Progress Report: Vampire Weekend bassist Chris Baio talks about his new solo project.
This month Greco-Roman — the Berlin-London record label that also serves as home to Hot Chip’s Joe Goddard — released Sunburn, the debut solo EP from Vampire Weekend bassist Chris Baio. Simply titled Baio (if you are over the age of 30, just try and stop imagining Scott Baio every time you read that), the solo project conjures images of an epic Balearic beach jam — all big beats and sunny vibes. More than just a simple bedroom recording project, the music on Baio was inspired by countless DJ gigs and Chris’s many misspent years working behind the scenes in college radio. I had the chance to sit down with Chris in his sunny backyard and talk about his first foray into creating dance music and just how the Sunburn EP came to be, a conversation during which he lived up to his reputation as one of the nicest guys in indie-rock.
CHRIS: This record started because I know that when I’m idle I’m unhappy and I knew I was going to have some time on my hands when I got off tour with the band. We played our last show in February of last year in Buenos Aires so I wanted to take on some projects. So I took on two projects when I got back. I scored this small movie, Somebody Up There Likes Me, that played at SXSW and I worked on this EP. I really just wanted to get into production and be more serious about that because it was sort of a frustrating thing to be a musician and know how to play plenty of instruments but not really know the first thing of how to record … and especially not know how to sit down and make something I was happy with. So I got home and got deeper into working in Logic and basically two days after that show I started working on the song “Sunburn.” There’s probably about a year between when I started and finishing it. I made so many errors along the way just learning how to try and be a producer. I got into a regular routine of drinking an insane amount of coffee and sitting in front of the computer and getting Logic running and just working for hours and hours. I did most of it at home and then in the end we mixed the tracks at my friend Shane Stonebeck’s place. He’s worked with Sleigh Bells and a lot of other great artists. I mostly finished the tracks last year and Michael Mayer from Kompakt offered to do a mix of the track “Tanto” which was totally thrilling. I have looked up to him for so long, so it was great to be taken seriously by someone in that world. But it was mostly a process of me getting up and working every day and sending my music to Alex at Greco-Roman so he could give me feedback. It was nice to have a collaborative relationship like that since it was different than playing in a band. It felt more like what I imagine it is to be a writer — this sort of solitary exercise, after which you send it off to an editor. I know some writers hate that process but I like it. Alex was so honest with me the whole way through and it was a nice relationship to have with someone.
STEREOGUM: Were all of the sounds on the album created on a computer?
CHRIS: It’s a combination of both. I wanted it to sound digital and warm, which are sorta opposing sounds. So it’s a combination of things, there’s an upright piano and a Juno 106 and I pull a lot of sounds off records.
STEREOGUM: It has the quality of not sounding attached to any particular era, which is a tough trick to pull off.
CHRIS: I think there’s a definite rawness to those tracks and part of that is me learning. I know it could sound slicker, but I like that you can hear a human hand in it. Also if you think back to the origins of house music, most of it is made on such primitive gear and the stuff sounds so raw … but it’s also incredibly dope music. On a lot of my favorite electronic albums there is a human touch to it. If it’s super pristine it can just leave me feeling cold.
STEREOGUM: Were you always interested in making house music?
CHRIS: Yeah, well, you know, I did college radio and came up in the suburbs and I’d always played guitar in bands. I had a pop-punk band I’m pretty ashamed of, although since it’s been a decade now, so it’s slightly more endearing to me now when I remember it. In college I was into bands like CAN or records from Africa — things that were in no way on my radar growing up in the suburbs — and electronic and House music were definitely a part of that. I was doing a lot of DJing but never learned to properly mix, so on tour I wanted to get back into DJing. Off tour I finally got to a point that I was able to mix on CDs and after that process of playing out tracks and mixing and DJing the next logical step was making my own tracks. I read that book, Last Night A DJ Saved My Life — I love that book so much — and there’s a chapter on that evolution of moving from being a DJ to a producer and it’s totally logical. It made the most sense when I got off the road to pursue it.
STEREOGUM: Have you thought of playing these songs in a live setting?
CHRIS: I just got the final mixed versions yesterday, but I played in San Francisco last week and there’s something very thrilling playing something out for the first time and watching people not stop dancing. I had some nerves about mixing in those tracks, but it went well. I’m going to go to Europe next month for two weeks and play out the new stuff. I also made some even newer stuff that I might try to work into my set as well.
STEREOGUM: Where are you playing in Europe?
CHRIS: I’m playing LoveBox Festival — which I believe is in Victoria Park — and I’m playing an after party thing at XOYO, I went there when I was on tour with the band maybe two Decembers ago and saw Tanlines play. It’s a neat spot and I definitely have wanted to play there.
STEREOGUM: How long was the process of making the EP?
CHRIS: The song “Sunburn” I started last year and kept going back to add and take things away from it. The last synth part I put in there was probably this last February. The other songs I did in three or four days. With “Tanto” I got the vocals from Matias Aguayo maybe a month ago. I originally had an Italian vocal from an old LP that I inherited from my grandmother but Alex thought it was a little annoying. I had never thought of it that way, but after he suggested a list of possible singers for the track Matias’s name jumped out at me since I love his work with other people. I figured I’m in no way proven as far as making dance music and he’s profoundly proven as far as making dance music, so when he said he was down to do it it really meant a lot to me. So opening up the track and trying something different six months later really made it better.
STEREOGUM: That’s one of the cool things about technology, being able to send a track over to somebody on the other side of the world to just try out a vocal.
CHRIS: Yeah, I haven’t even met him in person yet! I can’t wait to meet him.
STEREOGUM: Do you think you’ll want to do more of this kind of music?
CHRIS: Yeah, absolutely. There’s this flexibility I find in the world of dance/electronic music where you put out singles and remixes and it’s very different than making an album with a band. I love that I now get to experience both. It’s great that there’s flexibility with the band that enables me to do other stuff in the midst of it.
STEREOGUM: Will you have time off now from Vampire Weekend to do other stuff?
CHRIS: I mean we’ve been working and I can make the time to do both, whether the next thing is an EP or a single with the band … it is yet to be determined. Bands like Hot Chip inspire me — all the members do incredible stuff on their own and then they get back together and make really dope stuff. It blows my mind that Joe put out the Two Bears record and then there’s a Hot Chip record coming out next month. I find his work ethic and creativity so inspiring.
STEREOGUM: Who did the artwork for the record? I love it.
CHRIS: Oh! It was done by my sister. She’s a painter and lives two blocks from me. It’s the first time she’s made a cover and I really love what she came up with. I like the idea of making music that is warm and analog and there are two photos I bought from this German photographer that look like they could be a painting or graphic design, I was inspired by those. I recently have really gotten into the font “Penyo” which ended up on the album cover because I watched that movie Persona by Ingmar Bergman. Sometimes I feel like if you’re constantly watching movies or listening to music there’s a sense that you can get a bit jaded — like nothing is really kicking you in the ass — so when I watched Persona for the first time maybe two years ago I just became obsessed. I’ve watched it like five times since then. I’m absolutely obsessed with it. So anyway, that’s the font used in Bergman’s credit sequences from the film, which was made in the mid ’60s. That’s the other fun thing about making your own record — you get to make all the decisions, right down to the font.
Baio’s Sunburn EP is out now on Greco-Roman.