Bill Baird, whom we introduced you to shortly before the release of his double LP Spring Break of the Soul, is one of the more fascinating characters in the Bay Area scene. If you don’t believe me, spend some time on his YouTube page, where you’ll find Baird on stage at Lollapalooza with his former band Sound Team, a hilarious video of his “self help group” filmed at the Berkeley Public Access studio, and his performance at Austin City Hall to commemorate “Bill Baird Day”. And that’s the “normal” stuff.
For his latest video for the track “Lost at Sea”, which we’re pleased to share with you for the first time, Baird highlights his talent with visuals and music, and definitely displays his slightly bizarre sense of humor. After the video, you can read his entertaining, hilarious, and enlightening thoughts on touring, fatherhood, and life in the Bay Area. Baird will perform at Amnesia Tuesday, August 27 as part of Sandy’s August residency.
The Bay Bridged: How long have you been in the Bay Area, and how has it been going?
Bill Baird: I’ve been out here less than a year now, but sometimes I forget how long it’s been. Sometimes it feels like I’ve always been here and other times I feel lost in a deep abyss. Depends on if I’m at that 580 / 880 / 80 / Bay Bridge / interchange / pretzel / head-fuck probably. Time is a flexible commodity depending on how bored or excited your life feels. I’ve been meeting so many amazing people out here, sometimes seems like several lifetimes already. I love the breeze that comes in the window, I love walking down the Berkeley pier and watching folks catch gross-looking fish, I love being in a new place. I got to watch Morton Subotnick do live conducting. That opened my head in a way that’s hard to describe.
TBB: What are you studying at Mills?
BB: I’m studying electronic music. Not necessarily like Skrillex (and not necessarily not) but more like post-Cage, post-Oliveros late-20th century approaches to composition using technology, thinking about Varese and Pierre Schaeffer and Charles Ives and John Oswald and a bunch of other guys and girls who made groundbreaking and super difficult and interesting music. Searching for the spaces between the keys, between the lines, moving beyond boring rigidity. Even avante-garde music can be made boring if it feels bound too much by rules. So just moving all around in this new space. I love the spirit and the adventure at Mills. Everybody is there because they have an existing practice and the professors help students pursue what they’re already doing. You’re supposed to find your own voice, I guess. I just seem to keep getting weirder. Who knows when I’ll hit bottom.
TBB: Can you explain your recent approach to touring?
BB: I used to tour in a 15 passenger van, with huge piles of gear, and huge headaches, and huge gas bills, until it got too expensive. And I also started making less and less money at shows. Bad combo. So now I try to travel with just a suitcase and a guitar. I write sheet music and hand it out to whomever I can pull together for the shows, then we split the proceeds. It’s not ideal, but it’s the only realistic way I can continue touring, unless I start making more money or gas gets cheap again.
I’m also frequently playing in places where I’m a relative stranger. This frees you to be a lot stranger. That can be a good thing. Until you look out and see your mom waving from the crowd.
It also constrains you. You play with folks who don’t know your songs, who don’t get your jokes. The deadpan aspect gets turned up to 11, so to speak. I feel like Andy Kaufmann, except nobody is filming me, and nobody is in on it. I just end up looking like an asshole.
I’m frequently playing with high-level classically trained folks. I’m not classically trained, so I try to come up with a common vocabulary. Usually that involves hand gestures and weird written instructions and my very rudimentary music notations.
TBB: What can folks expect at a Bill Baird show?
BB: I honestly don’t know, and I enjoy that uncertainty. This discovery process allows for amazing things to happen, but also sometimes you get burned. I’ve had shows, very recently, where my fellow musicians would not make eye contact with me after the show. That sure feels weird. Maybe it was related to my screaming into a pitch shifting pedal. That seems to throw off some folks.
Every show is different. Different players, different songs. I guess in the broadest sense, expect entertainment. Sometimes the music will be great and super together and sometimes it will be ramshackle and strange, but it will always be engaging. The disasters are honestly probably more entertaining. At least for folks with a weird sensibility like me. Sometimes it feels like my subconscious mind keeps pushing me into situations that end in disaster. What would Freud say about that? I dunno. I saw a shrink once, and I talked for awhile, and at the end he said, “It’s your Dad’s fault” (I’m paraphrasing here), and then he charged my health insurance company a bunch of money. Ah, here’s to mental health!
There have been mimes involved at previous shows. Inflatable elephants. Contact mics, four cello players spread throughout the room. Hecklers planted in the crowd. All sorts of weird approaches. But usually rooted in a song I wrote on a guitar or piano and that I am singing.
For my upcoming show, it will mostly be song-y type songs, with moments of weird thrown in. I like taking really sharp turns between the emotional and the absurd. The two aspects of me that I can successfully merge on rare occasion.
TBB: Has fatherhood changed your approach to art?
BB: Having a kid changes things for sure. First off, you completely jettison these absurd notions of “burning out in a flame of glory” or whatever. You know, these absurd hand-me-down cultural myths. Die young and beautiful…get made into a dorm room poster. That shit’s stupid. Complete bullshit. You wanna stick around for awhile to see the kid grow up. In my more paranoid moments I think that the “powers that be” want super artistic people to die young. We make examples of these people. Like, you can’t sustain this forever, get in line with everyone else, die young or conform, you’re too old now…what a crock of shit. Don’t buy what they’re selling you.
For myself, fatherhood’s had a strange effect. I seem to be getting weirder. It’s just this constant reminder about what’s important in life. You want to be honest with life, with yourself. In the face of a child, any sort of pose instantly seems like a really shaky foundation moving forward. You wanna jettison that stuff. And so I realized, in all honesty, that I’m not a poet, I’m not Walt Whitman, I’m not some unrecognized cultural warrior, or some other such delusion, but I’m just an awkward weirdo who loves beautiful music and also really loves to laugh. I’m just me. And in my most enlightened moments, I’m not even me…I don’t even exist. Realizing that simple truth about myself made me feel like a kid again. Yeah, it’s a cliche. “Having a kid makes you feel like a kid again.” But it’s a cliche because it’s true.
And so you start thinking about the big questions. You know, big questions, like…what shade of red for my Lamborghini? I am, of course, referring to a Lamborghini toy I bought for my kid.
You party less. There’s just less time. The all-night parties are not totally gone, they’re just much harder to pull off when you have to wake up at 6am and change the diaper. As a result, you kind of sober up in general, look at life head-on, not through these myths and not through drugs. Having a kid around reminds you…health and laughter, health and laughter, health and laughter.
TBB: Why do you think you are drawn to VHS special effects? (I may be using the incorrect term here)
BB: I would not say I’m drawn to VHS specifically. I used to be way into Super 8 film, but it just got too expensive. It’s over $100 for three minutes of film!
I’m pretty drawn to analog processes, just because I prefer the color tone. They are less mentally fatiguing for me. Tone is usually the first thing I respond to in music, film, whatever. The public access station is not VHS though…it’s just super old video mixers getting sent into a computer.
There are ways to approximate analog tone on digital equipment but it’s not easy. I will say, generally speaking, if you have a shit song, it doesn’t matter if it’s analog or digital. It may be a turd with a bow tie but it’s still a turd.
I guess by VHS special effects, you mean all the weird transitions and stuff I use. I think I like misusing technology, in video or audio or whatever. Even when I cook dinner.
I like finding the limitations of old technology and letting those limitations guide the form. I will do the wrong thing, then do it over and over again, then keep twisting the knob, and see what happens. It’s all a big experiment. I’m not interested in doing a “normal” video, not at this point. I prefer doing things completely wrong, so wrong that they loop back around and start feeling right.
TBB: What do you expect the next Bill Baird album to sound like?
BB: I don’t honestly know. I have multiple albums that could be released. I did a bunch of live orchestrated sets in NYC, New Orleans, and Austin. Big string and wind ensemble, instrumentals, heavy head music. I recorded a whole record with my friend Quentin Stoltzfus, formerly of Mazarin, now of Light Heat. I was writing and recording songs daily at Baby Blue in Austin before I came out here. I’ve recorded songs of every sort imaginable.
My life’s been changing a lot over the past couple years and the recordings always just reflect wherever me head is, or isn’t…but I vowed to myself not to self-release albums again. At least for awhile. It’s pretty draining. I did that for awhile. You question yourself a lot.
Of course, the music biz is run by money…quality has little to do with it. Still, that’s not much consolation when staring at those same boxes of records in the garage. My friend Nick from Pau Wau released the last one and it really really helps to have somebody on your side getting this stuff into the world. I don’t wanna feel any more alone than I already feel.
So I’ve decided to wait for awhile. The recordings are still piling up. The photographs too. The writings. Everything. Just waiting. I sometimes imagine putting it all out in a massive treasure chest, drawing a map, you know.
In sum…I’m pretty sure it will be awesome, but I suppose I have a biased opinion.