He is the founder/leader of the Polyorchard ensemble and is the host and producer of Tone Science, a weekly two-hour radio show on taintradio.org since 2010. His writing has appeared in IndyWeek, VAN, and Music & Literature.