Arguably one of the most diverse, hardest to classify bands in recent memory is Kingston, Ontario’s Bedouin Soundclash. Consisting of guitarist/vocalist Jay Malinowski, Eon Sinclair, originally from Ghana on bass and drummer Pat Pengelly, the trio began as many others, a group of university friends getting together in between classes for some impromptu jamming.|
Taking their name from a Badawi record of the same name, one thing led to another and before they knew it, they were all the rage on the indie scene and signed a deal with Stomp Records in 2004. They took the world by storm without even intentionally trying to, releasing ROOT FIRE that same year, setting a new bar for creatively incorporating traditional reggae with a pop and ska blend. The unique blend and infectious groove has kept critics baffled while trying to peg the band down to a particular genre, something Malinowski says is inevitable, but something the band isn’t too concerned with.
“It’s just what it sounds like when we play together. The labelling thing with us we just take it with a grain of salt. It just depends on how you interpret it, I guess,” Malinowski said, noting it’s inevitable – given the band’s background. All three members grew up in Toronto, though Malinowski was born in Vancouver and Sinclair was born in Guyana.
“Personally, I think we have a Canadian sound, or at least a Canadian philosophy. If you walk down the streets in Toronto, you’ll hear reggae, indie, punk, and just about everything else you can think of and probably all in the same day. There are so many different types of people there, and in Canada in general. So we just want to always represent the kind of people we’re around and our favourite aspects of everything around us, which is everything coming together culturally. It’s a super mixed bag. For us, it couldn’t be any other way. We don’t come from Kingston, Jamaica, so we can’t play a reggae song that way. And personally, I’ve always liked when what can only be called roots reggae went overseas bands like The Clash, English Beat, The Specials, General Public or Big Audio Dynamite. That’s when I always liked the music best, when it was sort of reinterpreted. That’s sort of where we’re coming from. We don’t want to keep it traditional, and I don’t think we could. We want to put our own spin on it. And ultimately what it comes down to is if it’s a good song, it’s a good song,” he noted.
Sinclair added, “”To me, there’s really only two types of music stuff that you like and stuff that you don’t like. Hopefully we fall into the category of stuff that people like,” he laughed. “We don’t really try to classify ourselves. We just try to make the best music that we possibly can, and try to challenge each other to make something more interesting as we develop and evolve as a group. We try to bring as much of our own personal histories, musically and otherwise into what we do. So what ends up happening is you get different uniqueperspectives and takes on a certain idea. But we’re careful to make sure they work together, otherwise it’s a useless exercise. When it happens the way it’s supposed to, you get something new and different, and special.”
The band’s follow-up was 2006’s SOUNDING LIKE A MOSAIC after scoring a US deal with Side One Dummy Records. Their creativity and unwillingness to compromise also earned them a Juno Award for Best New Group later that year, and the band scored it big again when the single “12:59 Lullaby” was featured on TV’s “Grey’s Anatomy.”
With changing fads and flavours of the day, and with venues like Canadian Idol, it might seem that almost anyone has the potential of becoming the next overnight sensation, but Bedouin Soundclash did it old school. They formed, released a self-financed CD, played in front of anyone who would listen, and built their following, forming a bond with their audience that Malinowski noted just doesn’t seem to be done anymore.
“These days, on any level, there’s a different atmosphere. There’s so much hype given to bands far too young to receive it. With us, it’s really always been a listener-driven thing. I think people discover us on their own terms. We’ve always known from day one we’d never be big on conventional radio, nor did we want to. We’re not that format band. We’re the square peg in the round hole. I think as a result we’ve built a lot of integrity with our listeners. We’ve also seen so much stuff come and go over the last decade, I think we became a lot smarter because of it and didn’t fall in the pitfalls that some bands do with bad record deals and decisions that end some careers,” he said.
The band has become a staple of music festivals around the world, particularly in the United Kingdom and Europe. But Malinowski takes the band’s success in stride. Keeping the philosophy that simple is sometimes better is easier said than done, he noted it’s the key to who the band is. “If you take any good song and do something different with it, it’s still a good song,” he said.
Sinclair added, “Our songs aren’t super complicated or technically difficult in terms of proficiency,” he remarked, but noted their music is diverse, and sometimes slightly dark in nature. “There’s some serious issues in the world. We’re all into current events, we’re all trying to understand the world around us. And unfortunately there’s a lot of things that have happened in the world, or are happening right now that aren’t always pleasant,” he said. “And there’s a lot of things happening in the world that people maybe aren’t aware of, and we’ve been able to convey those messages in our own personal journeys. So if there’s something we feel that needs to be said or we feel real strongly about, we try to write a song about it and make it happen.”
Trying to understand the world around them, it’s inevitable that much of Bedouin Soundclash’s music is enveloped by social issues of the day, although Malinowski confided the band consciously tries to steer each record in a slightly different direction than the previous one. The balancing act is staying true to yourself as an artist.
They recorded a reggae-tinged version of U2’s “New Year’s Day,” which just happened by chance. “We’d had a couple of hits in the UK, and we recorded it in Liverpool while we were on tour there about four years ago. It was something we had already been playing live, but never planned on recording it. But the record label told us to, and it worked out OK for us,” Malinowski said. They’ve already toured the world more than once, and will soon be releasing their third LP, which features cameos from members from Alexis On Fire and The Beastie Boys. Sinclair surmised what makes the band different from everything else on the market today is their separate personalities gelling together, forming something truly unique. “We always come back to the fact we’re three unique individuals. We don’t really compromise our own personal histories to try to create something,” he said.
Keeping the philosophy that simple is sometimes better is easier said than done. Songs like “Jeb Rand,” “Murder On The Midnight Wire” and “Criminal” are only a few of the examples of the band’s darker complexity, another element that Sinclair commented is just part of who the band is. “In doing so though, although the lyrical content might be a little bit more on the serious side or the political or darker side, we still try to make the music fit our own esthetic and danceable, or at least something people can get into at a live show so it’s not just somebody preaching about the subject,” he continued. “If you like the song, if you like to dance to the song, hopefully you buy the record and listen to the lyrics and understand the message of the song as well.”
He added it’s hard to say what the new record, whenever they get around to recording it, will sound like. “I can’t write on the road. It’s like trying to read a book at a party. So we’ll finish the tour, take a break, then put pen to paper and write about whatever’s been on our minds the last little while,” he explained. Regardless of when it’s recorded, he stressed the importance of keeping records as close to their live sound as possible.
“A lot of the songs are just recorded off the floor. I’ve always had the philosophy that simple is best little or no guitar solos, three chords. Make the song short and concise and get your idea across. I think when you get involved in too much studio trickery you lose sight of what you’re trying to accomplish. I don’t know, maybe it’s just a way of covering up it might not have been a good idea to begin with,” he laughed. “There are two things we’re proud of the music we make and entertaining people live. We want people to come out to our shows and have a good time, leaving with smiles on their faces knowing we put everything into it.”