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When I meet Chris Baio at Toronto’s Drake Hotel he is exhausted and mildly anxious, but still smiling. Slightly bleary-eyed from his cross-Atlantic flight that day, the London-by-way-of-New-York musician is about to do sound-check for one of the first shows in support of his debut solo album, The Names, but is waiting on a crucial part of his performance.
Nursing a coffee in one hand while warmly shaking my own with his other, Baio leads me to the patio to both get some air and explain his predicament.
One would think that Baio’s experience playing with Vampire Weekend would render him immune to pre-show jitters, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. In this case, it has got more to do with his equipment than his self-belief.
“Right now, the pedal-board belonging to the guitar player that I’m playing with is somewhere between the airport and here. So I’m just waiting on a piece of equipment. We just flew in today from London [England] to Chicago, and from Chicago to here. I’m doing okay, I slept a lot on the flight.”
Passing up the golden-opportunity to make a Wilco joke (“Via Chicago”), I ask how life in London, England is treating him. Having grown up in New York’s surrounding suburbs before moving to Manhattan for college, the wiry musician had spent most of the time he wasn’t touring with Vampire Weekend in the city. As fate would have it, Baio would have to be geographically separated from his beloved New York Rangers due to a career-related move for his wife.
Not one to take his sporting allegiance lightly, Baio has been sacrificing rest to watch the Rangers late at night.
“I tend to live like a reasonable person, but I found that every time I watched the game it would go to double-overtime and I would be on my couch yelling at the TV at 5 a.m.” he said with a chuckle.
Luckily for him, the Rangers’ recent trophy haul has been enough to offset Arsenal’s 10-year cup drought (the F.A. Cup is consolation for consistent failure), the North London football club of which Baio describes himself as a “casual fan.”
What Baio lacks in taste when it comes to soccer teams, he makes up for with his astute musical ear. The EPs that he has been releasing on his own since 2012 (Sunburn, The Silent/New You, Mira) all veer in different, but focused directions. The need to start recording and producing his own music arose from a desire to use the time spent at home from tour productively. While he had been messing around with Logic on his laptop since 2009, this was the first time he began to take it seriously.
“It came from having ideas in my head and not being able to get them out. You can have an idea for a synth tone, a melody, a way a voice will sound but if you don’t know anything about production there’s no way you can convey that. I was very bad before I got good, and I think that I don’t regret doing it that way. Sometimes you can spend a lot of money and hire someone else to produce, but you don’t have that same level of control. Taking the time and spending five years figuring out how to be a producer before finishing this first record has lead me to listen to and understand music very differently than when Vampire Weekend started and it makes me excited to make another one of these records down the line.”
Baio also said that watching his bandmate, Rostam Batmanglij, produce the first two Vampire Weekend records on his own was a factor in his desire to keep production in-house as he saw the creative license it gave them.
“I wasn’t in a record contract or anything like that and just took it to a place where I had something I was really happy with before even starting to send it to people. When you’re just making a record on your own there are less expectations and pressure. I can’t say that anyone was really clamouring for a solo record from me, which I think was a good thing because it meant I could focus on the thing itself and make a record that I was really psyched on, which should be why people make records.”
If you sit down and listen to Baio’s discography chronologically, you won’t begin to hear his own voice until you hit his most recent EP, Mira, released in 2013. While he is quick to condemn his vocal performance on “Welterweight” as “not very good,” it showcased an artist growing more comfortable with himself and led to the testing of his limits. Sometimes, as Baio explains, these limits were pushed too far. When playing back the rough cuts of experimental songs for his wife, Baio was on the receiving end of some scathing words.
“She said she liked it, but she also said that when I’d sing in a deep voice it reminded her of the movie Planet of The Apes, which struck me as a funny first reaction.”
“Sister of Pearl” is one track that could have been included under Baio’s wife’s umbrella, but the vocal flows and cadences he employs are anything but ape-like. Inspired by the works of David Bowie and Bryan Ferry, Baio broke away from conventional singing with his staccato-like yelps and the results are seductive. Although they forced Baio to break away from his comfort zone, risks like the ones he took throughout The Names make it an imminently more infectious album from front to back.
The Names was finished approximately a year ago, and Baio says the gruelling post-production routine the record went through before it was picked up by Glasslands makes touring all the more appealing.
“I’m just trying to enjoy the ride. I’ve always enjoyed playing live and I feel it’s kind of like the payoff of the work of making a record.”
Whether you buy the record and end up singing in the shower, or hit up one of his shows, you’re guaranteed a pleasurable ride as well.
Photo Credit: Dan Wilton