Is this the hardest-working man in music?

Rising star Seb Rochford was, until recently, playing in 10 different bands. The more the merrier, he and collaborator Pete Wareham tell Mike Barnes

Seb Rochford - drummer, composer, winner of the BBC Rising Star Jazz award in 2004 and leader of the Mercury-nominated group Polar Bear - was recently quoted as claiming to be "in about 10 different bands". So is this an exact number, an educated guess or has he simply lost count? "Well, it was true at one point," he replies.

Saxophonist Pete Wareham, his friend and collaborator in Polar Bear and the critically feted groups Acoustic Ladyland and Fulborn Teversham, soon punctures that idea. "That's actually fairly normal for jazz musicians and freelance musicians," he shrugs. "Four or five years ago in Polar Bear and Acoustic Ladyland, we were all in about five to 15 bands. Everyone was insanely busy all the time, so getting availability was incredibly difficult. But we always managed it."

Even if this can be classified as normal within a certain frame of reference, surely it must get a bit stressful? "It does sometimes," Rochford admits. "It might get to a point when in one week you're driving all over the place, but once you start playing the music, it doesn't matter any more because you enjoy it so much. And that takes any kind of stress away."

Rochford also brings this enthusiasm and work rate - not to mention his extraordinary hairstyle - to Oriele, featuring saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock, rock band Menlo Park, maverick singer-songwriter Paul the Girl, and a myriad one-offs and guest appearances.

Both Rochford and Wareham are music-school graduates, and though the material they play may have come from jazz, it's travelled a long way to reach its current form. In the process they have minted a sort of jazz-rock hybrid that owes little to the cerebral 70s scene that spawned the name. Rather, Rochford and Wareham's application of jazz chops and eruptive rock dynamics to strong tunes has yielded some of the most original and exciting music of the last few years. Fulborn Teversham and Acoustic Ladyland (originally, as the name suggests, a vehicle for acoustic reinterpretations of Hendrix tunes) cover all points from pop to full-on skronk. Even Polar Bear, the most overtly jazzy of the three groups in which they both play, finds Rochford's idiosyncratic compositions punctuated by electronics from the enigmatic Leafcutter John.

Given their jazz pedigrees, Rochford and Wareham could probably have settled for being fixtures on the Arts Centre jazz circuit, but they are just as likely to be found playing sticky-floored rock venues. As they both admit to treating their songs and compositions with a degree of irreverence, it's tempting to assume they may be rebelling against music-school orthodoxy. But it's a lot more straightforward than that.

"Jazz is one of the musics I like, but it wasn't the first," explains Rochford. "I liked punk and hardcore before I liked jazz and that's what I started playing, so when we play them both, it's just me being me."

The punkish element that infiltrates Acoustic Ladyland and Fulborn Teversham is amplified by vocalist Alice Grant, whose deadpan stroppiness is a feature of both groups. Grant, herself part of the female a cappella duo Normal Gimbel, met Rochford and Wareham through mutual friends. "I really don't know anything about jazz, but I just feel that Fulborn Teversham are a wicked band - really honest music," she says. "

The driving force behind Rochford and Wareham's many and various activities is their membership of the London-based F-IRE Collective, a network of like-minded musicians operating in the hinterlands of jazz. F-IRE stands for Fellowship for Integrated Rhythmic Expression. It was founded as a music workshop in 1999 and has expanded enough to run its own record label. F-IRE is a sort of trademark of quality, but what does it actually stand for?

"The way it worked for me at first was just that we were all playing in everyone else's bands," says Wareham. "We were all doing music that you couldn't really pinpoint, particularly. It was difficult to find venues to play in and it was easier if we had a context in which we could do it. And we could do it under the banner of F-IRE.

"The way it started out was that if one band gets somewhere, then they've got the F-IRE logo, so then people notice that and check someone else out, and so every-one benefits. And I really liked the fact that it was so opposite to the competitive side of things in the music industry. I liked the idea of us all helping each other out. But I find that trying to define it too firmly isn't where I'm at personally."

But how do Rochford and Wareham adjust to playing in so many different groups? Couldn't this give rise to a sort of musical identity crisis? Wareham thinks not. "People often ask us about the concepts of the bands, but really all that we are doing is playing the music that's being written. All the compositions in Polar Bear and Fulborn Teversham are written by Seb, and all the compositions in Acoustic Ladyland are written by me," he says.

"I generally write the tune first and then decide which band it's for," Rochford continues. "But sometimes I'll just have it in my mind, like a subconscious thing. If I want to write specifically for Fulborn Teversham, tunes will sort of tick around in my head, then come out."

"I think, for me, it's mostly come out of songs," Wareham adds. "Doing jazz gigs and playing straight-ahead jazz standards, what you are doing is learning songs - great, brilliant songs - and how songs work. The main thing is writing songs, even if they don't have lyrics or vocals. I like all the different aesthetics that can contribute to what a song is. You can have someone with an acoustic guitar or with a distorted tuba, but if it's still a song, the aesthetic is relatively secondary to the form. If you like Val Doonican, you might like Ziggy Stardust because you know a good song when you hear one."

All this hard-to-define, genre-busting can come at a price, though. When I meet Rochford, Wareham and Grant shortly after a Fulborn Teversham show at the packed-out Front Room of the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Rochford is still fazed by the reaction of one particular audience member.

"Someone came up to me and asked, 'What kind of music is this?' And I said, 'Well, I guess it's coming more from punk or rock, but with improvisation; to me it's still jazz.' They were like, 'Well, I would call it rubbish.' But that's fine; I don't mind that. They're entitled to have their opinion. They don't have to listen to it and they didn't - they left after the soundcheck."

Wareham and Rochford both appear energised after minor delays experienced in the recording and release of Acoustic Ladyland's third album, Skinny Grin, in November last year. Fulborn Teversham's debut album Count Herbert II came out in March, a new Polar Bear album has been recorded and is awaiting release, and Acoustic Ladyland are on tour at the end of April. "It's been quite active this year," says Wareham. "All three bands are busy and that's really good."

· Acoustic Ladyland play Mr Kyps, Poole, on April 21 (01202 748945), then tour


Mike Barnes

The GuardianTramp

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