Not a bad one in the bunch – an interview with Bad Shapes

There are no bad shapes

Formed in 2018, Bad Shapes is a Philadelphia-based DIY shoegaze/rock band, seeking always to create commonality between discomfort and discovery. The result is a cohesiveness found between heavily effected guitars that shimmer and surge over driving rhythmic foundations, modulated synths that bounce and bend, and found-audio samples carefully deployed both in earnest and irony.

Bad Shapes’ self-titled debut LP, which dropped in March, is the manifestation of an internal dialogue, struggling with the highs and lows of indecision and self-doubt. This theme came through naturally for the band, as all four members have come from other successful bands across the states, and found their way to Philly to try something new.

Bad Shapes has described themselves as “The AV Club of Bands,” with a light show to ensure that every performance is a unique audio/visual spectacle (see the YouTube video below and you’ll know what I mean). The band has built its performances around lights, projectors, piles of TVs, and video synthesis; and this visual representation has become a core tenant of the album. This visual experimentation has become the bonding point of Bad Shapes. Where the band spent months trying to make decisions musically, they found they could achieve immediate satisfaction in creating textured, polychromatic visuals – there are no “bad shapes”. In this setting of colorful scenes on their practice space walls – a way in which they always practice – Bad Shapes settled into their experimental songwriting style.

You can keep up with Bad Shapes on Instagram, Bandcamp, Spotify, Facebook, and YouTube.

Welcome, welcome! During this time of social-distancing, how have you guys been doing? Have you found inspiration in unexpected places?

Mark (guitar) – Fortunately, most of my family is safe or on the mend during all of this. I’ve found it hard to feel motivated during all of this.  I think part of it was burn out with all the prep for our release for the last 6 months.  When everything started to unfold with the pandemic, I just wanted to use it as an excuse to take a break. We were still practicing together in-person until early April but shortly moved to remote practices when things really started to get scary here. Ben really pushed us to still have action items and goals for the next few weeks and I think we’re better for it.

Wes (guitar/synth) – All the members of Bad Shapes have day jobs that have kept us from the financial burden that many people are currently facing. All things considered, we’re doing well. Our regular meetups have turned into virtual meetups, where we plan bits of content to sprinkle into our social media throughout the week, and different ideas/action items to help get our name out there. We have also been attempting virtual jam sessions, though it’s been a struggle in many ways.

Peter (drums) – I’m getting pretty good at making omelettes. The hardest thing is time management, I still don’t have a good enough system. At the beginning of the lockdown, we didn’t know how long this all would last or how much time we should put into reorganizing ourselves around it.. It took a little while to get going but I’m hopeful about the setup we have now for virtual jamming.

Ben (bass/vocals) – The social activity I miss most during this time is playing music in person with these guys. Not only are they some of my closest friends, but it’s a therapeutic experience – getting into long, trance-like sessions of purely musical communication. You learn to be vulnerable, and to trust people. But we’ve found a way to simulate that in a lesser way using virtual jam software like Jamkazam and Reaper. This has really helped keep me sane. I’m lucky to not be living alone. Putting time into gardening, watching horror movies. Inspiration has been kind of held within the boundaries of our isolation from one another, building songs thru uploads of ideas and video chatting. It’s creating a different kind of song for us. At long last, after working on an album release for so long, we are writing again!

I’m glad you all are well, and I gotta try those omelettes Peter. How did Bad Shapes come to be?

Mark – It took a very very long time to get this project going.  I first connected with Wes in October 2016 via Craigslist. In true CL fashion, our conversation died and it took us 3 or 4 months to finally meet.  Ben and I first connected via Reddit while looking for a singer. It was around March 2017 when we started out as a 5 piece: Wes, Ben, and I all on guitar along with a bassist and drummer.  It was loud!  I feel like we’re learning to be less loud and more controlled now.

We had a lot of lineup changes with new drummers and Ben moving to play bass.  There was a brief period when we paused on playing the music we had been working on that year.  The lineup changes made it hard to keep our momentum.  Morale was really low.  We eventually released an EP in Mid-2018.  It felt like a nice “turn-page” and start to our next chapter.

We met Peter in late 2018 and started writing our upcoming LP.  It feels really good and it’s more “us” than our EP.  I think we’ve become better communicators which I think shows in the songs.  I think we can genuinely say that we’ve tried everyone’s ideas in the writing process, some successful/some not, but always mindful to try and execute what someone had in mind for a song or part.  We’ve been experimenting with using more found-audio in our songs.  Also adding visuals and video synth into our live shows.  We’re really excited for people to hear/see it.

Ben – We were all playing with bands in different parts of the country before finding each other in Philly. Mark’s from Southern California, Wes comes from Ohio, I’m from North Carolina, and Peter is our Philly suburb local. This brings differences in perspective and style to our creative process that I really enjoy.

Our first set of songs were based on songs that Mark demoed and put on his SoundCloud. I listened to them when I found his reddit post looking for a singer, and excitedly showed them to my roommates. I had to play with this guy (the album photo was a pic of his vast pedal board). I wrote lyrics to the 5 songs over the next few weeks, and luckily the band was cool with me playing 3rd guitar. Not sure if I could sing without hiding behind an instrument. Also Wes and I both played Fender Mustangs out of Sovtek amps, so we immediately bonded.

I’d say we got our stride with freeform jam writing when we were in a bit of a lull, stopped playing those first songs, just me, Mark, and Wes at that point. I remember looping ideas for maybe 30-40 minutes at a time, sitting on the floor of our practice space. Inspired by bands like The Books, we thought about trying to move on like this without a drummer. I think it was Wes who used my love of bassist/singer Matt Flegel (of Preoccupations) to influence me taking on bass duties, and it worked all too well. This helped us swing back into playing with a drummer again, which led to our first EP.  Song ideas were piling up, we were playing out more regularly, and hit our stride with the addition of Peter. Peter was super easy to get along with, his joining was pretty seamless. Our biggest jump in songwriting happened when Peter joined.

Peter – I played with them for a few months before officially joining. It all happened at an escalated pace for me, they already had a bunch of songs from the EP and were trying to get shows. Some of the songs on the album came from that era, and the rest were written in between practicing our sets. By that summer (2019) we had an album written and knew we couldn’t split our attention between shows and recording. It would have been nice to do both in retrospect since we can’t play out currently, but the amount of gear we bring to shows made it daunting. I think the record came out better being able to focus solely on that.

I would be interested in learning more about how visual elements have become a focal point of your band?

Mark – I first got into video synthesis while in this band.  I came across videos of the old Critter and Guitari Videoscope but couldn’t find one for a decent price.  Searching led me to Vsynth on Max/MSP which was my first experience with video synthesis.  I would bring my laptop to practice and use Wes’s projector to project visuals on the wall while we jammed.  From there, I impulse bought a Gieskes 3TrinsRGB+1c as I wanted something standalone so I didn’t have to bring my computer around.  It is such an inviting medium of expression.  Twist some knobs and flick some switches and immediate feedback.  And it always looks pretty cool.  Wes found some old tube TVs on Facebook and Craigslist.  Ben found a TV shop going out of business and got a bunch of flat screen TVs for super cheap. Peter got some video mixers.  We all seemed interested in experimenting with the medium and it has naturally wiggled its way into being an integral part of Bad Shapes.

Wes – One of the artists that we draw influence from is a band called The Books, who used a lot of found video and audio in their live performance and records. The first experiments came from Mark messing around with Vsynth in Max/Msp (a visual coding environment). We began incorporating visuals into our performance after replacing the computer with hardware units. In our setup currently is a 3trinsrgb, Videonics Mx-1, and Edirol V-4. Being a band that loves manipulating our sound by use of electronics, it’s only natural that we do so visually as well. 

Peter – I hadn’t seen a video synth before meeting Mark, so learning about that was like a breakthrough. I picked up a few more pieces of old video editing equipment on eBay recently, it’s always exciting, you don’t really know exactly what a piece of gear can do or how it will work into our setup because some of this stuff is old and we’re not always using things the way they were intended but to manipulate feedback. There’s a great community of people on YouTube making videos to demonstrate new gear, but some random cheap video processor from the 90’s, there’s not as much out there on things like that so the unknown factor is thrilling. And then we figured out we could make even more variations by how we arrange the TVs. The possibilities are endless. My dad just digitized all of our home movies so I’m slowly going through those looking for footage we can use.

Ben – The visuals from my perspective happened very suddenly, and happened hard. I’d describe it as an avalanche of enthusiasm. A couple colored lightbulbs and Ikea light fixtures were swiftly replaced with a projector and Mark’s video synth. And then we got a pile of box TVs. I brought my camcorder and some VHS into the mix, Wes busted out some video synthesis. Then Peter joined and jumped in by building a rack of video mixers. And then we added more TVs and projectors! It’s pretty ridiculous in our practice space. I love it.

Tell us more about your new LP. What was the process like of creating it?

Mark – 
There isn’t one formula for us when it comes to writing.  Someone might bring an idea they have been working.  We’ll jam on it and loop through sections while others can find their way through the idea.  We often jam before, after, or between songs while practicing sets for upcoming shows.  We record all our practices.  If you look on our SoundCloud, you’ll find field recordings of our practices.  We recently have been experimenting with micing up our amps and video recording our practices and putting them up on YouTube.  Some songs have come about from revisiting the spontaneous jams in these recordings.  Drone Mimic is an example of a jam we had recorded in practice that Ben helped structure after listening back.  We plan to continue to document our practices.  It has been helpful for our writing and for critiquing our execution of songs.

Ben – We’re at a level of communication and trust that we’ve spent a lot of time building. And better writing is the result of that – more risk, more experimentation. That wouldn’t be possible without the ability to check our ego and give/take criticism from one another. The self-titled album is the result of this experience, with some songs reconfigured from Mark’s first demo, and some totally fresh from our current creative place.

We’re at a point where we have some years logged with bands, making us more willing (or desperate?) to find new ways to be creative. We all have way too many effects at our disposal, which lends to our effort of no two songs being too similar. Wes is also playing synth, along with guitar, really adding to our versatility. Many songs begin as a 20-30 minute improv session. If somebody brings it back to the table, we’ll start to break down sections on our massive whiteboard. We’ve gotten to the point of color coding dynamic changes. It’s a level of effort I’ve not experienced with a group before. Some songs take weeks, some take months. Some take months and still get left in the graveyard. It’s important that we all feel strongly about the writing decisions.

Vocals and narrative samples are more clearly defined last. I improvise vocal melodies with nonsensical verbiage while we flesh out songs together. Once I have a melody and pacing, I’ll write slightly more sensical words, often fleshed out on my cassette memo recorder that Wes gifted to me. It took a long time for me to feel comfortable around them enough to try singing totally new ideas, it’s a very vulnerable feeling. That’s why it’s such a rewarding experience now. Many of the samples were put together in the same way as vocals, looking for particular pacing, and pulling from some old radio cassettes.

Peter – I’ve never been in a band that was so democratic, and it’s become really comfortable but definitely took work. We just try every idea, and really learned to trust each other that way. You really never know what’s going to work so the more comfortable we all are throwing ideas to each other, I think the more interesting the songs become. But at the same time, not every idea is going to work. It’s a good way to keep the ego in check, when you suggest a big idea that goes nowhere but later you offer something you might be unsure of and it brings the song to a new level. That’s why we’ve learned to try everything, and not be too precious about it.

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