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Last fall’s American Nightmare — the second full-length album from Boston’s most resilient foursome Bad Rabbits — is an audible manifestation of extremes: the band goes from sinister rumination to crippling self-awareness in the span of 12 tracks. Despite previously releasing only a few EPs in addition to their debut record — antithetically titled American Love — the shift in their signature soulful sound is palpable.
Though Bad Rabbits are known for reviving a genre of music that sumptuously fuses R&B and funk, the harder and faster American Nightmare aims to swallow it whole. Before they play the Middle East in Cambridge this Saturday (February 4), Vanyaland sat down with all four members (vocalist Fredua Boakye, drummer Sheel Davé, guitarist Salim Akram, and bassist Graham Masser) to talk about their latest project as well as the importance of following their creative instincts.
Candace McDuffie: How had your personal experiences after American Love influenced American Nightmare?
Davé: After American Love, we tried to play the whole industry game and worked with different writers and producers. People kept telling us we just needed that one song to take us to the next level, so we started shopping songs around. We got some pretty amazing material out of it, but personally I lost the emotional connection to the music. Everyone pretty much passed on us as far as labels go. It did something to me where I said fuck this — let’s just go in the room and make some noise again.
Akram: The time in between was about us getting our confidence back as a band. The American Love experience was us creating a record where we controlled the end result of the product. American Nightmare allowed us to explore our creativity and to see what we can do on our own. It was about what felt natural — stylistically speaking.
Masser: We also went back to our original process, which is how we made [2009 EP] Stick Up Kids. It was all of us in a room writing the songs together; all the melodies and all the lyrics. With American Love, we love that body of work, but we collaborated with an outside producer, recorded some things remotely. Working with each other so closely again… it was cool to just go back to that.
Thematically, American Nightmare is a strong record, it’s a complex record. You guys talk about sadness and self-doubt and race and state violence. How did you know this was the album to do it on?
Boakye: We didn’t know this was the album to do it on. When we started writing parts of the record, the Baltimore riots were happening. I was dealing with people making comments like [the protestors] are acting like animals, like thugs, like criminals. The anger from trying to explain to them why spilled over into a lot of these songs — especially with “The Wire.” The time was right because we’re now seeing everything. People are getting beat up for who they are, people are being killed for who they are. And often, these are crimes committed by authoritative figures that are getting off scot free. You can’t just not talk about it if it affects you. I’m a black man who has two black parents; they came to this country with an American dream and we’re living in an American nightmare.
Davé: There was a lot of dark shit that was happening in the world, but for our band it was a pretty dark time as well, wondering if we were going to eat off this band, if we were going to live off this band. I think that’s where a lot of the dark undertones of this album also came from. A lot of us in the band grew up on heavier music, and we never truly channeled all of that into one album until now.
Akram: The way the lyrics and music were written… it was just honest. We weren’t nitpicky because it was important to keep the flow going. If a part was tight, we would just record it and move on. It was a really good vibe.
Because the new record is heavier — lyrically, sonically, structurally — how does that affect your rehearsals and live performance?
Boakye: You’ll find out — either we fly or we crash and burn. I’m not too worried about how we’re going to sound; we’re going to sound as honest and cool as possible as a band. I am kind of worried about the reception, I’m not going to lie. Who in a band wouldn’t worry about a new song being presented a certain way? We definitely played some songs we knew were fire and motherfuckers didn’t even clap. You can’t win them all.
Davé: This material translated really well in rehearsals. After we did the record, for the first time in my entire career as a musician I got a message from a fan telling me that something we created saved their life. We did something on this album, you know? It might not be the biggest album we’ve made, but we did something right.
Masser: The last two days of rehearsals… it just felt really genuine to be playing the songs the way that we were doing it. Some of our other songs are more pop leaning and polished, and that’s important as well. But this just felt so natural to me, and that fits with the ethos of the record.
For fans and critics who question the trajectory of Bad Rabbits because you went more rock for American Nightmare, what would you say to them?
Davé: We’ve never been a band that’s been good playing by other people’s rules — especially when it comes to the industry standard. So this is a fuck you, we can do whatever the hell we want kind of album.
Akram: People have been gravitating to our story because we’ve been controlling the narrative from the start. If you subscribe to our music, honestly and truly, you’d understand that this record is a necessary step toward our evolution.
Boakye: A band can do whatever a band wants to do at times, especially when they are trying to better themselves and grow. We’re not abandoning anything, we’re just doing something different now. You can choose to grow or stay stagnant, but either way you should have an open mind. I’m just telling the fans to listen — really listen — and then see where we go from here.
BAD RABBITS + PARTY BOIS + SPNDA :: Saturday, February 4 at the Middle East, 472 Massachusetts Ave. in Cambridge, MA :: 8 p.m., 18-plus, $20 :: Facebook event page :: Advance tickets :: Bad Rabbits photo by Richard Knowles