Q&A With Bad Rabbits’ Salim Akram

What do you get you when mix the classic sounds of 1970s R&B with more radical riffs usually associated with Nirvana, Deftones or Glassjaw?  Bad Rabbits guitarist Salim Akram talks about his group’s unique sound.

As part of Karmaloop’s Verge Campus Tour sponsored by Neff Headwear and powered by eMuze, Bad Rabbits presence’ on a lineup featuring headliner Kendrick Lamar along with Steve Aoki and 5 & A Dime means the group will be playing in front of audiences that might not be familiar with the band’s self-described “post-R&B” music.

But that doesn’t mean audience members won’t feel at home.  Listening to Boston-based Bad Rabbits is almost like living in an alternate universe where Led Zeppelin collaborated with Earth, Wind & Fire or where the Deftones might borrow a note or two from Al Green.  There’s that lush, ’70s R&B sound fused with lead singer Fredua “Dua” Boakye’s smooth and soulful stylings.  Add in drummer Sheel Davé, bassist Graham Masser, and guitarists Santiago Araujo and Akram, and you have something new that also sounds familiar with echoes of Prince and Sly Stone blended with guitar work more reminiscent Nirvana.

Having released its crucially acclaimed EP Stick Up Kids in 2009, four years later finds Bad Rabbits releasing its new album, American Love, May 14 and making its national TV debut three days later when the band appears on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” May 17.

Meanwhile, Bad Rabbits is fanning the flames of anticipation for the new disc by appearing on Karmaloop’s Verge Campus Tour.  More than just a four-act package, the tour provides opportunities for audience members to check out new products by premier brands.  Included along with reps from eMuze will be folks from Neff Headwear and Creative Recreation plus hi-def headphone company Sol Republic and athletic and consumer electronic innovators Sol Republic and G-Form.

Talking with Pollstar from the band’s video shoot in Brooklyn, Akram described the group’s approach to making music, and how each member’s diverse set of influences come together to make Bad Rabbits sound like no other band.

Is Bad Rabbits an R&B band that likes to rock, or a rock band heavily into R&B?

It’s kind of like we’re trying to find a lane that lives in the middle of that. Aesthetically, we’ve been calling the brand the “American Dream,” but musically, if you put it in a box, we’ve kind of narrowed it down to post-R&B.  We have some [more] rock elements on the new record.  We used it to depict the live band a little more, like the rock heavier side of the band became more apparent than it was on Stick Up Kids

The album does conjure up some memories of classic R&B acts such as Earth, Wind & Fire, but there’s also a contemporary rock flavor.

The influences on the record are definitely delivered in terms of aesthetically where they’re pulled from.  It’s not necessarily evident to some people but listen to the layers we did with the production. … Like the drums, a lot of the production is taken from Earth, Wind & Fire, [there’s] a lot of ‘70s funk on the record.

From the guitarist point of view, how do you approach working with the band?

It’s not necessarily like where we all sit down [together].  Since a couple of us moved out of the city, our writing processes have become a little more efficient, emailing back and forth, and we approached it like writing together.  We all have our strengths and weaknesses in how we write.  On this record and in general, we try to approach writing, myself and other guitar players, [as to] how everything on Thriller is essentially a hook.  If you had 10 people singing “Billie Jean,” some people will sing you the drums, some people will give you the bass line, some people will give you the chorus or the guitar solo, but universally everyone would know what song you’re talking about.

In an R&B band there’s not necessarily a lot of Joe Satriani kind of noodling.  We all approach writing together as a band so there’s not one main songwriter.  Everyone’s ego is in check when it comes to writing. There are some parts I had to fight to keep, I was married to them.  But at the end of the day it’s to make the best sound we can as opposed to arguing about whether a guitar part fits within the mold of the record.

When you hear the completed work on a track, does the finished song sound like you imagined it before stepping into the studio?

Yes and no. That’s part of our, I guess, our dynamic in the studio.  When a song starts to where it ends is usually a complete 180. We’re our harshest, worst critics. A song will undergo numerous revision. … It’s different for every song.  We’re very strong in theory.  A lot of moving stuff around, arrangement wise 

Are there moments when working on one song, you feel it’s beginning to sound too much like a song you recorded earlier?

As we’ve evolved as a band, our songwriting has gotten a little stronger, more consistent and cohesive.  I wouldn’t say we write a bunch of songs that sound the same.  The first time we made an album, a five or six-song EP, the collaboration with the producer, B. Lewis, who co-produced the record with us … no particular song sounded exactly the same.  We just kind of had the same general theme, the funk, boogie, post-R&B sound we were going for, and mixing in the live element where the band takes on the heavier influences – Glassjaw, Deftones. … Everybody has diverse musical backgrounds, so pulling from all those different resources it’s kind of hard to make the same song.

Photo: Jason Moore
Vans Warped Tour, Virginia Beach Amphitheater, Virginia Beach, Va.

Let’s dive into your background.  What are your influences?

Glassjaw, the Deftones. I think the one that made me want to make a career in music was Glassjaw for sure.  They changed my life in terms of how I [viewed] what being in a band was.  Being a black kid from the suburbs, it wasn’t necessarily the cool thing to do to listen to bands like Glassjaw, Nirvana and Green Day. But Glassjaw was the one that, for some reason affected me and was like, “Wow.  I can actually be in a band.”

But Glassjaw is a long way from post-R&B.

Yeah.  I think what [Glassjaw] taught me the most is that it had the same foundation that R&B has which is driven by the heavy bass.

As a musician do you hear R&B influences in other band’s songs that casual listeners might not catch?

It’s tough to say.  I think what people perceive as rock ’n’ roll and R&B now is completely different.  Back in the day there was a lane – R&B – while rock ’n’ roll lived in another lane. … For instance, there’s The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin.  Both are rock ’n’ roll bands but Led Zeppelin had a more R&B-based foundation as opposed to The Rolling Stones. Obviously they’re both great legendary bands but the dynamic between the two is so different.  It really depends on the listener.  Especially now because everything is cross-categorized.

How old were you when you started playing guitar?

I think I was in eighth or ninth grade.  I was 12 or 13.

Were you passionate about music then?  Or was it just something to do with friends or a way to meet girls?

Where I grew up – in first grade you played the recorder, second or third grade it was a violin or another string instrument.  Then there was jazz, like a chorus ensemble.  I ended up playing the clarinet.  At some point when I got to high school … at that point Green Day’s Dookie had just come out. … Nirvana was making its big splash and at that point for me it was like, “Damn.  I got to play the guitar.”  Not to get help to get girls.  Every dude in eighth grade could play “Stairway To Heaven.”  But for me I was always drifting towards music.

The band has been on several tours.  What moves Bad Rabbits from city to city?

We’re still doing the van and trailer. … Ideally, as we get older, we’d love to be in a bus and not have to drive.

We’ve had one bus, we did Warped Tour 2011.  You basically try to keep your sanity and your band together and not die.  Parts [of the tour] are the most fun you’ll ever have in 60 days but also some of the hardest you’ll ever work in your entire life.  As our band has progressed, we’ve been able to … instead of sneaking seven dudes in the backdoor when getting a hotel room – two checking in while the rest creep through the backdoor – it’s progressed to getting more than one hotel room that’s not an amateur porn studio.  So it’s gotten significantly better.

Bands have talked about touring where they lived on peanut butter and/or $5 per diems.  Does that sound familiar?

Yeah.  But even before you get to the $5 per diems you’re working for $100. … It’s a little different now with the touring market and how it’s changed during the past five years.  When we first started. … The Internet was definitely a factor in helping bands get more exposure but beyond that artists predominantly focused a lot of their attention on writing good songs and keeping their [presence] online and translating that into having a touring career. 

It kind of changed again with the perspective of us getting a van and touring for nine weeks and being completely broke and not having money for anything.  Unfortunately there’s no formula that anybody can follow – otherwise everybody would do it.

How involved is the band in using social media?

We do all our own social media in terms of posting on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and all that stuff. … Everything we post is deliberate and in line with what our brand represents to the world.

What can you tell fans about the upcoming tour?

We’re just stoked.  If we could pick anyone to be on tour with right now it would definitely be Kendrick Lamar.  We’re just excited to get on a tour of this caliber leading up to the record and the things we have going on later in the spring and early summer. … The first show of the tour at the University of Central Florida is sold out.  This is probably the biggest tour we’ve been on, for sure.

We’ve been on tours this big before.  Warped Tour is probably the biggest in terms of turn-out.  This tour, the minimum is 4,000 or 5,000 kids and the maximum is about 8,000 or 9,000.  So we’re excited to be playing for all those people who probably have never heard our band before.

Do tours such as this where you’re on a multi-act lineup help more in getting the word out as opposed to just going out on your own and playing the album?

We’ve always been one of those bands, unfortunately, that have taken an unorthodox way in terms of touring. It’s really been [about building] a one-by-one fan base.

We’re a personable band.  On Warped Tour we’d go out there every day and try to hustle our own CDs, selling one-dollar CDs.  At the end of the summer … we had sold 15,000 records on our own.

We had to go and engage fans one-by-one. It’s hard, basically to be a grown man and have some kid that’s 12 tell you that your band sucks. 

It’s an experience, for sure.  We’re one of those bands where we try to keep a little mystique but at the same time try to be as accessible to people as possible. We’re not over the hump yet where we can disappear and not talk to anybody.

You’ve been doing a lot of press for the album and tour.  Is there something you’ve been wanting to tell people but no one ever asks you the right question?

We’re not hip hop, god dammit.  People see black people and automatically assume hip hop. … That’s the one thing.  I wish they’d stop calling us hip hop.

Photo: Dirk Mai
“We’re our harshest, worst critics. A song will undergo numerous revision.”

Upcoming destinations for Karmaloop’s Campus Tour sponsored by Neff Headwear and featuring Kendrick Lamar, Steve Aoki, Bad Rabbits and 5 & A Dime include Orlando, Fla., at Univ. Of Central Florida Arena April 9; Columbus, Ohio, at Newport Music Hall April 11; Rochester, Mich., at Meadow Brook Music Festival April 12; Athens, Ohio, at Ohio University April 13 and Buffalo, N.Y., at University Of Buffalo April 14.

For more information, please visit BadRabbits.com as well as the band’s Facebook page and Twitter feed.