Interview: Baio: Living in History

Baio: Living in History

After a chaotic 2016, Chris Baio was feeling isolated and alienated. But then he channelled those feelings into his defiantly joyous yet socially-conscious new solo album ‘Man of the World.’

“I think last year was a pretty extraordinary year, as far as world events go,” ponders Chris Baio. “There’s a sense of the world changing,” 

 You can say that again. As an American in London, multi-instrumentalist and Vampire Weekend bassist Chris Baio probably felt the weight of last year’s stunning political and social events even more acutely than most. He describes a sense of disquiet that started to churn inside his core when the Brexit vote came in, which only intensified as the US Presidential Election became ever bitterer towards its climax. “I was feeling this fear and anxiety about the direction the world was taking”, Chris explains.

Out of these negative feelings though, something positive has been born: he recently released his solo album ‘Man of the World’, a record that’s helped Chris to process everything that happened in 2016. “I honestly had no plans to make another record but it kind of happened,” he explains, “perhaps as a safety mechanism and explore a lot of the things that I was feeling.” Still, that’s a heck of a lot to distil into eleven tracks.

The aftermath of Brexit kick-started work on the LP, with Chris writing the first eight tracks in a feverish two-week period in the middle of September. By that time the American Presidential election race was becoming ever more heated, particularly with the first head-to-head debate at New York’s Hofstra University on the horizon. At the same time, Chris’s fears about the impending result were gradually being exacerbated by the distance he felt from his native country. “I get more anxious about it when I’m away,” he says. “I feel most American when I’m away from America. In a way you become a bit of a representative for your country, and it was a very weird feeling last year when a lot of crazy things were happening to be a kind of representative for those things in some way.”

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“I think last year was a pretty extraordinary year, as far as world events go,”

Chris Baio

Luckily, after penning the first few tracks of ‘Man of the World,’ Chris had the opportunity to alleviate some of that geographically-related tension by returning to America. There, he drove its length and breadth – from California to New York, then back down to Texas – on a final tour in support of his first solo record, ‘The Names’. Unfortunately, returning to his homeland didn’t make the anxiety any easier. Instead what he experienced was “something that was very memorable and will stick with me for the rest of my life.”

Despite hearing encouraging polls and listening to leftist podcasts, the reality of what was actually happening at ground level was inescapable. “There was 10-1 Trump to Clinton signs,” he remembers, “and my main observation was: ‘how could this many people support a maniac’?” Even more striking was how widespread the support was, confounding what Chris originally hoped to be true. “It’s not like it applied to one region, Western Pennsylvania or something like that,” he says, “it was literally every turn I got out of the city, any rural road or suburban road, anything, it was all Trump!”

It wasn’t easy to escape from Trump fever either. Technology was only making it harder to avoid gradually falling into a pit of despair, and Chris was succumbing to the allure of constantly checking his phone for updates on anything that was happening with the campaign. “I was spending my whole days just refreshing Twitter, seeing what was happening in the election, and something would happen every two hours or so, it was pretty bonkers,” he explains. Chris even developed his own phrase for the way in which he felt so much more conscious of the momentous events of the year because of tech: living in history.

Being hyper-aware of what’s going on around you isn’t necessarily a good thing though. On the contrary, Chris found that instead of being more enlightened, it only served to exaggerate the fears that he and those closest to him felt. “That is something that happened to a lot of people that I know; they were experiencing this kind of horror that your technology can inflict upon you. That’s something that does feel fairly modern and that didn’t exist thirty years ago.”

Eventually, things reached breaking point. “It was after Trump won and was appointing all these people, talking about these terrible policies,” Chris explains. “My phone would go off every couple of hours to tell me something terrible; my phone became like this cancer.” It was at this point that the final tracks on the album were born, including ‘I’m Not Curious’, a track that directly addressed Chris’s desire to “pack my bags”, log off and escape, all set to stabs of electronic brass and twinkling electronica.

But does that seem like a bit of a curiously upbeat musical backdrop? Well, here’s the funny thing about ‘Man of the World’: despite all of the terrible doom and gloom that inspired it, on the whole it’s actually a very upbeat alt-pop album. That might be pretty surprising, but Chris was always determined not to make the album a downer, mostly because he likes keeping people on their toes. Literally. “I like making music that unexpected and exciting, that you can dance to and that’s dynamic,” he says, “even if the lyrics are expressing something dark, it’s not depressing.”

That running thread of combining light and dark runs through almost the entirety of the LP. Bookending the record, opener ‘Vin Mariani’ mixes triumphant brass with the repeated line “learning to live with the decision”, while closing number ‘Be Mine’ is a pop stomper that’s both a love song about “a superlative person” but also exposes some lingering anxiety about inadequacy (“I’d love to be that person”). Lead single ‘PHILOSOPHY!’ speaks of a critical failure in communication, Chris singing that “there’s nothing I’d rather do than sit and talk philosophy” instead of tackling the issue head-on over a jazz-funk beat. It’s framed as a personal story, but can easily reflect a communicative breakdown between the public and politicians. “The tension between darker lyrics and uplifting music I find compelling,” he says. “It adds levels to it.”

“For me, this record really began with Bowie passing,”

Chris Baio

As the old saying goes though, humour is often the best medicine and the album includes a comedy skit to lighten the mood in the form of ‘Exquisite Interlude.’ Yep, buried amongst the political angst and fear there’s a minute and a half joke where Chris sings like a lounge lizard over some slinky beats. “I like the way hip hop beats and baritone sax sounds, and I wanted to get all of that into the record,” he explains. But even ‘Exquisite Interlude’ isn’t totally detached from the events of 2016, referencing one of the great losses of the year within its singular, repeated couplet. “One thing that I liked about it is that there’s a Prince song called ‘Adore’ where he says ‘I’d like to think I’m a man of exquisite taste’,” Chris says. “In this record when I’m touching on a lot of things that were happening in 2016, I wanted there to be a Prince reference on the record.”

Listening to the ‘Man of the World’ in full, it also becomes increasingly clear that there’s another giant who looms large over the album: David Bowie. Chris describes Bowie as “his absolute favourite” and while his influence could be heard on ‘The Names,’ the spirit of the legend feels greater on ‘Man of the World.’ “He’s the single biggest influence on this record,” he says, whether that’s the complex, genre-bending melodies or even Chris’s own voice (just listen to the chorus on the title track and say he doesn’t inflect his words a bit like The Thin White Duke himself).

“For me this record really began with Bowie passing,” Chris explains, saying that he deliberately chose Brixton to record the album because of its connection to Bowie. “When it came time to record in September I picked the studio because every day I would walk past the mural of ‘Aladdin Sane’,” he says. “All day, whenever the sun’s out, there’s always people in front of it, or with it, or leaving flowers.” This very public celebration of the life of Bowie was something of a ray of light in dark times, a sign that people who were alienated and isolated by politics and recent societal upheaval could still come together as a collective. “It is a really powerful reminder of how music can touch people and I found that incredibly inspiring.”

With its sunshine-filled sheen and deep reflection on isolation peppered with humour, ‘Man of the World’ also captures a collective feeling that a lot of people will find relatable. The eventual goal of the album, after all, wasn’t simply for Chris to vent his own personal feelings and angrily shut out the world. It was to give empathy and comfort to those looking for a bit of solace after one of the most tumultuous years in memory. “Hopefully, if you’re worried or anxious about things,” Chris says, “this record will make you feel a little less alone.”

Baio’s new album ‘Man of the World’ is out now.