A Breakdown Of Musical Side Projects With Vampire Weekend’s Chris Baio

Chris Baio is most famous for playing bass in one of our country’s most popular indie-rock bands, Vampire Weekend. But he’s also put out several releases under his own name, Baio, including the forthcoming Dead Hand Control, out January 29. Baio, 36, understands that his association with Vampire Weekend will inevitably classify anything he does outside of the band as a “side project,” and he’s okay with that.

“When you’re in a big band and you try something new, people are going to automatically use that term,” he said earlier this month when reached by Zoom at his home in Oregon. “And I’m totally cool with it. Who am I to say how other people categorize or slot a record that I’ve made?”

Actually, I’ve interviewed plenty of musicians who dislike the term “side project,” and Baio kind of sees their point, too. “I have memories watching interviews with Thom Yorke around the time his first solo record came out, and he made a very strong point that he didn’t like The Eraser being referred to as a side project,” he recalled. “And I do think that for most artists, when you’re in that moment of making something, there’s no differentiation. You’re not thinking, ‘Oh, this is my second-tier material. Oh, this is a loosie that I can burn off.'”

The fact is that not all side projects are created equal. Some offer a fascinating peek at what prominent musicians are capable of achieving in new musical contexts, while others are embarrassing and unintentionally hilarious ego trips. Dead Hand Control, happily, belongs in the former category, with Baio exploring sonic territory far removed from the crunchy pop-folk of Vampire Weekend’s 2019 album Father Of The Bride. On his own, Baio delves into electronic textures that stretch into extended, near-proggy song structures, all while singing in a twangy, expressive baritone that recalls Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields. The songs are often catchy and immediate, but Baio is also happy to simply revel in a bevy of cool, retro keyboard tones. The result is head music with a sweet tooth and a droll sense of absurdity.

Dead Hand Control clearly is the product of a person who loves records and figuring out how they were made. So it seemed natural for our interview to take a meta turn and focus entirely on side projects by musicians in famous bands — some good, some disastrous.

We start with Mike + The Mechanics, featuring Mike Rutherford of Genesis. Are you familiar with the 1988 album Living Years?

I think my dad maybe listened to them or would’ve told me about them. It probably shows in some of my music that I’m a huge fan of Peter Gabriel, and Genesis as well. Those first five Peter Gabriel solo records are super influential to me. I was very much aware of the existence of Mike + The Mechanics and then also what the perception of Mike + The Mechanics is. I was trying to situate that record in the context of the year it came out, which is 1988. And there had already been insanely, insanely successful Phil Collins records, and Peter Gabriel’s So came out around then. The fact that the first song on that record before “The Living Years” is called “Nobody’s Perfect” is kind of already apologizing for the music in the context of everything else that came from Genesis.

You can tell how it’s related to ’80s Genesis, and even listening to the first 30 seconds of “Nobody’s Perfect,” there’s a lot of production ideas where you can tell it was similar to techniques on Peter Gabriel 3 and things like that. But then there’s just a lot of maudlin cheese on top of that.

You’re hitting on something I wanted to ask about in relation to your record: There are side projects that sound a lot like the “mothership” bands they spun off from, which almost seems like cheating. Your record is definitely not that. Dead Hand Control really sounds nothing at all like Vampire Weekend. How conscious are you of avoiding certain guitar tones, vocal styles, or anything else that people might associate with your other band?

I would say I’m very conscious of that. It’s definitely something that I thought about even as early as when I put my first EP out nine years ago and it was all electronic music. It was very house and techno influenced, which still has carried through to the records I make. But the greatest fear for me when I started making music is that something I put out would be viewed as a watered-down version of what the main band does. That was very at the front of my mind for a long time with making my solo music. I would say honestly there was one song on my second record where I kind of in hindsight regret putting it on the record because I thought it sounded a bit too much like Vampire Weekend. When I make a record, I just want it to be able to stand on its own and not sound like that.

Our next side project Rock’n Roll Gangster by Fieldy’s Dreams, which is a rap album put out by Fieldy from Korn in 2002.

My memory of when this record came out — I guess I would’ve been like 16 or 17 — is that this was one of the worst-reviewed albums of its time. Just universally loathed in the critical space. For me, I don’t know, I remembered it. And then, in 2009 before our second record Contra came out, Vampire Weekend did an all-California tour, just toured up and down California for two and a half weeks. At the time, we were making what was going to be a California tour documentary that since has been long shelved and will probably never see the light of day. But one aspect of the documentary was we were going to interview these sort of SoCal musical legends. Because I’m a bass player and because Fieldy is a bass player, I offered to interview him.

So, I went to his house in Orange County and asked him all kinds of questions. In his studio there was this dry erase board that said “Fieldy’s Nightmares” on it. It was clear that he was working on his follow-up to Rock’n Roll Gangster. I asked him some questions about the record — and this is a record I had never actually heard, but had all these associations that it was kind of a laughingstock — and he was just so nice and warm. He’s like, “Yeah, this is a record that I made, it was a lot of fun. I’m really proud of it. I’m working on another one.”

Maybe it sounds a little absurd in the context of this record that I’m putting out, but the fact that he was super comfortable in something he made and loved it and the rest of the world, whatever their perception of it, didn’t matter, I found that super inspiring as someone who hadn’t put out any music on my own.

Let’s talk about Maya by John Frusciante of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. This came out recently. Before our interview you called it the platonic ideal of a side project. Why?

Drum and bass is not something that I’m particularly well-versed in. When I reach for electronic music, it’s not really my go-to. But listening to Maya, you can just tell this is kind of a mastery of the form and just incredible production. And it’s in a field that is in no way related to the Red Hot Chili Peppers, genre-wise. When I say it’s my platonic ideal, it’s because no one would ever say that it is watered-down Red Hot Chili Peppers. I could play Red Hot Chili Peppers and that record for my grandmother and she would be able to tell those are completely different types of music. The fact that he was able to go into this world and make a really, really strong record, I really love it. I’ve been listening to it a lot since it came out.

Here is a side project I’m not familiar with at all — The Captive soundtrack by The Edge from U2.

My friend George Hulme, who plays guitar with me, also DJs a lot in London. He sent me this track, “One Foot in Heaven,” and thought I would really like it. It’s from his one solo album, which is this soundtrack to a fairly forgotten ’80s movie called Captive that came out the year before The Joshua Tree. I listened to it and was just completely blown away, because it could be a club track that a record label like Permanent Vacation or really cred-y underground house label would put out today.

Obviously The Edge has so many connotations. When people think of The Edge’s music, it’s nothing like this. And even the track before it, which is a really nice, very pretty pop song with Sinead O’Connor singing on it, it’s very good. When you think about Trent Reznor’s film scoring and the career that he’s had, there’s probably an alternate version of The Edge’s career where he’s cranking out incredible soundtracks on the side when U2’s not busy. The fact that it’s somewhat lost to history, from one of the most heard guitar players on the planet right now, I find kind of incredible.

Let’s move on to Diamond Head by Phil Manzanera of the great band Roxy Music.

There’s something about John Frusciante, that record, it’s a world that’s completely different from the mothership in a way that Fieldy’s Dreams in a way is completely different from the mothership. I view this as more the flip side of Mike + The Mechanics in my mind. It feels like it’s part of the extended Roxy Music universe. Having Brian Eno, who had left that band at that point, but sang on his record, the certain guitar sounds, the sonic world of it. It feels connected, but its own thing, and a really good thing.

No disrespect to Fieldy’s Dreams, but I listened to that yesterday and was a little bit stressed out. And then I put Diamond Head on and my blood pressure immediately dropped.

Manzanera plays great parts on Roxy Music albums, but the guitar is really at the forefront on his solo records. Would you ever want to make more of a muso-type record, where you could really shred?

I don’t know if I have that in me. I will say that doing the Father Of The Bride tour, where it was these two-and-a-half hour shows that were jammy and very much more in that muso sphere, was my favorite tour that we’ve ever done, and sort of scratched an itch I didn’t know I had. It was something that I loved doing. But I think that that desire will probably be more in playing bass live with Vampire Weekend. But I might be wrong.

Finally, we end with Rise by the Johnny Depp-led supergroup Hollywood Vampires, which is technically a side project for Joe Perry of Aerosmith.

I read that the first Hollywood Vampires album was all covers, and this Hollywood Vampires record is a mixture of covers and original material. And I will say that reading the song titles, I could’ve guessed exactly what the song sounded like. Me listening to the Hollywood Vampires and expecting something surprising probably says more about my deficiencies than the Hollywood Vampires.’

The one that I was very struck by was “I Want My Now.” It enters into this tradition of “older rich musicians complaining about the younger generation” songs. There’s a lyric that goes, “I want my diamond selfie stick.” The kind of cranky old guy who feels like millennials are stupid and their existence is shallow. There were plenty of versions of this when boomers were writing songs about Gen X people. And now because Johnny Depp’s in this band, it’s Gen X people writing it about millennials and Gen Z. It kind of passes the torch of that songwriting tradition.

My impression of this band is that Johnny Depp wanted to pretend to be a rock star so he paid some actual over-the-hill rockers to play with him.

I can’t pretend to read the minds of the Hollywood Vampires. But I just would never want to put music out in that way. I find them, just as a concept, pretty fascinating. Around when I first started touring, I would hear stories of when a band would finish an album cycle, and the people who are not the primary songwriters in the band would then get home and just play video games for months until it came time to record their parts or go into a rehearsal room. And I knew that I never wanted to be that way. I definitely want to work and be productive. But at the same time, I never wanted to be like, “Well I have nothing better to do, here’s my fucking album.”

Dead Hand Control is out January 29 via Glassnote. Get it here.