Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Kurt Baker

      In 2010, Kurt Baker released an EP called Got It Covered where he introduced the world to his greatest influences by covering their music.  This didn’t feel like a covers album though.  Kurt turned the volume to 11 and cranked out tunes by power pop titans The Nerves, Joe Jackson, The Vapors and many more.  He played those songs with such gusto and gumption I had to hear more of his songs.  That same energy continues to electrify piece of music he puts out.  I often ask the people I interview if there’s a certain song or album they put on to help them get out of a bad mood.  For me, Kurt’s LP Brand New Beat has been permanently added to that list.    

Interviewed by Jay Castro

You were born in Portland, Maine, where you still live today.  What was it like growing up there? I live in Arizona and Maine is a place I really want to visit before I croak.  I imagine rocky shorelines, foggy cold breeze, and lighthouses, just what I see in pictures, movies and such.
Hey there! Maine is great, it’s pretty much like the pictures. They don’t call it VACATIONLAND for nothin’! We’ve got scenic shorelines, big moose and awesome fishin’. I actually went way up to the north wood this summer and went fishing with some buddies. We caught some HUGE fuckin’ fish, lots of Coors Heavies were had and even got into a confrontation with a beaver. Maine really has it all. People think that we are Canada and we almost might as well be. In terms of music, it’s kinda off the map. I was really surprised when Bad Religion came to town because usually all we get is String Cheese Incident hippie fest hacky sack bullshit. There is a lot of that thanks to PHISH and their big festivals they throw up here. I tend to ignore that kinda stuff and it’s fairly easy to find great music in my hometown. Portland is the biggest city in Maine and it’s where I’ve spent my whole life up until now. Musically, we’ve got a very very rich scene. There is something for everybody from Stoner Rock to Hip Hop to free form polka. Lot’s of good venues throughout. They come and go, but we’ve still got Geno’s Rock Club. Portland used to be a much more gritty town. The Old Port was not unlike Hamburg, Germany, where the Beatles got their start. Along the cobblestone streets you had rowdy sailors, junkies, whorehouses and GREAT rock clubs. Those days are kinda gone and replaced with resort hotels and high end restaurants. This town is looking more and more like some gentrified suburb in Brooklyn by the day, I can’t stand it! However, that’s just me being a grumpy old local. Maine is nice. Come check it out sometime, we will eat lobsters!!!

What or whom inspired you as a kid to want pick up a guitar and write songs?
When I first heard the Beatles album “Rubber Soul” when I was around the age of 5, it be came extremely clear in my mind that my whole reason for being alive was to play songs. It seems kinda tacky, but we all have those moments when everything makes sense. You’re like “Holy shit, this is totally new, but I totally know it and this is what I’m going to do no matter what”. My five-year-old self had these thoughts rolling through my head when I first heard songs like “The Word” and “You Won’t See Me”. I mean I was so friggin’ adamant about doing music and performing on stage that I convinced a few of my 1st grade buddies to perform “Can’t Buy Me Love” at the school talent show. We dressed up like the Beatles and had mini guitars. “Ringo’s” dad made a fake drum set out of a home beer brewing kit. We did the performance and people really dug it. I can remember it really well. My memory is already totally screwed up and foggy, but I can still remember the feeling of being on stage and having people react to the performance. We were just lip syncing the song, but man I got the itch! After that there was a long time where I just couldn’t find people that were into the idea of starting a band. I guess everybody was just too young to take it as seriously as I wanted to. I jammed around with my cousins; we had a little group for a while. We never played shows, and I couldn’t really play guitar but I had ideas in my head of songs. I must have been 8 or 9 and me and my cousins out in Wisconsin would sit around a piano and come up with songs.  It was kinda like the Partridge Family, except we didn’t have a rad fuckin’ psychedelic bus, just a couple cases of soda pop and an out of tune piano. One tune was called “Missing You”, it was a real simple tune, but I can still remember the melody. I don’t have any brothers or sisters but my cousins are kinda the closest family I have. We would always listen to the Beatles, and then newer acts at the time, like the Cardigans and Green Day’s “Dookie”. By the time I got to middle school, I was starting to get into punk rock and, yes I will admit it, Ska music. Not that real deal rocksteady shit, but the dumb stuff like Reel Big Fish. I have a special place in my heart for those bands like Reel Big Fish and Goldfinger, but oh man those were different times when I was younger! Great memories. I pretty much picked up the bass because it was the only thing near me at the time. My mom’s best friend had a son that was a real troublemaker. He was always out getting chased by the cops, calling in bomb threats to the high school, smoking dope. While he was out doing that, I would go over to their house and play his bass for hours. He had tons of Victory Records hardcore CD’s, but also I guess he must have been a closet Ska fan, because he had those albums too. I would pop a Reel Big Fish or Bosstones CD into the player and play bass along to it. Ha ha, oh man.

Your music has timeless power pop themes coursing through and through.  I hear a lot of 1980’s Power Pop influence in it.  The new 7” Girls Got Money B/W Yeah? Yeah!  sounds to me like it has a touch of 1970’s Glam thrown into the mix.  Am I totally off the mark here, are you a fan of say T-Rex, Sweet, or New York Dolls?
You are spot on. I’m a big Glam Rock fan. Those records sound incredible. The drums are huge; the guitar is sounds like tons of chainsaws and lawnmowers exploding! Its dirty rock n’ roll music with a sort of bubblegum glean. I love the appeal. Groups like The Sweet and Slade are at the top of my list of favorite groups. New York Dolls are a groundbreaking group. Hell, even that old pervert Gary Glitter really has some incredible recordings. Joan Jett covered like 4 or 5 Glitter tunes on her first couple records. I kinda went back and did my homework and realized that those songs I was lovin’ on Joan’s records were originally singles by the Gary Glitter the Child Diddler himself. If you can get over the fact that some of those Glam singers and celebs, i.e Jimmy Savile, were the absolute worst kind of sex offenders, those tunes just rip. Take a song like Barry Blue’s “Hot Shot,” that’s like some kinda fucked up Octoberfest anthem. The movie “Beer Fest” should have used it. When I got a LP last year by the Italian band Giuda, I was blown away. The thing was recorded a couple years ago and it sounds like 1974. Those guys GET the sound of Glam and how it’s directly related to rock n’ roll music. A song like “Girl’s Got Money” was originally written as a Rockpile sounding song, but when I got that Giuda record, the decision was made to make it more Glam sounding. Even the early recordings by the Oi band Cock Sparrer are totally Glam influenced. Their cover of the Small Faces “Whatcha Gonna Do About It” was a big influence on “Girl’s Got Money”.

You started up your own recording label Collector’s Club Records a couple years ago, what led you to that decision?
Collector’s Club came out all the frustrations my bandmate and label co-owner Geoff Palmer and I were having with other labels putting out our records. My old group the Leftovers did not have a great relationship with our label, which I would also release some albums on as a solo guy, and we still continue to have issues. This label was no way a major label, but they also weren’t a bedroom label, who the Guts and the Leftovers had been working with prior. They had a nice office and stuff. The Leftovers had some high hopes, but it didn’t pan out. We didn’t have control over our music after it was released. Geoff and I were talking and we realized, hell, we really appreciate smaller one-man labels wanting to release our records, but let’s be honest, this is not THEIR music. They might care about it a lot, but nobody is going to give as much of a shit as we do about our own products, so why not just release em’ ourselves. We were both sick of not knowing how many records we were selling, you know. I could go on and on and on, but starting Collector’s Club Records was the right decision. We are a small label, and we really don’t have the capability to do much more except release records by our close friends and ourselves. The most important and also gratifying thing about having CCR is that we see where we are shipping records, who’s buying what and where. It’s an amazing feeling to know and see the outcome of all that hard work we put into the making of the music and releasing of the albums. The best thing to is that we know that we aren’t going to fuck ourselves over. “Brand New Beat” was originally released on CCR on digital and CD, but then we were able to license out the record to 4 other labels internationally. I can’t talk about labels without mentioned my friend Ryan at Jolly Ronnie Records. He really runs a kick ass label, and he’s probably one of the best guys I’ve ever dealt with when working with a small indie label, so I always ask him for advice and we’ve worked together on releases. I wish more label owners were like Ryan!

Your famous motto “Have a good time all the time” seems to be a theme with your music, that’s for sure.  Is this a personal motto as well? 
Oh hell ya. I mean, it’s pretty much impossible to have a good time ALL the time or is it? I think the best thing you can do is be positive. Our world is pretty screwed up, and who knows what’s going to happen tomorrow? We all get bummed out every now and then, but if you catch yourself and turn it around you can honestly have a better outlook on life. We are all here for some reason. I think mine is to promote positivity through Rock N’ Roll, gummy bears, and twelve-day coke binges! Ha, I’m not being entirely serious, but you catch my drift. Rock N’ Roll music is about feeling alive, being in the moment. If you’re gonna be a Deb Downs, it’s gonna get you nowhere. Nobody is going to want to be around you. Well, that’s what I think. So many people get off on negativity they don’t even realize it either. Sure, it’s real easy to be bummed out all the time and make others around you feel just as bad, but how is that making any progress in humanity? It’s not! Have a good time all the time, and put out the good vibes towards others, you’ll get it back too. I’m a big believer in Karma. Treat others the way you wanna be treated. All that “Life Is Good” t-shirt stuff, yadda yadda yadda, pass me a beer and put on that Motley Crue record dude! 

Speaking of good time music, I was recently reading an article in a magazine that said that out of all the forms of art music has the potential to change a person’s mood the fastest.  Do you agree with this and if so, what music do you put on when you need a good time booster?
I definitely agree with that. Take a good painting or something; you really need to look at it. Digest what makes it artistically so awesome. If it’s not some nude painting of a bunch of girls eating fruit, I can see how it might take a bit longer for it to change your mood. Once the music enters your ears it goes straight to your brain. It’s got a weird effect on people. I’m not sure how much we, or just me, really know about what music does to us, but it seriously has a strong effect on the way we act as people, our emotions and how our day can be completely flipped around if we hear a certain song. I was dating a girl that used to listen to Joy Division NON-STOP and all she would do would be bummed out and eat chocolate. I often thought about mentioning to her that maybe if she wasn’t listening to such depressing music all the time, she’d be a lot happier. I can’t pinpoint or describe accurately what exactly this feeling is, but when you first discover a record that truly blows your mind, it’s better than any other high, natural or artificial, on the planet. You become consumed with these types of albums. You wanna live in them. It doesn’t happen all the time but every now and then you discover a record so goddamn awesome it can have the power to totally change your entire year. That’s some crazy shit! Music is the best. Oh, I still gotta answer the last part of your question. Usually I put on the Andrew W.K “I Get Wet” album.

What music do you listen to that you feel would really surprise Kurt Baker fans?
I’m pretty vocal about all the weird shit I listen to. Whether it be ABBA or the best 80’s hair metal band on the planet, KIX. Ace of Base “The Sign” is really a super great electro-reggae record. I dig Claudine Longet, she was a smokin’ hot french chick but was bat shit crazy. Made some really spooky pop records. I don’t think it helps that she murdered her husband, a famous skier. She got off scott free! There is a great radio station that broadcasts from an island nearby Portland. They play pop music from the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s. Old sounds taken directly from 78 records. I love that music, and the lyrics are so far out. I’ve got a pretty open mind when it comes to music and I’m a firm believer that a good song is a good song. If Mumford and Sons actually wrote a good song I’d probably be a fan, but I’m still waiting for them to do that. Not to get off topic and rant some more, but this whole Folk Americana Indie music movement really grinds my gears. As a rock n’ roll and pop music guy, obviously the last thing I care to see is a bunch of dudes in suspenders playing mandolins. It’ s just not appealing to me, and I’m trying to understand why the majority of music listening folks eat this bung up. Maybe it’s a popular genre now because it’s kinda like a direct response to the Emo/Punk/Pop stuff that was pretty big in the 2000’s. Even that was a response to Rap/Rock of the late 90’s. My buddy Dan James and I wear talking and it seems that every musical movement and genre is a direct response to the past. The best example being Punk Rock and New Wave. Grunge was a response to Hair Metal. But what do we have now? A bunch of assholes looking like they are camping out at Gettysburg for vacation.

Following you on Facebook, I notice you are a pretty hard working dude.  It seems you play shows a lot and you regularly release records that never skimp on quality.  I was watching that Jay Reatard documentary Better Than Something and he was talking about putting out releases and writing and recording so much music because he felt he only had a limited amount of time before the well of creativity ran dry so to speak.  Do you follow a similar philosophy regarding your music?
I’ve yet to see that documentary, though I’d love to check it out. I don’t think I agree with Jay on that though. One of the most important things as an artist is to at the very least entertain the thought of changing what you do. Change is inevitable, and part of the fun of creating music is trying new things. If you feel like you aren’t creative anymore, expose yourself to new things maybe travel someplace new, read some different books, hang with people you normally don’t hang out with. As a musician I’m constantly trying to expose myself to different ways and walks of life, to see what turns me on and turns me off. I can kind of understand that when you are younger, your eager to create and make as much music as you can. I often catch myself thinking, “Oh snap, I just pretty much re-wrote an old song” and getting a little frustrated. Writers block happens all the time, and when you get older more things come into play that can take away from your output as an artist, but ones ability to be influenced and harness creativity to create should never run dry. It’s only if you want it to. A guy like Nick Lowe pretty much reinvented himself from a class A roots rock power popper to a shamaltzy smaltzer, but the guy still writes and releases quality music. He just had to change it up a little. I’ve been playing in a lot of groups recently and it’s opened me up to new ways to thinking about how I approach music. The last couple years I’ve been working with an old Portland, ME rock n’ roller named Kip Brown. He’s 100% no bullshit rock n’ roll through and through. I’ve learned a lot from him. Just playing in his group has made me want to try new styles, simplify a lot of things, get to the core of what the music is all about. You can learn a lot from your peers and mentors!

You played in the Pop Punk band The Leftovers from 2002 to 2010 (roughly) and have been doing the solo Power Pop records pretty much since that.  You have been carrying the Power Pop banner into battle pretty high for a while.  Do you ever feel like you may have painted yourself in a corner musically?  Like if one day you said “I wanna work with those dudes in the Mars Volta” but can’t because you’re the prince of power pop and what would people think?
The Leftovers always kinda had an idea that what we were doing wasn’t very popular at the time outside of the pop/punk circuit, at least here in the States. We always would say, “We’re to punk for pop, to pop for punk!!”  We saw a lot of bands around us change with the times and get modest success because they started a Screamo band or something close to that. That wasn’t our style though, we wanted to write music that we absolutely loved, and no matter how “hip” it was. I’m very proud of the records the Leftovers made and at its core it’s really “power pop” music played by a teenage punk band. Once I went solo, the songs came out as straight up Power Pop. I like wearing skinny ties and love the genre to death, especially the late 70’s and early 80’s golden era stuff. Unfortunately, it ain’t ’79 anymore and the reality is that Power Pop is the most accessible not accepted music in the pop music realm. If I wanna make music for my entire life, which I intend on doing, I’m going to eventually have to ring up, for example, a guy like Blag Dahlia and say “Let’s do a Blast Beat Surf album.” You just gotta grow and try new things and try to expose yourself to new listeners. I have no problem carrying the Power Pop banner because I love it, and always have though. I also don’t think it would make much sense for me to try and make another straightforward power pop record like “Brand New Beat.” My music at it’s core will always have the elements of what makes Power Pop what it is, but I also feel like I have the freedom to try something new. Maybe my next record will be more influenced by 60’s garage, or maybe I’ll do a 70’s disco record, or maybe I’ll do a NWOBH album. I could also do an album with all those genres mixed on to one. I probably won’t, but I don’t feel any pressure by anybody to stick to one genre and continue to fly the power pop flag forever, and I’m not cornered musically. Whatever music I do make I will love and stand behind 100%, no matter what kind of genre it is. You gotta be sincere and love what you do. Right now for me it’s Power Pop, so into battle we go!

If you could assemble the ultimate Kurt Baker Band, the Avengers of the Kurt Baker Bands if you will, consisting of any musicians living or not, who would you include in this group?
Well, I really gotta give some props to the guys that play in my group right now. I’ve been very very lucky to get to work with such great and talented dudes. We always have a blast no matter what. BUT, if I had to make the ultimate band... i’d definitely want Dan Vapid in the group. I’ve always been a huge fan of him, and over the last few years we’ve become good friends and worked on a song here and there. His vocals are incredible, and he’s one of the best songwriters alive right now. I’d want Ace Frehley on lead guitar, Flo and Eddie from the Turtles singing and hitting percussion, Clem Burke from Blondie on drums. I would ask Paul McCartney to play bass, but he quit using pot recently so I don’t think he’d have a very good time at rehearsal! Sorry, Paul.

What does the Kurt Baker Band have in store for us in the near or not so near future?
Things are looking good for us! Always staying fairly active. We’re probably going to play a few shows in New England and then in December we’ll be over in Spain and possibly France for a tour. After the tour my plan is to stay in Madrid! I’ve wanted to move for a long time, and Boston and New York City just doesn’t do it for me. I love Spain a lot and have some wonderful friends over there, so I decided I might as well have a little adventure over there. It could last 3 months; it could be longer. Spain is a Rock N’ Roll country, so I’ll be playing lots of shows and writing and recording a new album. It’s going to be a lot of fun, and I’ll most likely have a good time all the time! Adios! 

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