Let’s start with your latest solo effort, Still Lives. I’ve seen you refer to it as a bit of a departure from previous material – was it always the intention to try something a bit different?
Well the most obvious difference is that there’s no guitar on it aside from the bass guitar. And while it’s not necessarily a jazz record, there’s more of a “jazz” feel I guess – definitely a minimal, Bohren & Der Club of Gore/The Necks kind of jazz.
Do you have a sound in mind when you first approach your records?
It really depends on the project. For Still Lives, I had an idea of what I really wanted to do, and so I just sat down and tried to capture that idea. For other albums it can be more of an improvisational or intuitive process, where I just sit down and record whatever comes out. If it’s got some sort of concept or structure, it’s a very loose one.
With your recent Only Stories release – a record comprising of just 6 and 12 string guitars – did you deliberately set that limitation on yourself?
Yeah, it was deliberate. I think it’s interesting to confine oneself to something, as it makes you a bit more experimental with the instrument in question. Personally I try to find new sounds I can with a particular instrument that I might be able to make with a different instrument. It’s a sort of exploration.
I’ve heard quite a few of your solo records, and I don’t think I’ve heard your voice as up-front and dry as it is on Only Stories. Was that something you wanted to explore?
Often when I record, I have a lot of effects on. When I was recording this one I thought that I’d add effects post-production, but once I had it down I decided to leave it as it is – it had a certain character without the effects. A dry rawness, as you say.
The songs on Only Stories are actually quite old – mid 90s songs that I never got round to recording and releasing properly, so it was a “looking back” to what I was doing then, and adapting the singer/songwriter thing to the more experimental stuff that I’m doing now.
Is it easy for you to unearth old material and adapt it for your current style?
Yeah. I could fall prone to re-doing song after song, which I actually have done. That can be dangerous…I mean, where do you stop? I have a giant back catalogue – some of it recorded, some of it demoed, some of it just in my head or in notebooks or something – so there’s always material there to re-visit.
You are seen as a prolific artist. Does that arise from having a lot of ideas in your head, or just from a lot of time spent in the studio?
It’s more about just having a lot of stuff in my head. I don’t necessarily spend a lot of time in the studio – it comes in bursts and spurts, so I’ll spend four or five days in the studio and then not touch it for a little while.
Moving on to your collaboration with Picastro, due out soon. Was that a live collaboration?
No, it wasn’t. It was only really a collaboration in a limited sense – it was essentially a split on which we contributed to eachother’s tracks. So I only played a little bit of flute and guitar on a couple of the Picastro tracks, and there’s some percussion from Brandon and some acoustic guitar from Liz on our track. But it’s more about contributing to each other’s songs than a collaboration.
Did you have each other’s material in mind when creating the split? The Picastro tracks flow very neatly into your piece.
Yeah, I guess so. We didn’t talk about that specifically…I mean we do know each other quite well and have played together a lot, so I think there’s some sort of reciprocal influence happening on this album.
Was it easy for them to find ways in which to incorporate themselves into the Nadja material?
Yeah. What they gave me is quite abstract, so most if it is in the first middle section where it gets droney and weird. It’s in the later heavier part too, but because there’s so much going on it’s buried in there. It’s more of a textural thing rather than a focal point.
Infinite Light, Ltd was a remote collaboration too. It took me quite a few listens to soak it up, as it seems to cover a lot of stylistic ground. Was it the intention to flit between sounds?
Kind of. I initiated that project with the idea that we would each start a track and have the others add to it and flesh it out. It sort of started that way, and then changed as we traded files. I think three or four of the track consist of one person starting it and the others fleshing it out, and the rest are collages of various side-tracks that people have done. So it started with a specific idea, and then got a little vaguer.
Moving on to taking your music into the live environment. I’ve only seen you live once, and your sound consisted of songs incorporated into guitar loops. Do you have a signature sound when you play live, or do you experiment with different set-ups?
Going into a tour, I often think that I’m going to play a certain type of stuff, and more often than not I don’t. I often fall into the habit of improvising – not necessarily because it’s easier, but it can be more interesting. Quite often it’s more of the ambient/experimental loop-based stuff than the song based stuff. Sometimes if I’m touring in support of an album that has songs on it, I’ll try to do those, but more often than it’s quite abstract.
And does the improvisation always turn out how you’d like it?
Well if it starts sucking I can just stop, as it’s just me. I don’t have to worry about other people following along or playing off of other people, so I can just stop and change it. Obviously shit can go wrong, but I can usually rescue it if I need to!
As for Nadja in the live environment. That project has such a distinctive sound on record – are you happy with the way that translates in the live setting?
Yes and no. We always play directly through the PA when we play and don’t use amps – largely because we’ve had a lot of issues with sound technicians not being able to mix us properly, and for the first year or two of touring we had a lot of really lousy shows because of sound. We tried to rein it in and take it over ourselves, so we’d be mixing it on stage as we do now. I’m mixing three instruments – bass, guitar, drum machine – so I needed an on-stage mixer to do that, and therefore we ended up using the PA rather than amps. Amps can be more problematic in that regard. But that also means that we’re slave to the PA system, so when we get a bad PA system it sounds bad! This is always something we’re talking about to promoters – saying we need a good sound system – and sometimes it just doesn’t happen.
Would the ideal to be have it through amps then? I mean, if you were able to have absolute control over the way it would sound.
No, actually I like doing it through the PA. If it’s a good PA system it sounds good. Obviously amps provide a nicer guitar tone, but because I’m mixing everything at once, the PA gives it a wider spread. So I can get a fuller representation of all three instruments just using the PA.
Both yourself and Leah are quite minimal in your activity on stage. Is there a certain mind-set you adopt when playing live?
Not really…we try to take ourselves out of the performance to a certain degree, to make it more about the sound and the experience, rather than us being the focal point. This is why we keep the lights low and don’t move around very much – so people can focus on something else, rather than just looking at us.
Do you have a preference in terms of the type of venue you play in?
Not particularly. We’ve played a wide variety, and they all have their own benefits. Club shows can be perfectly fine, even if it’s just a bar. Art space shows are sometimes quite nice too, but more often than not they’re not equipped with good PA systems, so that can be a problem there. We’ve played a few shows in churches, which can be pretty cool if there’s a nice natural resonance.
I see that you’ve got a new Whisper Room record coming out soon?
Yeah, we’re actually finalising the tracks for that at the moment – that’s for the drone compendium that I’m curating for Beta-lactam Ring Records. That’s going to be a seven-LP series of projects that I’m involved in, or have been involved in in the past. So it’s a historical thing in a way – some of the material stretches back to almost 10 years ago.
Is this all previously unreleased material?
There are a couple of things that were previously released, but as very small CDR editions. So they never really saw too much exposure.
How does it work as a set? What does the listener get in terms of a scope of the material you’ve made?
Well it’s not chronological. It’s more focused on the different projects I’ve done – different sounds I’ve explored, different setups, different group arrangements.
So how does the new Whisper Room record sound in contrast to previous material?
It’s a little different because we’re not actually doing it together – we’re trading files because they’re in Toronto and I’m in Berlin, so it’s been a challenge getting this album together. We’re used to working in the same room, and being able to play off eachother as we compose and record. It’s actually turning out a little more electronic-sounding, rather than the improv/space-rock.
The idea we had was that I would start a track and they would finish it, and vice versa. It…sort of happened. We’ve trading things back and forth a few times, so it’s become a little more than just one starting and the other finishing.
Aidan Baker’s website – www.aidanbaker.org
Tags: Aidan Baker, Arc, Broken Spine, Infinite Light, Interview, Ltd, Nadja, Whisper Room