"I’m always trying to read things outside the Southern Gothic tradition, but it’s our foundations, you know?"
“No pleasure, but meanness” is a line from Flannery O’Connor’s Southern Gothic short story A Good Man is Hard to Find. O’Connor was from Georgia in the American South, and her often gory, always strange fiction captured something unsettling about that part of the United States – a barely suppressed darkness that, once looked at, infuses everything.
Sat in the foyer of a Yorkshire hotel, Reid Bateh – frontman of Bambara, also from Georgia – is picking carefully over those words. He repeats the line out loud. “It always struck me,” he says, “the way that the South use meanness, you see, is kind of different, it’s a really subtle thing. Meanness in that line specifically is way more intense than what it says. In the South, everything is infused with this real sort of politeness. Saying meanness could mean something truly vile – something awful. I’ve always tried to work that into a song, and I’ve not been able to until this record.”
Documenting that something awful – that meanness – isn’t a bad approximation of Bambara’s mission; a mission that’s never been realised so successfully as on their fourth record, Stray. In the decade since their formation, Bambara – that’s Reid Bateh, his brother Blaze and bassist William Brookshire – have been devoted to documenting the horror that lies behind the white picket fence, and setting it to midnight black, pulverising post-punk. Theirs is a world of hard-up lives, shotgun justice and unreliable narrators, marking them as relative outliers in modern guitar music for their commitment to narrative-driven songwriting, and an almost novelistic approach to lyrics.
The band formed in the brothers’ hometown of Athens, Georgia – and there’s long been a tension between the metropolitan values of Athens, a liberal college town, and Georgia’s wider conservatism (the state voted for Trump in 2016). It is, however, a creatively fruitful tension: the college town famously also produced REM and the B-52s. Reid chews over whether Trump has had any impact on their work, suggesting that “though not in a conscious way”, the way that the characters “experience America” on Stray has certainly been shaped by his observations of Trump’s America. The band all now live in New York (their last two albums were recorded there) and distance can focus the mind on what’s uncanny, what’s strange, about where one is from.