FAULT SPEAKS WITH DIRTY PROJECTOR’S NAT BALDWIN

The recent release of ‘Gun Has No Trigger’ offered a titillating sneak preview of Dirty Projector’s upcoming record Swing Low Magellan, due out this July. Yet it would be a gross underestimation to presume the cast has been idle in the interlude. Bassist Nat Baldwin has been on the road, showcasing the brilliant People Changes, his fifth solo outing. FAULT caught up with him ahead of a performance at Berlin’s Berghain.    

Interview by Era Trieman.

Didn’t you started playing music at a relatively late stage?

Aged eighteen. But music was always a big part of my life growing up since my father is also a musician, playing fifties souls stuff. He was psyched when I started, and very supportive.

Was the double bass an obvious choice?

I was just drawn to it. There’s something about how, especially in jazz, the double bass is such an essential component without being too prominent. Sometimes you don’t even notice it.

It’s a big thing to lug around…

It’s not as heavy as it looks but very cumbersome. But I haven’t had major problems. In the states I drive this tiny car, so whilst touring I put the front seat down and it fits snuggly enough.

If you were shipwrecked along with the double bass, would you consider hollowing it out to manufacture a vessel in which to sail away?

I suppose so. If it was a choice between life or death… I’ve never thought about that before, but it could work.

Considering its ordinarily use as a backing instrument, did it strike you as something you’d like to bring to the fore as the real centerpiece?

Not initially, but it was the instrument I knew how to play and fast forwarding along it became my means of expression. In the past I’ve also played with some experimental orchestras, big ensembles with multiple basses. It’s pretty fun to generate this massive sound.

Might a situation arise in which musicians distort boundaries for the wrong reasons: in search of obscurity rather than improvement?

Perhaps, in some cases. But currently I’m just doing what feels natural and sincere. Not trying to do something a certain way or for a specific kind of listener. If it’s just honest and real it should translate into something relatable for some. This brings to mind a quote, something along the lines of, “it’s not art if it’s for everybody, if it’s for everybody it’s not art”. I can’t remember who said that, but it sure makes sense to me.

Did you initially feel that the other members of Dirty Projectors were musically like-minded? Does each individual bring a different slant to the project?

Dave Longstreth [vocals/guitar] and I had some mutual friends who introduced us. We played some shows together and our relationship grew from there. Although our approaches are quite distinct, there’s this definite bond in the way we strive to engage with people. When I began with Dirty Projectors in 2005 there was almost a constantly changing cast. That was just an interesting process to discover the possibilities within the music, through different ways of presenting a similar thing.

How much evolves throughout rehearsals?

Dave knows what each person will bring to the platter and that has sort of changed his writing technique. Brian Mcomber [drums] and I both have backgrounds in improvisation, so there’s a lot more freedom to maneuver and bring in our own aspects.

Would you agree that one can’t teach improvisation, but one can learn it?

There’s certainly an instinctive element, some requisite inclination, but it’s different for everybody. Yet musicians from disparate background can come together and generate this unique composition, that’s what I find exciting.

Listening to your recent solo record, People Changes [2011], a startling burst of horns during ‘Lifted’ had me searching for another open tab concurrently playing Sun Ra…

That’s interesting… I’d suggested it could be just one kinda thing on the album that’s divergent. The verses having this surprising discombobulated sound in light of how tight everything gets on the chorus. I liked the idea that anything is sort of possible within a song structure, it needn’t be a set thing, even though it sounds dysfunctional, its still very structured, very much within the framework of the song.

Does that sense of striving towards something fresh still prevail or does it feel like a further exploration of previous ideas?

Whether it’s obvious or not in the music, as time goes by you become a different person, accumulating different experiences. I like to record quickly, as a document of a particular time period. Supposing it took five years to wrap up a record, I’d feel removed and disconnected from the original intent, so when I have a group of songs that feel ready to be presented to others, I like to get it down quick.

‘Weights’ from People Changes

Could you tell us about the two covers on the record?

The opening track, ‘A Little Lost’ is by Arthur Russell. I’ve been a huge fan for some time. He died in the early 90s, was a cello player similarly around the beat, improvisatory way – there’s an obvious connection there. He also did all sorts of weird NY downtown disco, some collaborations with David Byrne too and Philip Glass, but he was never so well known, in part because it was hard to figure out what he actually was doing. Anyway, a few years ago a documentary called Wild Combination was made about him, and during the NY premiere a host of contemporary musicians were asked to play some of his songs. I’ve been playing it ever since.

Now the closing track, ‘Let My Spirit Rise’, is by Kurt Weisman. He’s a great friend of mine from Vermont and I thought it would be an appropriate and fun one to cover, it just made sense.

Having previously played with the likes of Grizzly Bear, whom amongst your contemporaries do you admire for having inventively mastered their instruments?

There’s a duo from NY called Buke & Gase. Both the girl and the guy built their own instruments: the Buke being a baritone ukulele and the Gase a guitar-bass. It’s really unique, they both play percussion also such that there’s just so much sound coming out from just two individuals. They’d fall under that category – strange elements mingled within the song structures, really forging their own sound. There’s not much else like it, it’s really special.

You rejoined Dirty Projectors at the beginning of 2009, just before the release of Bitte Orca. Do you consider it a standout in the Dirty Projector’s discography?

Everything about it was the logical progression from what came before. I feel like Dave is one of those songwriters who are always getting better!

Around that time ‘Knotty Pine’ was recorded, a collaboration with David Byrne for the Dark Was The Night compilation. He later said of Dirty Projectors:

“Part of what attracts me to them is something I can’t exactly place, can’t figure out. Their music has familiar elements, yet often sounds like pop music by someone who has read about the form, but never heard it, and then handed the essential building blocks to make some songs.” 

How flattering a critique is that?

Immensely. Any band that’s now making interesting or weird or unique music within some pop sensibility is surely indebted to Talking Heads.

‘Knotty Pine’

Proceeds from the next record, Mount Wittenberg Orca [2010], went to the National Geographic Society’s marine preservation project. From the outset, was the record intended to conceptually revolve around this link to nature?

Dave and Björk had talked a lot about how they were going to approach this collaboration. It was written as a sweep of songs, supposed to be this seamless performance. It does seem like a conceptually flowing whole that has a strong concept throughout. It was exciting, because Björk has such a unique style and powerful presence. I think Dave and the girls in the Projectors share those qualities, so it seemed like a pretty logical fit for a collaboration.

How are your solo performances usually billed and what kind of crowd do you draw?

The cool thing about the NY scene is that disarray: miscellaneous stuff is put together and just all over the place. I recently played alongside Little Women, this punk-energy-free-jazz, group. I prefer playing bills like that, that are sort of unique but resonate with the crowd no matter the taste.

Would you say jazz is still thriving?

It’s hard to say. There are certainly people doing things that they still would consider innovative, on the other side it’s being held back by those concerned with trying to preserve the tradition and not as keen to move it forward. It’s a complicated question, but I certainly think there are people doing interesting things within the genre. It’s hard to know where it’s supposed to go.

‘Gun Has No Trigger’