From the magazine: ISSUE 93, August/Sept 2014.
Harry Burgess, frontman of the UK four-piece Adult Jazz, is rarely at a loss for words. Speaking over Skype from his parents’ house in Leeds, he jumps quickly from topic to topic while speaking eloquently about each of them: queer identity, 17th century poets, Marina Abramovic’s latest exhibition, the abundance of exclamation points in Howl. The 23-year-old is also eager to reference the idiosyncratic female singers that inspire him most, like Björk, Meredith Monk and Joanna Newsom. “She has a way of keeping a simple basis to a song and then adding vocal flourishes,” he says of Newsom. “It’s very progressive. The songs just move from idea to idea.” He’s talking about the harpist’s lauded sophomore record, YS, but he could very easily be describing the dynamic art-rock of Adult Jazz’s debut album, Gist Is, which darts effortlessly between the blues, pastoral folk, perky indie-rock and the warped textures of contemporary pop. Recorded sporadically over four years between the University of Leeds and a hillside studio on the outskirts of Edinburgh, Scotland, the record took shape, Burgess says, like a “meticulously plastered-together scrapbook.”
Burgess was friends with current bandmates Tim Slater and Steven Wells in high school, and the trio linked up with production whiz Tom Howe during their second year of college at Leeds. Burgess attributes the record’s eclecticism not just to the lengthy, spread-out recording process but also to the way the group’s four members each do a little bit of everything. Slater plays keyboard and the trombone. Wells plays drums, guitar and bass. Howe handles vocal effects and samplers but also keys. Burgess sings and plays guitar, keys, sometimes drums. What makes for a sometimes tricky live show (“It’s stressful—too many things in too small a space”) comes across on record beautifully. It’s the sort of tuneful, labored-over experimentalism you’d expect from multi-talented liberal arts students with too much free time and a million different things on their minds. “It doesn’t feel like a stylistic push,” he says of Adult Jazz’s free-associative aesthetic. “It’s kind of a natural thing that happens when different people have a go at the same instrument.”
Burgess’ stunning vocals are a flexible constant across the record’s nine songs, often dipping from an icy falsetto into a rich, sonorous bellow. In those longish summer days, dulled/ We were at the perfect age, he sings over warmly plucked strings on “Pigeon Skulls,” sounding like some dewy-eyed Walt Whitman scholar. Other times, as on the dizzily deconstructed “Idiot Mantra,” the lyrics unravel into phonetic gibberish, the point being that there is no point. “A lot of the album is about how writing never manages to talk about anything,” Burgess says. He’s attempting to explain one of the central narratives of Gist Is, which is the universal human struggle to express what you’re feeling or thinking: a nuanced emotion, a silly metaphor, a profound moral truth. It’s also, Burgess notes, one of the key challenges of being in a band and getting interviewed about the meaning behind your songs—even if you’re as talkative as he is. “Words are always partial,” he says, laughing. “It’s hard to get the gist of it.”