Baobab talks debut album, ‘cybernetic processes’
You can say an act like Durham’s Baobab is a prototype of our modern age. The duo of Phil Torres and Whitney Trettien is barely a year old, but the 29-year-old Torres has been recording for years on his own, keeping the music he’s made to his circle of family and friends while working on other things (like his recently completed book, A Crisis of Faith: Atheism, Emerging Technologies and the Future of Humanity, soon to be published by Dangerous Little Books).
In fact, the 14 two- and three-minute songs on the band’s self-titled debut, influenced by music from around the globe now accessible with a click of the mouse, weren’t originally intended for public consumption but as a mere diversion. Torres even played and recorded every instrument himself.
But now that they’re out in the DIY Internet world, don’t be surprised to hear a buzz build around Torres’ colorful bursts of electronic and acoustic guitar-based compositions – spurred, in part, by Baobab’s striking self-made videos. Now, with the help of Trettien and a host of backing tracks to capture the textured arrangements, Baobab hopes to hit the road this Spring.
Like we said – a prototypical modern act.
Torres was kind enough to shoot answers to John Schacht’s email questions. Baobab officially hits the streets Feb. 21. (But you can stream it below.)
Shuffle: Tell me about the genesis of the band…
Phil Torres: The band originated about a year ago. I’ve been recording for a long time on my own, but I only ever played the recordings to friends and family. The group of songs on Baobab wasn’t originally intended to be publicly released. They were written and recorded simply to provide a break from the main project that I’d been working on for over a year, namely a book on philosophy, religion and emerging technologies that’s about to be published by Dangerous Little Books. Jaron Lanier, a musician and computer scientist, once said that when he’s supposed to be doing academic stuff, he plays music; and when he’s supposed to be playing music, he does academic stuff. The result is “perpetual procrastination.” I guess I was doing something similar – this is how I ended up with the fourteen songs on Baobab.
Shuffle: What happened that made you decide to go “public,” as it were, with these songs/the debut?
PT: There were several reasons. One is that I’d been preoccupied with school for seven years or so — earning a MS in neuroscience and then studying philosophy in Boston — and consequently I didn’t have time to do more than record the occasional song. For the past three years, though, I’ve taken an indefinite hiatus from graduate school. Another reason is that I happened to play some of the tracks to a few friends (who don’t particularly like “indie” music) and got a really positive response. Initially I thought the songs might not be very accessible — they might be too avant-garde or idiosyncratic — but they insisted that just the opposite is true. So, after years of doing academic stuff while really wanting to do music, the moment seemed right to make music a full-time pursuit.
Shuffle: The album has a very natural feel to it even with the electronic flourishes — was that the goal?
PT: Yes. I guess the idea was for the music to reflect the fact that we live in a world that’s been significantly changed by technology. But technology has not yet significantly changed the human being from the inside — we’re essentially the same creatures we were 30,000 years ago when we lived very “natural” lives in forests and the savanna. This is why looking at the color green has a measurable calming effect; and it’s why people buy CDs of crickets chirping and the wind blowing through trees rather than cars buzzing around in downtown New York. So, I feel like there’s a pull towards nature that’s deep in our beings. At the same time, technology — and the sounds it produces — can be extraordinarily beautiful. I thus wanted the songs to kind of mirror this situation — to be organic but digital, human but also a little bit post-human. At least that was the idea.
Shuffle: How does the songwriting go?
PT: Recording is an integral part of the composing process for me. I often think about a study I came across a long time ago in which scientists flashed an image of the Necker Cube in front of “naive” subjects who’d never before seen it. The subjects were then asked to visualize the Necker Cube in their mind. Amazingly, not one reported a gestalt switch (where the corner closest to the viewer suddenly and spontaneously appears furthest away). The point is that externalizing a work of art, such as a song, can open up all sorts of creative possibilities. I hear music very differently when I’m passively listening to it compared to when I’m actively playing it — what sounds good in my head often doesn’t sound good when I hear it played back, and vice versa. As a result, songwriting for me involves coming up with an idea, recording it, listening to it and then modifying it; this “cybernetic” process then starts over again with overdubs, and so on. The result is a song that often times sound completely different than what I had initially imagined. (Editor’s Note: The Necker Cube)
Shuffle: What are your influences? I hear some Books in here, a little Le Loup in the tribal elements, and maybe some drone influences…
PT: You’re absolutely right about The Books. Most of my musical projects recently have been an effort to write songs that are half as interesting as many of The Books’ compositions. In addition, I’ve been greatly influenced by Panda Bear, Animal Collective, Dirty Projectors and Bon Iver (although I didn’t actually hear Bon Iver until I was halfway done recording Baobab), as well as genres of music like mbaqanga and congotronics. Cat Stevens has been a huge inspiration vocally.
Shuffle: Who did the recording, and where? How about mixing and mastering?
PT: I recorded all the songs at my house on my own. You can actually hear traffic outside on individual tracks, although it’s hard to tell in the finished songs (which have a fair amount of noise in them). I also mixed all the songs on my laptop; since I don’t have good speakers, I would burn CDs and take them out to the car to listen. I probably have over 100 CDs of half-done songs in my car right now. As for mastering, this was tricky — but I ended up buying some good mastering software and doing it myself. I discovered a whole different side of music in the process.
I kind of liked doing everything on my own. It’s amazing how many projects — artistic, scientific, etc. — these days are done collaboratively. For example, an album may be primarily associated with a band, but chances are that people not in the band played significant roles in recording it, arranging the songs, shaping the sound of the album, doing the album art, and so on. I’m not in any way opposed to collaboration — in fact, I would love to collaborate with other musicians — but there’s something to be said (I guess) about a work of art growing out of a single vision had by a single individual. This is why I also made, for better or worse, the music videos up on YouTube. (Editor’s Note: They’re also up at Baobab’s website)
Shuffle: The guitar lines are really superb — what’s your background on the instrument? What guitar(s) do you play?
PT: Thanks! I’ve been playing guitar since I was about 10 years old. The primary guitar I used for the recording is a nylon string guitar. I bought it in Baltimore, Maryland, for $150. Although it’s incredibly cheap, I absolutely love its sound! There’s also ukulele, steel string guitar and mandolin throughout the album.
Shuffle: What are some of the narrative themes you write about? Whose lyrics (and/or which writers, novelists, etc.) do you admire or find inspirational?
PT: Most of the lyrics are imagistic in that they basically just describe situations — usually natural scenes — that I find relaxing and beautiful. Someone once said that lyrics were the worst thing to happen to music. While I definitely disagree with this statement, I struggle with lyrics more than anything else music-related. Often times I write the melodies for a song and think “There, that captures what I wanted to express pretty well.” But then I remember that I still have to write the damn lyrics! It is, in fact, very interesting to me that “music” these days is so much more than music per se: it’s also lyrics (or poetry, if poets don’t object to this) as well as theater (or performing live). The successful musician is not only good at creating sound patterns in time that please the ear, but he/she also must be good as extra-musical things like writing and entertaining an audience.
Shuffle: What’s up next for Baobab? Will you be a touring entity or mostly a studio one? Are you shopping for labels?
PT: We would like to embark on a release tour this Spring. My partner is a superb pianist, and she’ll be playing shows with me. A difficulty that we’ve encountered has to with recreating these densely recorded songs in the live setting with only two people! This seems to be a pretty new problem for musicians: recording technology has made it possible for individuals to create a full-band sound on their own. While this is great for recorded albums, it makes live performance a conundrum. An acoustic version (just guitar and vocals) of any of my songs would be boring, because most are just two or three chords over and over again. What keeps them interesting is all the additional layers — sounds and harmonies — on top. So I think we’ll end up playing with a backing track —basically, the whole song minus lead vocals, lead guitar and some keyboard parts. We’ve already played a show with this set-up, and I think it worked pretty well.
As for labels, we are shopping at the moment. So far we’ve been very DIY — and we like the DIY ethic and aesthetic. For example, Whitney made our Baobab album sleeves by weaving together colored paper, recycled cardboard and other found materials; each one is unique. But we are open to exploring other possibilities.