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'Bad Hombre': Jazz drummer/composer Antonio Sánchez's musical response to Donald Trump

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Jazz drummer and composer Antonio Sánchez.
Jazz drummer and composer Antonio Sánchez.

The Mexican-American jazz drummer talks about drum improvisations and creating an album that directly responds to Donald Trump's rhetoric about Mexicans in the U.S.

Antonio Sánchez is perhaps best known for his frenetic drum score for Alejandro G. Iñárritu's 2014 film "Birdman," but his follow-up album strikes a more political chord.

The jazz drummer and composer released a new album called "Bad Hombre," a direct reference to a term used by President Donald J. Trump. In the 2016 election, Trump referred to undocumented Mexican immigrants in the United States as "bad hombres" in the final presidential debate:

"We have some bad hombres here, and we're going to get them out."

"Bad hombres are, by his definition, Mexicans -- mainly Mexicans -- and Latinos that are rapists and are criminals, and that we are just bringing the country down single-handedly," Sánchez says. "This album is like a direct answer to that rhetoric."

"Bad Hombre" pairs drum improvisations with electronic elements, all performed, produced and engineered by Sánchez himself. The Mexican-born musician draws from a rich musical background, which includes touring with guitarist Pat Metheny and fronting his own band Migration.

Sánchez also scored the Epix television series "Get Shorty."

When Sánchez spoke with The Frame's John Horn, he talked about the inspiration behind "Bad Hombres" and working on "Birdman."


Can you talk about the title of your new album, "Bad Hombre," and whether you intentionally named it the same as the term used by U.S. President Donald Trump?

It was more than intentional. I cannot stress how intentional it was. The album relates a hundred percent to what he said about being a bunch of bad hombres in the States and they had to get them out. And bad hombres are, by his definition, Mexicans -- mainly Mexicans -- and Latinos that are rapists and are criminals. And that we are just bringing the country down single-handedly almost. So this album is like a direct answer to that rhetoric saying there's a lot of Mexicans that we live in the states, we contribute to society, we're good people, we're hard-working people, we're creative people and we're not going anywhere. So he might as well get used to that idea.

How do you capture the ideas behind "Bad Hombre" in the album?

It all started from drum improvisations. The beauty about jazz and improvisation is that you get to play what you are, what you're feeling, what's affecting you, what is going on at that moment. I did hours upon hours of drum tracks and this was all while the candidacy of Trump started. And then after the election, when we all knew he was going to be president, I kept on doing that. Then I started editing the improvisations and then adding layers of electronics to those improvisations. I started realizing how much anger I could hear in the music. You know, as an artist, if you don't do stuff that relates to what you're feeling, what's going on in the world, I think you kind of have your eyes closed and your ears closed as well. So that's why it was so influenced by what was going on. And also I wanted people to ask me about the title.

The title track "Bad Hombre" features a man's voice speaking Spanish and mentions something about government. Can you talk about what he's saying?

Yeah, it's the government killed this guy Benito Canales. He was going to try and say goodbye to his girlfriend and he was looking for her and the government ended up killing him. These are all tales about the Mexican revolution. That's the voice of my grandfather, Ignacio López Tarso who is arguably the most famous living working actor in Mexico. He's 92 doing eight shows a week of two different plays right now. So I really wanted to have something very Mexican in the record and I thought, Okay, mariachi would be great but what speaks to me? And then I found... well, I remember these tales of the Mexican revolution that my grandfather used to tell so it was kind of fortuitous how it all happened.

You've said that "Bad Hombre" is more experimental than anything you've ever done in the past. How do you let yourself be experimental and not follow what you've done previously?

The difference with this album was the creative process. Because usually when I plan an album, I sit at the piano, or the keyboard, I start thinking melody, I start thinking harmony, I start thinking form and rhythm. But in this particular situation it was all drum improvisations where I'm the most fluid at. So I just kind of let myself go and that created a completely different vocabulary for me to start adding stuff. I've never done either the combination of acoustic drums and a completely electronic background which makes it sound very different. And then we you have jazz, it's very rare that you have the rest of the instruments completely electronic. So I think I hit something interesting with this record just because of the sonority, the soundscapes, they're not really tunes, they're not really songs, they don't have melodies. But they have something of a vibe so that's kind of why it came out differently because of the creative process that was kind of inverted.

The song "Momentum" feels like a symphony -- there's a call-and-response, other instruments are echoing what the drums are doing, and then it kind of builds and lasts seven minutes. Can you talk about composing and performing that song?

The way I did this song, all the backgrounds, all the electronics you hear, there was nothing there. I just did the drums by themselves without listening to anything. And the only goal I had was to start building motifs, ideas. I always like to tell stories when I'm playing or when I'm composing. Storytelling is incredibly important to me. So I was trying to develop something that would make sense even if you had absolutely nothing else going but the drums. And then my goal was to just speed up. That's it. I was only thinking, Okay, build motifs, build ideas and then start speeding up once you start grooving and then try to incorporate those ideas into faster ideas. So hence the name "Momentum."

I think what also makes this album interesting is that I played everything on it, I engineered it, I did everything. Because I wanted to see what would happen if I had absolutely no outside influence.

A film like "Birdman" feels like almost the perfect marriage of story and music. How do you make sure that if you're doing some other series like "Get Shorty," that you can do what you're doing in service of the story rather than the story kind of being in service of what you're doing musically?

I think it's very instinctual. As a jazz musician, I'm always reacting kind of in real time to my surroundings so usually the first time I do something it's because I've developed my instincts for so long they're usually close to what I would expect. So with "Get Shorty," for example, now I have the luxury. When you're talking about "Birdman," I just came into the studio, I did my thing, I did what they wanted me to do but there was a lot of people involved in the process. Alejandro González Iñárritu, the director, he was directing me all the time, telling me, giving me suggestions, giving me a lot of instructions.

In "Get Shorty," I'm working by myself in my home studio so I'm getting no input pretty much from anybody. And what I do is usually I take a look at the scene, I kind of get the vibe, and then I'll do two, three, four takes and usually one of those takes they pick. But it's all very instinctual. I'm kind of playing and reacting to what's going on in front of me in real time. So far, because I'm doing drums and I know the drums so well, it kind of has worked out.

To hear John Horn's full interview with Antonio Sanchez, click on the player above.

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