Words by David C. Obenour
While supergroups by definition unite talented players, the results are rarely a given. The transitive principles of math can’t directly correlate to good musicians creating good music together. Music is created and performed with more than talent and past accolades.
However, Body Meπa is a supergroup by circumstance and not design. Uniting Greg Fox (drums), Sasha Frere-Jones (guitar), Melvin Gibbs (bass), and Grey McMurray (guitar), the four were friends before they were a supergroup and that something “more” needed is fully present on The Work is Slow. The songs unspool as dynamic soundscapes that artfully ride out repetition with experimentation for a captivating listen.
Recorded over quarantine, released digitally last December and out physically this summer on Hausu Mountain, the work is slow but it is far from over.
Off Shelf: How have you been holding up? The last year has definitely been odd and challenging in ways that we’re all unfamiliar with.
Sasha Frere-Jones: I’m alive. Nothing is lacking.
Grey McMurray: Lucky and fine. Though I suppose I discovered whatever makes me comfortable in isolation might be what makes the world at times difficult.
Melvin Gibbs: I’m still here and still evolving. I’m thankful for both.
OS: This album came out digitally in December of 2020 during some of the darkest days of our experience of the pandemic and weeks before an almost coup would form at the capital. How did it feel releasing the album into a world struggling with such realities?
SFJ: This album comforted me during dark times. I hope it can do something similar for someone else.
GM: I was probably more aware, because of the loud world-shared nature of this past year, what it is to release anything at anytime.
OS: Coming out physically in May of 2021, do the songs strike you any differently now upon revisiting them in the current climate?
SFJ: I just think, “Good job, Body Meπa!”
GM: “Bullit” feels like it was made during not before.
OS: Was the album recorded in quarantine? What was that process like? Had the slowing down of other projects and responsibilities given this collaboration room to exist?
SFJ: We recorded it in January and February of 2020. All four of us have only played together twice. Greg has a studio in his apartment, so every second of our playing was recorded to professional standards in high fidelity. The band has its own mind and body and logic and set of habits. I’ve known these guys for a while and I love them. I wouldn’t give a shit what music we played, to be honest.
OS: Is there a throughline to the Ornette Coleman album that you derived the band name Body Meπa from? Could you extrapolate on its significance?
SFJ: Yeah, I’ve put that album on every mixtape I’ve made for a project. “Voice Poetry” from Body Meta was on the A Study in Groove tape I gave Clem when Ui started in 1990. I think I was making some kind of playlist early on in 2020 and that album popped up again. I started tagging our rehearsals “Body Meta Band” because I couldn’t think of anything else to call it. Also, Melvin is an actual harmolodic musician, somebody whose music I grew up with. He’s played with Ornette! When I was 15 years old, I listened to Defunkt and Shannon Jackson—that was Melvin’s playing. Ui had two bass players because the Decoding Society had two bass players.
MG: I was fortunate to spend a bit of time with, play with, get mentorship and encouragement from Ornette. I think it would be a stretch to call this band’s music harmolodic, since its form doesn’t follow the rules of that musical system. But it’s fair to say the band is inspired by the musical results those rules allow people to attain. The structural flexibility that Prime Time attained set the precedent for many bands, including ours.
OS: It may be an impossible question to answer, but you all capture some amazing moods, textures and sounds throughout the album. Thinking of your own part or those of your bandmates, are there any particular moments that stand out to you in the recording as impactful?
SFJ: I started laughing when Melvin and Grey played that screaming, fuzzed-out stuff in “Bullitt.” It’s all so evil.
GM: Honestly the whole thing. This record was made over the course of I think two rehearsals and those were the first time that all four of us had played together – Sasha, Melvin and Greg, I believe, had gotten together once before. So the energy really is that learning each other while galloping together toward something we are all trying to serve. Like the first time you travel a particular path feels longer than repeated trips is because everything is new and every moment is an event. This record captures us up very close to the canvas.
OS: Can you talk about how The Work is Slow came together? I’m particularly interested in how the album was sequenced – were there songs or jams left on the cutting room floor? The full album hangs together so well.
SFJ: Matt Mehlan, who mixed it all, was great about adjusting the mixes based on feedback. After three passes, we had what we wanted, and there just seemed to be a natural sequence. There are maybe one or two viable songs left over, but they’re not really coherent.
OS: Do you expect Body Meπa to continue on after The Work is Slow? What did you discover in playing together that you would like to further explore?
MG: Yes. I think for me the thing I’d like to continue to explore is what in the rock context is a unique rhythmic interaction between drums and bass. We didn’t do any of the sort of unison rhythm section playing that’s traditional, I’d say stereotypical, in a band that has a drummer with Greg’s skill set. I’m not saying we’ll never riff together. I am saying that there’s another rhythmic equation other than the one that we have shown can yield a great sounding record.
GM: Yes. Joy.
Greg Fox: Yes.
SFJ: We’re going to beat Elon Musk to Saturn. We’re gonna clean your mom’s rug. We’re gonna cater your wedding. We have stars in our eyes and the wind in our sails.
OS: Do you hope to perform live? How does the relationship between the recording and the performance exist in your mind? Does one service the other or are they more separate beasts?
GM: Definitely separate. Though since this group has yet to play out, I’m not sure yet how that will be so. Not to mention that we made this record when we didn’t know we were making it.
MG: I’m from the era that didn’t expect to see an instrumental-ist’s band play the material that you heard on their record. You understood that musicians workshopped music live, and what you were hearing was what they were thinking about recording for their next record. If they had a song that was popular, let’s say Pharoah Sanders “Creator Has A Master Plan” you sort of hoped to hear that one. But beyond that you knew to keep an open mind. The band hasn’t played live yet, so I don’t know which road we’ll take. But I’m open minded.
SFJ: Yes, we will play live as soon as we possibly can.
OS: This may go nowhere, but after years of trying to find my entry way into jazz – I discovered that I gravitated toward projects lead by drummers and percussionists. Something about their centrality or focus in the songs seemed to anchor my appreciation. I’m still not sure what exactly it is that elevates for me, but what do you see the importance of percussion when it comes to jazz and more experimental music?
MG: Rhythm is central to music that’s based in, or evolved from, African cultural practice. Jazz is most definitely one of those musics. In fact, any music that uses a drum set, which was created by African Americans concurrently with jazz at the turn of the last century, or the technology evolved because of the drum set’s existence, is going to reflect that centrality.
GM: I have been lucky to play with and be close to a number of great musicians who play drums. It’s hard to talk about, so in advance please forgive what will fumble here, but an alright band can sound majestic with a great drummer and an alright band can be unbearable with a drummer that doesn’t serve the music. Obviously this isn’t facts, this is personal, but the drums are the door into the sound, they are first thing you hear, the sound that doesn’t sound like the others – again, hugely reductive – so it’s the first place in the music where you assess whether they’re serving themselves or the music. After that comes everything else. They guide the way the ground is where all walking paths are. In case it’s not evident, Greg Fox is one of the people I feel this way about.
GF: Everything is an expression of rhythm.