Chris Baio comes across as an introvert trying to challenge himself to be the most charismatic guy in the room. His words are delivered as if he’s learning to speak for the first time, discovering a new joy for pushing down on consonants and elongating vowels. He wants you to dance, but his commands come across as more of suggestions — as if he’s speaking out loud whilst still in his head, and is really more concerned with getting his own feet to move anyway. His voice flies up and down his register, he’ll settle on a groove only to let it fall apart in the middle and build up something new, and he seemingly can’t make up his mind about whether he wants to be a peppy rock band or a hip electronic producer.
All of which leads him to be exceptionally charming.
Baio’s debut album, The Names, is delectably gentle and hypnotically warm. It feels humble, but is executed with an abundance of skill. The music feels homemade: synths rise and fall like sunbeams across a living room floor and kick drums come across like reassuring pats on the back. The whole record holds a cohesive identity — a personality that feels equal parts intelligent, casual, and immediate.
As the bassist for Vampire Weekend, Baio has played some of the biggest stages around the world, including Treasure Island seven years ago. He finally returns this weekend, on Saturday’s electronic lineup instead of the indie-rock focused Sunday, and with a batch of his own songs to deliver. We had a chance to ask him some questions about his new project, playing it live, and his return to the Bay Area, and he came across as appealing as he does on record.
The Bay Bridged: The record consists of a number of sounds and textures, and exists in this unique hybrid of sounding simultaneously like a band and a producer. How have you chosen to translate the songs live?
Baio: Playing live is almost always my favorite part of the process and it’s something I’ve been thinking about since before I finished the record. I play with a guitarist, and I handle all the electronics. When I’m singing a song I walk to the front of the stage like a traditional lead singer. The vibe I’m going for is “techno crooner.”
TBB: Vampire Weekend played Treasure Island Music Festival back in 2008. Do you have any memories of that experience?
Baio: I remember it being extraordinarily crisp & windy and doing a photoshoot at a playground. Here is a photo from that photoshoot, if you’ll notice my hair is truly windblown in it:
I think I almost fell over a few times while being photographed. I also remember the gig being awesome, an incredible view from the stage, and all in all just a really special vibe. I’ve been looking forward to returning for the past few months and can’t wait for it to finally happen. I’m seven years older and seven years bolder.
TBB: You’ve been releasing music under the moniker Baio for quite some time prior to this album. What made now the right time to finally release a debut album for the project? How do your earlier releases differ from your latest?
Baio: The biggest difference is that I finally got to a place where I liked the sound of my voice on a recording. When I started playing with the band I didn’t know anything about production, so it took a few years before I was comfortable releasing instrumental tracks. It took even longer to know how to self-produce a vocal that didn’t disgust me. When things were winding down with the last Vampire Weekend tour I really threw myself into finishing the album; I had been thinking about it for about five years.
TBB: What’s the meaning behind “The Names” as the album title? How did you decide on the album artwork?
Baio: I chose it for a few reasons. The first reason is that, when I was 25, I learned that Don Delillo lived and wrote in the square mile town where I grew up. I read all his books very quickly and decided that I loved the title of The Names, a book he put out in 1982. I also loved the universality of it: we all have relationships to names. A name is a label that represents a person — it’s a way to organize an individuals thoughts & feelings. I wanted to talk a bit about the nature of names; the chorus of the title track is “You lived a week without a name” which I view as a metaphor for depression. Also, it looks dope on a record sleeve!
I came across Matthias Heiderich’s photography on a San Franciscan’s (Scott Hansen, also known as Tycho) blog many years ago and fell in love with it. I have two of his prints hanging in my studio at home. Looking through all his work, that image was the one that struck me as the album cover. I wrote him an e-mail that I was a huge fan and he was a true mensch in letting me use his photo as my album cover.
TBB: How have you been preparing for these live shows? Has the transition from playing bass on stage to being the lead vocalist, displayed up front and in the center, proven challenging?
Baio: I pretty much finished the record over a year ago, so the main thing I’ve been doing this year is practicing singing. It was a lot of self-recording and listening back. I like singing, and doing it in front of other people is fun… I’ve always been game for karaoke. I haven’t encountered too many faces of disgust while singing so I count that as a success!
TBB: In both your music videos and televised performances you’ve dressed impeccably sharp. How did you decide on this performance aesthetic?
Baio: I guess it goes back to the idea of the techno crooner — I think you can look back at any picture of Bryan Ferry or Nick Cave and they never don’t look cool… there’s something a little bit timeless about that vibe. Looking at old images of myself (including the one I linked you to earlier) and I don’t always look too cool… I’m trying harder as a frontman!
TBB: Which songs have been the most fun to play on this tour so far? What is your favorite moment of your live show?
Baio: I really love playing “Endless Rhythm” — it’s fun to sing the breakdown, I feel like I get a real sense of how the show is going down because it’s so quiet. A lot of the show is about transitions from one song to the next, like a dj set, and the transition into “The Names” is stupidly fun — George Hume, the guitarist that joins me on stage, rips some pretty funky riffs. Soul guitar & techno rhythms work better than I’d imagined.
Treasure Island Music Festival
Oct 17-18, 2015, Noon – 11pm
$95 single day, all ages