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Interview: Baio – “These songs never really seemed like songs that would be on a Vampire Weekend record”

23 Sep, 2015


Written by Tommy Juto

If you’re one fourth of one of the most popular indie bands in the world, one might think that would be sufficient, but during the past years Vampire Weekend bassist Chris Baio has been piling up songs that never were contenders for the band’s albums as songwriting duties laid solely on singer Ezra Koenig and multi-instrumentalist Rostam Batmanglij. So when they decided to take a break after their 2013 album Modern Vampires Of The City, Baio for the first time was able to concentrate on his own venture into solo work. Now, he’s finally harvesting the result of a five year long process: his first album in his own name entitled…err, The Names. A few weeks ago the man was in Los Angeles and got up early to have a chat with me:

– Yes, I’ve played a couple of shows here, I’m filming something for “Endless Rhythm” tonight, then I fly to New York and the week after on to Europe to do some press. It’s been fun, I’m getting to sing the songs for people for the first time, I’ve done my first ever radio session which was really, really nice.

So, could you tell us a little about how The Names came to be? I heard it was five years in the making?

– I started working on it around 2009 I think, I was starting to have ideas for sounds, basically. You know, I was really just a bass player before that and started having ideas but didn’t know how to translate them, how to take something from inside my head and make it real. So I just started getting into production at that time and learning how to record. It can be a frustrating process having been in a successful band at that point, which is very lucky but not knowing the first thing about recording and not knowing how to make something that I would be happy with as a musician. So in 2009 I was learning how to become a producer and by 2012 I was able to put out my first EP of a bit more electronic music, more housy material. I was a radio DJ when I was in college and it was something I’d always been interested in and always wanted to release something but didn’t know how to record.

But on the album you’re using a broader palate using traditional pop influences?

– That’s right. The next step for me was learning how to use my voice. I have always loved singing but I felt very insecure about my voice and how I could sing and make something with my voice that I liked. So I spent most of 2012 through 2014 going through a similar process as before but with my voice. I moved to London in 2013 and started spending a lot of time thinking, looking back, being a bit more reflective and thinking about where I grew up. What my relationship was to America outside of America. Things like that got me in the mood to write lyrics. I found that writing lyrics was way more enjoyable than I thought it was going to be. 2013-2014 was spent writing songs. I had some chord progressions and little things going back five years, like the title track “The Names”. It was probably the first one I started and the last that was finished. That song took me about five years to realize. 2014 was spent trying to sing these songs. I found you can have a melody, a chord progression, you can know exactly what the words are, then you’re a third of the way there to having a record. How to make a compelling vocal was the final stage. So it really was a five year process, there are songs and themes there that go all the way back to 2009 for me.

By the sounds of it, early on you had a very specific idea of what you wanted the album to be?

– I always knew what I wanted my record to be. Like a song called “Scarlett”, the last which is an instrumental one, when I wrote the melody it felt to me that it was definitely going to be the last song on my first album. I just knew that. It’s interesting because you get a little spark in the beginning of working on a track and then it’s really about hard work and figuring it out. But a certain song kind of reveals itself to you. For me it was really easy, if I came to the piano and started work on something. Where it would go kind of always made sense.

Couldn’t some of your songs have gone onto a Vampire Weekend album?

– Within the band I’m not one of the songwriters, though, that’s Ezra and Rostam. I help out by doing arrangements, coming up with bass parts, there’s the occasional chord progression. But really I’m not one of the songwriters in that band so for me this album is me exploring electronic stuff and a lot of techno influences that I like, and finding my voice as a songwriter as well. I wrote a bunch of songs when I was a teenager and then I didn’t write for ten or eleven years. Maybe I had melodies and things like that but not lyrics. So these songs never really seemed like songs that would be on a Vampire Weekend record.

Where does the album title The Names come from?

– I grew up in a square mile town in the outskirts of New York, very small, I had 70 students in my graduating class in high school. It was a nice town, I look back at it fondly but it wasn’t a very musical, artistical town. I tended to go to other places to play music when I was a teenager. In my mid-20’s I found out that the author Don DeLillo, I’d read his novels White Noise and Underworld, he lived and wrote a lot of his books in the town where I grew up. I had no idea I’d been in the same town as this incredible artist and writer and when I found that out in 2009 I read all his books in very rapid succession. The one that stuck with me as a great title for an album is The Names because it’s very evocative, people can kind of get whatever they want out of it. Everyone has a name, right? Everyone has a name before you have a thought. I was pretty shocked that there had never been an album called The Names.

Was that also the idea behind the title track?

– The idea behind that song is a little bit depression, you’ve lived a week without a name, that’s the idea of how you interact with someone. That’s maybe a metaphor for being a recluse or shut-in, a name is a way of… How do I describe it? I haven’t had enough coffee yet! It’s a means of interacting with the outside world, I think. So in the context of that song it’s maybe a little about someone going through a hard time. I think there’s a sense of domestic depression but there’s some lyrics with the backset of maybe a global political relation. Like the idea of how you can be incredibly scared or fear something that is happening thousands of miles away. And it made me think about living in a small town outside New York as a teenager. The book itself is about an American living in Greece. When I was writing the lyrics I just thought it was an evocative title.

That sounds almost autobiographical.

– The lyrics in the first half of the record have a bit to do with me as an American living in London. This is in no way unique to me and in no way unique to Americanism, but when you leave the country you’re from you feel more in touch with your country. I feel much more American outside of America. Whenever I’m out at a party where I live now people start asking me about what the American perspective of something is. No one would ever say that at a party in America. You leave a country but you become in a way a small social ambassador. It’s milky and impressionistic, but these are some ideas behind the lyrics to that song.

The album is very versatile, it’s got both the electronic and the pop sides and a song like “Needs” is followed by the completely different “All The Idiots”. Did you sequence those songs after each other on purpose?

– Yeah, the way it works is the first five songs are like a mini mix. 20 minutes of continuous music. I was really thinking of it as a vinyl, so “Needs” is the end of the first half and “All The Idiots” is the beginning of the second half. I’ve always loved instrumental music, some of my favourite and most evocative, influential tracks have no words to them, and even on my earlier productions I wanted to be able to be extremely evocative without there being any lyrics attached. My model for what I wanted my album to be was seventies art rock records, something like Maggot Brain by Funkadelic. It’s so cool, the first track is a ten minute instrumental, just a guitar solo, incredibly beautiful. Then all of a sudden there are five happy-ish pop songs, very catchy, and then there’s an experimental track at the end. I like these kind of single digit albums around 40 minutes. It’s just a personal preference, but I find that when I listen to an album that’s an hour long I think in my head “this could be a better 40 minute record”. It’s a matter of personal taste, like Sly & The Family Stone, I think those are art rock records. Roxy Music’s middle period albums, like Stranded, that’s one of my favourite records of all time and it’s 40 minutes over eight songs. When you listen to those records, anything can happen. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a pop song, you can drop from an incredible pop song into an instrumental. Or something like Low by David Bowie, another all time favourite of mine, there are some really great pop songs on that record’s first half. “Breaking Glass”, what an incredible song, it’s like a minute fifty-three, so catchy. So really I wanted this thing to be around 40 minutes long where you feel like anything could happen, but at the same time it didn’t feel contrived or forced.

What are your thoughts on the end result?

– I like how in “Sister Of Pearl” there’s a four count and where it normally it would go into a rock song it instead goes into a techno track, then after about two minutes of techno that song basically explodes and comes down to fingerpicked acoustic guitar and a single voice. So for me it just ended up like I was saying earlier, I would just know where stuff was for certain songs. I wrote “Sister of Pearl” fairly early on and said that it would be the third song on the record because there should be a bright, poppy song, especially if the first song is dark and the second is fairly dark. At the same time with “Endless Rhythm” I just knew there had to be one last hooky pop song on the album. That song is a little about just waiting to write a song. It’s about the process of making something and the lyric “I can wait for you” for me, it really is the idea of waiting a song to come and waiting for you to realize something musically. I like the idea that this song can come across as romantic. A song like “All The Idiots”, I love electronic music and wanted there to be a mournful but somewhat banging track. I was thinking a bit of songs like “Snooze 4 Love” by Todd Terje, some Moderat songs, “Maria” by Closer Musik. Mournful banging melodic techno! (Laughs) It just felt right to me and I wanted it to go from something coming out of the darkness, and I think the last three songs are much more lighter and romantic. I realize I am very sprawling as an answer to your question, but this is one of the first interviews I’m doing on it!

Did you play everything yourself?

– Yes, I played every note, programmed all the drums though I had some help along the way. Recording vocals for the first time I worked with an engineer called John Foyle last summer in London, and he really helped me realize what I wanted my voice to be. Then I played my record for some people and they thought my voice reminded them about Matt Johnson from The The, which is someone that I really like. Soul Mining is a record that I really, really loved. I have very specific memories of falling in love with that record during early Vampire Weekend tours. It wasn’t maybe something I was consciously trying to do while working on the record, but when I heard that it made sense. My management found this guy called Bruce Lampcov and he co-produced the last three The The records and he mixed my record. He came out to Los Angeles in November to work with me, and a woman named Emily Lazar mastered it. It was very interesting to work with John Foyle, who is 24, young, a really great engineer, and I think he’s going to have his name on a lot of great records over the next decades. Bruce had kind of retired from mixing records and he liked my record, so he was a veteran coming out of retirement just to mix it for me. He did such an awesome job, and then I got Emily who is in her prime at mastering. So I had three people helping me but I played everything myself.

You mentioned in the beginning that you took some time finding your own voice. There’s a lot of toying around with voices on the album. Is that a way of trying to find the voice you want to hear eventually?

– Yes. I approached singing much more like a producer than a singer. I was trying to find the best possible sound, the best possible character, the best possible performance, in those things. A song like “Sister of Pearl”, even though I’m the only vocalist on it I deliver different parts differently because I wanted it to sound like it could be different singers. From a production standpoint it’s about getting the most compelling way a vocal can sound. So it wasn’t supposed to sound like just the same person singing the whole time. So it comes from experimentation, sitting in front of a computer and grunting into a microphone! (Laughs) Doing that, seeing what you like and keep going with that. I wanted it to be somewhere in between a producer record, a band record and a solo record. If you were to start a minute in, then skip forward five minutes and then another five minutes, it makes no sense. But when you listen to the record in whole from start to finish it makes complete sense, that was another goal.

Why did you put a photo of Reykjavik on the cover of “Sister of Pearl”?

– I realized recently that I love the photography of architecture, and I went in the fall to a show at The Barbican called The History of Photography of Architecture. I saw some very early images of Kiev that I was struck by, they were from a hundred years ago. Early photography looked like it could be a painting. I think it goes back to what I like about Persona, the Ingmar Bergman movie. I like the uncanny, I like images that could be graphic design or could be a photo. That’s why I chose the image I chose for my album cover. Simply I was in Reykjavik, I took that picture and played with it in the computer. To me it looks like it could have been taken a hundred years ago, like early developing photography. I don’t know, there’s always something so powerful about a bunch of buildings, ‘cause I think the next natural thought is ‘OK, so who are the people in these buildings?’. Sometimes it makes sense when you put it all together, the font and the photo, not that they’re necessarily connected in any way, just that it’s nice to look at.

Steve Buscemi and you are of the same family, that’s been confirmed. How much of those famous clips with him and you and your bandmates? All of it?

– Yeah, it was all an act! It was a lot of fun.

Will he help out this time as well, promoting your album?

– I should e-mail him about it! I’m sure he would, he’s very, very nice. He met this guy named Jeffrey the day that we filmed in my old neighbourhood in Brooklyn, we filmed a little bit in my old apartment in New York. Now he has this show on the internet called Park Bench, and it’s with that guy who he met in the street on that day and they film it in the park around the corner from where I used to live. So he still does stuff after that that, he interviews people all the time. I have his e-mail but I haven’t spoken to him for maybe over a year. It was great to be able to do this incredible art project with him, he’s obviously such an iconic actor and a really lovely person.

What’s the current status with Vampire Weekend?

– Nothing is going on with the band right now, there’s no touring at the moment. We just knew there was going to be a bit of a break after the last album, and that’s why I really threw myself into finishing my record since, like I said, I’ve been thinking a lot of the themes for the last five years. I always knew that if I would work on a record and get something I was happy with, I wanted to be able to tour it, so I’m going to tour it for as long as I can.

Vampire Weekend still exists, though?

– Oh yeah, it’s just that bands take breaks. The worst thing you could do as a band is not take a break when you need to take a break. Have you ever seen that movie Westway To The World, the Clash documentary? There’s a part where Joe Strummer, I believe it’s him, he says ‘what broke us up is that we never took a break’, like ‘if we had taken a break we would have lasted so much longer’. So it’s natural. If there’s a sense that you should take a break, then do it.

Any plans for playing Sweden?

– I mean, hopefully I’ll be touring the next year of my life, and I love playing Scandinavia and really do hope I can get over there. It’s definitely a very specific influence on the visual side of my record. The font on the album cover is from watching Persona. In the mid-sixties Bergman’s credits all used this font called Penyae. For me, Persona is such a big influence on my work. It’s my favourite movie ever. What I love about it is that it’s a black and white movie and still the most colourful movie of all time. The way it was shot, how weird it looks, this sense that anything can really happen. There’s this collapse of meaning that happens at the end of that movie. I’d like to think that some of my musical moments… There’s like an explosion in “I Was Born In A Marathon” before it goes down to the singer/songwriter guitar. That’s very much an influence from Bergman and Persona. There’s something very special about him. I call my publishing company Faro Music, because where he lived was the island of Fårö and that’s where he made most of his films. I guess what I’m trying to say – in a very long way – is that I love Sweden and I hope to come and see you! (Laughs) I haven’t been asked yet, but I’d go in a heartbeat. I love Stockholm and Sweden, and if it was up to me I’d go there every year.

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