The first time I saw Bill Baird’s face was in Nathan Christ’s documentary Echotone, which tells the story of the clash between the music culture and sudden urban growth in Austin. Baird is featured with his former band, Sunset. Even though he wasn’t as big a part of the film as other musicians, his face stuck with me. Looking like a cross between River Phoenix and Malcolm McDowell, there was something in Baird’s eyes that held truth with a hint of crazy. Like he knows something we don’t.
Before Sunset, Baird was part of Sound Team, an Austin band that, somewhat notoriously, suffered the consequences of being signed by a major record label. Baird has been working nonstop since, self-releasing albums like Career and Goodbye Vibrations, and dabbling in other projects while traveling, writing and studying at Oakland’s Mills College.
But the reason for this interview was Spring Break of the Soul, his latest collection of songs that will once again classify him as impossible-to-classify, because if one thing is certain, it’s that Baird likes to explore. He likes to mix. He likes to discover. He likes to learn. He likes to change. He’s a fan of smiling and happy accidents. He reads and writes and wants to better himself, always.
The album, to be released March 5 via Pau Wau Records, is a collection that reflects Baird’s need for creativity. You can get a glimpse of the record’s attitude in the video promo below. Watch, and listen to Spring Break of the Soul. It’s worth it.
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So, tell me about Spring Break of the Soul. How was the process of creating Spring Break different from creating previous albums, like Career?
Baird: Career was mostly done with bass and guitar. Spring Break of the Soul is different. It has more color, with different instrumentation and very different types of songs. Not as much rock ‘n’ roll. It’s more of a journey, and a huge burst of energy.
You said Captain Beefheart was an inspiration for this collection. What other personas or artists influence you? Who do you admire?
Baird: I like Mothers of Invention, Stravinsky and George Saunders, the writer. Kurt Vonnegut, too.
What other projects were you working on while making this album?
Baird: Well, I recorded constantly. I recorded Career and Goodbye Vibrations. I recorded a couple of other albums that will be coming out some day. Spring Break was just something I was working on the whole time. I wrote the script, and it came together slowly. Sometimes things take time. I wanna finish things as quickly as possible, but I don’t wanna put it out before it’s done. The thing about a record like Career is that those particular kinds of songs, you can knock out quickly. In Spring Break, there’s a lot of different things that take longer to make. Sometimes it feels like a record or song or whatever you’re working on takes a life of its own, so you’re trying to nurture it and let it grow. I know this sounds strange, or pretentious maybe, but sometimes I feel like if I’m doing things right, I feel like I relinquish control, like it’s not up to me.
Do you have a favorite track off the album? If so, why is it your favorite?
Baird: I really like the title track, just because I was experimenting with mixing techniques, so for every version, every chorus, every section had a unique sonic identity. I recorded it on a 24-track tape. I was trying to find a way to show different colors without them coming together at the same time, because then you wouldn’t be able to tell them apart. But there’s a lot of really fun surprises, and it was fun stuff to record. I played the cello on the album for the first time, and that was really fun, too.
My personal favorite is “Blob.” Can you talk about how that came together? What inspired it?
Baird: Well, it started when I wrote a script. I originally wanted to write a musical. So the idea for “Blob” came from a character from the story. You can’t probably even tell what the lyrics are, though, under all the sound. But I had my friend playing the drum and then there’s also a lot of piano and cello in it.
Are you gonna revisit that script?
Baird: Yeah, I’d like to realize it someday. It comes with the album, you can look at it. It’s very meta. It involves a writer who is trying to kill off all of his characters of his imagination. So he creates this situation where they die. It’s fun, and it gives me something to do, right? I think it would be a little stage-showey. It would require a lot of people.
When you’re working on a project, what scares you?
Baird: I don’t know. I don’t really think that way. If I start worrying about what people think, it becomes a problem. When I’m being creative, I try to transcend being scared of anything. And I mean, of course when anybody is putting something out into the world, you want people to like it. But it’s beyond my control. And a lot of what people think about a record depends on marketing, and that’s not up to me. I feel like that’s out of my control. So it’s something that can make you anxious, but I’m not really scared.
On your promo video for Spring Break of the Soul you say, “I want to smile, I want the smile to never stop.” What makes you smile?
Baird: The unexpected. Happy accidents. And the thing about the unexpected and happy accidents is that they’re all around us, waiting to be discovered. You find them on your own, anywhere you go.
You talk a lot about the importance of having a sense of humor. Is there an example you can give that encapsulates your sense of humor?
Is there anything you haven’t tried that you want to, or that you’ve been putting on the backburner for a while?
Baird: There’s a lot of things I wanna try. I’ve tried writing, but it’s really hard because you have to edit. I’m really interested in interactive audio environment, rooms that respond to your presence in them. But generally, I’m just trying to get better all the time.
Tell me about the community you left behind in Austin. What do you miss, what don’t you miss?
Baird: I miss my studio. I miss my friends. I miss Barton Springs. I miss the Greenbelt. I miss how small it is, how you can get to anywhere in Austin quickly.
How did the environment in Austin differ from the environment in California, in terms of how it affects your work?
Baird: California is a lot more expensive, so people are … it’s just a different vibe. In Austin I had a studio that was a lot more inexpensive, and there was a lot more exploring time.
Tell me about some of your future plans. What’s next for you?
Baird: I’ve been working a lot with Max/MSP and Jitter, doing live studio manipulation. I’ve recorded a bunch of material that I’m looking forward to releasing some day, when the time is right.
Is there any personal message you attached to Spring Break of the Soul?
Baird: It would probably be contradictory for me to say that there’s a message, because what I was thinking while I was doing the album, is that there is no message. There’s no meaning in life except the meaning that you provide yourself. That’s my message, but it seems contradictory for me to say that that’s a message. So take it for what it’s worth.
Watch a promo video for Spring Break of the Soul below.