A Conversation with Chris Bathgate
Chris Bathgate: enigma, visionary musician, denim enthusiast. Ahead of his forthcoming album Salt Year, MCR chatted with Chris through various Internet tubes in an attempt to unlock some of the inviolate mysteries behind his music. What emerged was a sort of revelation; Chris thinks with precision about the minute details of his music, thinks about them deeply, and as a result may become one of the most important independent musicians in America. He’s able to produce transcendent, haunting music while funneling copious passion, care, thought, and – most importantly – work into it. These are rare commodities in a world where you can press three buttons and throw whatever happens afterward on the Internet for the world to see and hear. Often this can produce its own sort of transcendence, but the upshot is the danger of a cheapened scene where musicians don’t toil over their work in the interest of growing. Even a cursory listen to Salt Year reveals that Chris has grown as a musician in ways that all of his peers should aspire to. This, coming from a man who’s never ordered a hoagie.
MCR: What are your least obvious influences, both musical and non-musical?
Chris: Musically some influences that may be less obvious are string band music, bluegrass, and “fiddle music” in general. Musicians and writers like Uncle Dave Macon, Highwoods String Band, Henry Reed, Alan Jabour, Bill Monroe, The Skillet Lickers, and so on – all tug at my ear quite a bit. Artists like Stuff Smith and Stephane Grappelli have influenced me as well. The fiddle sound is utter magic to me. When I was a child I was exposed to some fiddle-driven traditional music and I think the reaction was locked within me – that reaction being the impulse to move, and of total ecstasy. I get goose bumps sometimes upon a player’s first bow.
I go to a folk festival in Illinois every year on the same weekend, been going since I was sixteen (that’s twelve years) and it really exposed me to a lot of traditional music. I still remember the first time I went… well, more so the first time I left. The entire drive home I heard similar music to what I had heard all weekend. Fiddles, banjos and doghouse bass hung in my ears. Just before we reached home I asked my folks to turn the radio up, curious as to what radio station they had locked into that had been playing this beautiful music. They turned up the radio and the music I had heard stopped, and the stench of mid-90’s sugar filled the air. I had been hearing the faint echo of the weekend’s music for an hour and half. I’ve been learning to play the fiddle, and use it as a tool for writing.
My most advanced “chops” lie with the mandolin these days because of that interest, and I recreationally play a reasonably sized and growing collection of “fiddle tunes”. I think as time progresses my songs have begun to resemble them more and more. Those tunes typically have two repetitive melodic sections, often with sparse poetic story creating language. Other then fiddle music, I’ve been listening to a lot of Motown lately.
Non-musically, solitude, location, and poetry are my most unconventional influences. The places I go influence me, and the conditions of the place where I live affect me a great deal as well. I currently live on a tributary of the Huron River in Michigan. It is beautiful and provides a great deal of space to write and think. These days I only write lyrics when I’m home alone, or when traveling solo, so that home solace is essential. I continually scan poetry when at home; who I’m reading often affects the style of lyrics I write. Lately I’ve been focused on Galway Kinnel. I used to sample Kinnel and Vonnegut during live performances in the early days of looping. I’d blast specific lines that resonated with the songs I was playing during the songs performance, incorporated into the music. It was extremely satisfying to reference, and the effect of pre-recorded human voice on the audience was pretty interesting. From the belly of a thousand e-bow drones a voice would come booming “white apples and the taste of stone”. People would immediately get sucked way into the performance and had more information (however cryptic) on what I was singing about. I stopped though; I don’t really mess with any pre-recorded audio. The record I’m currently working on is called “Thrush Music”, which is from a Robert Frost poem.
MCR: What’s new about Salt Year in terms of sound, influence, etc.?
Chris: Sonically, Salt Year has a more proportional ratio of extremes than any prior record, though tempo and keys are a little more restricted. Salt Year is a slow record, in E, D, and C, for the most part. Also, This is the first real project that has been heavily influenced by looping live, most notably on “Borders.”
Lyrically, it’s more scattered and fractured. There are still series of images that tell a story, but the distance between the scenes is greater. Just the mountain peaks of this story are visible. Emotionally, Salt Year‘s extremes are not proportional. Personally these songs represent a collection of severe moments.
Also, this is the first project in a while not finished by Jim Roll. Salt Year‘s final mixes where done by Chris Koltay, and mastered by Gavin Lurssen. All those people have influenced Salt Year for certain, in positive ways.
MCR: I noticed that for a few of these songs there seemed to be more focus on percussion than on previous records – was this deliberate? Why?
Chris: Yes, it was deliberate. I’ve always been interested in stereo-chasing snares and double kits. I’ve been messing around with them from the get go, so I reduced the percussion on “Levee” to strictly that. There’s a little bit of “junk” percussion on this record, which is also new. I don’t drop trash drums on songs lightly; I think they are quite appropriate when they appear on Salt Year.
You should know Mark Damian was a great help when recording Salt Year. He’s on kit every song except “No Silver” and “Levee.” We had strong communication and he really glued things into place for the record as a whole. We tracked drums for Salt Year twice before Mark stepped up to the throne, and we spent a good amount of time mixing down prior tones. He really shined during a time where I was unreasonably focused on having them sound and played just so. Salt Year has moments of totally isolated drums, which should let you know they are important. As far as why there is more focus on percussion, it’s locked into subject matter and vibe for me personally at the time. There are heartbeat rhythms all over this record; some pretty isolated ones at that.
MCR: How do you go about shaping the sound of a record – do you begin with ideas you feel a song needs to communicate and work from there, or does it evolve organically? Or some other process?
Chris: There are definite motivations behind instrument choice in each song and a big part of it is either my playing, or direction. However there is also a large influence by the other musicians, and those behind the soundboards as well. In a sense I can choose those others who leave a mark, but am not necessarily relying solely my own talents in that mark. It’s always a group effort I find. On my end I can say that the final versions of my songs typically are the result of what the song is specifically about, and what for me is sonically interesting, and fitting. So a good deal of the sound of a record for me is rooted in subject matter, interest, and support through the filter of my sonic desires for a project.
MCR: There seems to be a lot of care put into recurring melodies, as if they are motif – I’m thinking of that melodic line of the chorus of “In the City,” that appears in some form in “Eliza (hue)” and “Everything (overture).” Is this intentional, and what does it communicate if it is? Or is it one of those wonderful accidents that happen when one puts an album of music together?
Chris: So, my songs span multiple projects. My music is linked that way, and my process enables it. I have shifting batches of songs that adapt, transform, and chronologically reappear. The song Salt Year appears on both [2008 EP] Wait, Skeleton. as well as Salt Year. The song “Wait Skeleton” is an unlisted song on a self-released record from 2005 called Silence is for Suckers. I revisit songs and perform them in new and different ways live. My studio methods cause me to pursue multiple versions of songs as well. Things come back in my life from the past and reappear, and my music follows that.
My melodies are no different. They often stand for a specific idea, character, or emotion. Once I’ve established one of those pairings (melody and meaning) I make reference to it where needed, emotionally, as a writer. If I reference Icarus, or Persephone in my lyrics chances are you would understand a great deal more about the song I was making that reference in. I use melodies in that way, but perhaps more for my own purposes. Just by nature, writing a melody with a specific person, idea, or feeling in mind engrains it into my mythology. If I think about a dream I had, and write a melody, that melody typically has the power to make that dream, its happenings, and its meaning reappear in my mind. That’s what’s happening with the melodies. This is essentially “word painting”, except they reappear.
A good example of this in my music is the very highlighted five single piano note hits of “Serpentine,” just before the fullest gesture of the melody and its supporting layers enter. That’s a direct reference to “Silly One” off [2006 LP] Throatsleep, which is the emotional close of “throat” ([the two halves of Throatsleep] throat and sleep were separated into a five-inch and three-inch CD on its original packaging). I’m singing about the same reoccurring issue in my life in both of these songs.
The street mentioned in “Serpentine” is Ann Street. Coda is musically linked to that, and “Everything (Overture)” to that. So in many places my music is self referential, both within an album, and across albums. Those shifting batches of songs typically get constructed simultaneously; I’ll admit that facilitates those references. In perspective to Salt Year though, “Everything (Overture)” is the melodic and emotional keystone. It’s the most accurate expression of the main idea on the record, and probably sums up the most succinctly how I feel as a living human being at this point. It most certainly contains the main theme. Many moments on Salt Year are the children of the final melodic interchange of “Everything (Overture)”. That interchange essentially is Salt Year. For me personally as the writer, it is the melodic placeholder for the idea of “love VS time”. That motif is echoed and transformed on every track; it’s important.
MCR: Often times your songs have lyrics that are difficult to penetrate – what are your thoughts on the listeners’ role in the experience of a song? Do you want them to get it, or just to care, or something else?
Chris: I think it’s pretty standard for artists to have their audience perceive their work under the lens of their own experience. I reflect my surroundings in a more cryptic voice, and am aware of the possibility of being misunderstood. So I want the audience to get it, but on their own terms. Often the goal is to evoke a certain shade of emotion that is engrained in a story, idea, or relationship. I use language and music to generate that emotion in myself upon performing or hearing it. I use my own perception as a gauge to how it may affect others. I speak to both them and myself. The initial focus, though, is to create an effect upon myself, one that expresses the thought/story/idea of a song accurately.
MCR: You’ve talked about how Salt Year has stemmed from a lot of pain, but not all of these songs are, as Matt Jones once quipped on stage, “sad bastard” songs. Some of them seem both painful and rapturous, others sound both angry and fun. Can you talk about the way that you approach the emotional element of crafting these songs?
Chris: These songs are a product of subject matter for sure, but there’s a light and dark to everything in my eyes. So the reflection of my life in music depicts that same conflict. Most experiences I have create multiple emotional reactions. It doesn’t have to be painful for it to generate “sad bastard” music, and vice versa in my opinion. Some of the most engaging performances I’ve seen to date involved emotional extremes in close proximity. If you make me laugh and cry in the same twenty minutes you’ve got me hooked. So there is something interesting in the conflict, they make each other seem more extreme in context. You shouldn’t rule out the idea of a song pretending to be happy when truly sad in subject matter either.
MCR: Does it feel like your Salt Year is over? What comes after?
Chris: The Salt Year has most definitely passed. It had a welcomed exit. That’s not to say I’ve found the quiet heart of my life or anything, things just are a little better personally. As far as what comes next I can tell you I’ve got a few things cooking.
The month of May I’ll be in Cyprus creating the music for a version of A Midsummer’s Night Dream, and be involved in sixteen performances of it. Some of that is me actually performing music live during the performance. Other outlets have me broadcasting on an actual pirate radio station located on the island.
June will have myself and a band touring the east coast and dipping into the south. The rest of the year will be festivals and out to the west coast by November. I’m currently writing for an EP that should be coming out this year, and another full length. So, I’m keeping busy, and as focused as possible.
MCR: Okay, now for the quick-fire portion of the interview. Hoagie, Sub, or Grinder?
Chris: Sub. Never ordered any of the others.
MCR: Bob Dylan or Townes Van Zandt?
Chris: Townes, he wrote songs in his sleep.
MCR: Loops or hoops?
Chris: Hoops? Like basketball?
MCR: If you want.
Chris: Loops. Do I have to explain?
Chris: I’d rather loop guitar than shoot B-ball.
MCR: Ok, finally: Denim or flannel?
Chris: Denim, from head to toe.
Salt Year comes out April 26th and can be downloaded through iTunes among many other media outlets. Chris will be playing a small CD-release tour across Michigan beginning April 21st at the Blind Pig, a show I may have to break my boycott to attend. Details at http://www.chrisbathgate.org/. Stay tuned to MCR for a review of Salt Year a week from today!