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The deeply affecting pop song craft of Bad Bad Hats

Nov. 30, 2018 at 10:41PM

A simple Google search will reveal that songwriters have been comparing the act of falling in love to a narcotics addiction for many years. Kerry Alexander, songwriter for Minneapolis-based Bad Bad Hats, took a slightly different approach to this concept.

On “Nothing Gets Me High,” a single off of the band’s 2018 sophomore release Lightning Round, Alexander breathes new life into the tired metaphor by instead writing from the perspective of one who has never actually been high before – at least not from the use of drugs. The clever twist carries a both a literal meaning – nothing gets Alexander high because she chooses not to use drugs – and a metaphorical meaning – an acknowledgement that the “high” that young love once produced for her is no longer attainable.

I had the opportunity to catch up with Alexander over the phone while the band was in Cincinnati on tour with Party Nails to talk about the upcoming show.

MH: Since I last talked to you in May, Lightning Round has been released for a few months. How has the response been?

Kerry Alexander: It’s been good. It’s kind of funny -- you never really know what to expect, and it’s kind of weird when you release an album because it’s been done for forever, and no one else gets to hear it. It’s nice to be on tour and to talk to people at shows and have them sing along. It’s nice to see how people are engaging with the album.

MH: Looking back on the album now, what are some of your favorite songs to perform live and why?

KA: I think “Girl” has always been one of my favorites live. We have a nice arrangement of it with just guitars. We don’t bring a synth with us on tour and that might change one day, but so far we’re rocking the guitars. It’s a little different than the album, so that one’s really fun – it’s just an upbeat song and I can really slap my head to it. “Nothing Gets Me High” is one of my favorites because it’s one of my favorites on the album. A lot of the songs we do we sort of tailor them to the live set so that they’re different from on the album. “Get What I Want” has an outro that’s not on the album. It’s fun to experiment with how to convey the songs in a live setting. There’s a lot of studio magic that we figured out how to do a little differently.

MH: When I last spoke with you, Connor Davis was recently added to the band as the drummer. How is he settling into the lineup?

KA: It’s been great. At this point, we can’t believe it because it feels like it’s gone by so quickly. It feels like we just met him sometimes but other times (it feels like) he’s been with us forever. He’s been with us for two years at this point, and he’s gone on half of the tours we’ve been on. We originally just hired him to play drums on the record and started playing shows with him and getting to know him. He just really felt like a great addition to the group personality wise and what he could bring to the songs. Much like Chris, he can play almost any instrument, so the two of them together – they’re like my Swiss Army knives in the band. It’s just nice to have another creative perspective in the band just to help us take the songs somewhere interesting and new. We’re excited for our next project. Connor will officially be in the band at the start of the project, so I’m excited to see what we can come up with.

MH: Tell me about your upcoming tour that will bring you to Milwaukee.

KA: Right now we’re on a little southeast run – we played Atlanta, Florida, North Carolina and we’re making our way back to Minnesota, so we only have three more shows on this leg. To finish out the year we’re doing some short weekend runs. (We’re coming to) Milwaukee when we’re doing Columbus and Detroit, so it’ll be a little weekend run, and we really like doing that because we like that in Minneapolis we’re able to bop over to a lot of places really easily. Every time we play Milwaukee it’s so fun – we like hanging out there. We had such a great time last time we played Colectivo we were hoping we could get back there soon.

MH: This will be your third time playing The Back Room @ Colectivo. What stands out to you about the venue?

KA: We talk about this all the time and what you really want in a venue is helpful staff, a good sounding room and some cleanliness. That is not always the vibe of rock venues, but Colectivo gives us all those things. (They have) a really amazing staff and it always sounds good and cool people always come out to the show which is great. It’s always clean and comfortable. We like hanging out there – they’ve got a great green room.

MH: You toured with The Front Bottoms and Basement last year, which is an amazing opportunity because The Front Bottoms has really blown up the past few years.

KA: We had never heard of The Front Bottoms before and went to New Jersey and played a not-so- highly attended show. After the show, I was at the merch table and this guy came up and was talking to me and I could tell he was in a band and he’s like, “Oh yeah, I’m in this group called The Front Bottoms.” I had never heard of them, and then Brian Sella (vocalist for The Front Bottoms) came out to our New York show the next day as well. Over the next week we realized that The Front Bottoms are like a giant band and they’re so chill. We had no idea they were in this amazing group and right after that they asked us to go on tour and so it came together in a really nice way.

MH: What are some of your favorite memories from that tour?

KA: That tour was one of our favorite tours we had ever been on. The Front Bottoms guys and the Basement guys were all so friendly and nice and all the venues were really big -- some of the biggest crowds we’ve played in front of. But also all the fans – the vibe of the fans – they’ve really cultivated a culture of joy and enthusiasm and people are so excited to be there and were so supportive of us. They had never heard of us and were like, “You guys are so great,” and they all wanted to give us hugs and stuff. It’s all such a positive vibe and it was great. There were so many great moments – we played a venue in Washington DC and they gave us pie so that was pretty cool (laughs).

MH: How did the concept for the “Nothing Gets Me High” music video come about?

KA: I think we were trying to come up with some ideas we could do ourselves or at least with our friend Dan whose day job is doing video work. So, he had some know-how that we didn’t have and Noah, who used to be in the band, was very into modular synthesizers. And so Noah, as part of a birthday present and a getting-into-grad-school present, we got him this thing called the Vidiot, which is a visual modular synthesizer that basically turns sounds into cool visualizations. We were thinking about doing a music video and wondering if we could use the Vidiot in some way to create some cool visual things, so from there Dan had the idea to have the different screens coming in and out and we’re really glad he knew how to do that because we had no idea how to edit that together. All those visualizations you see in that video, Noah is actively doing that on the Vidiot machine, so it was pretty cool. It was fun to be in the room while it was happening. We did it in like one night and filmed a bunch of stuff and Noah turned the knobs to make it look cool and it really pairs nicely with the song.

MH: Looking at the lyrics for that track, it seems to me like you’re speaking from a perspective of being older and feeling like you’re unable to achieve the same emotions that you have had in the past. Can you elaborate on this?

KA: Totally. The song began as an exercise for me. We’re on tour right now with our friend Party Nails and her stuff is a lot more pop-forward and we love talking about pop music and pop-music tropes – the kinds of things that hook people. I was thinking about that and about writing a pop song and I was thinking about how many songs are about love and drugs and drugs as a metaphor for how much you love someone or how much you’re addicted to someone’s love. How can I sort of do that classic pop trope in my own way? I was thinking about how it would be funny because I have never been high. I drink alcohol and I drink coffee but that’s about it for me, so I was thinking about what someone like me – who doesn’t get high – what kind of songs they would write. So, I thought it was funny to have a song called “Nothing Gets Me High.” I was just thinking about how special the feeling is the very first time you fall in love, especially when that happens when you’re a teenager. All the emotions you feel as a teen – all the highs and lows – all that emotion is new with your hormones and just feeling like that level of despair or wanting or having a true crush when you’re 14 years old and how it’s hard to feel that feeling again when you’re older. You’re not the same level of dramatic and you’ve just been through more stuff, so you just know what it’s like to be through a breakup. Now, you want to capture that but it’s not possible, even if it is a positive thing. You’re in love with someone and it’s deeper and better, but it’s not quite the same as when you first fell in love.

MH: What’s in store for the band in 2019?

KA: We’ll be playing SXSW which will be really fun. We have a few other shows coming together, and we’re hoping to do some more touring. When we recorded Lightning Round we had some extra songs that didn’t make the album so we’re hoping to release those in some capacity so that will be exciting.

MH: When we spoke earlier this year, you mentioned you were excited about finally selling hats – a highly requested merch item due to the band’s name. How have they been selling?

KA: Oh yeah we’re big in the hat game now. It’s funny because whenever we go to the bank they always ask us if we’re hat sellers and now we can say “yes.” In some ways it feels very silly that we didn’t before, but now we’ve gotten to the point where hats are in – dad hats are in, so are we geniuses or not? We have hats.

MH: Anything else you’d like to throw out there about the show on Dec. 8?

KA: We’ll have our friend Cooper playing bass with us, so I’m excited for people to see the new lineup. Lots of songs from the new album and lots of oldies. It’s going to be great.

Bad Bad Hats performs at The Back Room @ Colectivo, 2211 N. Prospect Ave., on Dec. 8. Doors open at 7 p.m. and the show begins at 8 p.m. Tickets are available online for $12.50. Click here for more information.

About the author

Mike Holloway

Mike Holloway was the music editor for The Wisconsin Gazette until it ceased publication in Sept. He currently writes for 88Nine Radio Milwaukee, Milwaukee Record and Urban Milwaukee.