Saying 'Yeah' to jazz

Jazz and punk rock may seem like opposite ends of the musical spectrum, but to drummer Brian Chase, switching between genres is all in a day’s work.

Saying 'Yeah' to jazz

Jazz and punk rock may seem like opposite ends of the musical spectrum, but to drummer Brian Chase, switching between genres is all in a day’s work.

“It basically comes down to music as expression, and I often see it in terms of language,” says the drummer best known for his work with New York art-punk trio Yeah Yeah Yeahs. “Just as different languages can express the same concept, in music, you can ask, how does the sentiment ‘I love you’ get expressed in Indie Pop, or ‘60s R&B, or 19th century classical music? It becomes a matter of understanding different languages.”

Yeah Yeah Yeahs say ‘I love you’ in undeniably memorable style. They burst onto the early Noughties New York scene with a snarl, a three-piece with no bass guitar. But despite his love of punk, Chase’s roots are in jazz; conservatory trained, he took up drumming at the tender age of five. He comes from a musical family of eastern European origin. His Jewish Ukrainian jazz-band leader grandfather changed the family name from Chaikin to Chase in the 1950s, having fled anti-Semitism in Kiev in the 1920s.

“I grew up listening to a lot of different music so the differences between genres don’t feel like such a big deal to me,” Chase says. “I think that if people had a wider listening experience, then different music would be more accessible.”

Yeah Yeah Yeahs are ramping back up again with some upcoming gigs: they haven’t released an album since 2013’s Mosquito. In the early days of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, it could have been imagined that they were a band on a typically punky nihilistic trajectory. Karen O’s performances in grimy clubs could stray into dangerous territories: rolling on stages littered with broken glass, emerging onto the stage in ripped fishnets, her face scrawled with messages or her skin doused in olive oil.

But almost 20 years in, there’s been no crash and burn. “It starts off as super-energetic and feeds off that youthful hyperactivity, but with age and wisdom comes power,” Chase says. “We’re more grown up. We’re getting better command of ourselves as individuals.”

Their enduring career can be credited to Karen O’s insistence on taking long breaks between albums. “After a tour it was like, right, get back in and start writing songs. I was thinking more along those lines, but Karen had a special insight. Now, I think if we had done that, we would have burnt out.”

During their time out, both Karen O and Chase became parents. Chase also founded his own label, Chaikin Records, and has released his own triple album, a ten-year minimalist project called Drums and Drones, and an album with West Cork born jazz saxophonist Catherine Sikora.

Chase and Sikora’s 2016 album, Untitled: after, is inspired by Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf. A forthcoming week-long tour will see the free jazz duo reunited; they met in New York but Sikora has returned to live in Ireland.

“It’s amazing to play with Catherine again,” Chase says. “Now, we’re separated by the Atlantic Ocean so getting this opportunity to play and present our music in Ireland is great. We’ll be playing some of the material from that album, but we’ll be bringing in some newer material and start searching for some new directions on this trip.”

Chase’s collaboration with Sikora can prove something of an acquired taste for fans of his more mainstream fare. “There hasn’t been as much over-lap as I’d have liked,” he says. “Yeah Yeah Yeahs fans might be intrigued at first when they hear the music, they’ll step into it for a minute, but their first reaction will be that it’s unfamiliar music.”

Chase’s love of avant-garde music, and niche scenes in noise and jazz in New York earned him the moniker of “consummate music nerd” in the New York Times. Is it so? He laughs. “I’m a music nerd but there are other people out there nerdier than me. My nerdiness pales in comparison to the nerdiness of others.”

Catherine Sikora and Brian Chase will perform at the Sirius Arts Centre in Cobh on Friday, April 5

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