By Mike Bax
Lead photo by Jeff Brown and Caspar Newbolt

I first saw Jonathan Bates in January of 2003, opening for Johnny Marr at Lee’s Palace in Toronto under the moniker of mellowdrone. At the time, mellowdrone only had a handful of singles and EPs available. I can still remember how impressed I was with Bates as a musician, sitting center stage with his guitar and an assortment of peddles, all on his lonesome, playing incredible music in a one-man-fashion that has since become trademark by musicians like Yoav and Ed Sheeran.

Bates expanded mellowdrone into more of a collaborative band environment, released a few albums and then the project disbanded. In the years that followed, Bates’ name would show up on albums as a guest musician / collaborator along with some assorted tours as a session musician. It was around 2010, thanks to Alessandro Cortini of Nine Inch Nails, that Bates discovered the possibility of producing music by himself on a laptop. The Big Black Delta sound was born shortly afterwards. A demo LP, a debut self-titled album and now, in the past few weeks, a new album entitled Trágame Tierra have seen the Big Black Delta sound evolve into something that now would be described as something derivative of 1970’s folk-rock and synthesizer music. Trágame Tierra features collaborations with Susanne Sundfør, Kimbra, and 1980s pop princess Debbie Gibson, a musician Bates holds in high regard. You can check out Trágame Tierra here: https://itun.es/ca/2dhdbb

Currently on tour as a three-piece comprised of a drummer, a bassist and Bates on vocals, guitar and computer programming, Big Black Delta is playing some intimate shows across the continent showcasing material from both albums in an energetic fashion that amps the BBD material upwards as more of an actual live spectacle and less of a ‘dude-with-a-computer evening.

Jonathan was good enough to field a few questions for Lithium about his roots as a musician and the making of Trágame Tierra. Some live photographs from the band’s recent Adelaide Hall performance in Toronto are included here as well.

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Mike: Can you possibly reiterate your musical career, Jonathan? Your start in music? Early bands? Forming and touring mellowdrone? After mellowdrone onwards to Big Black Delta?

Jonathan: I started to play guitar around 13, I was really into prog and metal. Went to Berklee College of Music after high school. Dropped out and moved to LA. I started doing open mics under the moniker mellowdrone. Ended up putting out a couple of releases under that. I got burnt out so I played guitar or whatever was needed in friends’ bands. Around this time, my buddy Alessandro Cortini showed me Logic on a laptop. It opened up a whole new world of creation. I started writing again and called it Big Black Delta. I really enjoy UFOlogy, and BBD’s are the most sighted type of UFOs. Google Dan Ackroyd and big black deltas.

Mike: How do you know Alessandro Cortini? It’s my understanding that BBD stemmed out of your relationship with Alessandro. Can you confirm / deny this?

Jonathan: Yeah. Old friends. Our old bands toured together. Have similar interests. He’s a shredder on the guitar, too, which is funny to me because he’s mostly known as a modular synthesizer guy.

Mike: You are about to release your second Big Black Delta album Trágame Tierra. Can you talk about the album? How it was written? How long it took to write? How you feel it differs from your 2013 debut?

Jonathan: It’s the sound of a dude dealing with loss. I had lost my father, who was everything to me. I lost a close friend to a slow and horrible cancer. I had been robbed of most of my equipment and belongings. I needed to focus on something or I would have lost it. The first record comes from a place of naivety. This new one is a baptism of fire.

Mike: Is there an example you can pick of a song you have taken from demo through to the finish that changed radically? And maybe walk through the way that song changed?

Jonathan: I would easily say all of them except for ‘Money Rain Down’, which came out in a day. I like to drastically change bpms. That simple act can completely change how a song is perceived; its purpose. I like to leave them alone for a while and then return to them having forgotten what they were. The possibilities are limitless, so the discipline and strength comes in on when to say “stop”.

Mike: What has been the most challenging aspect of the creation of this new album for you?

Jonathan: Being honest about being in pain, and to not shy away from it. To embrace it.

Mike: You have run a campaign on Pledge Music around Trágame Tierra. Can you talk about the Pledge Music experience? Was it useful? Have you interacted with any of your fans because of the campaign?

Jonathan: Me and group of friends put these records out ourselves. It’s a very small operation. Pledge really help us get to people that already dug the project. So we weren’t trying to convince people into it. And I love that. I don’t want to force shit on people.

Mike: You toured with Gary Numan. Can you distill that experience into a single train of thought and summarize what you learned from the man while touring together?

Jonathan: He’s incredibly kind and quiet. He has a beautiful voice that just sits beautifully on top of music.

Mike: You collaborated with Debbie Gibson and Kimbra on your new album. Can you share how those collaborations came together and share your feelings on the finished songs?

Jonathan: By just asking. I said I’d like to work with Debbie Gibson one night, and the next night I get a call from a friend saying she may be interested. Same thing for Kimbra. Her last record blew me away. My close friend and brilliant musician/composer Lars Horntveth introduced us. I just asked if she would be interesting in trying something, and she said ‘sure’. Same thing with Lars. He plays all the horns on this record that just took Trágame Tierra to a better place. I asked, he was gracious enough to say yes.

Mike: How did you meet Caspar Newbolt? How closely do you two work together?

Jonathan: Through mellowdrone. He had done our last LP artwork and we’ve been friends since. We communicate very regularly to share music, thoughts, paintings, etc… We’ve formed somewhat of a shorthand. He’s incredibly talented and a good dude. The girls love him.

Mike: Would you describe yourself as someone who is always writing/creating? Or someone who waits to be inspired to write/create?

Jonathan: Always, or trying at least. I do take occasional breaks, but those only last for a few days.

Mike: You seem to be a very collaborative musician, yet your music seems to be very much a personal journey, free of a ‘band’ for lack of a better term? Is this how you are most comfortable creating music?

Jonathan: I no longer try to categorize or box process. The more open I become, the more fun I have. Comfort can be great and/or detrimental to process, so the trick is when to have it. And when to do something you know is going to fail.

Mike: A few years ago when I interviewed Jesse Keeler of Death From Above 1979, he spoke very favourably of you. He mentioned hopes of collaborating together, actually. Any chance that might have gone somewhere?

Jonathan: His bass playing and riffs are the baddest around. Maybe it has already.

Mike: Do you think about the future; how much your music has changed over the past decade and where you might possibly go in the next decade?

Jonathan: Not musically, no. For me, the good ideas come to you. I can’t predict what the universe has in store.

Mike: What is your definition of a perfect album? Something you can put on and marvel at every time you play it?

Jonathan: I don’t think there is one. How you hear music depends on how you feel at that moment. All of us are subject to environment. So depending on the day, something that once was perfect is now shit.

Mike: Do you think you will ever resurrect any of your mellowdrone songs and perhaps perform them again?

Jonathan: Not really.

Mike: As a victim of identity theft, how would you reflect and summarize that experience? Has it changed the way you shop / interface on your phone and computer? Any advice you might be able to leave here for some of your listeners on this subject?

Jonathan: Paper shredder. Shred everything. If you do get your identity stolen, just keep your cool and get through it. There are people out there to help you. Money affects your life, but it doesn’t have to define it.

Mike: Lastly, Donald Trump? Yea or nay? And why?

Jonathan: Dude, what do you think?

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