Whilst sax in some of the UK bands leans more towards the lineage of post-punk music, it’s also been just as present in more polished and indie-leaning music in the US. Duffin points out Arcade Fire utilising Colin Stetson as perhaps being a key moment over there. “If that guy can’t change people’s minds on the saxophone I don’t know who can,” he says. Matt Douglas is now a permanent member of the Mountain Goats but has also played sax for the likes of Superchunk, Bon Iver and Hiss Golden Messenger, and he agrees this early-to-mid 2010s era saw a shift in the States too. Perhaps most notable was Destroyer’s album Kaputt, but he also cites “albums by Spoon, Gayngs, Arcade Fire, War On Drugs and Bon Iver – they were pretty dense records; there was some pretty thick instrumentation and I feel like that production trend lent itself more towards including sax and woodwinds. Tune Yards also put out Whokill and it has amazing use of saxophone on it. I feel like the integration of the sax into rock and pop music is what people seem to want more of now.”
Bon Iver’s creative decisions – from his debut album onwards – continues to have huge reverberations in the indie world and beyond, and his 2016 album 22, A Million was no exception. “It was a huge honour to get to be a small part of that record,” Douglas says. “Playing these beautiful arrangements with a dozen sax players in a room was pretty life changing. As far as it being an important record, I think that had less to do with the saxophone specifically and more to do with the fact that Justin made the creative choice to invest in a week of recording a huge ensemble of the same instrument and wanting that to be sort of a centrepiece for the album.” The sax ensemble Douglas was a part of for the album was called the Sad Sax of Shit.
William Doyle also points out Deerhunter from this decade as being a key artist to swing the image of the sax. “In terms of how the sax has been used in this more indie and guitar context you could trace that recent development back to ‘Coronado’ on Deerhunter’s amazing Halcyon Digest . I remember Bradford Cox at the time, in true Bradford fashion, saying that after that song all of the bands would have saxophone on their albums. It took a little while, but was he right? Obviously they weren’t the first to use it in this context, but I think it was the first time in a while that a great band who make, for want of a better term, serious music were able to use it in such an effective and non-ironic way. The sound of the recording of the sax on that song is especially good too.” During this same period of the instrument gaining momentum, it was also heavily utilised by PJ Harvey on Let England Shake and the Hope Six Demolition Project, which between them scooped up on array of award nominations and wins.
We’re now entering a period in which a younger generation have embraced the instrument in a wholehearted way. Doyle thinks the generation shift is key. “For a long time I think the sax has generally been regarded with suspicion. My song ‘Millersdale’ was reviewed on Roundtable on BBC 6 Music, and the bass player from James was a judge. He really didn’t like the saxophone part. But then, he used the term ‘saxamaphone’ too, and I think that may point to a kind of generational suspicion to this instrument, especially from people in the guitar band world. Luckily, the kids don’t care now. They are in a post-genre world, and any music can and should mix with any other kind of music. The saxophone is a brilliant instrument, connotations be damned.”
The risk is, now that we’ve entered a period where more and more bands jump on the sax train, is there a danger of it becoming too much of a trend and peak sax being reached, throwing it back into the world of naff once again? Duffin thinks we’re moving past the point of being sniffy and fickle about such things. “At the moment I get way more saxophone work than I do keyboard or compositional work, so I hope not – it’s my job! It does seem strange though as at least half of the reviews I get will start with, ‘I’m usually not into saxophone,’ or, ‘despite previous sax crimes’ – both direct quotes – and then they go on to say really nice things. I get it live too, the same phrases. I find it funny though; I like being the thing that could potentially ruin somebody’s evening. Imagine if you had to mention all of the previous crimes against the guitar before you said you liked someone’s playing – you’d be there all day.
“I think the saxophone has loads of time left, as it’s capable of anything and when it’s treated right it’s just part of the furniture in a band. Maybe it will be less popular as these things ebb and flow, but I don’t think it’ll totally go away. We’re through the looking glass now and maybe it’ll be totally exonerated of its previous crimes sometime soon.”
Lewis Evans doesn’t really care whether it remains a hip instrument to be playing or not. “Good music doesn’t rely on being fashionable,” he says. “If I was playing the sax as a fashion statement then I’d have a lot of questions to be asking myself.”
Photography: Yu Igarashi
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