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Published: 2017/06/28
by Matt Inman

Vampire Weekend’s Chris Baio is a Man of the World

Chris Baio is best known as the bassist for Vampire Weekend, and the musician has been releasing music under his last name since 2012, when Baio’s love of DJing led him to start to create the sort of tracks that he’d want at his disposal when playing to a late-night crowd, a pro-ject that evolved into an output of electronic-leaning indie-pop. Having lived in London for four years now, Baio is back with a new album, appropriately titled Man of the World, which comes out this Friday, June 30. During a recent trip to New York, the multi-instrumentalist sat down with us at a Grand Central Station café to discuss the new album’s influences—from Donald Trump to David Bowie—the feelings and responsibilities that come with being an American living abroad and what Vampire Weekend have in store for the future.

You released your first solo EP in 2012, when Vampire Weekend was already going strong. What spurred the decision—was it a continuation of work you were doing before joining the band?

I grew up in Westchester County and always played in a band, from the time I was 14 years old. When I got to college—14 years ago now—I thought I would start something up quickly but didn’t really meet anyone. Growing up outside the city and moving into the city, I realized that while I thought I was super knowledgable about music, when I got to college and met people who grew up in the city, I realized I didn’t really know shit. Aside from being in a band, I started doing college radio. There was a radio station called WBAR, an online radio station attached to Barnard. I would go in every day—I’d have my show from 2-4 in the morning that had three listeners—and I would go and grab CDs off the shelf, whether it be Fela Kuti or Can or Joy Division, and I’d import them, pirate like 30 hours a week, spend the week listening to them, and then play them on the radio show. In a way, it became this parallel education that I got while I was in college. Then there was a program called rent-a-DJ, where I would go to different student groups and DJ different events. I really love DJing.

I started playing in [Vampire Weekend] my junior year, started going on tour and getting the opportunity to DJ. I took it way more seriously than anyone should, and started getting really into mixing and very into house and techno, which was something that I listened to when I was in college. I would do these Vampire Weekend shows and DJ afterwards and play house and techno for a bunch of people who had no interest in seeing me play house and techno. So I would kind of be cutting my teeth that way, like a battle DJ. When you’re playing in a band, there’s a clear social contract: You’re gonna go on stage and play the songs they wanna hear. But when you’re a DJ, the relationship is a bit more give and take. It’s not as clear what the DJ is gonna do. I got used to people coming up to me and saying, “Oh, this is a piece of shit”—which is something I hadn’t experienced as a professional musician. So that grew into making electronic EPs, because when you’re a DJ, you’re thinking, “What would be a great track that could play between song A and song B?” Maybe it doesn’t exist yet, but what would it be? And that’s a great way to exist as an artist. So I put out my first EP, which was instrumental, five years ago on Greco-Roman and then eventually found myself getting more and more comfortable with my voice and having these songs. In Vampire Weekend, I was never a songwriter, but having songs that I felt like I had to put out and I had to make, that’s how my first record came to be.

And how did this new record, Man of the World, come to be?

I did not think I was gonna make another record. But basically I found myself very obsessed and consumed with what was going on in the world last year. Last year, with David Bowie dying—he was one of my two all-time favorite artists [Bryan Ferry being the other]. I live in South London, and after Bowie died I got to go to Brixton, which is where Bowie was born and spent the first six years of his life, and I got to leave flowers in front of his childhood home. And that was sort of how my year began. Stuff went to shit, as we all know. But I found myself very much obsessed with the news and kind of unable to do anything else. I reached this point in September where I thought I was really going to lose my mind following the news so obsessively—refreshing Twitter, seeing what insane fucking thing happened next. Maybe as a protective measure, I just stopped. I started writing these songs and found that I was feeling a very specific feeling, which was a fear for the direction the world was taking. I found that writing these songs addressed the fears as a way of kind of sublimating that emotion, putting it into something.

I decided to work in a studio in Brixton, where Bowie had grown up, and there was this huge mural of him from the cover of Aladdin Sane, and it’s where everyone left flowers and con-gregated when his death was announced. Every day on the way to the studio, I would walk past this huge mural of Bowie and go up to the studio called The Dairy and start recording these songs. I worked with John Foyle, who engineered my first record. This record was his first time co-producing. Basically, I would have these songs, all the lyrics ideas—start them in Logic—and then we’d bounce ideas off each other and work as two electronic musicians side by side. I had a friend George Hume who plays live with me, he plays guitar on about half the record. There’s a lot of horns. We were just kind of bringing people in. It was a very quick process, because it was so spontaneously written. I wrote the majority of it in about two weeks. It just was a natural flow. I love when I’m in the studio—there are times when I can go about 16 hours a day. So it was made fairly quickly, I think because I felt like I was working with purpose, you know?

Did that presence of Bowie influence the music? I definitely hear a lot of Bowie on the record.

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, a lifetime of listening to Bowie is a huge influence. But I will say, walking by that mural every day, seeing people take photos with it—there was always someone taking photos, leaving flowers—you do see the way in which music touches people in real life. It’s a clear manifestation of how much people love music and loved him as an artist. When peo-ple are traveling, when they go to London, they go to the mural, it’s part of their stop, and that is an incredibly inspiring thing when you’re walking to the studio with your coffee in the morning. In a way, he was front and center. There are references to him all over the record. The way I think of it, it’s my record of reckoning what happened last year, and his passing was the beginning of that.

Moving on to the lyrical content—do you think this record is more pointed or more topical because of what was happening how much you were obsessing over the news?

Yeah, absolutely. I really do think it comes from a similar perspective as last time, where I’m an American living in London. I’ve lived in London for four years, so the first record, I wrote it in 2014 from that point of view—what it means [to be an expatriate] and the way that you become cognizant of your national identity when you live abroad. I know that I feel more American outside of America—or more aware of my American-ness—than I do living in America. There are references to that on the first record, like there’s a song about drone strikes. Like, “What’s my relationship to a government that commits violent acts?” That’s something that I think about all the time. But to be an American living in London in 2014 and to be an American living in London in 2016 are very different because of what was going on in the world. I think that there was a lot more to talk about in that regard, whether it’s referencing Brexit or the rise of Trump. It becomes weird, because it’s a part of you as an American and it’s something that I fear. In a way, you feel a little ashamed. You’re a representative and you’re trying to understand what’s happening in your country.

Were there people that you hung out with in London that brought things like that up?

Yeah, that’s what the world was talking about. But I will say, in the first track, “Vin Mariani,” there are references… It’s weird, because I don’t want to get too specific. There’s already [YG’s] “Fuck Donald Trump.” That’s the quintessential specifically anti-Donald Trump track that exists in the world. But broader ideas that you can apply to the moment, that’s more what I was going for. The weekend of the Brexit vote, I was in Berlin with British friends, and they were very, very pissed off and upset and unsure about their future. What does it mean for their residency status, etc. I mean, it’s a changing moment in history. The chorus [on “Vin Mariani”]—“learning to live with a decision when it’s not the one you would have made”—came to me there, because that is essentially what is happening with friends. I wrote that before Trump won, but it’s something that is applicable, because there are these pretty crazy historical changes that have happened in the last year, and when the dust settles on all this stuff, I think that line won’t have aged. It’s more of an emotional feeling, but it does come out of specific historical events.

Where were you when the election happened?

I was in London. I had just finished touring my first record. In the month leading up to the election, I drove from California to New York to Texas on my last tour, and when I say I drove I mean I literally drove—I wasn’t on a bus or anything. George, who plays guitar with me, doesn’t have a license, so I drove the country. It’s pretty crazy, the tension between listening to liberal podcasts and following leftist media, but then any time you left a city, there would be 10 to 1 Trump signs versus Clinton. It’s one thing to say anecdotally, “This neighborhood is like that,” but when you’ve literally driven the whole country, that tells you something about where things are at. And even seeing all that, I never thought that he would win. But I got home to London that day, on the Tuesday, to watch the election, and then really lost my mind. I thought if I drank my weight in whiskey the result would change… I should be old enough to know that it doesn’t really work that way. I was very very distraught by it.

The song “Out of Tune”—was that influenced by Trump?

I think the whole track, basically every lyric one way or another, was inspired by the Trump campaign. I see someone who really loves being on stage—in a way, I can relate. I love being on stage. It is a good feeling. But what he’s done… This is my second interview on the record, so I haven’t necessarily clearly articulated it. Basically, I see someone who doesn’t know what he’s done, who likes being on stage saying crazy things, getting attention, getting press and saying truly, truly vile things and not knowing that it has real world consequences. I think that’s been the case with him as a candidate and I think that’s the case now as a president. I think he loves being on stage. Why did he have rallies all the time when he was a week into his presidency? I think that kind of divide, the performer thinking they’re doing something great when they’re really scaring the world, that difference between how you think you’re being perceived and how the world sees you, is the central metaphor of that track—being out of tune when you think you sound great. It’s very directly anti-Trump.

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