I meet Chris Baio in Peckham, in his “quiet local” – the pub where he and his wife come to have a couple of pints and play cards. They favour Gin Rummy, he tells me.
The Vampire Weekend bassist seems out of place in this exceptionally vibrant corner of South London. He strides in wearing a characteristic preppy beige blazer, despite the incessant stickiness of a London heatwave. He may be four years out of New York, but the undeniably chirpy all-American tendencies of the band who formed at the city’s Columbia University don’t seem to have left him, at least in his taste for clothing.
Peckham has been Baio’s home for two years now, following another two spent in North London. The area may seem an odd location for a born-and-bred New Yorker who made his name in a band known for being college-educated and middle-class, but to him, living in Peckham makes a lot of sense. “I love it. There are a lot of things to do very close to the house – there are a lot of great bars, really good restaurants. It's really well connected. We're quite close to the Overground.”
At several points throughout our Heineken-fuelled, two-hour-long conversation Baio will shrug off an answer with an “It’s very boring!” – as if the settled-down lifestyle he now leads, as a thirty-something creative living with his wife in London, is uninteresting.
But Baio’s emotional existence in London over the past year has been anything but plain sailing. Man Of The World, the second solo Baio album, out this Friday via Glassnote Records, is an attempt to process that. It’s a record that routes the political upheaval of the past year through electronic beats, catchy riffs, and a determinable questioning of an individual’s complicity in wider events. While his knack for jolty rhythms that was evident in the bass lines he wrote for Vampire Weekend remains, his location has changed. Chris Baio’s existence as an American in London is at the very centre of this.
“Geography – where I am – has everything to do with the record”, he tells me. A very particular geographical point begins the story he tells in his artist’s statement, a remarkably eloquent piece of writing that accompanied the announcement of the record:
“The anxiety that forms the undercurrent of the album began at 6 AM on June 24th when I woke up to travel from London, where I live, to Berlin. En route to the airport it became official that, contrary to what experts advised, the UK had voted to leave the European Union. When I landed in Berlin I learned that the UKʼs Prime Minister was stepping down. It was surreal to deboard the plane and walk through EU passport control. I felt like I was living in history. But I felt, more than that, a very specific emotion: a deep anxiety about the direction the world was heading in. That feeling never fully went away.”
First, Baio watched the result of the EU referendum as an outsider living, as it were, on the inside. He then watched the result of the American election as an American, an insider, living outside his homeland.
Baio’s first solo record, 2015’s The Names, grapples with feeling “so much more American when I’m not in America.” I ask him whether he thinks he would still have written about America so much on this record were he not living in London, away from and confused by, his home. The starkness of his answer surprises me. “If I were not an American living in London, I don't think I would have made a first solo record at all, to be honest, and I wouldn't have made it when I did. And Man Of The World? I would not have made this record if I did not live here now.”
This geographical importance is, of course, set next to the startling facts of 2016’s American election. The second factor which gave birth to Man Of The World was the horror of Trump, as Baio, incredibly matter-of-factly, insists on yet another cause for his making the album. “This record would also not exist if it were a normal US presidential election. I can say that categorically. I would not have made a record if a Mitt Romney-type figure were the Republican presidential candidate.”
As we speak, it becomes apparent that Man Of The World is not a protest record, trifled with anger and disdain at the world. Rather, it is Baio’s processing of the events, his very personal reckoning of what two majorities – in the UK and in the USA – decided they wanted, and what the repercussions for him, as an individual, are.
On album opener ‘Vin Mariani’, blossoming horn riffs sound bright and celebratory. But underneath is a gritty synth line which churns along an unsettling path. It’s a perfect example of the “knotty and dark and anxious” songwriting Baio knows he would not have been able to produce if it were not for his reflecting on his personal complicity. Walking the line between a bright melody and a sour musical aftertaste is something that intrigues him.
“I think there can be a tension with a track that really bangs or really knocks and has these triumphant horns, but is trying to wrestle with or understand this tragedy that's unfolding. There's a lot of great music like that; there's an appeal there.” This “tension” allows the record to battle with heavy subject matter, while still sounding aurally alert and intriguing: it never falls to soppy ballad-like tendencies.
The anxiety that Baio writes of in his artist’s statement is angled at his very personal sense of attack. “I get to live this globalised existence, I get to travel the world as a musician. It's very very lucky, it's very very privileged, and the thing about the two historical events of last year is they're both framed as these backlashes against globalisation. Both these votes were votes against the existence that I love.”
He’s an unequivocally thoughtful man, who has clearly run circles around his head while working out where he stands in amongst all of this. A large part of his anxiety falls at the feet of his chosen profession. “Even though I was scared shitless of a Trump presidency, I did something very selfish and went into a room and made a record. That guilt is something I wrestle with, absolutely.”
The admittance of guilt like this comes incredibly easily to him, as if it is something he has long dwelt over, and long accepted. He may be too humble to realise it, but I’m sure that by making this record, Baio will have eased the anxiety of other people feeling the same way. Music can be healing too, as he acknowledges. “Making this record was a catharsis.” He pauses, still unwilling to deny himself the guilt. “A selfish catharsis.”
It’s the solitary nature of songwriting that seems to have particularly affected his mindset. “It was a very lonely fall”, he tells me. When he did manage to get back to America – he spent some time in Los Angeles in January finishing the record – he was finally able to feel he could make some kind of difference. But it didn’t come easily.
“I was so, so angry at the first version of Trump’s insane legally illiterate legal ban. I was sitting with my wife at lunch in LA. I could barely eat I was so angry. And it was like: ‘Oh are we gonna go see a movie tonight? I can't concentrate on a movie. A shameful chapter in American history is happening as we sit here. OK, let's go to LAX and see what the protest is.’ It’s this feeling; there's this itch, and going out and supporting or protesting, scratches it.”
Scratching this itch, his involvement in the march at LAX airport, and indeed the Women’s March the day following Trump’s inauguration, became, in part, a question of personal satisfaction. “There was a selfish element to the anger and the disappointment in my country's government, and for my country in voting someone in as president who could do something that's anathema to American values. There is a selfishness to it for me. I would never judge anyone else for what they're doing in going to protest. I wouldn't judge a single person in that crowd of 750,000 in LA but for me, it made me feel good.”
When you are as deep and thoughtful a thinker as Baio, it all seems a difficult vicious circle. First, he feels confused and anxious and so makes a record as “catharsis”, while proclaiming it a “selfish” act. Then, feeling lonely and apart from loved ones and those in need of help, he protests Trumps’ horrific enforcements. Even then, an admittance of selfishness engulfs him. The cycle does not end there.
“The relationship from part to whole is something I think about all the time. As a US citizen, I pay taxes to a government that commits violent acts. What does that mean? What's my culpability? What's my complicity? That's something I wrestled with and think about all the time. That's something I was thinking about before the maniac who is president declared his candidacy. It's a huge guilt.”
Single ‘DANGEROUE ANAMAL’ deals with this notion, albeit in a pared-down manner for ease of rhyme and short lyric lines. “I still eat meat / And I still fly / I pass my days / However I like”, Baio sings, as he worries about climate change deniers while realising that he, too, is complicit. It’s a theme that runs the length of the album. When he tells me “When I go up to the bar at a pub and order a pint, my American accent betrays where I'm from”, I’m reminded of another line on the album: “I’ve got shame in my name”.
As a result of this instinctive and passionate thinking, the record came together very quickly. Baio wrote the first eight songs on the record in just two weeks.
“I realised that the only thing that could get me to focus on something other than the news was to make another record. I would go to the studio and work a sixteen-hour day, come home, have the songs in my head, go to sleep and dream about the songs, get up, and then go back to the studio. As a result, it came together very quickly. I wasn't planning on making another record before the next Vampire Weekend record.”
Up until this point, I have been referring to Vampire Weekend in the past tense. It is easy to have forgotten about the band, and to see their three critically-acclaimed, tightly-written albums, as being well and truly in the past. Their last record, Modern Vampires Of The City, came out over four years ago, after all. Baio corrects me several times: it’s “is” rather than “was”, “are” rather than “were”, when it comes to the band.
Vampire Weekend songs still follow him everywhere. He recounts a time in Pret, buying a coffee, when it took him over twenty seconds, and a thought of “That sounds like something I would write” (the bassline was all he could make out from faraway speakers and the buzz of the café), for him to realise he was listening to ‘M79’, and the string-heavy pop punk of the band’s debut album.
While he holds his cards close to his chest, making it very clear that “Talking too much about a record that isn't done is a bit counter-productive”, he tells me the band “are writing things together. It’s coming, but it’s not imminent.”
It will be intriguing to see what the next Vampire Weekend chapter will bring. Lead singer Ezra Koenig did always sing about international political issues, albeit with a quirkier, more ambiguous reverence – on 2010’s ‘Holiday’ he sings “A vegetarian since the invasion / She’d never seen the word ‘bombs’”. But over a guitar-led hip-hop backbeat everything sounds undeniably fun. In 2017, you’d expect their music to be as riled-up as ever, but will that change their insistence for fun over sincerity? Time changes one’s perception of things, as Baio points out about the playfully menacing cover art of Man Of The World.
The album cover is a Matthias Heiderich photo of a golden tower set against a blue sky. It mirrors that of The Names, another Heiderich photo, this time of a Hamburg residential high-rise. Notably, the first tower is cream in colour, where Man Of The World’s tower is gold. “I saw this photo and it really sent a chill down my spine. It's this golden tower in the sky. That image would not have seemed ominous three years ago, but it's now a metaphor for where the world is at; we're all in the shadow of this looming gaudy golden tower.”
Man Of The World is out on 30 June via Glassnote Records. For more information about Baio, please visit his official website.