Seb Rochford

We meet Seb Rochford, the man behind experimental group Polar Bear and the biggest hair in jazz...

Jim Ottewill
  • By Jim Ottewill
  • 18 Mar 2014
  • min read
Grindcore, thrash and death metal are three genres not usually associated with jazz.

But then Polar Bear’s Seb Rochford doesn’t make ‘jazz’ quite like anyone else.

Weaned on music from an early age, he first fell in love with the abrasive, heaviness of guitar music before journeying through jazz to more experimental electronic producers such as James Holden.

When you listen to the multi-textured, rhythmical experiments from his Polar Bear albums, his love of such innovative, more extreme sounds is obvious. As the ensemble's drummer and bandleader, he somehow guides his musicians along a sonic path which steals from jazz, techno and beyond to make something as cryptic as it is exhilarating.

It’s a direction he’s taken with some success - Held on the Tips of Fingers – the group’s second albumreceived a Mercury Music nomination in 2005 before the critically acclaim 2010’s Peepers. In Each and Every One is the latest release and goes further out again, expertly weaving electronica and percussive experiments to great effect.

Along with fellow band members - saxophonists Pete Wareham (from Seb’s other outfit Acoustic Ladyland and Melt Yourself Down), Mark Lockheart, double bassist Tom Herbert and Leafcutter John on electronics and guitar, Polar Bear are out on tour from 20 March. We caught up with Seb to find out what drives the creative process…

Can you remember the first songs which got you into music?

I remember liking Adam and the Ants when I was really young. I’ve got a big family - seven sisters and two brothers - and everyone was really into music. Everyone plays an instrument.

I had piano and drum lessons and taught myself music by playing along to records. I would listen to a record and want to know what every bit was and how it worked.

How did Polar Bear get together?

Gradually. The band has continually morphed into something else. Out of all the people in the current line up, Pete [Wareham] was the first to join. I’d asked someone else and they couldn’t do it but put his name forward. As soon as I played with Pete, it felt totally right. I met everyone else in London through gigs and hanging out in the same circles.

How does the creative process work?

I write parts out for everyone, then we play them in rehearsal. They sometimes change depending on the direction we go in and, if I don’t like the direction they head off in, I’ll switch things around. I normally compose a rough map. It’s the musical bits inbetween that are open. I want the freedom in place for people to be themselves.

Could you explain about the ideas behind In Each and Every One?

It’s definitely a step forward. Some of it spacious, some of it’s not. I don't want to give too much away but it’s interesting how people are getting different things from it.

Sometimes I’m getting the feeling that people don’t know what is electronic and what are drums. There are a lot of drums in there. I’ve changed my kit which really impacted my sound. I had all these cymbals specially made. There’s no ride cymbal now and I’m using Vietnamese drums instead of tom toms. An Argentinian drum has replaced my floor toms. So it does sound different but that’s the idea.

Did the record take a long time to record?

Once I started writing it, it all came fairly quickly. I can’t force myself to write music. It’s more important to make an album when I have something different to say. It’s been three years since the last one but I wanted to redefine what we were doing and what I was doing as a drummer.

Having said that, I’m already writing the next album and we’re recording in April. That’s come fairly quickly. But I need to catch that moment while I’m really feeling it so decided to push on with it. When you get an idea, you’ve got to go and create it.

Which other artists do you find inspiring?

I love lots of modern and older musicians. I love classical Indian music at the minute and electronica. I still love Burial. His music has a lot of depth and I feel I can listen to it a lot. There’s a lot of instant music these days but I keep going back to Burial. I’m instantly curious about his sounds. It keeps my interest for a long time which is something I value. People like James Holden too. I really value his music too. When I first heard his latest album, I was like ‘woah - what is this?’ There’s a great deal of detail, lots of space - and it’s allowed to develop. It’s surprising, moving music.

You’ve collaborated with Brian Eno and David Bryne among others - what have you got from such partnerships?

Working with someone musically is like having a conversation. It brings out different things in you each time. We learn from people and I just enjoy getting to know them both as a person and as a musician. It makes me think about my instrument in different ways. It’s almost like when you buy a new record and you’re inspired by it.

Held on the Tips of Fingers was Mercury nominated. Did that open doors for you?

It was brilliant for us. It was fun. It obviously meant more people had heard our music so that when we were playing gigs around the country, there were more coming. That was really nice. There are always people who get cynical about these things but some people will have a negative way of looking at something.

You’re seen as a ‘jazz musician’ - does that sit right with you?

It’s a tough one. I’m seen as a jazz musician, which I’m happy to be. I did hear this music from a young age although I didn’t understand it. Sometimes people perceive you as a certain thing and when you do something else they’re surprised. I grew up on death metal, thrash and grindcore. For me that’s my musical roots. It was the first music I played and very extreme. I was into Stevie Wonder as a kid and Grace jones and Prince before hardcore.

I don’t know - it’s complicated. Genres are needed for certain for certain things to function. I don’t see myself as stuck in genre. That’s fine for some people but for me, I don’t see music as a genre. I just see it as music.

Which of your albums have been creatively the most satisfying?

Well you should hopefully always find that your latest one is your favourite. And it probably is for me from a creative point of view. I feel like I’ve done something different and I’m really happy with it. We recorded it quite differently to previous albums. It’s quite instinctive which made the creative process really fun.

Visit Polar Bear's website for more information on the band and their forthcoming UK tour.