Someday, the fat kid will be king. It might be a long time before Chunk from Goonies makes a triumphant return to Hollywood. And grade schoolers may never stop being teased for wearing "Hefty"-size Fruit of the Looms. But in the meantime, a slow liberation of the liberally proportioned will be on its way. And if local musician JT Bates has his way, the revolution will begin at the wave pool.
Sitting in the Turf Club's Clown Lounge, Bates sucks thoughtfully on a cigarette, gazes up at the ceiling ringed with tiny, pulsing Christmas lights, and contemplates the small victories of the fat kid. "There's this wave pool in Blaine," Bates starts, "and there's always all of these skinny kids in the water. But once you get a few fat kids in there, the water level starts rising. That means you can't get too many fat kids in there at once or else everything would overflow and there would be some kind of flood. So Adam [Lewis] and I thought, why not make Fat Kid Wednesdays when only the fat kids could come? That way the water park doesn't get ruined, and the fat kids can have their own day."
He's joking, of course. But something about Bates--the drummer for the jazz trio Fat Kid Wednesdays--seems perpetually serious and intense, even when he's being playful. One gets the feeling that the spiky-haired, soul-patched musician has always been that way. Perhaps that's because when most seven-year-olds were splurging their allowances on pop records and She-Bopping along to Cyndi Lauper, Bates was picking up his drumsticks and listening to his first jazz album: the Buddy Rich and Max Roach drum battle Rich Versus Roach. Or maybe it's the fact that at age 20 he was already performing around town, playing drums alongside his father's trumpet in the Don Bates Great Big Band. Or that in his early 20s, he was playing regular gigs at the Dakota and touring nationally with the jazz quartet Motion Poets (see City Pages' "The Motion Carries," February 3, 1999). Now, at age 26, he's still some 15 years younger and probably more talented than your average Sam Woodyard-imitating snare massager at the Dakota. In any case, Bates is really paddling against the waves made by the older, more conventional jazz scene in the Twin Cities.
There's a cool, submarine aesthetic about his Turf performances with the other kids in Fat Kid Wednesdays (who, strangely enough, perform on Mondays at the Turf). In front of the blue-curtained stage, Adam Lindz sways around in small circles while plucking and thumping his upright bass erratically, gripping the instrument as if anchored by it. Michael Lewis (also of Happy Apple) rocks back and forth, gasping for air over his saxophone reed, noodling an Interstellar Space-style chord progression and not once opening his eyes during the process. Bates thrashes his arms about in a furious swimming motion, creating an arrhythmic clatter that is simultaneously enthralling and confusing. The audience sits, transfixed--bobbing their heads like spring-necked figurines perched on the dashboard of a speedboat.
DJ Andrew Broder of the local indie/hip-hop band the Fog--a frequent attendee of Bates's performances--notes respectfully of the frantic drummer, "The guy looks like he's fighting with the drum set! Sometimes I look out there and I think about the times that he's played with the Fog and I think, God, don't you get bored just playing rock stuff with us, JT?"
Tonight Bates looks anything but uninterested. As he sits for this interview and prepares for another Fat Kid show, it's evident that talking about jazz is not his favorite thing to do: When I ask him how he would describe Fat Kid Wednesdays' sound to jazz fans, he says, "I wouldn't. I would tell them to come and watch the show.") But discussing his passion certainly gets him excited to play. The head-bobbing jazz neophytes who encircle him, drink cheap beers, drape their thrift-store jackets over their chairs, and eagerly await the Fat Kid experience are (like Bates himself) young, white hipsters with a contagious enthusiasm for improvisational music. In a bookcase in the corner of the stage, a novel peeks over a slew of spines. Beat, it says, and it seems appropriate for this nuevo-bohemian crowd. (Later, when I pull the book out of the case and glimpse the entire title, I discover that it is actually called Beat Jet Lag. Oh well. Perhaps Bates should hold onto it until the day that he makes it big and begins touring in Europe.)
"Even though we'll probably only make about 40 bucks tonight, we'd still rather play here than at some concert hall where only people who already know about jazz are going to go and where they'll have to pay a lot of money," Bates says. "Jazz didn't used to be music for rich people, but that's the way it's getting. Bebop was all about going to some tiny club where people who didn't have a lot of money could listen to some really great music. But now there's this whole new crowd who can pay, like, $65 for a show. Some of these musicians are charging over 100 bucks now, and I'm thinking, Man, you're not worth that kind of money! Nobody's worth that kind of money!"
The limited financial rewards of being a jazz musician in the Twin Cities is something that Bates has struggled with a lot over the years. In order to keep financially afloat, he has resorted to "professional jazz" in the past--the kind you play at weddings and bar mitzvahs in exchange for large checks and wide varieties of shrimp cocktail. These are not fond memories for him.
"I would be standing there by the buffet table, trying to get myself some free dinner, and I'd see this girl who I had never met before that night standing there in a wedding dress," Bates says. "And I'd think, She's getting married, and I'm playing something for her that I don't like. It just wasn't right." Bates cups his hands as if he's holding something fragile. "Whenever I played at weddings, I would think about everything that I held in this world that was right and beautiful, and as soon as someone stepped in and told us to play Van Morrison--it was always 'Moondance'--all of that beauty would just be gone."
Luckily, Bates has other revenue streams these days. Other than Fat Kid Wednesdays, he is currently performing with five other bands and is even working on solo drum performances ("I can see if I can get out there naked and hold my own," Bates says). He drums along with Ourmine, a band that explores the intersection of Latin music, electronica, and "a lot of grooves." With the noisy IDM duo Grid, Bates helps to manipulate electronic beats. He also plays with T, a rotating collective of improvised electronica and drum 'n' bass musicians that usually includes members of Poor Line Condition; and Suki Takahashi, a live drum 'n' bass quintet with a DJ, drums, and synths. (Suki Takahashi recently composed the soundtrack to the BMW promotional series "The Making of the Films," car-crash shorts directed by Ang Lee and David Fincher, among others.) Bates is especially proud of his work with Science vs. Flames, a multigenerational "double trio" that features members of Fat Kid Wednesdays, and Poor Line Condition, with FKW's saxophonist Michael Lewis's father Greg on trumpet. In many of these groups, Bates relishes the improvisational sets that let all the musicians play off one another.
When I ask him to describe the best thing about improv, his eyes light up, yet he says, "I guess I can't really describe the feeling of getting through a really good improv." Still, Bates notes, "The best thing I can say is that it's the experience of it all. When you're doing something, and someone else is listening to you and playing their own thing that builds from you, and everyone just understands each other, it's like this river rushing past you. It's something that you can't ever hold in your hands or describe, but it's a force and it's flowing. Sometimes you'll get a wave that comes up and then everybody tries to ride it, but all the time it's just going and going and there's no one out there who is going to stop it."
The river is coming, kiddies, and the tide is rising. These Fat Kids will have their day.