Bill Baird: Interview
“If you go super-local, and you’re just all about your local scene… I’ve seen that as a way to prop up mediocrity.”

The presence of Bill Baird does not guarantee your safety. He does not protect you from your mediocrity. The Oakland by way of Austin musician cannot wipe the absence of your meaning. His new album, Spring Break For The Soul, does not serve your long-term agenda; it merely exists as a thing that appears in front of said agenda. Baird will not attend your partisan party.

When meeting with Baird, be advised as some alter egos may appear, reminiscent of witch cults of the Age of Radio but in the shape of YouTube videos. Spring Break For the Soul may not be used as a flotation device, only as a life preserver, as it will tell you everything you need to know about life. Utilize caution around Baird as he gives you advice on 2-inch tapes, Samuel Beckett, and bananas. Please advise. Please advise.


Recalling in your blog, you had come back from Alaska recently, doing some field recording. What exactly were you doing?

I was working with a couple of electroacoustic composers, Daniel Blinkhorn and Matthew Burtner, through the EcoSono Group. I guess the idea was to go out into the field with really nice microphones and interfaces. You document it using these parabolic mikes, hydrophones, and you use it as the basis of a musical composition. Some people construct electroacoustic pieces, and some people do some kind of spectrograph analysis on a field recording, Bernie Kraus-style.

So you were on some of the local rivers or something doing this?

We did a lot of different recording. We recorded humpback whales, killer whales in the Gulf of Alaska off the Kenai Peninsula. Went to Denali National Park, the Chugash Mountains. I ended up doing some weird stuff. became obsessed with the way I was using a parabolic mike, and I was just walking around. If you ever walk around with headphones on, listening to your environment, it radically transforms everything. All of a sudden, machine sounds and industrial sounds aren’t quite as… pleasing. You can’t ignore them. But here, I was walking around on the tundra, and every step just had this amazing crunch. You could probably use it for a cereal commercial or something. [imitates the noise] That was just one step. So I was just walking around, stomping around like a complete idiot, [laughing] with this large parabolic mike and huge headphones and bag, taking these ridiculously large steps in the tundra. That was part of what I did.

Anything else that stood out?

Recorded the sound of glaciers melting.

What does that sound like?

Sounds like Rice Krispies on steroids. Lot of snap, crackle, pop, but with political implications.

Political cereal…

Glacier cereal, that could be good. Most people wouldn’t know what a glacier sounds like. What you’re hearing is the sound of 10,000-year-old air escaping from ice.

The air of lost civilizations.

Yeah. Depending on who you ask, the earth is 3,000 years old, or something.

While I had been listening to some of your stuff, what brought me to your attention was that you moved out to the East Bay recently from Austin. I’m assuming you’re in Oakland…?

Yeah, I live by Lake Merritt. It’s not actually a lake. It’s just the Bay, and then they built a dam, and they poured a bunch of sewage into it, and then they realized that was a bad idea. It’s the draining point for, like, 26 streams. So what happens when you clog up the end? Hmmm, it starts to smell.

Well, at least it’s not Back Bay Boston.

I’m unfortunately unfamiliar with Boston. I had to spend an unfortunate week there once, and I got the transmission replaced on my van. And that was terrible. Went to Paul Revere Beach and saw some real salty dogs.

The place is… Most of Boston that people know it as, is infill. It used to just be swamp.

That’s a lot of Oakland too, and the East Bay.

But this was even more so. Essentially, the City of Boston was connected by a tiny strip of land to the rest of the Massachusetts mainland. And then, in 1830 or something, the governor was all, “Oh, um, maybe being on these little hills is kind of a bad thing.” So they chopped off a mountain from New Hampshire, and placed it down there. They just chopped off a fucking mountain.

God Bless America. The New World. A chance for humanity to fuck things up all over again.

So what brought you out to Oakland? I figure you were in Austin for quite some time…

Familiarity is dangerous for a creative person. You want to feel like you’re discovering. There’s always new ways to do things, there’s always new things to try. But it’s weird when every place you go, you have a history there. It’s enjoyable to be someplace where you don’t know anybody. So there’s that. And they offered me an assistantship at Mills College. It’s a really inspiring place.

And I’m assuming you have something to do with this studio…

Actually, no. When I’ve done interviews in the past, we’d meet at my studio. But I don’t have a studio yet. Doing it in a coffee shop is kind of distracting, you can’t tape at a library. You could do it in a park, but it’s better if it’s in a studio or there’s just nobody around. I’ve been working a lot here.

I get that. I have a thing where, I hear and see everything at once, and I have no way of prioritizing what is first and most important over another. So when there’s too much, it’s like, “I can’t function, sorry!”

So that’s why we’re here. It’s the only place I knew of that fit the bill.

Other than the lack of familiarity and work, what would you say feels different being here, in comparison to, say, Austin?

Well, there’s this thing that happens in California. Everyone finds their little perfect spot, their little piece of paradise, and then they don’t want to leave. And these little pockets of paradise tend to be about an hour away from each other, so getting people together for rehearsals and things like that is a lot more difficult. But then, there’s all these perfect little pockets. It’s like some kind of California dream, and you have to pay out the nose for it.

I kind of resolved not to self-release things again, though. For me, personally, it was taking a lot out of me. Self-releasing makes you aware of how hard it is to actually get stuff into people’s hands. It just kind of made me depressed. It’s more fun to not do that.

Austin’s a small town. You can get across town in about 15 minutes. It’s really easy to get people together, and you see the same people around, and they’re great and really creative people. … The East Bay actually has real diversity. Austin doesn’t, there’s not diversity. It’s very not diverse. But I was able to rent really large warehouse spaces and use them for studios. I don’t know the Bay Area super-well, but everything seems much more expensive here, and if it’s not expensive, it’s sketchy as hell. But I guess that keeps things affordable in some parts.

It’s a weird thing. I’ve been here over 4 years now, and getting a warehouse… I’ve heard that, as far back as 6 or 7 years ago, you could get a warehouse space in San Francisco. But then things kind of went to hell on that front because the Twitter people and the Google people started taking over all the warehouse spaces, and started spending $2000 per month because they could do that, and yet they lived paycheck to paycheck.

That’s a whole other thing. California gets a really bad rep in Austin — a lot of the Silicon Valley and L.A. people, in particular — because there’s a lot of refugees in Austin from California.

But yeah, out here, it’s a little bit better. But you’re right, it’s either going to be expensive, or it’s gonna be sketchy as fuck. I was with this collective briefly, and one of the first things they said to me is, “When you go out the door onto the street, go right, don’t go left. If you go left, you run into crackheads and prostitutes.”

Yeah, well, when I was in Austin, I dealt a lot with crackheads, though I late found out that they were doing more ice than crack. I’m not sure if there is a distinction…

Isn’t ice meth?

Okay, sure. And it’s really cold? And you put it in your soda? But yeah, at my studio space in Austin, I had people show me their murder weapons. I had a guy pull a knife on me, and was like, “You wanna buy this knife?!” And I thought, “Are you robbing me? Or are you actually trying to sell me a knife?” [laughs]

So you seem to be recording new stuff, according to your Twitter.

Yeah, recording’s always happening. I’m doing field recordings constantly, and I like to think of the studio as my brain: Wherever you are is the studio, if you’re in the right frame of mind.

That’s cool…how is it recording on 8-inch tape?

Actually, it’s 2-inch…

Gah, I’m an idiot.

Eight-inch would be amazing, though! God, I would love that. I heard that the only album ever recorded on 2-inch 4-track was Blizzard of Oz by Ozzy Osbourne. Apparently, 2-inch 4-track is this illusive amazing thing, but that album doesn’t sound any better than any other piece of shit. But yeah, it’s a 2-inch 24-track and then quarter-inch 2-track for mixing.

How does that work out for you?

Well, it’s my default way of recording. So I’m pretty familiar with it. All those Sunset records were done that way. I used it on the Sound Team records. I did my Career record, and Spring Break for the Soul on there. It’s going well. Making albums is hard. Sometimes, you want it to be easy, but you’re not in control.

I remember talking to a musician once about recording on tape, and he enjoyed it, but he was like, “Eh, it’s a bit much sometimes when you’re splicing it together.”

I’ve used reel tape, for it’s the form things take for… It’s about 27 minutes long at 15 fps. On this album I put out a few years ago, I did these two 27 minute-long suites where it was all connected. It was constructed and connected, and all these changes were done on the tape. In digital, you could do that easily, just by clicking and dragging, but it’s different on tape. Ultimately, though, who cares? Is the song any good? Does it sound good? You get Michael Bolton on a tape machine, what’s he gonna sound like? It’s going to sound like fucking Michael Bolton on a tape machine. You’re not gonna talk about the analog warmth, you’ll be rushing to pull the plug out of the wall.

Now, you do a lot of compositional work, along with stuff like Spring Break for the Soul. What draws you towards singular compositions over recording an entire album? Like with those two 27-minute pieces?

In that case you’re referring to, that was an album. I think that myself and any human, we’re always looking for the connections between things. We impose patterns on the world even if it’s pointless, because it helps us make sense of the world. So, you group things together to form a singular new unit that has its own sonic identity, that saying its own thing. Then you take these units and then you put them together, and then those have their own arc together. What were you asking? [laughs]

Well, when you link your pieces, what appeals to you in that respect?

I like things that are really repetitive. Things that take their time. I like things that play with ideas of time, draw things out incessantly beyond reason. And then you start thinking about time. Basically, I’ve always been drawn to things that play out over really long periods of time, in addition to pop music. Things that you settle into, things that don’t immediately reveal themselves. It doesn’t change for you, it forces your mind to change for it. You have to adjust to it, otherwise you just get bored and you turn it off. It takes time to get into it, for it reveals itself slowly. It’s like, why would you read a haiku versus a book? You read a book because when things settle in over time, it has a much deeper impact. But for myself, I just love lots of different types of music, and I just try to accept whatever happens and work with it, whatever idea it is. I don’t necessarily try and put them all into the same thing. I just say, “Oh well this just fits over here or so.”

It’s a good point you make. Earlier this year, I had spoken with Fuck Buttons. Their first two albums, they build entirely on repetition, but they build it as sort of a tensionary device. Is that a word? Tensionary?

It builds tension. Absolutely.

[pagebreak]

Well, in any event, I’ll go into that a little bit. Going into Spring Break for the Soul. A lot of what you’re talking about, even though it’s called Spring Break for the Soul, there’s this element of long voyage to it, externally and internally. I could be wrong on this, of course. If that is the case, what is driving it?

I was thinking about a lot of things when I was writing the lyrics. I was thinking about the existential idiot: The notion that maybe true wisdom is to be as dumb as possible. It sounds pretty cynical, but I don’t know. I thought a lot about that. It was originally a script that I wrote, and I wrote it down in Big Sur, where you see a lot of these people who I would call “spiritual tourists.” They’re all smiles, perfectly-tanned yoga people. Which is awesome, we could all use yoga, we could all smile and be tan and it’s great. But I feel like it has a big empty spot in the middle of it. So I was thinking about that a lot and those kind of people.

You bring up a good point about emptiness, which I’ll bring up in a moment. One thing I did notice was, listening to “Bow Down To The Brain,” it sounded to me like you were making fun of not necessarily being intellectual, just general intellect in a way.

I think the rational mind is useful, but is also one of the biggest problems with our world. I’m more interested in creativity, and creativity doesn’t necessarily stem from rationality. You need both, but it’s definitely missed.

Rationality can’t explain everything. Take for example walking over here. Along the street, everything smelled like cupcakes. …Okay, that’s not the greatest example of rationality vs. creativity, but…

Well, you need both. I really like that quote, “There’s no mysteries, only undiscovered principles.” There’s probably some scientific way to explain ghosts or whatever. In the script, there’s also a brain that’s pulsing in a jar, sort of like in Dune. It’s sort of the cliche of the brain in a jar. With dry ice. So that piece in the script would be the brain just dancing. You know, it’s just slap over the top of the head with its “symbolism.”

But yeah, ask me whatever about that record. I worked on that album forever. I recorded “Lost at Sea” so many ways. I’m interested in the idea of suites. I’ve done that in the past a bunch, and I’m just continuing to explore that here.

I was with this collective briefly, and one of the first things they said to me is, “When you go out the door onto the street, go right, don’t go left. If you go left, you run into crackheads and prostitutes.”

Well, let’s talk about that suite aspect for a minute. “Lost At Sea” was part of a three-part suite, if I’m not mistaken, with “Big Sur Reverie” and “Marooned.”

Yeah, and that chord progression occurs in at least three other places.

There’s a leitmotif going on in that respect. But first on the suite, obvious there’s this vibe of being out at sea. Was there a general mentality or feel involved?

No. I was thinking about Samuel Beckett. Except, it would be Samuel Beckett on a boat. All the characters are all waiting. I was also thinking about Moby Dick, and the search for truth. It never arrives, it’s never there. It’s only wherever you impose it, wherever you want to find it. So yeah, this idea of man searching around for meaning, waiting for it to arrive, but it’s not going to arrive. You find it, and you project it.

So yeah, I was thinking about Samuel Beckett, and these characters are sitting on a boat, and their boat is stuck in the middle of nowhere. They’re waiting for wind, and the wind never comes. And they’re just sitting there. Eventually, they all kill each other, because that’s what humans do. We’re very good at it. It was definitely, just for myself, describing my own search. I’m not a philosopher. I just know that when I’ve waited around for things, nothing happens. I only find meaning wherever I want to find it. If you’re waiting for wind, it never arrives.

Then one day, you’re walking down the street, and a massive gust of wind hits you against a wall, and you’re all “where’d you come from?”

“And I didn’t realize I was wearing wings!” “Fly away, young man!”

But going into the “Lost At Sea” leitmotif (if you don’t mind me calling it that). What kept you at that? Was it because you were just trying to tie everything in?

Originally, it happened because I’m a pretty easily distracted person. I would try a song a different way, and I would like both of them. I would try to link them together. In this case, it was done on purpose, and I recorded the song, like, 20 times. So I had these different versions of it, and like the third part of the suite, it’s moving between four or five different versions of the song, but in a way that’s not drawing attention to that fact.

Why the interest? Context is everything. I used to play that song as a surf-rock song, really loud, with a band. I like seeing what shifting the context does to the melodic information. But I guess the origin of it is I’m a very easily distracted person.

Going into some of the more spoken word aspects of it… Before I begin, let me just say your narrative voice sounds amazing.

Thanks. When I played the record, people seemed to like that part. For me personally, it always feels weird putting that in the middle of a record because I feel like my favorite parts of music are the parts that communicate without words. So to make it all about the words is just accessing a different part of the brain for me. I’d rather have it be all one thing or the other. But people seem to like it. Sometimes you feel like you’re tipping your hand, you’re showing too much. It’s more fun to be mysterious about it. But it just felt right to do it.

Would you say it’s something that helps with progressing with overall album?

That’s up to each listener. For me, it was enjoyable to do, and it seemed to break up the album in an interesting way. But whether it works or not, that’s up to each person.

I had a guy pull a knife on me, and was like, ‘You wanna buy this knife?!’ And I thought, ‘Are you robbing me? Or are you actually trying to sell me a knife?’

Talking a little bit about “The Blob,” in that respect. In Big Sur, were you seeing that aspect of the blob? Or was there something else?

Big Sur is Paradise. No, that’s just something we are all born into in America. The world, largely. But you could interpret that a million ways.

In that respect then, I’m assuming you’re referring to the monoculture of America. Would you say the best way to subvert that would be to create or be part of a localized culture?

Yeah. Local is preferable to Walmart. I’m not sure how to combat it, though. If you go super-local, and you’re just all about your local scene… I’ve seen that as a way to prop up mediocrity. I love my friends’ music and stuff, but when you’re just all about your friends, stuff gets propped up that’s not that great, because your friend’s a nice guy. It forms a different kind of blob, a mini-blob.

I definitely don’t have any answers. It’s almost inescapable, like we’re all in a giant treadmill, and any way you run, you’re still going to be on it. Or on a giant sinking ship. You can run towards the highest part of the ship, but you’re still on a sinking ship.

So, you have to avoid the notion of being part of the scene for the sake of the scene itself. Otherwise, it becomes a scene that loves itself.

That’s what I mean. When I was in Austin, I tend to be uncomfortable in scenes and big crowds. Most of the people I can relate to are outsiders: Just people who are individuals who are unique in and of themselves. You get them together, they all don’t start copying each other, but they can be inspired by each other.

Going back to “spiritual tourists:” Would you say that the best answer to the notion is to simply write up your own spiritual understanding?

Yeah, start your own church. A lot of it is the illusion of control. You think that, because you’re doing some breathing exercises and reading a book by a holy man that you’re really doing something. But you’re not in control at all. So that’s the biggest problem with that.

In any case, I think it’s just important to ground yourself where you are. If you try on a bunch of different costumes and travel all around, but you haven’t changed inside, then you’re wasting your time. The main way forward is to go inside you, not to follow a group or join a church. Maybe if that’s what you feel compelled to do, but I always got bored in church and fell asleep. To me, a church would be a beautiful landscape or a crazy garbage or post-industrial wasteland: Just some place where I actually can feel something. I don’t feel anything in church. There’s this weird part of church culture where it’s all about the giant box of glazed donuts in the center of the table, and everyone shows up and everyone’s chewing and nobody’s really listening to the guy. Maybe it gets on the guy’s tie, and now you’re laughing at the guy.

If you’re going through a really hard time, all that stuff is very helpful and comforting. I guess my thing was, I just don’t understand how you can get so rich and also be a Christian. I’m all about each person finding their own thing. It’s just when people get convinced that their thing is the absolute thing and you have to believe that or else the world’s gonna go to hell, then that’s when things get problematic. But of course, me saying that is assuming a position of superiority. So it’s just best to fly over all that mess if you can.

Something I notice with your work of late is that there is this sea- or water-based motif: Recording in the Gulf of Alaska, this whole thing with Spring Break for the Soul, the artwork being this coast with a TV submerged in the water, the “Lost At Sea” suite. What’s appealing to you about water?

Water is the first sound that humans hear when inside the womb. I think we’re just drawn to that. It reminds you of being safe inside your mother before you’re born. To me, I have maintained that even if my house were being flooded, I’d probably be marveling at the sound of it. Water does something to me, it puts me into a special place.

I’ve thought about that, and it has to do with your sense of hearing developing in the last three months before coming out of the womb. In that time, you’re submerged in liquid.

Anyway, what could you tell us about what you have been recording lately?

I’ve gone through a lot of changes the past few years. A big part of the creative process for me is just honoring wherever I am, and creating from that place, not from where I want to be. So the style of music has changed dramatically over the past three years. So I’ve got piles of music of all different types, from heavy-head instrumental music to absolutely absurd Residents-style chanting.

I kind of resolved not to self-release things again, though. For me, personally, it was taking a lot out of me. Self-releasing makes you aware of how hard it is to actually get stuff into people’s hands. It just kind of made me depressed. It’s more fun to not do that.

So I’ve got all this stuff, and whenever people want to put it out, it’ll come out. If not, it’ll just stick around for a while.

So, would you say that releasing something on Bandcamp would not be ideal?

Like a lot of music people, I like the physical object. I understand the physical object is passe at this point. You could release an album as a ham sandwich.

Huh… reminds me of this composition my friend made back in high school, called the “Ham Sandwich of Dissonance.” Involved some impossible-to-play music.

Oh, I’ve done something weird like that recently.

Did you use ham sandwiches?

Oh, no, I was using bananas. I gave some bananas to these players, and they drew cards. One of the cards was, “Use the banana.” So some people ground it into their guitar and did permanent damage to their guitar, and other people ate the banana. …Some people were hungry.

  

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