Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Sound Engineering by Patrick Stolley
I'd never thought of Bill Baird as a bellicose individual until he wrote a song about that very thought, the pugnacity that all of his sides -- the body parts and their counterparts - feel for one another. His heart is in a constant struggle with his brain, he sings on "Civil War," the American Civil War, imagined on a more micro level, which turns one side of his body into the Confederates and the other half into the Union forces. The bugle boy is his tongue, though he doesn't say so specifically. He does declare that he fights like Mark Twain because Samuel Clemens "must've fought before." His soul has always been a pacifist, but there's the matter of his spine representing the Mason-Dixon Line and his bloodstream is the Mighty Mississipp. His nightlife is named John Wilkes Booth.
The two minutes and 30 seconds that he allows for the song only let the spry Texan scratch the surface of all the turmoil and kinetic hoopla that's wired into his insides. As one of the creative leaders of Austin band SOUND Team, Baird is salient with his discoveries and whims, always blowing out the framework and making sure that expectancies are disregarded. His experimental and highly energized bass work is a living beast in all of his main band's output and as a sight to behold live.
He never disappoints. As a solo artist, Baird is a different kind of madman, dabbling with words and phraseology even more than the fine tending of his sonics. He never deserts the sound or the chase of sound, but he allows that inner brewery of wandering spirits and the unflinching need to pull at all the strings to see what will fall from the air to guide him more than anything. He delves into the thought that things can be good if you let them be, more often than not, but there's a similarly insistent need to pull a spotlight over and onto the heel parts of life, which cause the greatest conflicts in man. He lives for those glistening days, but gloominess is always planted with a homing device. He doesn't even try to avoid the bittersweet qualities of everything and anything. They exist everywhere there are eyes and ears and he writes about them, torn into two polarities as he is. It's a helluva way to live.
The Daytrotter interview:
*What's the craziest thing you did this week?*
Bill Baird: Stayed up til well past sunrise night before last. Twas Harry NiIlsson's birthday! I wouldn't call it a particularly crazy night, but it felt perfect so I'll write it up: Hung with old bandmate Sam, smoking spliff and downing cold ones and dreaming of various scenarios for the future, talking about art and life and the dreams we had and how they're all panning out, laughing a lot at Internet art and YouTube videos. Later attended a screening for Nilsson's birthday and watched crazy old footage of Harry hamming it up with Hugh Hefner. That Nilsson -- such a voice, and a damn funny dude. Hanging later with old friends Joey and Maverick, drinking piles of coffee and walking the streets, met up with Paul and Sarah, headed to Sarah's where we spoke of solitary time, alone time, and how no real art can be made in a group... it's an individual vision, at least we felt that at the time. Paused for air, spoke for hours more on facing up your own shadow, standing close to the flame of creation and not getting burnt to crisp like so many have; I kept referring back to Townes Van Zandt and we jammed his self-titled album - "Miss Carousel" hit me especially hard that evening, though normally "Columbine" really floors me. Actually, that whole album really floors me, and we played it through several times over, talking about facing down the darkness, breathing life through your words. Inspired, I jammed out old tunes on her upright piano, remembered old songs needing recording, walked to the street and breathed the cool night air, saw the sun rising and decided we should drive down South and give Laura a ride to work at 7am. Headed down with video camera, Paul ablaze with inspiration and directing us with camera, silly but still profound in its own way, sweat pouring down his forehead, determined eye, ecstatically hopping up and down, fast arm movements and quick smiles. We arrived, cooked eggs and drank more coffee, drove Laura to work. Fell asleep on a hammock at 10 a.m. and woke two hours later for a 2nd interview for a job as train conductor for kiddie train at Zilker Park. I got the job.
* Been swimming much?*
BB: Every spare second, I've been floating up and down Barton Creek, fairly near my home. A block or two away, down a steep trail leading down the Balcones Escarpment, through a dangerous patch of poison ivy, and on down to the flowing waters. I've guided a number of friends down the creek, floating through rapids, trashing many pairs of shoes, dodging high-speed floating beer cans, and remarking on the nature experience of so many folks -- they hike to a beautiful spot, down as many tallboys as possible, smoke 100 menthols in the blazing sun, forget to wear sunblock and come out prune-ish and crispy, yelling obscenities at trees, blasting Whitesnake at punishing levels from an tape deck jam box. I think I got past that stage, but, who knows, maybe I'll have a relapse. Swimming is essential to my well-being, probably.
*Is your night life only sometimes John Wilkes Booth, or is that a constant?*
BB: Night behavior is just completely different than day behavior. Sometimes late at night, intoxicated by dreams of youth, beer, or perhaps Taco Cabana queso, you do crazy things, you deny death, you jump up and down for no reason, you feel free in ways that you wouldn't in the daylight. Willie Nelson said (and still says, at every concert) "The Night Life ain't no good life but it's my life." As far as how often my night life murders my best intentions and morality, I'd say only sometimes. Often I'll be in the studio alone at night and there's not much distraction there. Sometimes I eat a quiet dinner and read ancient texts or modern magazines or watch Netflix. But the right night-time situation works its magic, often to strange, strange effect.
*If you were describe some of your other personality traits with historical figures, what would they be?*
BB: Overconfidence = George Custer
Glib loquacity = any talk show host, you name it
Hair fetish / fake teeth / extreme bravery = George Washington
Napoleon complex = Napoleon
Loss of hearing / ear as a result of artistic obsession = Van Gogh
Desire to reform existing religion to actually be relevant to folks and not just a distraction and means of division and control = Thomas Jefferson (check the Jeffersonian Bible)
Sometime over-obsession with unimportant details = dude who killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand
My peace of mind = Franz Ferdinand (not the band!)
Excessive attention to fashion = Franz Ferdinand (the band)
Pointless mental breakdown = World War I
*Are you just as intrigued with video as you are with audio?*
BB: Much of what intrigues me about film is its symbiotic relation to music. Given the way most people find and listen to music, the two have become inseparable. Computers are the medium for music distribution, staring at a screen is now a part of the listening process, for better or worse. Why not control the images that people will associate with your music? Film-making that really moves me acts like music anyhow -- slow developing, that never really gets to "the point." I love films that don't tell a straightforward story, that don't follow the typical plot arc, and music videos are one of the few places you can find this type of abstract, "pointless" film-making actually succeeding; images exist for their own sake, not to advance a plot. David Lynch kind of does this at times. An abstract film that might normally seem self-indulgent can take on a whole new context when paired appropriately with some righteous tunes; the listener sinks far deeper into the song. Those possibilities intrigue me. Video art can take all the silly absurd detritus all around us -- freeways, cars, ads, outdated technologies, etc -- and stimulate the imagination. Video art = the new painting, in a way. A new take on Pop art, maybe. I guess it's also worth noting that many working people in the U.S. spend their day staring at a screen, be it a computer, cell phone, t.v., etc. I'm not sure how I feel about this, and the videos I make are an oblique commentary on this peculiar development. I also made a TV grid with Sound Team that's been used for a number of different things -- band photos and art installation and space-gobbler at Big Orange. It's a 6 X 6 grid of televisions, each connected to its own DVD player, a confluence of a number of ideas: Chuck Close's self portraits and David Hockney's Polaroid collages (both introduced to me by Matt Oliver), Nam June Paik's television installations, and, perhaps most profoundly and strangely enough, a video installation from a James Taylor concert I attended. Yes, that James Taylor. My parents bought tickets for the whole fam and when they first invited me, I think I dry heaved. Listening to James Taylor live in concert seemed about as appealing to me as stuffing my mouth full of marshmallows and letting them dissolve, without chewing, until they turned to a sickly sweet white mucus mush. But I went anyhow, just to observe and spend some time with the fam. While James sang his saccharine songs of pain (some of which really ain't so bad -- his first record was on Apple Records!), I slowly became verrry drawn in by the visuals accompanying the show. Seems the visual artist was really following his own agenda, and what a crazy scene: a 3 X 3 grid of massively massive screens formed a sort of collaged face: the upper left screen showed the left eye, the upper right screen showed another eye, the mouth was in its appropriate place -- ears on the sides, etc. Seems fairly standard, perhaps, but what really struck me was that each part of the face had been filmed separately, which led a strange combination face that had no real basis in reality. The left eye twitching, the right eye squinting, eyes flitting about, mouth stretching, ears wiggling, every part of the face moving independently of one another. Completely surreal, and even stranger because it was set to James' soul-lite and acoustic balladry. Concert tee shirts cost $40. I passed.
*Can you tell us all a little more about your recent experience in North Dakota standing atop a pile of old warheads?*
Bb: We'd been driving all day, passed through the Cascades, hopped in the rivers there, stood atop snow, ran down a vacated, melted ski slope, seen and done many things and passed many miles from Seattle, where we woke. Sun was coming down, we'd just passed a spliff around the van, the light was perfect and we'd entered the bizarre landscape of North Dakota -- huge rock mounds, buttes I think they were called, popping up across the treeless plains. A surreal landscape. We decided to pull off the freeway and enjoy the last moments of sunlight from atop one of these crazy buttes. So I pulled off, turned down a dirt road, we all hopped from the van, scrambled over a barbed wire fence, and stumbled in the dark up a very, very steep butte ( we'd lost the sunlight, but a sunset was fading far off, providing just a little guiding light and plenty of ambiance ). Matt landed on a large patch of cactus climbing up. We reached the top of the mound, out of breath, and noted a bizarre-looking town about a mile to the south -- about 200 houses clumped very close together, no businesses of any kind, not much real life happening at all. A community that seemed fake. Like a movie set. We sat, watched the sunset fade off, caught our breath, took a seat, and all seemed cool and easy but with a shriek, this air raid siren went off. I'm talking 1941-the-Germans-are-coming-London-is-burning siren. Loud, insistent. Search lights flipped on from a neighboring butte. Totally puzzled, we wondered aloud if we were the cause of this strange alarm. Maybe we had triggered something from the top of this mound? We hurried down the butte, hopped back in the van, and tried turning around. A large, unmarked SUV pulled up, its police lights hidden somewhere in its grill. An especially fit and trim officer with a shaved head walked to the vehicle and asked "What are you doing here? You a little lost?" He never asked about our trespassing onto the butte. He didn't reallycare! As soon as he sussed us out, figured we were no security threat, he sent us along. "I think you have a long drive ahead of you. You'd better get going." We thought long and hard over what we'd seen and experienced, and concluded that we either on or near a missile silo. As I hear it, if North Dakota were its own country, it would be the 3rd largest holder of nuclear warheads / missiles. Gulp.
*The day you were here recording this session, you had a SICK drive ahead of you. How was that day for you?*
BB: Well, woke at 4 a.m., drank a pot of coffee, took off through the maze that is Chicago's freeway system, ended up on the wrong road out of town, a toll road no less, but I stopped at a service center, looked at a map, drank some more coffee, and headed off in the right direction. Arrived to Rock Island around breakfast time, and, thank Zoroaster, them fine folks at Daytrotter had bought a pile of donuts. Though I have been known as a virulent donut-basher in past lives, that morning I ate several and had even more coffee. Frayed and fried after several weeks on the road solo, I summoned whatever I had left and recorded four songs with all the soul I could muster. Had another donut, and drove the 1,000 or so miles down to Norman, Oklahoma, where I was to play a show at Pepe's Taqueria. I drove and drove and drove, downing coffee after coffee, hitting dangerously high speeds on the freeway and in my mind. I think I scribbled out several pages of awful song lyrics while driving, but I think a few lines are worth keeping and I will use soon. Anyhow, pulled into Norman, lost my way around town for a bit, called in for directions, pulled up to Pepe's Taqueria with about 5 minutes to spare. Ordered two shots of tequila, downed them both -- bam, bam-- and took the stage. Played to 30 or so folks and some people not interested in anything but their burritos. I moved all the folks into the restaurant area and sang songs especially for those who didn't want to hear them. I hope my tunes helped their digestion. That evening, I stayed on Scott's couch, passing out less than one minute after walking in the door. I woke the next day in a tossed-about position, with all my clothes on and laces still tied on my shoes... no blanket, no pillow, no problem.
*Besides just getting home off of Sound Team tour, what else is new with you guys? I believe all our peeps need to hear about the 12-inch and where they can get it.*
BB: Sound Team is releasing a series of 12-inch singles, and these singles will comprise at least some of our upcoming full-length. I wanted to release things as they came out, and in special-edition formats. Thus the vinyl. I like the sound, smell, touch and taste of vinyl records. Our new release was done completely ourselves, everything from recording to mixing and pressing, you name it. It feels better than Movie Monster for a few reasons: the rhythm section is better represented -- it's more like the live show; having done everything ourselves, there is a satisfaction knowing that you can't really blame anybody else (producer, record company, publicist, pet monkey) for your problems. The buck stops here! The record is not perfect, but who wants that anyhow? We're opening new doors and things feel pretty alright. The 12" can be ordered from our MySpace page -- http://www.myspace.com/soundteam We're still wrangling control of our website from EMI's henchmen, namely Frankenstein and Godzilla.
*Has there ever been the thought of taking the Tone Wheel Collective on the road as a touring outfit?*
BB: Jared (Van Fleet of Voxtrot) and I just talked about that. Plans could be in the works. Hopefully in the fall? That would be epic.
*What's the best way you've ever ended a Bill Baird show?*
BB: At the end of our last song, everyone streamed out Beerland's front door, walked down an alleyway, and came upon about 100 homeless guys trying to sleep. We tried playing them some songs, but there were a whole chorus of "Go away!" Which I thought was awesome; of course they wanted to sleep! So we walked on and up Congress, past the capitol building, and back into the club, back on stage, and finished playing the song after 15 or so minutes of jamming the tune under Austin nighttime streets. Even better might be the time I was forcibly removed off stage at Spider House and banned from ever playing again. I think I was playing a coat hanger on my lap steel, doing a version of Madonna's "Physical Attraction."
*Are you still downing that mushroom/vinegar juice stuff (what is it again?) that you were chugging when we were there? What are the benefits?*
BB: Kombucha tea, it's called. The stuff is a fermenting mushroom mixture that originates in China. Benefits include: sunshine flavored b.o., big smile, general sense of feeling like "Holy Shit! This stuff is awesome." As far as specific benefits, I think it p.h. balances your stomach.
*When have you felt most alive?*
BB: Right now, of course! Always. You know what ah'm sprayin'. Other than now, I guess the time I took off for three months on my own, living on the road and seeing the country. Worked odd jobs in furniture delivery and Internet design, shoveled manure for free room, board, and a meal, was nearly busted in Ketchikan, Alaska, climbed Harney Peak (in South Dakota) by moonlight, slept in snow, rain, on floors, concrete, carpet, backseats of cars, couches, beds, in a mental hospital, on a goat farm, amongst the redwoods, by Boston University, amongst piles of pizza boxes and beer bottles. I remember hiding my map, putting away my compass, and just driving according to the sun. I knew I was headed West, so I just drove straight into the setting sun. And there I found It! It, with the capitol I, you know what ah'm saying'? Stopping my car on a completely empty 2-lane highway somewhere in Southern Colorado, blasting Mozart's "Wind Concerto" from my stereo and feeling so completely bursting with life, dancing in the road, soul bursting out of every pore, sunshine pouring from my heart. Of course, with those highs came crazy nights driving alone through dark empty roads, zigging through canyons, pulling up and seeing no lights anywhere around me, no highway lights, no headlights. I literally felt like I was driving through real emptiness, nothingness. I stared into the void, the void stared back, and it chilled me to my bones. I wanted to call home, to find assurance in warm voices, some kind of warmth somewhere, I had no cell phone, no nothing, just me, alone. It was chilling and yet I've probably never felt more alive, ever. The dazzling highs of pure freedom along with the strange lonely nights all alone in my car, with not a soul in sight. Such an experience is probably permanently out of reach now, due to skyrocketing gas prices. I think gas was pretty near to a dollar then...1999. Here's to the past, I salute ye! And I hope I may feel so alive again! It still happens, happens all the time, when I don't grab, but just live life fully present. It's always right here with me, just got to reach out and grab It. Alright, enough cosmic slop, I gotta go for a run with my dog, Townes, and then to the greenbelt for a swim in clear blue waters.
Click here to visit Bill Baird's myspace page.