“I wanted it to be a hopeful and romantic record even if a lot of the topics were dark and heavy”, says Vampire Weekend’s Chris Baio reflecting on his new solo record Dead Hand Control.
Although the album’s writing and recording process was done and dusted by last January – mere weeks before the bleakness and uncertainty of 2020 descended across the globe – Baio’s third full-length effort is a pertinent release in these trying and testing times.
While he delves into deeper subjects like death and nukes – Dead Hand is a rumoured Soviet missile system and Dead Hand Control is a legal strategy for who controls your will after your death – the thread that runs through its eclectic 8 tracks is one of optimism.
It sees him tackle ideas of selflessness, the impact of how you treat others, and how, at the heart of everything, the soul reigns supreme.
“I knew Dead Hand was this rumoured nuclear system that would nuke America. It got me thinking ‘what could I control as an individual if some kind of nuclear disaster had happened in my country?’”, Baio told Daily Star Online. “I was trying to figure out what my place is in the world, what I can control, how I am to the people in my life, the people in my community, how I am to friends, and all that kind of stuff.”
Sonically, Dead Hand Control is Baio at his creative, experimental best. From the outset with opener Dead Hand Control, an acoustic-driven track that explodes into a breathtaking techno crescendo backed by choir vocals, the record twists through everything from catchy indie-pop, art-rock, funk and electro, all recorded at sessions split between Damon Albarn’s 13 Studios in London and Baio’s own C+C Music Factory in Los Angeles.
It’s all backed by a stellar cast of collaborators, too, including his long-time guitarist George Hume, US State Department Jazz Ambassador Robby Sinclair, Future Classic’s Buzzy Lee, and Vampire Weekend touring member Greta Morgan.
The album’s most poignant inclusion is the hopeful, nine-minute closer O.M.W – a sprawling ballad he co-penned with fellow Vampire Weekend member Ezra Koenig that saw its foundations formed nine years ago.
“It’s the first time I’ve ever put a song on one of my records that I didn’t write entirely myself” Baio adds.
“I wanted the last song on the record to feel obviously like it was the last song. You truly couldn’t put it anywhere else on this record. I like records that do that. That’s what the track is ultimately.”
Daily Star Online’s Rory McKeown sat down with him to talk about Dead Hand Control’s creation and influences, lockdown life, living in London, and what’s on the horizon.
Hi Chris. How are you? 2020 was a crazy year for everyone. How was your experience of it and how have you embraced 2021 so far?
“I would feel most people would say this. It’s been unlike any other year in my life. I’ve been staying home, staying safe and all that stuff. I feel that I am in a very lucky position and have been in a lucky position. I would have started writing this record (Dead Hand Control) in the summer of 2018. It would have finished recording, making sure all the vocals are right, every sound is right, as far as my main creative work when I make a record, possibly a year ago today.
“I was on tour with Vampire Weekend. I came home from this Australian tour and did the last bit of recording in January. A full year ago. I had essentially a finished record. I thought I was going to be touring a lot more with Vampire Weekend over the course of last year. That didn’t happen.
“The first four months of the pandemic I did absolutely nothing. I followed the news obsessively. I became an amateur epidemiologist, which I think a lot of us have done. I feel lucky not just in the fact that I can stay home and I don’t need to go out into the world and make money in the immediate now, that’s a very privileged position to be in, but also the fact that I finished a record meant I had no desire to be writing new music.
“No matter what, if I had been travelling around, I wouldn’t have written new music. When I finish a record, the last thing I want to do is work on something new. I talk to a lot of musician friends, a lot of songwriter friends, and they’ve said it’s been very very difficult to find something you want to write a song about, or feel like there’s something that drives you to make new music, when everybody is sitting at home. For a large percentage of us, life has been on pause essentially for a year.
“The record got mixed by Lars Stalfors, who works with St Vincent, Still Woozy and Cold War Kids. It was an interesting experience. I would sit alone in my studio and he’d be alone in his studio. I would click on a link and would hear the mix he was making. I really liked it. It’s the kind of thing you can see staying after everyone’s been vaccinated and the pandemic’s over because being in a room where you understand how everything sounds and hearing what a mix is, it’s really nice. Having bits of work to do with the record, having to get it mixed, having to make some videos, do some art, that has been what’s occupied me for the last six months. It’s a part of putting out the record that I love. How the album cover looks is the listener’s first impression of a record before they hear a sound of it. That element is a little bit decreased in the streaming era but it’s still super important.
“I shot a little video at home in Los Angeles in December during the second stay at home order. That came out last week. I’ve been lucky in the sense that I had a record that was done, so I didn’t feel any pressure to go to the studio every day and work on new music when the world was falling apart. I feel lucky that there was still plenty of work on the record that’s kept me busy in the last half year.”
Do you think staying at home sparked any different areas of creativity or a different direction you could have potentially gone in with the album?
“Well, no because the record was all done before I stayed home. There’s one lyric on the album that I really thought hard about changing on the song Dead Hand, which is about a nuclear weapon system that’s designed to destroy America if it detects an attack. There’s a lyric that says ‘I’ve got a brand new baby and she aims to please, she’s far more deadly than the worse disease’. Part of me wrestled with ‘is that a tasteless lyric?’ or ‘is that a weird thing to leave on a record?’ But ultimately I didn’t want the things that have happened subsequent to finishing the record to shape it.
“I am curious. Once we’re beyond this, and I’m very confident that more of this pandemic lockdown stage is behind us than ahead of us, are people really going to want to listen to a bunch of albums about the pandemic when we’ve already lived it? My guess would be not. Would people want to watch movies that are all about this pandemic we’ve all lived through? I don’t know, I’ve lived through it, do I need to see a movie about it? I thought long and hard about whether I should change any of my record and I decided not to. If I think about how it’ll change my work going forward, I don’t think it will.
“The song Dead Hand, specifically, I was thinking about it for playing live. I usually don’t do this but I go to shows plenty, I see live music all the time, but I usually don’t see a live show and then write a song the next day. That essentially never happens to me. I saw Nick Cave play at The Forum in 2018. I had seen him in little bits live. I love both of his documentaries and a huge fan of his music. I know Jubilee Street is this towering accomplishment live but I’d never actually seen it in real life. When I saw him play that song, I had this intense, physical reaction. It went beyond goosebumps on my arm. It went beyond hairs on the back of my neck standing up. It went the next stage. For me psychically responding to a piece of art is that my ears start burning. That’s the most intense physical reaction I can have. My ears were on fire at how incredible that song was!
“The next day I was like OK, there’s this live version of Jubilee Street where the back half, which is not like this on the record, kind of explodes. It’s so, so awesome. I wanted to make a track that took that kind of form and has this big explosion on the back half of it, and that would be the more techno instrumental. It’s a nine minute song. I made that song very specifically for playing it live. Am I going to get to play that song live this year? Am I going to be able to tour this record? I have no idea. It’s very possible it’s not. Would I change a thing about it because I’m not going to be able to play it live eventually? No I wouldn’t.”
You’re about to release your new album Dead Hand Control. Tell me about its writing and recording process compared to your previous releases? You’ve named it Dead Hand Control – in reference to the rumoured Soviet missile system and will and testament legalise. What inspiration were you consuming at that point?
“I would have thought about the record for a year before I started writing it, so summer 2017 I would have read about this concept Dead Hand Control where in your will you give somebody your stuff and you try and control what they do with your stuff. One example of that was when MCA of the Beastie Boys passed away. He had in his will that he didn’t want any Beastie Boys songs in commercials. Those kinds of things, this nebulous area of law, but I love the turn of phrase Dead Hand Control because, it’s legalise, but it felt very poetic immediately. It tells a story. Dead. Hand. Control. This dead thing is trying to control from beyond the grave.
“It got me thinking about the limit of control, what I as an individual can control and what that says about my place in the world at large. I would have thought about it for a year, collecting little ideas, song titles and stuff like that. I would have actively worked on it from summer 2018. I moved to Los Angeles in early 2018 to get ready for Vampire Weekend putting out Father of the Bride and touring.
“For the first time in my life I’d built out a real studio. I share a studio space with my bandmate Chris Thomson. It used to be Mario C’s, producer of the Beastie Boys, space. Having a place that’s not where I live. To get in my car and drive for 10 minutes and work on music all day, every day, was new to me.
“As opposed to my second record, I worked a really long time on this one. From when I started thinking about it until it was done, it was two and a half years. That’s longer than my first record, The Names. I knew I would be touring with Vampire Weekend for a while and wouldn’t be able to put out the record. I knew I could take my time and really think about everything. I loved making a record this way. I would have recorded a bit of it in London at Damon Albarn’s studio, which was an absolutely thrilling couple of days to work in that studio.
“I was thinking about the concepts, the idea of control. I studied Russian in college and I’m pretty familiar with the history of the Soviet era. I knew Dead Hand was this rumoured nuclear system that would nuke America. It got me thinking ‘what could I control as an individual if some kind of nuclear disaster had happened in my country?’. I was trying to figure out what my place is in the world, what I can control, how I am to the people in my life, the people in my community, how I am to friends, and all that kind of stuff. I wanted it to be a hopeful and romantic record even if a lot of the topics were dark and heavy.”
As a songwriter how do you get into the mindset of taking these ideas and turning them into song form? Has it changed over the years?
“Yeah it does. It really depends on how I start writing a song. Most of this record I would have started with a song title. It’s my favourite way to write music. I feel like most people don’t work that way. I read about Dead Hand Control and I was like ‘alright, I love this idea. What does a song about Dead Hand Control sound like? What are the lyrics to it?’, and I would have taken it from there.
“I would have done a similar thing with Dead Hand, Endless Me, Endlessly was a phrase that popped into my head. You think about these large, broad themes and you have these little sparkles of ideas. Once you have a song title as a jumping off point, you can interrogate what would that song sound like, what would the lyrics be. I worked from that way particularly on this record. On other records it would be making a beat on my computer or writing a song on the piano or guitar, which there’s a little bit of that on this record, but it mostly stems from language.”
It must be great to have the foundation of the song title first and seeing which direction you go with it, from this one phrase or one word?
“Absolutely. 100%. Dead Hand Control. What’s another line that comes from that? ‘You can take my life but you can never take my soul’. It builds on the idea of Dead Hand Control. It’s not like ad-libs or filling in the blanks, it’s having a concept and pursuing it. I love working that way.”
Sonically you’re as experimental as ever ranging from indie pop, art rock, techno. Dead Hand Control starts as an acoustic guitar driven song before erupting in this amazing electro crescendo backed with choir.
“My friend, the singer Buzzy Lee who’s on Future Classic, a great Australian label I put out an EP about seven years ago now, and my friend Greta Morgan, who played live with Vampire Weekend, I had them do all the backing vocals on the record. That song has this very dramatic choir. I was thinking a lot about weapon systems and the Soviet Union, and part of what I’d studied in college, I’m a fan of Slavic female choirs. There’s all sorts of great records of Slavic female choirs. I had a friend who sang in one of them, universities in America have them. I really wanted it to sound like a traditional Slavic choir but with insane electronic music and drums. Thinking about US-Soviet relations, there was one way I was doing a bit of a reference to that.”
What was it like seeing the rest of the album blossom? You go through all these different directions sonically? What was it like seeing it at the end?
“It was a very joyful process. Because I had no real rush to finish it and I had these ideas but I knew it wasn’t going to be coming out for a long time, I could just think about it for a long time. When the time came to record Robby, who plays drums on the record, I’ve never had live drums on a record before, I had thought about the songs for hours and hours and what the drums would be. Going into the studio, I used Ariel Rechtshaid’s studio called Heavy Duty, I recorded the drums and recorded Buzzy and Greta doing vocals in one day. I knew exactly what I wanted to get out of everybody I was recording. I was working with incredibly gifted musicians and knowing what I wanted out of them, it was so much fun.
“The other person who played on the record is George Hume who plays guitar with me live. I met him after I finished my first record. He’s like the brother I never had. When I get to have him come by and record him playing guitar for eight hours is like a family reunion. Because there was no time pressure and because it’s ultimately up to me when a recording is done, there’s no obligation, no pressure for me to put it out.
“Ultimately I’m trying to chase an album that is what I want it to be. I loved it. I would say that this is the model for whatever records I make where I really take my time, think about what I want it to be, never rush anything, and get it perfect. If you get it to that place, you should have nothing you regret. When you put out a record you shouldn’t listen back and regret something you did or some choice you made. That happened a little bit with my last record. Not largely, but little moments of it.
“I listened to this record yesterday when I went for a hike and I truly would not change anything about it. That’s what I think a record should be. An artist should say this is the absolute best work I possibly could make in this period of time, otherwise it’s not going to be worth your time as a listener. Taking that time, being patient, it makes it more enjoyable.”
It must be a great feeling to be in this position you are with the album.
“I feel so lucky. It’s even nice that I get to put music out. I’m super, super lucky. It’s given me focus and purpose through what otherwise would be an unfocused and purposeless time. I’m grateful for that.”
It was recorded at Damon Albarn’s 13 Studios in London and your own C+C Music Factory in LA. What’s the comparison like between the two locations? Do you feel there’s a piece of each in the record?
“I moved from New York to London and I thought they were incredibly similar cities. They are different in so many ways – the population numbers within 10,000, there’s a great train system, I could walk out my door and be a walking distance from everything I’d never need in my life. LA is not that way. It’s the most different of those three cities.
“It’s been weird, my relationship to it. I’ve toured so much in the first phase of living there, then there was a global pandemic which resulted in me sitting at home. I don’t necessarily know what my life in Los Angeles is, aside from working on music. I hadn’t thought of that. I love your question because there’s an element of me being in a new place and missing another place so much.
“London is my favourite place I’d ever lived in in my entire life. Thinking about my time there, thinking about making music there, thinking about going to my hourly rehearsal space in Dalston and practicing singing, thinking about working with George and putting a live show together, London was very much on my mind.”
You can go to a show any night of the week in London. I caught you at the Pickle Factory in Hackney a few years back. Did you love that part of it too?
“I loved it. London has so many great small venues. I loved playing the Pickle Factory, that was so much fun. I love playing the Waiting Loom, which is a 120 people below a pub in Stoke Newington. I played there when my second record came out. Live music in London is incredible.
“Everybody’s struggling, venues are closing, but I do think for finding a beautiful old church that’s hundreds of years old that fits 200 people in it and sounds good, London is the best city in the world for live music. I do miss that. There are plenty of places in Los Angeles, obviously. I would go to shows in Zebulon a great lot, which is a great venue. I found it super inspiring. I lived in Peckham and there’s the venue Ghost Notes that opened up towards the ends of when I was living there. It was up the street and if there was anything I was interested in watching, it would be £5 to see some jazz and some incredible musicians. As far as I’m concerned, it can’t be beat. I miss all of London musically, no question.”
Interestingly you’ve included the album closer O.M.W that’s co-written with Ezra Koenig, a song that started out nearly a decade ago. What’s it like to see that song evolve over almost a decade? Has it ended up how you envisioned it would do?
“It’s nine years. I made the beat and Ezra wrote over it nine years ago in February. It was a four-minute song and I always loved the recording. Ezra wrote the chorus melody. I knew I wanted to make it a song someday. When I made my first two records I didn’t want to have any ballads or slow songs. O.M.W is not really a ballad but it kind of is. It bangs a little hard to call it a ballad. The emotional tenor of it and the romanticism of it didn’t feel right on my first two.
“This record, which is largely about showing up, being there, loving the people in your life, I finally felt like it was time to attempt it. When I started this record, I had one very simple idea that was a guiding principal throughout the whole thing. I wanted it to be my longest record in terms of running time but have the fewest number of songs. I also liked thinking of the album as a literal vinyl, where there would be a symmetry between the two sides. I thought of it as being three relatively shortish songs, and a nine-minute song. There are shorter songs and a long nine-minute song at the end of the side. I had written this wordless melody. I was worried it would be a little maudlin or too gooey. I kept working on it and trying different things, and thinking of the back half almost like a techno recording. What I mean by that is having the same melody sung over and over again, which in this song is the wordless chant, but have it filtered. It’s almost like acid techno, where it’s the same melody but it keeps getting tweaked progressively over the course of four or five minutes. Once I did that it felt right. This was what I wanted the song to be. This is how I want this album to end. Once I figured that out it was super exciting, because it was one of the last pieces of the puzzle when I made this record.
“I made the whole thing and didn’t really tell Ezra about it because I wanted it to be essentially what it was before I played it before him and asked if it was OK by him if I could use it. When I sent it to him, he was super, super nice and in to the fact I included it. I’m grateful for him that he let me use the wonderful chorus he wrote on that song.
“It’s the first time I’ve ever put a song on one of my records that I didn’t write entirely myself. I wanted the last song on the record to feel obviously like it was the last song. You truly couldn’t put it anywhere else on this record. I like records that do that. That’s what the track is ultimately.”
From starting out with Vampire Weekend to your solo projects, how would you say you’ve evolved both artistically and personally?
“I would say what’s come with age and putting out music. My album comes out on the 13th anniversary of the first Vampire Weekend record, the same day. That kind of happened. There ended up being certain days for album releases. When the first Vampire Weekend record came out, did I think I would be doing music 13 years later? I would say if you asked me that it would be a 50/50 proposition. So many musical careers of people that I love didn’t last that long. What’s changed and what’s come with age for me, overall, is a sense of patience and a sense that when you put music out into the world, that’s the first day that it’s going to be out in the world. You can’t know what the life of it is going to be. You can’t necessarily know how many people it’s going to reach.
“When I put out my first EP, I would get super jittery and panicked if I didn’t think enough people were listening to it on Soundcloud or wherever else. Now in terms of public-facing stuff, it will find its life. It will find its listeners. Just be calm and be patient. Whenever I put out music now I love it. It’s very mellow. It’s this thing that went from my secret to being something I could share with the world. Those sensibilities extended to working on music. I’m much more patient than I was even three years ago, I would say.
“Having been through Vampire Weekend records that have been made quickly-ish, like Contra, and ones that are much longer, I’ve found that when you’re working on music, I love playing music so much. I find it so exciting. When you have a good day in the studio there’s a part of me that wants to be like ‘oh f*** we need to put this out right away, tomorrow, it’s so awesome’, but I realise that excitement can fade and you get a better sense of perceptive when you work on something for a longer period of time, when you sit with it a while then put it out.
“Having a patience when working on music…I could have a little idea when I get off this call with you, put something together on my laptop that I’m really, really excited about, and you know what, if I don’t put it out for five years, that’s fine. It’s being patient and knowing when something feels right.
“I remember walking around Greenpoint, Brooklyn, where I was living at the time, listening to the song Ezra and I recorded and being so excited, like ‘this song is awesome, I really want it to come out’. It ended up not being a Vampire Weekend song, or on my last two records, now it’s ended up as this conclusion to my third record. That’s because of patience. That’s whats changed for me. Plenty of other stuff, I used to not sing and now I sing, I used to not produce and now I produce – plenty of technical things. But the most important point of growth for me that I can recognise is patience.”
What’s next for you Chris? Are you already thinking about the next steps for the solo project or are you working on Vampire Weekend stuff? Have you got your eyes on anything?
“It’s been a little bit funny to think about what a live show would be like with this record because I don’t know if I will get to do any, but I’m definitely thinking about that.
“I’m very much looking forward to when Vampire Weekend gets to tour again. I know at the very least there will be more Vampire Weekend touring. We’re hypothetically playing a show in San Francisco in August. We’ll see if it’s safe. If it’s safe, we’ll be playing there, if we’re not it probably won’t be happening.
“I’ve been enjoying playing bass. I tend to go back and forth where I’ll enjoy writing music and working on albums, and when that ends I enjoy practising bass guitar and trying to get better at that instrument. I’m definitely in that mode.
“I don’t know when there’s going to be another Vampire Weekend record, I don’t know what form it will take, but I am really, really excited for it because the Father of the Bride tour was a pretty incredible experience for us. It got cut short but I feel lucky that we got to play however many shows we did.
“I haven’t been this psyched about Vampire Weekend for as far as I can remember, to be honest. I have such a good tour and a new phase of the band, and to feel like we can build on everything we did in 2019, it has me feeling great. People who like our band should also feel great because there’s a lot of great stuff ahead, as far as I’m concerned.”
Baio’s Dead Hand Control is our now via Glassnote Records