We Talk to Vampire Weekend's BAIO - Plus Stream His Whole LP 'The Names'
Talking filth and perspiration, Yeezus and what the deuce to do with your hands onstage, with the VW bassist-turned-electro solo star.
Ever wondered how easily the bassist from Vampire Weekend sweats? Well, we found out and the answer is very. But we didn't just chat core temperature issues; we also talked about other stuff—like his new solo record. Chris Baio's been a busy man over the past few years. While working with his New York indie outfit to put out a third album, Modern Vampires of the City, Baio was simultaneously scribbling away in his notepad and recording ideas on his phone in preparation for his solo rebirth.
Musically there's a vague whiff of VW with the pitch-shifted vocals that roamed freely on Modern Vampires… make a smattering of appearances on his debut solo effort The Names—premiering below. But while his songs are as peppy as any in the VW aresenal, it's clear that as BAIO he's journeying pastures new. A clear delineation from VW is set out in the album opener: the 2-step electro-angled "Brainwash Yyrr Face." The Names is a place where Baio splices and distorts myriad clicks, rattles, and yelps like a mad scientist, moulding them into dance-pop vignettes. On top of these concoctions he lays his vocals, which are surprisingly timid, like a suppressed Bryan Ferry venturing nimbly, if a tad tentatively, into the world of electro.
We pinned Baio down on a windy rooftop in London—where he now lives (in London, not on a roof)—to ask him about this latest artistic incarnation, his favorite font, Yeezus and, naturally, sweat-inducing weather.
Noisey: It's always cold in England, why would you move for this?
Baio: My wife's job asked if she wanted to move to London and I was totally gung-ho because New York is where I've spent my whole life. But what I've found interesting about London is that people talk about the weather so much. They complain about the British weather, but I fucking love the weather here because I get hot very easily. I was in New York last month and I'd start sweating before I'd even taken three steps out of the place I was staying in. I was drenched in sweat for a week straight. When I landed back in London it was weather I associate with October or November in New York and it was so refreshing.
Alright fine, so you love London. So much so you filmed your video for "Sister of Pearl" here, which is very Genesis—was that intentional?
Although I like the "I Can't Dance" video a lot, what I was going for with 'Sister of Pearl' was something fun and a little bit carefree—basically not being afraid to look like an idiot. I've always loved dancing, whether or not I'm any good at it. But yeah, "I Can't Dance" is a pretty iconic video of shitty dancing and to be in the tradition of that is an honour and a privilege.
In your other video, "Endless Rhythm," you're wearing the same suit as in "Sister of Pearl." Am I correctly sensing a theme?
I'm trying to dress nicely because my natural inclination is to be a raging slob. There's a very early Vampire Weekend promo picture of us in a college dorm room and there's garbage everywhere. We had it on our Myspace and I remember there were comments like, "They made that room messy, no one could possibly live that way," but that was really what my dorm was like at the time. You can't get away with living in your own filth when you have a wife, though. So the goal is to try and wear a suit or a jacket on everything I do with this album. These are my smart-casual years.
You're clearly concerned with the aesthetic of this project just as much as the music…Absolutely. There is one record in the history of music that I have complete control over and get to make every creative decision with and that's this one. Around 2010 I started reading websites about graphic design and spent time going to modern art museums, trying to realize what I like and, it sounds dumb to say, but I just like colorful abstract stuff. So the album cover is by a photographer named Matthias Heiderich, whose photographs have an uncanny quality of graphic designs, and when I would work on my music I'd think about his work and what would be the musical version of it. I also had a font that I really like called Peignot, which I got into from the mid-60s Ingmar Bergman movies, particularly Persona as that's my favorite movie of all time. Then I got Photoshop and taught myself how to put font on top of pictures, which is not the hardest part of Photoshop, but I am at that point where I can put font on a picture.
So that's the visual inspiration down, what about musical influences? You've mentioned before that there's a tribute to David Bowie and Bryan Ferry on the album, which song is that?
"Sister of Pearl." When I think about who has written the most songs that I love, it's probably those two guys, so I wanted something that referenced both of them. "Sister of Pearl" is a reference to "Mother of Pearl," the Roxy Music song, and there's a reference to "Boys Keep Swinging" in the lyrics, which is one of my favorite David Bowie songs. They're two monoliths of songwriting and art-rock history, but that's where my tastes tend to gravitate towards.
They're also two very fearless frontmen. Have you embraced center-stage just as well? I saw your performance on KCRW and you looked a bit awkward…
I've really been wanting to be confident, so I've been practicing holding the microphone for three months. But you're not allowed to hold the microphone during a radio session and I didn't know what to do with my hands, so I ended up hugging myself.
You've been working on your solo stuff for so long now, is it daunting to finally have it released?
I'm really enjoying it, I've gotta say. The record is exactly how I want it to be and it's something that I've been thinking about since 2009. I'm very lucky to play bass in a successful band, but it's an entirely different thing coming up with a compelling vocal performance. I found recording vocals probably the hardest because I didn't know if I could give a vocal performance that didn't make me cringe when I listened back to it.
You must feel the same lyrically because of the line you sing in "Endless Rhythm"—"Every lyric I've written is a lyric I despise"—which of your lyrics do you despise the most?
There's a lyric in the song "Needs": "Even if you can't understand the man I was before we met…" With that track I wanted to write an unconditional love song, but in hindsight I wish it had been ungendered because I think it would be much cooler if it could be from any perspective. But with that line, "I never heard a lyric that I really liked…" I was thinking about how infinite life feels when you're alive, but how finite language is when you're trying to describe it. And writing a song is even more finite because you're trying to rhyme lines too. There's only so much space in a three and a half minute song, so you go from feelings of living to something really finite and there's something frustrating about that. That a song will never truly address what it's like to be alive and that was what I was going for with that lyric.
That's deep. Why don't you tell us about The Names. What are they?
I liked the book [by Don DeLillo] and I thought it was strong and evocative, and everybody has a relationship with names. Your name is a label that translates you, your ideas, your thoughts and your feelings to the outside world. And going back to the idea of an ungendered song—I like the universality of that. I like that everyone can bring their own connotations to the title The Names. So that's why I picked it.
Your music is quite band-meets-DJ. It's all cut-and-paste, but there are also clearly defined instruments. How are you going to translate this live?
It's going to be me and a guitarist and it's going to be mostly electronic and I want it to be continuous. You know how the vinyl record is two sides and it's like two mini mixes? I want do it similar to that so there's 20 minutes of playing, then I talk to the audience a little bit, and then there's another 20-30 minutes of playing. I always really like it when a band segues one song into another. There's something powerful about a band musically doing what a DJ does.
Most evident of this is probably track four, "I Was Born in a Marathon," which is like two songs fused with a decrescendo in the middle. What's all that about?
It's like a microcosm on the record, right? I was working on that one for a while. I was thinking about Yeezus and how the opening track, "On Sight" goes from this abrasive synth-driven techno-y track and drops into a soul sample, going from one musical world instantly into another, and it doesn't sound contrived or forced. I thought it'd be cool to do a song like that—to explode the first two minutes with some techno and then break it down to a folk singer strumming a simple pattern and singing.
It's certainly audacious. Do you think Vampire Weekend fans will be into The Names?
We'll see! So far people have been nice to me on Twitter. But it's exactly how I want it to be and anything after that is the cherry on top. Any time someone in a band makes their own record they want it to be its own thing and to live in its own world. I just hope The Names gets to have its own life.
Danielle Goldstein is a London-based writer and she fucking hates the weather there. Follow her on Twitter.