When you first hear the lead single "PHILOSOPHY!" off of Baio
's upcoming sophomore album Man Of The World,
you won't feel anything too deep. First the pounding kick drum and claps will hit, and then the percussive horns and funky guitars. The delightfully quirky sonics might initially distract you from the heart of the song, but then you'll realize what the former member of Vampire Weekend is singing about, "Think I almost lost my mind in Turin,
gazing into the abyss of the mess that we're now in."
Man Of The World.
What an interesting album title for a time like this. While on tour for his debut solo album The Names,
Chris Baio saw everything from all angles. He was an American watching the US presidency burn down in flames right before his eyes and he was in the UK right in time for the Brexit. Experiencing these political events is downright crippling, but Baio took all of his anxiety and paranoia and channeled it into pure, creative art. Now, months after the election, we sat down with the man of the world himself to discuss the writing process, David Bowie's influence on the record, and if he feels even just the smallest bit of hope for the future.
KIRSTEN SPRUCH: In your recently released statement, you said that your new album is partially about being trapped in your own head, but it also seems to be a lot about what's happening in the world right now. Would you say it's an introspective record?
CHRIS BAIO: Yeah, I think that's a great question. I think it's both introspective and outward looking. A lot of the things I experienced over the years was while I was sitting at home alone, being nervous and scared and paranoid. And that paranoia came from the outside world, so there's that tension. It's a bit of both; the way that the world around you can affect your mind and your feelings.
KS: You were touring your debut album The Names as you were watching all of these events unfold. Did it feel strange to perform these songs when you were going through a different mental process?
CB: Yeah, absolutely, in the month leading up to the US election I did the last tour on The Names,
which started in California, went to New York, and finished in Texas, and I drove all that distance. When I say I drove it, I mean I literally drove it. I wasn't on a tour bus or splitting the drive with anyone else. When I tour it's just me and George, the guitar player, and George doesn't have a driver's license.
So I drove the length of the country, and the difference between what I was listening to -- whether it would be the news, leftist podcasts, things like that -- and then actually being out in the world and seeing this tremendous support for a candidate that scared and frightened me, is a tension that I'll remember for the rest of my life. I never thought he was going to win, so in that time I thought in my head, "How the fuck can all these people support this maniac?" That was the main observation. But, what I was doing with regards to playing the songs on my record, in a way this record is a continuation of that. It's sort of like a two-chapter book.
The first record was a bit about my experience as an American living in London, and the way you carry your Americanness as you travel abroad, and the difference is what was happening in the world in 2014 and 2016. It's very different in 2016 versus 2014.
KS: That's interesting because I had a friend from the UK visit me in New York right as the election happened. She experienced Brexit and then she came here and we watched the election together. Even though all the things that are happening are shitty, it's kind of cool to experience these huge events ourselves.
CB: The term I use in my artist's statement is the sense of living in history. I definitely felt like I was living in history. The fact that I was traveling from London to Berlin the morning the Brexit vote came in, going through EU passport control when it was announced that the prime minister would be stepping down, spending the weekend in Berlin with a bunch of British friends who lived there and were unsure what their immigration status would be. I've talked to some friends since then that were there, no one said it but at that moment there was the unspoken fear that a Trump presidency would be at least possible. Which at the time did not seem to be the case.
KS: How important do you think it is for people consume the news everyday?
CB: I think it really, really depends on the person. I can only speak for myself. I can't unplug because it is so crazy to see what's been happening, but if unplugging helps people cope with their fears, who am I to judge that? I think it's the thing everyone needs to approach on their own. For me, the moments when I felt the best and the least anxious have been when I figured out ways to help, whether it be giving money to a cause or going to a protest. I went to some protests while I was finishing this record. Those have been the kind of things that helped me cope and understand what's happening. And in a way, making this record is a way of coping. It's sublimating all my fears and anxiety and channeling it into music, but it's really the kind of thing that everyone should figure out what works for them, as far as I'm concerned.
KS: That leads me to my next question. Like you said, this album really helped you cope with these things, but as a musician, was there ever a moment when you felt that music was simply futile?
CB: I think that the night that Trump won, and the next morning, I felt so so insignificant. But the world is bigger than you [laughs] if that's a way to put it. There have been a ton of anti-Trump songs in the lead up to the election; on this record there are anti-Trump songs, and he still won. He's president, and that's horrifying.
KS: Bowie was obviously an enormous influence on this album. Were there any other artists that you were listening to a lot?
CB: Definitely. As the year began, with Bowie passing, and living in London I got to go to his home and leave some flowers there and experience the collective mourning of a famous artist. I reference Bowie all over the record. There's a bunch of quotes of other Bowie songs that I tried to incorporate. I think about half the songs on my record have Bowie references.
In terms of other stuff, the way the record worked was in September I suddenly wrote basically the whole thing. I got really paranoid and wrote the whole thing. Albums that I was listening to include the Skepta record, Konnichiwa
-- that was my favorite record that came out last year. I wanted to try and make this hybrid of electronic music and funk. I love the B.T. Express record Do It (Til You're Satisfied)
. I was listening to some Ohio players. A record that I actually listened to a ton in the lead up to the album was Afghan Whigs' 1965
, and they just put out a record a couple weeks ago that I really love and have been listening to a lot. And then I was listening to a lot of Stax Records' compilations for hours on end while driving on tour. Lastly, early Wu-Tang records, and RZA production.
KS: So far the album sounds very percussive and sonically very bouncy and fun. But you're covering a dark subject. Is that a contrast you tried to execute on purpose?
CB: It kinda just happened like that. Some songs I'll have a core progression or melody that I'll sit on for a couple years, and then when all this stuff was happening in the world I started writing songs about my experience of it. I always liked having that bit of tension of where what's happening musically and what's happening lyrically can be completely at odds. I think that can make for a compelling song. I've never in my life written music so quickly, and written so many songs in such a short period of time. When that starts happening, you can fight it, you can question whether it feels appropriate to pair a catchy horn line with a song about an aspiring authoritarian. Rather than fighting it I embraced it and rolled with it.
KS: Do you feel hopeful for the future?
CB: Yeah, I do. I have to say I do. I think that there's been a tremendous amount of pushback on what's been happening, and I think that this government has been a lot less effective than I feared it would be. That doesn't mean that things are not going to be worse for a lot of people in the short-term, but I do feel like after things get worse, they will get better. So, in the long-term I am actually a bit more hopeful than I was when I was working on this record, or even four months ago.
That's kind of the thing, "Fuck Donald Trump" is the ultimate anti-Trump song, so writing really really specific references to what's happening can kinda date your music, because the situation we're in now is different than it was six months ago. So what I was going for instead was channeling my emotions and speaking about those fears in a broad way so that way when this era is done, hopefully the songs will still work and people will be able to connect with them even though the historical time has passed.
Also check out our intimate session with Baio: