Toronto’s Bad Breed, a funk rock band that blends in a touch of soul with a splash of garage rock and sass , released their newest set of tunes just last week. Titled “The Bad Breed in Ferocious Love”, and available through Liquid Snake Records as of July 17th, 2020 – copies for those interested can be had through the band themselves. Support DIY (Umm, that’s Do It Yourself for the uninitiated) artists, especially during these crazy pandemic days. We spoke with Bad Breed’s drummer and vocalist, Mike Gribben, about his approach to singing and his views on other masters of the microphone. So kick back, reach for your martini and have yourself a read!
What does it take to be a vocalist? What strain does it put on the human body?
For a long time it took a humongous toll on me. Physically and mentally. I never learned how to sing properly and I started out as a singing drummer when I was about 15 years old. I didn’t really think about it much back then and most of the time I yelled more than I sang. When I decided to actually try strictly being a vocalist I was still mainly barking out the lyrics. So I just thought it was normal to blow your voice every single time you had a show or even a practice. I have since taken vocal lessons and had great help and tips from my band-mates in Bad Breed. I had never thought about breathing or using your diaphragm.
It’s been a long road for me because for a long time I was convinced that it was something I could not do, that I would just continually blow my voice out, and for a while every time I opened my mouth to sing it was a struggle. I had a great piece of advice though from the first drummer in Bad Breed, Marco. He said “your speaking voice is deep and low, instead of straining to get higher notes why don’t you try singing from your natural range”. That was a revelation for me. Since then I have embraced that part of my voice and things have been so much more natural for me, and now when I do go up to higher notes it adds dynamics, to the songs. I do consider myself a singer now, whereas before I think I just thought of myself as a yelling fraud.
How important are lyrics to a song and, in your opinion, who is the greatest lyricist of all time?
As far as the first question goes, they aren’t. I love Led Zeppelin. I love them and I don’t know what half the words are, and I don’t want to know because I probably wouldn’t like them! I’m not interested in the Lord of the Rings or folklore or whatever it is they are singing about, most of it sounds ridiculous to me. I’m sort of joking. But a lot of the stuff that’s lyrically cool seems to have been heavily “borrowed” from a variety of blues songs. However the melodies, combined with that insane rhythm section (and John Bonham in particular) is magic music for me. And of course when the music and the lyrics are both great then that’s even better! Listening to Supreme Clientele by Ghostface Killah or Only Built 4 Cuban Linx by Raekwon, I’m thrilled by the combination of the production and monstrous lyricism.
Or Curtis Mayfield. He could write pop songs with The Impressions and he could write anthems for the civil rights movement. He could write about anything and I would want to listen because I believed everything he said. He sang beautifully with the same conviction he wrote with.
See also : Quickies – Chachy Englund from Round Eye
As far as I’m concerned the greatest lyricist of all time is Nas. His album Illmatic has had a humongous and lasting impact on the way that I view lyrics and think about putting words together. I don’t rap but there’s just a huge wealth of inspiration in his lyrics. There’s a rawness, there’s a toughness, there’s real poetry and he just has an incredible ability to paint a picture of the New York City of his youth. When you listen to that record for me it’s like you’re seeing directly through his eyes. It’s not flowery language and the way that the words just bang together mesmerizes me. I still don’t know the entire album off by heart because there’s so much in there and I like it that way; that way every time I listen to it I still dig in and try to find little parts of it that I’ve missed over the last almost 30 years.
“Each block is like a maze
Full of black rats trapped,
plus the Island is packed
From what I hear in all the stories when my peoples come back, black
I’m livin’ where the nights is jet-black
The fiends fight to get crack
I just max, I dream I can sit back
And lamp like Capone, with drug scripts sewn
Or the legal luxury life, rings flooded with stones, homes
I got so many rhymes, I don’t think I’m too sane
Life is parallel to Hell, but I must maintain” – New York State Of Mind by Nas.
Right there in this excerpt from the song New York State of Mind, the last word in each sentence feels like it tumbles into the first word of the next. To me it’s just a stark vision of a sometimes hellish world where a large part of your time is dreaming about what it would be like to escape. That was not my experience growing up, but listening to that record and those lyrics you just felt like you were hearing his life, from birth to his early 20s, in vivid, electric language.
Has there ever been a concert you were at where the singer blew you away? Who made you want to pick up a microphone in the first place?
Yes! There have been many. I have been so lucky to see people like Prince, Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill, Nick Cave and Smokey Robinson live. Each one of them blew me away vocally.
But the one singer who I saw when I was transitioning from being more of a drummer to the front person in a band who just blew me away and inspired me right there on the spot was John Brannon from the Laughing Hyenas, Negative Approach and Easy Action. I was at a Laughing Hyenas show in the early 90s and I had never heard such a tormented howl. And I don’t mean Cookie Monster vocals or death metal. It sounds like a hurricane of emotions full of the pain and suffering of heartbreak and addiction. His voice is unlike anything I’ve heard from any other rock or punk rock singer. His approach influenced me greatly when I was picking up the mic to be a singer for the first time.
Where do you pull inspiration from? What is your writing process like and how often do you write down potential lyrics?
I used to read a lot of Jim Thompson, and I watched a lot of film noir. I developed a taste for really tough and terse language. Sometimes I would take little turns of phrase from books or films and keep them in a notebook that I could pull out and use to pepper some of the stuff I was writing. That was the way that I wrote for years, just having lists and lists of sentences or just a few words. I would hear conversations with other people. For a while I had a job where I was monitoring content for a dating website. So I would go through people’s profiles and ensure that there wasn’t anything lascivious or questionable before we posted it live.
There was a person trying to say that every morning they wake up looking forward to finding love. But the way it was written was “I wake up looking for war”, rather than “forward”. I stared at that and wrote it down right away. That fit exactly the way I felt at that time. I was angry, I didn’t know why and that just summed things up perfectly. It became the first line and the title of the first song on our first album. Looking for War! With this new record so much of the stuff came out of conversations I had when I was falling in love with my wife, Amanda. I knew I had intense feelings for her but we were still just friends; I was in Canada and she was living in New Zealand. One day I got up the courage to text the words “If I see you in the real world, will you hold my hand?” I got back the reply “Yes”. My heart exploded. That pivotal moment became the opening line and chorus for In the Real World.
More recently I was listening to somebody talk about their experience having their house destroyed by rockets in Syria. The interpreter just kept saying “My dearest ones!” over and over again. It was just devastating to hear the person crying and then hear that interpreter over the top. And I wrote that down and that’s one of the songs that will be on our next record.
I write every day. I don’t have the discipline to sit for a certain amount of time but I add to my notes every day. I also hum new melodies into my Voice Memos.Once I’ve got the first line I will combine parts of my notes with things that come to me at that moment. For me it’s a really satisfying way to do it, to bring in things that I felt were inspiring enough to write down over the weeks and months leading up to the song and then filling everything else out on the spot.