What is America?

MMS Coffee Conversations - Six Questions with Hard Proof's Stephen Bidwell

Photo by Bert McLendon
Friday evening I had a cup of coffee and a chat with Stephen Bidwell (bottom right in the photo), the drummer for Austin Afrobeat collective Hard Proof, in between sound check and a blistering live set at DC's Tropicalia. A DC-area native, the wayfaring Bidwell had stints in Morgantown, WV, New Orleans, and Ghana before settling in Austin, TX. Here are the highlights of that conversation.

MMS: When did you first get into Afrobeat?
SB: Back in the 90s, they started reissuing albums, a lot of Fela's records. I was a percussion major at West Virginia University, but the program is very world-music focused. We had a traditional African drumming ensemble, and I played in that folkloric group for about 6 years. I went and studied in Ghana. I also picked stuff out of the Columbia House catalog, too, back when I blindly bought albums, like King Sunny Adé records.

MMS: Although your music is in the Afrobeat tradition, Hard Proof doesn't feature vocalists or lyrics and isn't overtly political. Can you share your thoughts on that?
SB: This is a conversation I have with myself somewhat often. We took the template from Nigerian Afrobeat, but we take - and I'm stealing this from my professor at West Virginia - a pan-African approach to music. One of our members is really into Ethiopian music - like Mulatu Astatke - and he writes that way. One guy writes a little more in a Nigerian style. At the same time, we're all Americans and we come from many other different traditions. I grew up here, so it was punk rock and go-go for me in high school.

MMS: Did you know that Hailu Mergia of the Walias Band [1 of Mulatu Astatke's former bands] has been driving a cab in the DC area for the past 20 years?
SB: Somebody told me about that. I didn't know it was someone from the Walias Band. The first song we ever learned as a band was a Walias Band song. We tell people we're an Afrobeat band, but the first song we learned was an Ethiopian one. If you pick country, they all have regional spoken languages. You can have dozens of spoken languages in a country, and that many deviations of pop music.

MMS: Playing instrumental music, do you identify with the post-rock bands? The one that immediately comes to mind are fellow Austinites Explosions in the Sky.
SB: I'm in one of those bands. It's called the Calm Blue Sea. We're not really busy right now, but we get lumped in that category. One of our guitar players, Aaron [Sleator], is in a band called Cougar. They get lumped in with post-rock and math rock. There are moments like that, but it's not so angular. Some of us have it in our background.

MMS: Hard Proof has 1 LP, a couple of singles, the new cassingle, and you appear on a few compilations. What's next?
SB: We tracked the cassingle tracks with this producer who's really a rock producer. His name is Chris John Smith, but everybody calls him Frenchie. We fell in love with working with him, so we've got another couple days booked with him next month. We hope to have the tracking done on the album then, as I'm about to have a kid a month later.

MMS: So should we expect this new album in early 2015?
SB: We hope to release it around South-by [Southwest] time, so Spring 2015. We'll see how the mixing goes. We did the cassingle so quickly, and if we work at that pace for an entire record I don't see why we couldn't crank it out.

Here's a track from their limited edition 7" 45rpm single, 'Dragon b/w Tere', and we'll keep you posted when the new album drops.

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