Vampire Weekend bassist Chris Baio talks about his debut solo album The Names, life in London, the challenges of singing for the first time, and not getting bogged down in expectations.
Are you back in the States now?
I am, yeah. So we just played our first five European shows and yesterday traveled from Brussels to L.A. The first U.S. show is tomorrow night.
How has the record been translating live?
Oh, good. It’s been really fun, actually. It’s been a little bit like a DJ set and a little bit like a live show. I tend to play with the computer when we’re doing the electronic bits, and then when I sing I walk to the front of the stage like a traditional frontman.
Yeah, I always love playing live. That’s kind of always been my favorite part. I view it as a reward you get after making a record, so I’m having a really good time.
A big part of this record for you was living in London and drawing inspiration from that. How has that move been like for you and then integrate itself into the record?
It’s good. I really like living there. I lived my whole life in New York until I was 28. I lived in the suburbs and then in the city. I could have happily stayed there the rest of my life, but I got this opportunity to move to London.
It’s a place I had been, but in a way it’s probably the city most like New York in the world. There’s the same amount of people, the same amount of stuff going on, but at the same time it gave me both a new life and a new perspective to look back on my life thus far. It’s an awesome city, and I plan on staying there for a while longer.
It also was just nice to have that separation. When I would come home from tour, I would be able to just really throw myself into making this record.
You’ve been experimenting with electronic music since your days at Columbia University, and really dove into it during the last five years. What’s that journey been like for you to now get to the point where you have an official full-length record coming out?
It’s good. I guess it was weird. Five years ago, I would have been a successful bass player but a frustrated producer, so I went through the process of learning how to record music. When I was a teenager, I would write songs and then go to a $30/hour studio and try and record 18 songs in a weekend. I never knew anything about production.
So I got into learning how to produce and learning what that meant. For a long time, everything that I did sounded like complete dog shit to me. So it took a while to work through that, and then eventually it got to a point where I was happy with the stuff I was making. That’s when my first EP came out of instrumental house music, called Sunburn.
The next step would have been a happy producer, but a frustrated singer and songwriter. It took another three years basically to work through all that. But now I have a record that I’m really happy with that I still love listening to. All in all, I’m just psyched right now.
It definitely does have a different feel than your first two EPs did, in that it’s not all electronic and there’s a nice mixture of natural instrumentation on there. What was your mindset going into this record and what did you want to accomplish with it?
I wanted to make a record where anything could happen, but that it didn’t sound stupid [laughs]. I liked the idea of having maybe instrumental techno passages. Then a song like “I Was Born in a Marathon,” there being an explosion sound in the middle of that, and then breaking it down into almost like a folk singer-songwriter with finger-picked guitar and vocals.
I wanted it to be a little bit like a DJ set. So each of the two sides is continuous music mixed through, but a DJ set where all of a sudden a pop song is dropped in the middle of it. Those are kind of the things I was thinking about and goals going into making this record.
Now did you play everything on it?
Yeah, I played every note on it.
When you first were getting started in music, did you start on bass, or start on other instruments and then work your way to the bass?
I played guitar in a pop-punk band as a teenager. The bass player quit, so I picked up bass, and then I stopped writing music when I got to college. That was when I got into college radio and expanded my horizons as a listener.
Because I played bass, and the other guys in Vampire Weekend knew it, they asked me to play bass for them. That was kind of how that started. It was the first time I had been a bass player in a band.
When you’re writing on something like a guitar, versus synth stuff or on a computer, do you find you have a different process for the two, or is it more or less the same?
Yeah, I think that the tools you use will always make a difference. A song like “Brainwash yyrr Face,” I would never have been able to write that on piano. That’s all just sitting in front of a computer, whereas a song like “Needs” is more from sitting at a piano. This record almost everything was either piano or computer. I actually haven’t written a song on a guitar since I was a teenager. Maybe I’ll try it on the next record.
But yeah, it can be hard to tell how, but I think every decision how you make something ends up showing up in the final product. It can be a subtle thing, but it’s always there. If you use a different drum machine, the track will sound different. If you use one guitar or another guitar, even like how you’re feeling that day, it all ends up building up and being at least partially in the final version of the track.
Obviously, one thing that goes along with doing a solo project where it’s just you is you get to do all the singing and all the lyrics. What was it like taking on that challenge for the first time?
I thought it was going to be harder to write lyrics than it ended up being. I knew it was going to be tough singing, and it ended up being tough singing. When I listen back to stuff that I made as a teenager that I sang on, it straight up grosses me out [laughs].
I don’t know. It’s natural, I think, to dislike the sound of your own voice. I think most people I know feel that way, and I definitely felt that way for a very long time. But I knew I wanted to be able to sing. I knew I liked singing. I just didn’t like listening to myself sing.
So the way I went about having a good vocal performance, or turning my voice into something I liked, was just by trying a bunch of different stuff. What’s nice about being a self-producer or working alone is you can try anything you want when you’re at home in front of your computer. No one’s going to judge you.
So I came at it more as a producer than a singer to sort of try different things with my voice, trying to see what I could get out of myself. That was definitely the trickiest part of making this first record.
You have a lot of different accents or vocal inflections throughout the record, and I thought that was a lot of fun how you were able to mix it up.
Yeah, I’m always trying to make little hooks. If you listen to a Roxy Music record, if Bryan Ferry sang those words straight without any accent, it would be completely different.
My wife pointed out to me when I played her the song “Needs” that on the word “got” on the chorus I’m using a British accent, which was totally not on purpose. I was really just trying to make it catchy, and that’s what I ended up doing. It’s funny because just trying to make something catchy, you can actually do something you weren’t intending to do at all.
Living in London now, have you found you’ve picked up some British accents and slang here and there?
I love rhyming slang. That stuff is so interesting to me. Yeah, I’ve learned a little bit about the more regional accents, just from knowing a lot more people over there. There are so many accents that are always interesting to me. I definitely wasn’t trying to sing purposely with a fake British accent a bunch just because I live in London.
I find that some friends I know who have moved there and lived there for a long time, their vowels get a little bit weird. It sounds like they’re not quite American, they’re not quite British in how they talk.
My wife is American, and I kind of sit at home working on music by myself. I go out and see friends. I have British friends, but I’m not surrounded by people all day. So I think it’ll be a while until I have a confused way of talking. I don’t think I sound British at all in how I talk yet [laughs].
Ezra is one of my favorite lyricists out there, and he has such a distinct and creative way with words. Do you think there was anything you picked up from him when you were writing, maybe something you weren’t even fully aware of?
Well, I think getting to play in a band with three incredibly talented people and travel the world with them over the last nine years, that stuff rubs off on you one way or another. I love playing with them. And sure, there are probably subtle ways where Rostam’s production, or Ezra’s singing or their songwriting, influenced my record.
It’s not something I’m consciously thinking of when I’m working on something. I’m never like, “Oh, this sounds too much like the band, or this sounds nothing like the band.” It’s not a consideration or something I think about.
But yeah, Ezra is one of my favorite lyricists. I think he’s one of the best lyricists writing lyrics right now, so it’s cool that I get to play in a band with him.
You named the record The Names after the Don DeLillo novel, and that sense of identity and finding your place in the world is definitely prevalent on the record. What were you exploring and wanting to write about when coming up with that?
In my mid-20s, I found out this square mile town where I grew up, which I kind of thought of as a boring suburban town, was the town where Don DeLillo lived and wrote the majority of his books, including White Noise and Underworld. I was just very struck by that fact. At a desk in this town where I grew up is where one of the great American authors would write his books. That was just very affecting for me, so I read all his books really, really quickly.
The Names was the one where I loved the title of it. I thought it had a grandeur to it. I thought it had a universality to it. Everyone has a relationship to names. Everyone has a name. A name is a means by which your thoughts, and your ideas and social interactions, are all organized by. The first thing you say when you meet a person is what your name is.
The fact that there hadn’t been an album titled that yet I found really surprising. I was really nervous, even in the weeks leading up to the album getting announced, that someone else was also going to call it that title. So yeah, it felt big to me. I think that those universal titles are hard to come by. That was why I went with it.
One song I wanted to ask about is “Sister of Pearl,” which I guess is the quote-unquote “single.” That guitar part is so catchy that the song revolves around. Was that originally what you came up with when you were writing it?
Yeah. You know, I don’t really remember when I made it. There are moments where you work on music, and it’s so frustrating and you don’t get anywhere with anything. And then there are other times where you’re just rolling and not thinking about it.
That one would have started on piano and having that piano riff, and that guitar is what I put over it. It was almost like I was blacked out. I probably made the song in like six hours. It didn’t really change very much from that initial time of working on it to the final version. I can’t really say why I chose that, other than that I thought it was really catchy. I’m glad that you feel that way [laughs].
I thought the video was a lot of fun, too. One of the things I’ve always loved about Vampire Weekend shows is you dancing while playing the bass, which you showcase a little bit of in the video. How did that kind of get started for you?
I just always liked dancing. I know I’m not good at it, but it’s always so much more fun to dance while playing. I guess I wanted to put that front and center with the video. It’s better for me not to be embarrassed of myself as a performer. It’s better to own the fact that I’m pretty fucking goofy, and that’s what I was going for with that video [laughs].
Another song I wanted to ask about is “Endless Rhythm,” which I understand was inspired by a painting that you saw. Do you find that often you draw inspiration from non-musical sources like that?
Yeah, 100 percent. A movie like Persona is probably my single biggest influence. That song, I had written everything on the album, but I knew I needed one last song. I really did write it as an album, so I would have had “All the Idiots” and “Scarlett.”
I knew that those would be the first and last tracks on the second side of the record, but that I needed two pop songs to connect those two. “Matter” came very quickly, but “Endless Rhythm” wasn’t coming. I knew before I made this record, and recorded all the vocals and mixed it, that I just needed one more track.
So it was this beautiful day in London last spring. It made no sense that it was that nice that early in the year. We had two friends staying with us from New York that we hadn’t seen. It was a really wonderful weekend. We went to Tate Modern, and I was just very taken by this painting.
I stared at it for maybe five or 10 minutes before I realized that it was called “Endless Rhythm.” The fact that it was a musical title for a visual painting I thought was incredibly cool. That got me thinking about the way that art can move us. The way that a song moves you, or a movie moves you or a painting moves you. That’s a bit of what that track is about.
People write songs about paintings. A song like “Virginia Plain,” the Roxy Music song, the title was taken from a painting that Bryan Ferry had painted. I liked the idea of tapping into that tradition with a track on my record.
So I had a couple questions about Vampire Weekend real quick. How much have you started talking about the next record?
Yeah, we’ve been on a break. So this record is what I’m doing for now and I’m going to tour. I’m always excited to play and work on music with those guys, so it will come eventually. We kind of don’t know when yet.
Is that something that you miss, or do you find that as long as you’re creative it keeps the juices flowing for you?
Yeah, I definitely feel that way. I like staying busy and doing stuff. Maybe there will come a time in my life where I don’t want to do music. I knew we were going to have this break, so last year I really threw myself into finishing this record. I’m very psyched to now have it coming out and be able to talk to you about it.
I know too, when Modern Vampires first came out, you guys were talking about how that was intended to be the last in a trilogy of albums. Is that still the thought you have with that record and going forward?
I think the next step will reveal itself with time [laughs].
So I know you and Vampire Weekend are still relatively young in your careers, only with three records, and now you with your first solo record. But at least for me, I see you guys as being one of the defining musical artists from our generation, and I know I’m not the only one out there who thinks that. How do you respond when you hear something like that, and then not let that get mixed in with the creative process?
That’s incredibly kind of you to say that and I really appreciate it. At least speaking personally, what was very exciting about making this record was realizing that nobody was particularly waiting for it. No one was particularly excited for it, but I knew I wanted to do it. I knew I had to do it, and that was very freeing for me.
If I had made something and didn’t like it, didn’t think it was worthwhile to put out into the world, I just would have deleted it from my hard drive. So that was very exciting for this record.
I will say, though, that it tends to be just a natural process. Not getting too bogged down in expectations, external expectations, is always the best way to work. I tend not to think about stuff like that when I’m working on music, but thank you very much for that compliment.
Originally appeared on Absolute Punk