Adult Jazz Are Looking For What Makes Us Human
On the latest record from Adult Jazz, gender comes into full scope.
Harry Burgess, the lead of the UK four-piece Adult Jazz, wants to know why we hold on to stifling gender definitions. “I can’t help but to think about it” Burgess told me from their manager’s flat in South London. “Partly as an academic interest but also for my own personal reasons.” When Burgess’ brother was in elementary school, he and a friend got gold stars from class and decided to put them on their ears. After a lunch lady made a comment saying that they looked like little girls, his brother, who Burgess described as “a really sweet and gentle kid,” became so incensed that he kicked her in the shins. On the band’s latest record, the bracing but brief Earrings Off!, this incident gets zoomed in on to the nth degree, questioning the motivations and understandings on both sides--why adults facilitate gender binaries in children, and how children hold onto these ideas for life. “I think the record comes from this annoyance with the fact that you never really move that far away from the playground.” Burgess said, “even in adulthood there’s still very much this Boys and Girls dynamic to how people are organized.”
The music on Earrings Off! could probably be described as annoyed, too. There’s howling, maniac drum loops, and tense synth warbles that feel like a kid squirming out of a suit too tight and too formal for their liking. And then there are Burgess’ spectacular vocals. Using relatively few words, he knits complicated, gut-wrenching ideas together using his voice as the thread. On the title track, ‘Earrings Off!’ he sings “We make the boy a banner / Heavy so he can carry / Carry but he can’t look up / And ever read the letters” diving deeper into his own questions with each verse’s new cadence.
“I was going with a very musical theater vibes with it,” Burgess tells me. “I really like the idea of someone strutting out onto the stage and declaring what they’re doing like that.”
The four members of Adult Jazz are the type of people for whom late night conversations about the nature of meaning are more or less the norm. In our conversation, Burgess spoke extensively about a range of topics, bouncing seamlessly from gender identity to pop culture and politics. His bandmates seemed accustomed to this type of talk, like keeping up with Burgess’ quick and unbelievably sharp mind just comes with the territory.
The singer met his bandmates Tim Slater and Steven Wells in high school, and the three met their producer Tom Howe in their second year at University of Leeds. Over the course of four years, they recorded their excellent 2014 debut Gist Is. That record tackled a similarly metaphysical subject, diving into what it means to communicate and what, if anything, that means for morality. “I think that album had very much to do with these issues of gender and sexuality but it became a discussion of morality which was something that I had written a bit about.” Burgess said, “I think part of it had to do with me not being quite ready to talk about these subjects so directly, so i thought well I’ll go ahead and think about all of these other academic and philosophical angles.”
There’s certainly less subtly on Earrings Off! The record makes it’s subject matter known from the start and doesn’t shy away from its more uncomfortable facets. On ‘Pumped From Above’ Burgess sings “I was ready to be that boy who could struggle with lust and be impure in how far to go with a girl.” His nimble vocals might project a confidence that would suggest this record was easy to make, but even Burgess found himself vulnerable at times in the process.
“Talking about fear of weakness as a man is a scary thing to do.” Burgess said, “it annoyed me that that was still scary because that felt like a very playground type of thing.”
Burgess' annoyance with humanity’s continued adherence to childhood norms stems from how progressive society seems around these issues. “Even as society seems to be shifting, it still takes a lot to break free from what you’re taught,” he tells me. Burgess brings up an example about the British actor Russell Tovey, who told The Guardian earlier this year that “I feel like I could have been really effeminate if I hadn’t gone to the school I went to.” Adding, “If I’d have been able to relax, prance around, sing in the street, I might be a different person now. I thank my dad for that, for not allowing me to go down that path.”
Tovey, a gay man, piqued Burgess’ interest because it spoke to a tendency he’s dealt with in himself. Burgess describes hearing about Tovey’s statements and thinking how many times he’s had similar thoughts. “As a gay person who grew up in the church, there’s this strange, unintellectual and highly emotional negativity that you come up against internally.” He said, “the amount of information you have flying around your identity gets in the way of you having a present tense relationship with it.” Burgess said.
“The amount of information you have flying around your identity gets in the way of you having a present tense relationship with it.”
Earrings Off! took a particularly long time to come together. Some of the songs on the record have been completed since before the band released Gist Is in 2014. The band attributes that partly to sorting out their label situation--they recently signed to Tri Angle records--and the fact that they all have to work full time, making getting everyone together to record a bit of a task. “Because we’re basically paying to make this music for ourselves it means If you’re doing it because you want to create the right thing rather than have a timely release then there isn’t really a motivation to rush things.” Burgess said, “we’re learning to balance it, though, it’s not as if being fast is a bad thing.”
For the purposes of tackling a subject as broad and complicated as gender and identity, that slow approach serves as a strength. On Earrings Off! Adult Jazz asks one of our generation’s most important questions, and remains unflinching in their quest. The album is infectious in its rhythmic idiosyncrasies but also in its fearlessness. The segue from the track ‘Eggshells’ to “Pumped From Above’ is a minute and a half interpolation of Burgess’ vocals titled ‘Cry For Coherence;’ the track has a lingering, almost haunting, effect. In the record’s context, this isn’t a filler or ambient song, it’s exactly what its title suggests--a cry for understanding. Trying to parse through all of the expectations we’re beholden to with gender is a daunting task that most would gladly skip over. Adult Jazz sees that as a challenge. “I don’t function in my life with that level of chaos, but it is fun to sort of go there--to the scary thoughts,” Burgess tells me with a wry smirk.