Bad Bad Hats Interview
Kerry Alexander’s soft but straightforward vocals drive the tender, indie-pop band Bad Bad Hats’ sophomore album, Lighting Round. Following their strong debut LP, Psychic Reader, Bad Bad Hats continues to provide fervor in songs that confidently approach feelings of hope with heartbreak. Behind her voice and lyrics are a dreamy and infectious instrumental arrangement with melodic, clever ambiance that swings between lulled moments on “1-800” to the ardent driving forces on “Nothing Gets Me High.” Alexander spared some time to talk with me about the making of their new album, Lightning Round. They will play the Hi-Dive in Denver on Wednesday, August 22nd.
You just released your new record Lightning Round, on August 2nd. Have you played any shows since then?
Kerry: So we’ve only played, I guess, one show since the album’s been out. That was in Chicago, I guess it was last weekend. And then we have our release next Saturday… Or this Saturday. Wow. Okay.
It’s coming up quick!
Kerry: Things are happening really quick, yeah. But our release show will be our second show since the album has been out. We have been playing a few of the songs from the album on the tour from this past summer.
So you’re still comfortable with playing the songs even though they’re newly released?
Kerry: Yeah! We try to do that because last time, when we released Psychic Reader, we didn’t give ourselves a lot of time to play the song in front of people before our release show. I, especially, remember feeling very scared on stage. So now I was like, “Nah, I’d like to feel a little more comfortable and at ease at our release show.” So yes, we purposefully tried to give ourselves more time to get comfortable with the songs.
Understandably so, I wanted to say that I saw you all play in St. Louis when you were on tour with The Front Bottoms this last year. It’s really cool because I had never been to St. Louis before and I was listening to Psychic Reader a ton during that trip. Now, whenever I go back to listen to it I always get weird flashbacks to seeing you in St. Louis or just random parts from that trip. I was wondering if you had any songs or albums that are like that where you go to a new place and are listening to music that gives an impression of an event in your life?
Kerry: Yeah, I was actually just thinking the other day about this. I studied abroad to Paris in college and it was one of my favorite experiences of my life. I was living on my own for the first time and it’s such a great city and I really enjoyed it. I think that it was in the perfect time in my life. I was just thinking… I was listening to a lot of music while I was there but I associate two albums, specifically, with being there. A Jessica Lea Mayfield album, which I forget what it’s called now but I think her first album and then Darwin Deez’s first album. Those two I just listened to over and over again in Paris. Now, whenever I hear those albums I always feel like I’m really instantly taken back to that time in my life, and really associate it with that experience. But I like that about music. I think there are a lot of songs in my life that I really associate with a certain age or a certain trip or something. I always liked making mixes for road trips and stuff. So I have a lot of CDs like that I associate with certain trips. But that’s what I like about music in general, that it does that.
Yeah, absolutely, do you have any specific tour playlists that you listen to or is it just a large variety of whatever everybody is listening to at the time?
Kerry: Oh yeah! I think that they develop over the tour. I feel like I have a set of songs going into the tour that I like or I’m really excited about. So I play them for everyone in the van and feel out to see what people like. The ones that everyone likes get added to the tour playlist. We’ll do the thing where whoever is driving chooses the music usually so we’ll all find songs that resonate with us. But sometimes we’ll hear a song in a restaurant or something and that gets added to the playlist. I like when that happens too, because those songs really become reminiscent of certain tours. So that’s always a fun project, to make the tour playlists.
So I wanted to talk about Lightning Round a bit. Was the entire album recorded live or was it just a few specific songs?
Kerry: Yes, not the entire album was recorded live. We’ve seen a few people write that and we just leave it out there. (laughs) I think that came up because on Psychic Reader we didn’t do anything together. I think we did almost everything track by track and one at a time. We did Chris on the drums, and we did all the bass tracks, then the guitar… Everything was just one person recording something at a time. So, for Lightning Round any live recording was a very new experience for us. On the album, for “Absolute Worst” and “365” almost all of the instruments were recorded together and then we did a few overdubs on top. A lot of the songs, the bass and the drums we did at the same time. Which was kind of exciting to see that come together at the same time. Some of the other songs, three of us would go in and play keyboard or two guitars or something. So we tried to do as much as we could with multiple people playing something at the same time to get that feeling of collaboration and improvisation at some points. But, no, not all of it was live but a lot of it was for us.
Are you planning on playing those live recorded songs on the tour or do you think they have more potential for live shows?
Kerry: Yeah! It’s always a little tricky to put together sets… It was a little easier this time because everyone was playing something or knew what they were doing. But we often record as though we have an eight-piece band. We have a keyboard, we got a synth, we got shakers. But we like doing that in the studio. To me that’s what’s fun about being in the studio. You’re able to stretch your legs and get creative with what you have and play whatever is available to make the song cool. But then it can be a challenge when we put together the tour. We’re like, “Okay, there’s only four of us… So how do we accomplish all these instruments?” But that’s a really fun challenge in the end. But because of that, I think the live show is different from the recording. Which I hope people appreciate that it’s just a different presentation of the songs. But we will be play nine out of ten songs on the tour.
Nice! That’ll be awesome. So, when you guys play live, you will sometimes switch around your instruments and are pretty versatile. How many instruments do you all collectively play?
Kerry: For this tour we’ll have a set instrument that we’re playing.
So no swapping around this time?
Kerry: No swapping around on this tour. We have swapped around on other tours. And we’ll swap around and then stick to one thing for the tour. Like, for The Front Bottoms tour we traded guitar and bass, Chris and I did, and Connor was on the drums. But for this tour Connor will be on bass, Chris on guitar and then our friend Reese is going to play drums with us. So that will be the lineup for this tour.
Back to recording the album, how was the process different from approaching it than with Psychic Reader. I read that your producer tried to do things kind of differently and change things up.
Kerry: When we did Psychic Reader, Chris and I had the intention of doing it all ourselves, at first. So we worked really hard on demos that we thought were going to be the final product, so they were pretty developed arrangements. So we had a lot of the parts figured out going into Psychic Reader. I think that’s why it kind of made… I don’t know if it made more sense, but it felt like the thing to do with the album to just redo what we had with Brett (Bullion, Producer). We had the map already, of where we want the song to go. But, with Lightning Round, since we knew we were going to work with Brett going in, we just kept the demos very open. Or, just not as flushed out as our Psychic Reader demos. We kind of wanted to leave them open. So going into the process of Lightning Round there was a lot more room to just build and see where the songs could go. I think that alone really shaped where the songs ended up. We showed up at the studio and I was still under the impression that we would do it like we did Physic Reader. But Brett would just say that two of us should go into the studio and record the guitar parts together. And I’d be like, “but there’s not a guitar part that goes in right there,” And he just told us to go figure out what feels good. I’m the kind of person that needs my structure and organization. But that was so much more inspiring at the end of the day to not know what the song would sound like in the morning and then by the evening, have something that you never thought would be possible for the song.
Did you end up with any songs that surprised you when they were finished?
Kerry: I think that there were a couple songs that got to the place where it was really different and then came back around to my original intentions. “Write On Your Heart” and “Talk With Your Hands” are really good examples of songs that in the end were pretty close to the spirit of the demo. But, we took a longer journey to get there, which I think was important for instrumentation. But, I think “1-800” and “Get What I Want” stand out as the ones that… Those were the newest songs going into recording. For “Get What I Want,” I think I wrote that a week before we went to the studio. So it was pretty raw and I only had a phone demo and I hadn’t done any kind of arranging. That one especially, I had no idea what it would be. So it’s cool to be surprised by your own songs. And “1-800” too. That was the first one we did and Brett just put Connor and Chris in a room and they started playing the bass and drums. There wasn’t a drum-part written and it was cool to just stand in the room with Brett and look into see Chris and Connor play and hear it becoming what it was going to become. So that was a really inspiring experience for all of us.
I wanted to focus on “Get What You Want” because when it’s a pretty strictly, simple song but when I listen to it everything just melds together so perfectly. So it was just that molding experience of finding out where everything fits worked out better than having it all planned out beforehand?
Kerry: In some way, yeah! Sometimes I have my own idea of what the song should be. Like, I value my own opinion on that kind of stuff. They’re my songs so I feel like you can kind of get an attachment to them that’s sometimes hard to let them grow beyond what you imagined for them. For me, at least, it feels like I’m losing some of my agency over some songs. But every time I’ve worked in a situation where I let my guard down and let other creative energies in, it almost always ends up with something way better than if I kept it to myself and listened to my own intuition. So that’s been a very good learning experience for me over the years. Valuing my opinions but seeing the beauty and strength in collaboration has been really amazing. That’s why I like working with Brett, we both have a strong sense of how we want the song to be and what’s important in the song. I think the balance we strike together is really cool. I liked working with Brett too, because sometimes it’s not like I just get what I want. He really enjoyed the demo that I sent, which was just guitar and voice. But the guitar I was playing with had a really different vibe to what it became. And he was like, “what if we get a box. I think the drums need to sound like a box.” But then he would cobble something together in the studio. I think we found a plastic tub and the cover of a guitar case and that’s what the drums are in the verses. I think that Brett just has a vision for what he wants and sometimes it can be a really exciting process for him to kind of create that world. So it’s nice to be along for the ride sometimes.
For a lot of your songs I think of a very happy, melancholy type of sound in pop music. And a lot of it consists of nervous or regrettable thoughts from different relationships. How does that play out now that you are married to your bandmate and are writing songs about your life before?
Kerry: It’s not like a problem but it’s kind of funny when I want to write about heartache or breakups or something, I do have to mark them back to, at this point it was a really long time ago. I think I like tapping into those times of… Even cliche love story feelings. Like I think I will always be writing about heartache and breakups because you always remember what it felt like to go through that. To me it’s just storytelling tapping into something that people relate to but trying to find a way to express that that’s maybe something they haven’t heard before. And I think it’s pretty easy for me. I look to my friends a see what they are going through. That inspires me a lot with my lyrics. I’m trying, too, to think about being in a long-term relationship, and there are small moments of heartache. Even when you are in a relationship. Like there’s fights… and for “Makes Me Nervous” and “Automatic” I was trying to think of this feeling where you spend your life with someone and you get to know them so well but that only amplifies loss. It’s like to love someone is to be even more hurt by the loss of that person. So I think about that a lot. Where love is always like a double-edged sword in that way. I just love rom-coms and stuff too. So I love thinking of a way a good rom-com makes you feel. I like to try to make songs that give you that sort of feeling.
Are there any specific bands that you look up to in Minneapolis or any that you look up to?
Kerry: Oh yeah totally, there are so many. When we first started in Minneapolis, some of the first people we met and started playing with was a band called Strange Relations. We feel like we’ve been with them from the start. We have friends in a band named Carroll, they just moved to Philadelphia but they went to Macalester too. Connor is in a band called Wingman, and he makes his own solo music. And we found him because he had recorded with Brett and Brett suggested Connor. I feel like Caroline Smith was one of the first local artists that I ever saw perform in the Twin Cities. That was really cool for me to see because I hadn’t lived somewhere where I could see shows and I hadn’t played many shows. I think I just saw her perform at the perfect time and thought, “I should try this. I want to start a band and play music.” I’ve always looked at Caroline as the first person I looked up to in the music scene.
What is your favorite Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle?
Kerry: I wish Noah was here, he’s more well versed. I’m gonna just say one but it might be dangerous because I have really no idea. I don’t know the personalities of these people so I’m afraid I’m going to misrepresent myself. But the first name that came to mind is Donatello, so that’s what I’m going with. How’d I do?
That is a solid pick and it’s what most people say when I ask them that because he’s kind of the level headed thinker. Do you have any advice for aspiring artists?
Kerry: Yeah, I think my advice is always just to keep making good art. I feel like it can be really easy to get hung up on process and the business side of things and the grind. Because it can be a grind for a long time, in some ways it’s always a grind, like it’s a job. But it’s a really rewarding job when you really step back and look at it. But it should be fun and I think when people are making good art and enjoying the process, I think other people see that and enjoy it too.