The last time Chris Baio performed in Boston was in 2013. At the time, he was playing (and still does play, mind you) bass for a band you may have heard of, Vampire Weekend. For his most recent project, his debut solo album, The Names, Baio moved away from the bass and more toward the frontlines — singing lead, producing and songwriting. He’s also adopted singular nomenclature, as, simply, Baio.
The Names recalls Baio’s more electronic past, with hints of Vampire Weekend-like grooves. “All The Idiots” burns through seven minutes of electronic hooks, while lead single “Sister of Pearl” plays on an entirely different sonic palette (but doesn’t feel out of place whatsoever). That’s the power of Baio; he can straddle electro and alt-rock effortlessly, sometimes in the span of four-minutes-and-30-seconds or less. “That’s the vibe I go for live,” he says. “Techno crooner.”
This Thursday, February 11, Baio plays Brighton Music Hall in Allston with Julia Easterlin, and DJ Carbo. To celebrate, we got on the horn with Baio about two weeks ago, chatting him up in between his band’s rehearsals in London before the international tour began, just around the time of the first snow on the east coast. We talked about his penchant for spicy food and the burrito that “destroyed his body” in Boston back in 2008, how he would describe his songs if they were his children, and the music he likes to dance to when he knows no one else is watching.
Cory Lamz: I saw that you had tweeted about wanting to bring some summer with you on the tour. I think the east coast could use a bit of that.
Baio: [laughs] It was something I was thinking about. I lived in New York my whole life, so whatever number of years ago. The winters here in London are very, very different. I think that here the sun goes down really, really early, and it’s kind of psychological. Whereas in New York, it’s much more of a physical type of feeling — maybe “suffering” is the right word to use. I’ve just been thinking a lot about New York winters and about those affected by the snowstorm obviously. I do miss it, and I do miss snow, and also I’ve been remembering how nice it is to listen to summery music in the winter in the form of escapism. I’m hoping to bring some of that feeling with my tour.
[Question 1.] There’s something to be said about the escapism element that we need in the winter time. It can be very psychological and also physical just with it being so cold. What would you say your favorite season is?
I’m a real transitional season guy. I like spring, and I like fall. Summer’s great, but I get hot really easily — that’s the only thing, that’s probably why I would have it be my third favorite season.
It’s funny that you say that because with The Names and a large majority of Vampire Weekend’s music, I always got a fall vibe.
Really? I love that.
Yeah, and especially with some of the Vampire Weekend songs and “Sister of Pearl” and some of your other solo cuts — I think September. I first heard “Sister of Pearl” back in September, so that’s what I associate with you.
I think that autumn is maybe the most romantic season. Maybe it’s the association with the red leaves and just in general redness. I think chasing autumnal music is great, too. The reason I was thinking about it also when I tweeted that is because I’m going to start playing one of my old tracks, “Sunburn Modern,” for the first time live, and that’s one that I’ve been rehearsing a lot. That song to me is like pure summer. I like that you say that about autumn — I do think that’s probably my favorite season.
[Question 2.] I’m glad you brought up “Sunburn Modern” because I do want to talk about that. One of the things that I sometimes hear when I speak to artists is that they describe their work as their children in a lot of respects. Now with Sunburn and The Names, how would you describe these songs as if they were your children?
Okay. You know, that’s hard. The Names is like nine children, and Sunburn is like three children. I guess “Sunburn Modern” is the precocious and happy, but at times maybe prone to longing, personality child. I think that “Sister of Pearl” is the most exuberant child — just a happy-ass kid (laughs) with a lot of energy. Let me think of another one… man, this is a good question. I wish I had some notice.
I should have prepped you!
Yeah! I mean, there’s a lot to say. I could talk about it for a long time.
How about “Tanto”?
“Tanto” is maybe the quiet child, the pensive one. Very pensive. The one that surprises you from time to time with their wisdom and observation.
Now for a bonus round: a Vampire Weekend song, “Giving Up The Gun.”
Oh gosh, as a person? That’s hard. The old soul.
[Question 3.] Let’s talk a little bit more about your process in working on this album. How did you balance working on The Names while also working on [Vampire Weekend’s 2013 album] Modern Vampires of the City, too?
It was something that I was thinking about for a really long time. It really came together after I moved to London, and I moved to London three weeks after Modern Vampires came out. It actually was fairly easy to balance. When you’re on tour, there is a ton of dead time. Basically, I’d be at home in off-time and make an instrumental or maybe two tracks and then when I’d go travel, during the day, I’d loop that instrumental on my phone and walk around and try to come up with vocal parts and lyrics. I was starting to get to the point where I was so excited to go home to record the vocals that I was writing. It was something that was fairly natural.
When we had a much longer break, which was summer of 2014, I booked some studio time and worked with an engineer to take all of these songs over the finish line during that time.
When you have an idea for a song, is there a switch in your brain that allows you to compartmentalize for your projects for versus the band’s projects?
Well, I’m not one of the songwriters in the band. I contribute arrangement ideas or bass parts or things like that. My journey would be… around 2008 I was a successful bass player but a frustrated producer. I took three or four years to learn how to become a producer and put out the first EP, Sunburn. At that point I was like a very happy, satisfied, psyched producer but maybe a frustrated singer and a frustrated songwriter. So I spent that time honing those skills. With the record, it’s me becoming a songwriter. I hadn’t written a song since I was 16 or 17 before this record. It wasn’t really an issue of “where does this go?” If it was a song that I wrote, it was going to be a part of my project.
[Question 4.] Do you have to sit down and consciously carve out some time and say, “I’m going to write a song today” or is it more on the fly, based on whatever inspiration hits you?
The track “Endless Rhythm” is actually about that a little bit. I think most people that are songwriters… if they could write a song every day, they would do that. But I think inspiration is obviously much trickier than that. There are days when you are hitting your head against the wall, and there are days when it’s effortless and you feel like you’re a vessel for something greater — like music is pouring out of you. It really just depends on the day. It’s a scary thing, but I think it’s something most musicians are chasing when they make music.
Are you still writing now, or are you purely in tour mode, now that you’ve released the album?
I hadn’t been writing. The last song I wrote on the record was “Endless Rhythm,” and I haven’t written since then. I’ve been starting to demo and just come up with ideas and things like that. Do my remixes. In general I’ve been feeling more inspired by being in the studio and working on stuff.
Some artists tend to be more fragmented in that way. You have some who might feel really inspired when they are on the road and have that energy. And then you have some artists who just can’t devote the emotional capacity to both at the same time.
I guess it’s kind of fickle with me, but right now I’m enjoying being in the studio, knowing that I’m going to be traveling for the next few months and won’t really have the time to be in the studio.
[Question 5.] What’s one thing that you’re looking forward to about the Boston experience? Your show, or maybe Boston in general?
I will say one thing, and that is I love spicy food. It’s my favorite thing in the world. Whenever I eat at a restaurant, I ask for the spiciest thing. I can’t remember the name of this Mexican place that is by where the New School is. There was this burrito place that apparently no longer exists. Before a Vampire Weekend show at the museum there, in 2008, I had this burrito, and it just destroyed my body. It was the only time I met something that was too spicy for me.
I think that Boston is not necessarily known for having the spiciest food in the world, but Boston is the one city that’s toppled my love of spice. So I’m looking forward to getting back and having another spicy burrito somewhere else in Boston.
I have some friends from college who live in Boston. They moved to Boston after living in New York. I’m looking forward to seeing them, too. The crowds have always been good when Vampire Weekend played there; this will be the first time playing there solo. I’m looking forward to seeing some old friends and getting to play music from my record there.
[Question 6.] What’s been different about prepping for this tour as a solo artist versus prepping for it as a band?
The work is kind of the same — you’re just getting it to a place where you’re happy with what you’re putting out into the world. It’s a profoundly small operation compared to the Vampire Weekend tours. But I’m playing with a guitar player and we kind of do it like it’s half a DJ set, half a lounge act, you know. That’s the vibe I go for live: techno crooner. It’s definitely different singing on stage. But for me playing music is so fun and so life affirming. It’s always so rewarding after making a record or finishing something. It’s something I’ve always loved doing, whether that’s singing, or playing bass, or live electronics.
Right now I’m reading a book called One of Us that’s about the Anders Breivik murders in Oslo in 2011. It’s one of the best books I’ve read in the last five years. I can’t recommend it enough right now. That’s the thing that I… “enjoy” is not quite the right word, because it’s a profoundly dark book, but it’s a book that I think people should read.
::SEVEN OF SOMETHING
With the “Sister of Pearl” video, you’re very much dancing in your own space, Thom Yorke-style. What are seven songs that you like to dance to when no one is watching you?
“(Do It) ‘Til You’re Satisfied”, by B.T. Express
“Over It”, by the Junior Boys
“Enjoy the Silence”, by Depeche Mode
“Sledgehammer”, by Peter Gabriel
“The Message”, by Nas
“For the Love of Money”, by The O’Jays
“River”, by Ibeyi