When talking to omnipresent Minneapolis drummer JT Bates about the myriad musical projects he’s involved in, you get the sense that, musically speaking, the guy is up for just about anything.
On a sparkling weekday afternoon at Icehouse, where Bates has held down a Monday night residency (JT’s Jazz Implosion) since the club opened, the talented musician opened up about his rich musical history as well as how he keeps his steady stream of creative outlets straight. Bates sits behind the kit for Fat Kid Wednesdays, Alpha Consumer, the Pines, and many other improvisational local bands, as well as contributing occasionally to the inventive sounds of Marijuana Deathsquads, Coloring Time, Andrew Bird, and Dead Man Winter (to name just a few).
Bates began taking drum lessons in Hopkins at the age of 7, with a caveat by his band director father that he also take piano lessons as well, a combination of talents that still informs and influences his playing to this day. “I didn’t like [piano] at the time, but I’m really glad I did it now. It helps my drumming. Because of that, I hear intervals and I understand that side of music, besides just rhythm.”
Bates has two older brothers—Dave, a recording engineer in Nashville, and Chris, who also is a prominent Twin Cities musician—who also helped shape his musical direction. He first played live in his dad’s 17-piece big band when he was just 14 years old, along with both Dave and Chris.” Everyone I knew played an instrument, so it just seemed really natural to me. Being in a band never seemed like an un-navigable thing to me, it was more like ‘everyone plays an instrument, right?’”
In addition to his family, Bates found inspiration in the early experimental music scene in Minneapolis lead by Milo Fine, Steve Gnitka, and Anthony Cox, who he and his friends would marvel at during performances at the West Bank School of Music. “There’s so much improvised music here now, but at the time, that was it. Now it’s everywhere—you have rock bands that have experimental side projects, which is cool, it’s become much more a part of the current sound here. But at that time, we had to actively seek it out.”
When Bates was a junior in high school, he met both Adam Linz and Mike Lewis through area jazz camps or “other various summertime activities,” and the trio (who would eventually go on to form Fat Kid Wednesdays) quickly bonded over their shared love of John Coltrane and experimental music, a lasting creative partnership which continues to flourish to this day. “At that age, if you’re really into that type of experimental music, if you find even a couple of people who are interested in it, then you become fast friends because no one else even knows what you’re talking about, or even wants to know—they just wonder why you’re not listening to the Dave Matthews Band or something like that.”
After forming the successful experimental group the Motion Poets in the early ’90s along with his brother Chris and a few other friends, Bates eventually settled in to hosting (with his Fat Kid Wednesdays bandmates) a longstanding improvisational Monday night jazz residency at Turf Club’s fabled Clown Lounge, a thriving creative partnership that would help foster and encourage the local experimental music scene for over 12 years, until 2011.
“I caught a lot of flack during my Clown Lounge nights because I wouldn’t tell anyone who was playing,” Bates says, laughing at the memories. “There’s enough information out in the world, so many things set in stone for 17 months in the future. That, to me, is just boring. I’m much more interested in, ‘What are you doing tonight?’ My thought was, ‘Hey, there’s cool music here on Mondays. Show up. We’ll keep the standards as high as we can, and hopefully you don’t hate what you hear. And for 5 dollars—are you kidding me? Get in your f***ing car and get over here.’”
Bates is extremely appreciative of former Turf Club manager Dave Wiegardt for giving him a place to develop and hone his musical talents over the years, as well as the patience to give the burgeoning scene plenty of time to develop. “The thing about it is, Fat Kid Wednesdays, we’re going to play music, no matter what, even if we can only play at our house,” Bates teases, only half-joking. “But unless there’s a place that’s inviting you to play, you don’t get the chance to share it with anyone. And, you have to be willing to give something time. No great scene has ever been created in two months, it’s just not how it works at all. It’s not possible. You have to go through waves of audiences and waves of performers. It needs time to develop. Anything that hits that hard in two months is going to be gone eight months later.”
After the legendary Turf Club residency dissolved, it didn’t take long for Icehouse co-owners Matt Bickford and Brian Liebeck, along with Wiegardt (who is also a member of the Icehouse team) to convince Bates to take his musical talents to Eat Street, where he established a new Monday night residency with JT’s Jazz Implosion. It’s a beneficial arrangement to both parties involved, with the still-revered jazz night helping establish the musical identity of the emerging club, while also giving Bates another creative outlet to help the local experimental scene continue to blossom and flourish.
In addition to devoting his creative energy to his jazz night at Icehouse, Bates is in the process of recording a new Alpha Consumer album, as well as helping Erik Koskinen finish his forthcoming record. He started playing with Dead Man Winter within the past six months, performing alongside his brother Chris once again in Red 5, and has formed another group with Linz called Embezzler (with Paul Metzger filling out the trio), who frequently play at Icehouse. And he’s starting to compose new original work after receiving the Minnesota Emerging Composer Award.
But keeping his prodigious musical projects aligned doesn’t seem to phase Bates one bit—he relishes the opportunity to not only stay busy, but to keep himself inspired as well. And Bates continues to find an well-earned audience for his experimental exploits.
“A bunch of music dorks like me are always going to have a bunch of weird ideas,” Bates says self-deprecatingly. “That’s always going to be the case. But having an audience there to support us—by paying covers and buying drinks and keeping the venues open and interested—is what ultimately makes the scene a success. If the audiences are interested, then we’re actually getting somewhere.”
JT Bates performs with Embezzler on Monday, January 28, at Icehouse; on Wednesday nights with Molly Maher and Erik Koskinen at the Aster Cafe; and on February 8 and 9 with Bryan Nichols and Chris Bates at the Artists’ Quarter.