Weird, easygoing and alive
Gentleman Surfer's Jon Bafus talks about life behind the drum kit, jazz and Phil Collins
Despite playing drums for nearly a decade in countless bands, Jon Bafus started Gentleman Surfer in 2006 as a project in which he could move away from just being the guy behind the kit and instead play the offbeat ditties he’d been writing on the keyboard and guitar.
His 2011 album Bountiful Ore, in fact, features Bafus on every instrument. The easygoing, weird nature of the songs have almost nothing in common, however, with the spastic avant-punk assault on his follow-up CD, Blalks, for which there will be a release show on March 2, at Bows & Arrows.
That’s because Gentleman Surfer isn’t a solo project anymore. Indeed, Bafus is back to playing drums, accompanied by Drew Walker on guitar and Barry McDaniel Swars on guitar. Now, with Bafus handling mostly of the lead vocals, the trio’s evolved into something that sounds like a cross between Deerhoof, Mr. Bungle and John Zorn.
“It ended up becoming a more raw band. When I’m playing by myself, it doesn’t have the same energy,” Bafus says. “I’ve been playing with Drew and Barry almost two years. They’ve turned it into something more alive.”
The idea to expand into a band came shortly after completing Bountiful Ore. Bafus had wanted to assemble some musicians to play Gentleman Surfer songs in the past, but it wasn’t until then that he believed he had enough good material.
The songs that ended up on Blalks took on a life of their own once transcribed for bass, guitar and drums. Eventually, the trio started to write new songs as a group.
Bafus, who is also a well-regarded local artist known for his pattern-driven psychedelic paintings, believed in Blalks so much, he sent it to many indie labels, but without any luck. Switching tactics, Bafus then launched an Indiegogo campaign to fund a self-release—and raised the minimum of $1,800 in just five days.
“I was surprised. I was at a place where I was frustrated with the album in general because it was getting really close to being done, and I wasn’t getting any feedback,” Bafus says now.
One of the labels Bafus sent it to, Kill Rock Stars, had released several Deerhoof albums, so he thought they might be interested in the album. While the pleasantly strange sound of Deerhoof is indeed an influence here, the Blalks album features a bit more progressive rock and jazz elements with its usage of odd time signatures and heavily complex song structuring, which Bafus attributes to his experience as a drummer-songwriter.
“Most songwriters don’t think about things like interesting structuring or the way those little elements help the transitions,” he says. “For the most part, it’s about the chord changes and the vocal hook. We’re like the bizarro version of that.”
One of Bafus’ favorite bands is Magma, a French prog-rock band from the ’70s also led by its drummer—a fact, Bafus says, that explains why the band’s music is so highly structured and implements so many different rhythmic styles.
“Who better to put a song together than the drummer? I like the idea of building things from the inside out,” Bafus says.
Perhaps the most well-known drummer-songwriter, of course, is Phil Collins. According to Bafus, even Collins’ mainstream records, such as his 1981 debut Face Value (which features the iconic single “In the Air Tonight”) showcase similar elements influenced by his role as a drummer.
“There’s a lot of really cool rhythmic things happening, like only a rhythm guy could and would write, but in a real pop way,” Bafus says.
As such, Bafus says Collins is a big influence in his music—right down to the pop elements. Certainly, despite how weird Blalks can get, the music here is oddly catchy and accessible.
Of course, “weird” is relative.
“I don’t think we’re doing anything that’s unreasonable for anybody that’s not relatively open-minded,” he says.