As far as pushing the boundaries of music genres goes, you’d be hard-pressed to find a band who test the elasticity of their field as much as POLAR BEAR. We’re quite happy to file them away as a jazz band (albeit in the murky waters of a ‘contemporary jazz’ sub-folder), but a quick listen their 2014 Mercury-nominated LP In Each And Every One will reveal some pretty startling electronic bursts and grating soundscapes. It’s not quite the hot be-bop that Howard Moon would shake his hips to. Polar Bear’s drummer and leader Seb Rochford is key to this extravagant flair, bringing his own scattergun worldview to the centre of the action. Ahead of this month’s show in New Brighton, we asked Michael Metcalfe and Nick Branton of Liverpool’s free jazz supremos DEAD HEDGE TRIO to speak to Seb about his career. The results are enlightening…
Dead Hedge Trio: Who did you listen to when you were young? Did your parents force you to listen the Beatles?
Seb Rochford: I listened to a lot of things. I got into Prince when I was at primary school, and Grace Jones. When I was a teenager I also started getting into metal, then thrash, then grindcore/hardcore and death metal. My mum always played me jazz and Stevie Wonder growing up, and my dad classical music.
DHT: How did you start off playing music? Have you always supported your self from playing?
SR: My first band was a hardcore punk band called Cabbage and then we had another more discordant band called Crumb. Both were with my friend Zac from Aberdeen. When I first came to London I used to sing nursery rhymes to kids once a week and play piano with a man who had Downs syndrome. I was also a dishwasher, an assistant chef and a postman one summer. I feel fortunate to be able to support myself from playing after a few years in London. When I first arrived I saw the standard of the musicians here and thought ‘I’m going to have practice a lot if I want anyone to play with me’. The jobs of singing to the kids and playing piano helped me get by while giving me time to practice. I was really broke at this time and used to go to any free gigs that were happening, sometimes walking if I didn’t have enough money to get the bus. I took my drums on the tube for about four years. The musicians I met here were really warm and inspiring to me.
DHT: How do you tend to write the music for Polar Bear? Recently as Dead Hedge, we’ve been jamming around ideas and turning the good bits into tunes… Do you have the whole piece complete, or is everyone in the group able to contribute to the writing?
SR: With Polar Bear I always sing them inside and then work out on the piano what I’m singing. Normally with an album I get a sound in my head first, and some colours. I normally process this for a while, imagining the album as whole, then tunes just start to come, often a lot in a small amount of time. I then keep imagining listening to the album in my head, thinking how to play each tune and keep writing until the shape of the album feels right to me.
After this, I write the music out and take it to the band. With John I may have a seed of an idea I take to him to expand in his way. Quite often we speak about it
because what John does is very complex and has to write the software from scratch. It’s good for me to give him notice as this takes it time to write the programs.
With the new album I gave him rhythmic cycles and we rehearsed twice, just me and him. We then added Tom, and the day before the recording we rehearsed with Pete and Mark but I didn’t let them solo – I wanted to capture their first improvisations on the album.
With the band, sometimes the tunes change a lot with people’s input, sometimes not so much. I always have a clear idea what I want it to be if I feel it’s really not going in the right direction.
DHT: We recently read an interview with Swedish saxophone player Mats Gustafsson. He realized that what he’s doing is a long journey, that develops over years and there’s no need to rush things. Do you have any ideas for a project that you’ve had floating about in your mind that some day you’d want to make happen?
SR: That would be an interesting thing to read. There are probably things I think about, but feel if it’s right for me to do something it will come at the right time.
DHT: You have collaborated with a lot of internationally renowned musicians, have you ever been excited/nervous meeting any of them?
SR: I think I’m always excited to make music with new people as I love the process of getting to know people musically and what new ways I can learn to communicate with them on my instrument. I was a bit nervous to meet Grace Jones and Patti Smith, but they are both such warm people it was a really amazing and inspiring experience.
DHT: What are your thoughts on the term jazz?
DHT: As you know, in January we are losing our city-centre home to music in Liverpool, The Kazimier, a place where we [Michael and Nick] work and play music. Along with this we lost MelloMello, a place where Dead Hedge Trio held a monthly residency hosting bands from around the country. Being a working musician in London are you feeling the squeeze on art spaces due to the gentrification of the inner city? Have you ever felt the need to compromise what you want to do in order to make a living?
SR: Yes, and I am sad it’s closing, it’s such a beautiful place to play. When I spoke to people there though they seemed positive. I hope that music and people will always find a way to share music and community together. London is changing like everywhere. I don’t feel like I’ve compromised myself and lucky that I’ve only played music I feel connected to.
DHT: Why did you go to the desert to mix and master the last Polar Bear album?
SR: I was really inspired by spending six weeks there last year – it changed my perception of sound and the landscape changed my perception on rhythm. This is part of our new album to me, and I thought Ken Barrientos would bring this into focus in a way I couldn’t. Also, because I had mixed the last album myself I also liked the idea of doing the opposite this time: giving up this control to someone else was liberating and I learnt a lot from Ken.
I think continually learning and challenging my limits is really important to me. I thought too that it’d be good for us to both go into the desert to mix it, get a different and special experience, be in the environment that captured me. There’s a studio out there in Morongo Valley called Red Barn Recorders.
DHT: We read that you used to want to be a priest? Do you explore spirituality outside of music? Do you ever have time to sit still and just be a human existing? Or maybe there’s no need for this?
SR: Yeah I did! And a monk, back when I was in primary school. I liked the idea of wearing a hood all the time and never having to speak. I was brought up a Catholic but found it wasn’t for me, but it has made me interested in reading about all kinds of religion though. Living in a place like London, it can be important to find somewhere or a way you can be still sometimes. Big cities can be very consuming.