Matt Baldwin – Making It Strange

Ian Maleney talks west coast guitar, elemental forces and art with Matt Baldwin, who plays The Joinery this Friday with Cian Nugent.

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Matt Baldwin is an electrified guitar-slinger out of San Francisco, California. He channels the sounds of classic rock and sunny experimentation through a myriad of pedals and over-driven amplifiers. It’s an all-encompassing sound, taking the complex neo-blues of the modern troupe of Fahey acolytes, running it through a storm of jazz and noise and taking it out onto the desert road. It’s all heat, sand and rubber. Wind in your hair. Wheel to the white line, reckless and free. It’s beat music, in the literary sense.

First of all, could you explain a little of how you became interested in making the kind of music that you do? When did you start playing guitar and why?
I’ve always been interested in instrumental music. When I was very young my parents would play Scott Joplin and I had this funny little capering dance I would do while I listened to it. They still laugh about it but that was my expression of how much I enjoyed the music. It was certainly the beginning of something – the first time I remember feeling music.

Later, it became about rock ‘n’ roll and punk. Discovering Dick Dale was big. Then when I was 11 years old I made friends with Scott Partch (a descendant of composer, Harry Partch), who had a guitar and was already writing clever little pop songs. He was one of those musicians who just leap full born from the brow of Zeus. Truly inspiring talent. He’s the reason I started playing guitar.

Incidentally, I’m planning to put out some of Scott’s older music on the Psychic Arts label later this year.

There is a long tradition of guitar music on the west coast, perhaps particularly San Francisco. How in touch do you feel with the music and history of the West Coast?
It’s funny but I feel quite in touch with it. The San Francisco Bay Area is a rare micro-climate in the larger musical noosphere. I’m pretty superstitious and for that reason living here feels right. You walk around and feel presences. Here’s a short list of musicians whose presence I feel or think about: Leigh Stephens, James Gurley, Terry Riley, Pauline Oliveros, Pharaoh Sanders, Paul Dresher, The Windham Hill cadre, etc. Then there is John Fahey, the elephant in the room. Perhaps it’s trivial but it meant a lot to me that we both studied at UC Berkeley. It had a mythological feel to it.

That said, these ideas of region disappear when I’m listening to Sensations’ Fix, Ali Farka Toure or other music from around the world.

To what extent do you think people like those you mention made inroads into a type of music that wasn’t defined by where they came from? I’d say they kind of made music that was more about where you, as a listener, were coming from. Both Oliveros and Riley have always seemed to me to be about a personal connection with a larger, elemental force, perhaps something very similar to Ali Farke Toure in that respect?
Any music that works for me – that is, to produce ecstasy – draws from this larger, elemental force. Call it the human spirit or whatever you want. I use Vladimir Nabokov’s test for a piece of art’s effectiveness which is its ability to give you the chills. I’m listening to Steve Roach as I write this and only a minute ago experienced just such a cascade of sensation myself, which means that he’s doing something right.

As for Riley, Oliveros et al. I agree. In their experimentation within the ethnic and electronic spheres of music they seem to have transcended the average limitations of regional influence to create works that are at the same time personal and universal. At least it feels that way to me. But perhaps this is the true regional sound of the West Coast, a melting pot kind of thing. I know that for political reasons this image isn’t as popular as it used to be, but nonetheless I still love the idea of the melting pot. It’s alchemical. For how problematic the existence of the United States is I believe it is the only place that could have produced a Terry Riley.

I saw Terry play a solo piano set at the Berkeley Art Museum a few months ago. What fantastic music! It was essentially a long flowing improvisation and in it you could hear flashes of Gershwin, Mingus, Debussy, Indian raga and then he would break into traditional, loping stride-piano figures which I thought was hilarious because, having spent more time listening to his Dervish records, it was the last thing I expected. Of course it was cool to see how he had integrated all of these varied influences into his music but the real point for me was that they came together to create a vehicle for expression, to express his own unique Terry Riley-ness. A good work of art is often
in this way highly personal and universal at the same time. Perhaps there is no difference.

A lot of contemporary guitarists of your ilk get immediately labeled as folk (and American Dust is generally considered a folk label), but Julian Cope pointed out that a lot of what you do is definitely “rock” music in an almost classic sense. What’s your relationship with rock music and what kind of role do you see it having in modern times?
Clearly the music I make draws from different genres. I don’t describe it by any one label and prefer to think of myself as an integralist composer in the sense that I try to bring together elements that haven’t been combined before. This seems to be a theme in music today, that of integration. A dauntingly huge task considering that basically the entire history of recorded music is available for download on Rapidshare. So you have to choose wisely what is going to influence you and not bite off more than you can chew. Ariel Pink and Sam Flax both do this really well in the sphere of pop music. Simplicity always seems like the best approach to me. Harold Budd talks about the importance of setting down intentional parameters and I agree.

Until recently I played in a rock band. I am done with that for the most part. I have too much work to do on my own music.

Is Night In The Triangle is your first long-form work on electric guitar? How much of a change or step was it to move to electric and what kind of considerations were you thinking about when you made the decision?
Yes, Night In The Triangle is the first exclusively electric project that I’ve done. The change came about because I had been doing finger style acoustic for close to 10 years at the time and it had started to feel like a parlor trick. A circumscribed, little world of ideas. Still a beautiful world but one that I had explored thoroughly and that didn’t seem to hold any more secrets for me. That and a friend gave me a copy of “Guitar” by Sonny Sharrock. Listening to that I knew the die had been cast.

How important was it for you to include covers on your records? It’s an interesting move in that it takes a little from the folk tradition of reinterpretation but you chose songs by artists that were pretty alien to all that, like Neu!. What made you chose the covers you did?
Yeah, that’s really an intuitive thing. It’s usually some vague aspect of a theme, some feeling, that inspires me to take it on and start to work with it. From that point it’s about making it strange (to borrow a phrase from a Russian Symbolist poet whose name I forget) so that when someone finally listens to the song it reveals something new about itself. Once this process starts I no longer think of it as someone else’s composition. Sometimes the finished product bears little resemblance to the original, in which case I’ve been asked, “why not say you wrote it?” Because I like to give credit where it is due and (less modestly) to show off my ability to makeover and re-conceptualize. My next record features an Ornette Coleman cover.

When did you start your label? How has that been going so far? What’s been the highlight?
The first release came out about a year ago. We do first editions of 50 hand-numbered copies on CD-r at this point. Represses are unnumbered. So far we have put out four records: My “Imaginary Psychology”, a collaboration between Nico Georis and I called “Year of The Dog”, Aaron Sheppard’s “Leverage” and a freaky, outsider metal record called “Cryptic Cross.”

The highlight is that there is interest and they sell out quickly. In the future we are planning releases for cassette/LP/download by me and other artists. A bunch of stuff. Our motto is: Artifacts for future guitar Deities.

Matt Baldwin plays The Joinery with Cian Nugent on Friday March 16th.

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