The Strange World Of… Polar Bear’s Seb Rochford

Leo Chadburn sits down with with one of the UK's best drummers, Seb Rochford, to discuss ten highlights from his career to date. All Polar Bear live shots courtesy of Valerio Berdini

Drummers with Seb Rochford’s kind of virtuosity are always going to be in demand, but it’s still astonishing to take a look over the full range of projects he’s been involved with. He’s the one degree of separation between Brett Anderson and Herbie Hancock, Yoko Ono and Peter Doherty, Brian Eno and Adele. It’s almost absurd.

His own band, Polar Bear, has become increasingly hard to classify. They’re still booked to appear at jazz festivals, but the surging electronics and gritty soundscapes on their new album, In Each And Every One, don’t immediately place it in the ‘canon’ of jazz history.

There’s very little bombast to Rochford’s playing. Although he can unleash the whip-crack drum kit explosions when required, he’s just as likely to be observed pausing, listening, waiting for an exquisite moment. His ears are open. Personally too, he’s completely ‘undrummerish’, softly spoken, thoughtful and charming, almost reticent.

We meet in Rochford’s studio/den – previously a Jamaican takeaway restaurant in South Tottenham. Round the corner, the streets bustle with solicitors from Ghana, grocers from Pakistan, bakers from Turkey, entrepreneurs from Vietnam. Somehow it seems like the right place to find the drummer from Scotland, whose musical journey seems to extend ever further afield.

Polar Bear – In Each And Every One [2014]

We made it in quite a different way to the previous albums; it’s the first time I’ve mixed it all myself. I wanted to create an atmosphere that was always present, through putting different character microphones on the saxophones, or putting them through a Space Echo and compressing them, so all those tiny sounds of Mark [Lockheart]’s mouth became a lot louder. I was mainly going on what I wanted it to feel like emotionally, and all those unusual sounds seemed to give me that.

It was a process of saying ‘no’ to things, shutting myself away here and not even playing it to anyone while I was making it. So it was purely what I wanted it to be without being influenced by anything outside. There are themes running through the album, but at the moment they feel too personal to talk about. I hope that people might connect with it solely from a musical point of view, to find their own meaning in it.

Acoustic Ladyland – Last Chance Disco [2005]

[The second album by the jazz/punk band, three of whose original members (Rochford, Pete Wareham and Tom Herbert) also form three fifths of Polar Bear.]

The drums give me this feeling I don’t get from any other instrument. Ever since I was four years old or so I wanted to play them, but my parents said, ‘Learn the piano first.’ I think they thought, especially if you’re playing the drums, that learning to play the piano would help with all aspects of music.

When I first got a drum kit I was playing along to Prince and Grace Jones records. Then my first band was a sort of hardcore, discordant punk band. That was my first experience of playing live.

Obviously, me and [saxophonist] Pete [Wareham] are very different people, but we’ve got a very strong connection to each other. A big part of Acoustic Ladyland was connecting to the way I started out playing the drums. It’s interesting that people perceive you as a certain thing and sometimes people get very protective; ‘Why are these jazz musicians making this? Who are these college students trying to be punk?’ or whatever. But for me, that’s how I started playing music.

Babyshambles – Babyshambles [2004]

[Rochford played on the first post-Libertines single by Pete Doherty]

There’s something about that record. It’s just got a raw energy, so it’s one of my favourite things. And there were so many events happening around that recording. It was quite a memorable moment, being really hungry and being absolutely freezing because there was no heating in the place, and all these people passing through and it being very inspiring.

Peter is a really great musician and songwriter. He always keeps you on your toes because you never quite know what’s going to happen – there’s an unpredictability. We were working on this song and it took me a while to work out that he was actually playing the same structure every time, just changing the way he was playing with it. And I thought, ‘Oh hang on a minute, he’s just doing what jazz musicians do!’

In fact, when I first met Peter and [guitarist] Pat [Walden], they said, ‘Oh wow! Do you play jazz? Have you played at Ronnie Scott’s? We’d love to play at Ronnie Scott’s!’ I thought that was interesting, the fact they respected jazz, because not everyone does.

Personally, I’ve always thought jazz was just something with improvisation in it. I think, maybe, American jazz means something else, because it’s rooted in an amazing culture and a tradition; music based on swing, that’s a particular thing. The stuff that I think of as jazz is… I dunno… it’s such a wide thing. There’s lots of different ways to do it, but I don’t relate to the feeling of having to protect it.

David Byrne and Brian Eno – Everything That Happens Will Happen Today [2008]

To be honest, when I did it I didn’t really know much about Brian Eno. I’m glad I didn’t, because afterwards I realised the size of his influence. It’s incredible what he’s done. I knew who he was, obviously. I knew he’d produced U2 and that he was in Roxy Music. So working with him got me into Roxy Music. Those early albums are amazing. I never realized they did stuff like that. Even now, though, I know more about his music than his philosophy, his ideologies.

It was amazing to get Brian’s perspective on the music. There’s one track where he asked me to play this pattern where the drums were always just before the beat. Everything else was on the beat and it felt really weird. But then you just trust him and listening back, you think, ‘Wow, that’s really incredible. I’d never have thought of that in a million years.’

He also got me to play on the wrong side of the snare drum, which I’d never done before, and a lot of electronic drums. Then he got me to play a really sparse bass drum pattern, which at the time felt excruciating, but I learned a lot from doing that. I think I used to be a lot busier on the bass drum, and it’s easy to forget the role of the bass drum, which can be melodic.

I generally think of drums as a tonal instrument, and if my drums are in tune it really helps me play. Even cymbals. If a cymbal is in pitch, it helps. I remember when I was younger, I went with my parents to India and they just left me in this village with a tabla player. Looking back on it, I wonder whether my drumming has been influenced by that experience, even though I only had a few tabla lessons. They’re tuned instruments, so very melodic. I’ve been listening to that music ever since.

Rokia Traoré – Beautiful Africa [2013]

Punk, to me, is like a state of mind. I feel that Rokia has that quality. One minute she’s got a very tender love song, the next she’s just letting you have it. It’s a very expressive music, and that attitude, that energy is what punk is.

I knew when I was asked to play with her that I was going to feel like a beginner, because I was the only drummer in that band and her music is based on Malian rhythms, which I don’t know. I knew there’d be some walls to climb over. But she said to me, ‘If I’d wanted a Malian drummer, I’d have got a Malian drummer, so I want you to feel it like you feel it.’

There were certain times when I knew I’d have to understand the music in some way. There was one tune where I asked where the ‘one’ was [the first beat of the bar] and she said, ‘There is no ‘one’ in Malian music, there are just phrases!’ So I said, ‘Rokia, if you were to walk to this tune, how would you do it?’ And she said, ‘In Mali you wouldn’t really walk to it, you’d do this…’ and she did this amazing dance move where she went down to the ground and back up again. So I didn’t play and just listened until it got inside me. In those situations your ego really takes a battering, but for me feeling like a beginner in music is a good thing. To constantly be challenged on your preconceptions is ideal, because there’s not one way of making music, there’s millions of ways.

I feel like I learned so much from it, and not just about African music. Everything comes down to how you connect to music and how to connect to yourself. It was forcing myself to feel 100% relaxed, because if you’re not relaxed, you can’t play that music.

Brigitte Fontaine – Prohibition [2009]

Brigitte wasn’t there for the recordings. She sent over little recordings and we all played to her voice. Just her voice and maybe one other sound. We played around it. I think she doesn’t like travelling now. It sounds unusual, but I’ve done it quite a few times: the person whose album it is isn’t actually there. It was like that with David Byrne too.

It was produced by Ivor Guest, whose approach is amazing, very minimal. He believes in getting the right people and then just guiding them, so it kind of happens. He gives you so much freedom. He was definitely in control, but at the same time made everyone feel like they could do whatever they wanted.

I tend to like music that has a political element, and I respect musicians who engage with that, although I don’t feel I have the knowledge to make that explicit in my own music. The way she’s talking about the government… It’s really full on. But it’s not just like that. There’s that incredibly beautiful track where’s she’s talking about having just one more night with her husband.

[Asked if he met Grace Jones, who guests on the record] I remember being very excited about my name being on the same album as hers. Then I went for dinner with Grace and Ivor one night. It was odd, because when I was in primary school I had a picture of her on my wall and I used to kiss it before I went to bed. It wasn’t anything sexual; I was too young. I just loved her music. So it was a big deal for me, meeting her. She’s just a lovely person, but I think I was really quiet."

Andy Sheppard / Michel Benita / Sebastian Rochford – Trio Libero [2012]

At the time, that was the most spacious I’d ever played, it was so different from anything I’d done previously. The whole album was done in six hours. It just flowed, with no headphones and no bass amp in the room, so it was the quietest I’d ever played. In that way I feel it’s quite a pure album.

There was one tune that we’d played loads of times, for about two years, so we knew it really well. Then, when we recorded it, Andy suddenly played it without any tempo, without us discussing it. There was no question, we just followed it, because we had that kind of freedom as a band.

Then meeting [ECM records producer] Manfred Eicher was very inspiring. I like the way he always explains things in visual terms. For the first time, it felt OK to not have to play all the time. I could play as little as I wanted to. That’s what I was thinking about on that album; ‘How little can I play and still affect the movement of the music?’ Because sometimes as a drummer, if you stop playing everyone else thinks something’s wrong! In that band it felt okay, and that’s part of the new Polar Bear stuff as well. I’ve said, ‘If I’m not playing, don’t think it’s because I want the music to stop, it’s just what I feel like doing.’

Leafcutter John – The Forest And The Sea [2006]

[Now a permanent member of Polar Bear, Leafcutter John’s third album married folk music and live instruments to cascades of digital electronics.]

I read an interview with John way before I knew him, and I remember thinking, ‘Wow, we’re so different. We’re really not into the same music at all.’ But there was something about him. It took me about a year to get hold of his CD. I kept looking for it, and then I eventually found it in a record shop filed in the wrong section.

When I first met him I was so star-struck. I felt I played like crap, because I knew his music and there was so much pressure to create magic or something and it just shuts you down.

When we recorded the tracks for this album, he gave me a metronome and I had to play along to it. Then he started changing the speed of it, randomly, when he felt like it. Or he’d come up to the window in the booth of the studio and hold up a picture he’d drawn. It was really unfamiliar.

As a drummer, I thought I had to come out with something complicated and inspired. But in the end the thing he used was me playing swing brushes: not what I thought he’d want from me at all.

So I’ve worked with him for nine years now, and he’s a very important person in my life. He’s just direct with you, and I think that’s an amazing quality. He’s another person who can say maybe one sentence and it’ll change the way you think about everything.

Bless Beats

[Rochford has an ongoing association with the Wiley / Skepta collaborator and producer.]

People like Bless really inspire me. We’re coming from such different places, but he’s someone I can play something to and know within two seconds whether it’s crap or not. If I can’t play something to him and feel proud of it, then it’s definitely crap.

Every time he comes over here I feel like he’s just blown apart my world, and makes me feel like I’ve got to raise my level. As a producer, it’s like he always wants to lift people, but at the same time he’s always going to throw something in that’s anarchic. He’s always looking for that thing.

For music to be challenging it doesn’t necessarily have to be hostile. For instance, if you take someone to see [legendary free improvising saxophonist] Evan Parker – I’ve seen him with lots of different people and I’ve never known anyone to not enjoy what he does. It’s an energetic thing. The music is so challenging, but he’s filling the whole room with his presence.

Touring with Patti Smith

She’s amazing. She’s got such a strong energy that when you listen there’s no question – you’re just taken along with it. But she’s also really free on stage, so she’ll read from books, or start spitting. I’ve never seen reactions so strong; people are really uplifted and empowered. She transforms a room. She encompasses lots of different things, but she allows people to free themselves.

Playing live with her, I didn’t realise for a long time that, even though she had her back to me, she knew I was watching her feet. There’s a certain groundedness to her. Without wanting to sound too hippy, sometimes when you’re playing music it helps to think about connecting with the ground, with the earth. A lot of people intellectualise music, but not so many go with their instinct. That feeling of instinct is just as valid as any analytical approach.

Polar Bear’s In Each And Every One is released today on Leaf

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