Interview by John Wisniewski
Aidan Baker is an experimental music composer from Canada who has been recording since the 1980's. He is also the author of several books and has a huge catalog of recorded works. He often plays with his band Nadja or other bands that he has assembled over the years. Baker is inspired by artists such as Sonic Youth as he himself inspires other artists. His work is often, or almost always, improvisational in nature. Aquarius Records, which carries most of his catalog, breathlessly described his work this way: "he definitely has a sound... unlike his dirgier more metallic blissed out doom duo Nadja, his solo stuff tends toward the super minimal, the dark and droney and drifty, the hushed and shimmery."
In this interview, Baker speaks about many subjects, including improvisation in music, ideal places to perform and his favorite music.
PSF: Where you trained in music as a child?
AB: Yes, I have classical training in flute and a little bit of piano.
PSF: What were your interests in your early years?
AB: When I first started listening to popular music, it was the early 80s, so I mainly listened to new wave and synth pop. By the time I started my first band in high school, we were sort of doing new wave/punk music.
PSF: Could you talk about growing up in Toronto and if the music scene there have any effect on you?
AB: I grew up in the countryside outside of Toronto, about an hour's drive from the city. When my friends and I were teenagers, we were into punk and used to go downtown a lot for shows, both local punk bands and touring (bands). Toronto had a pretty good, inclusive music scene then. It still does have a pretty active scene, but arguably it's much more fragmented now.
PSF: How did some of these Toronto punk bands make an impression on you?
AB: I don't know that anyone outside of Toronto would know these bands, but Guilt Parade, Bunchafuckingoofs, and Random Killing were a bunch of our favourites as teenagers. They were pretty straight-forward, hardcore punk -- but there were some more adventurous, noise-punk/experimental bands like Fifth Column and The Dinner Is Ruined that we were into as well.
PSF: When you were starting to make music yourself, did you see any other local artists as kindred spirits? Why or why not?
AB: Yes, there were and are people doing similar styles of music -- and there is a history of experimental and ambient-based music coming out of Toronto, from the '60's-'70's onwards. It's always been a pretty small scene though and largely unappreciated outside the small circle of people either making or listening to it.
PSF: Who were they and what do you like about their work?
AB: There was a series in Toronto called The Ambient Ping that started in 1999 to showcase ambient, drone, and experimental music which I ended up playing many times -- and a lot of the other artists who played it became friends and/or collaborators: Knurl, Dreamstate, Naw, Planet of the Loops, Beef Terminal, among others. The series is still going, though it doesn't happen as regularly as it used to, but everyone involved, both listeners and performers, was really passionate about that kind of music and didn't really care whether it was cool or trendy... which often meant you would perform to only a handful of people, but at least you'd know they were into the music.
PSF: What was the reaction of the audiences at your first concerts?
AB: A lot of people were intrigued by my methodolgy, which is more focused on the production of sounds -- alternate means of playing the guitar, different ways of producing unexpected guitar sounds -- rather than technical ability. I try to do this both via the use of electronics and effects pedals, but also different ways of playing and different tools to produce sound.
PSF: Who are some of the artists who have influenced your poetry and music?
AB: Some influential writers: JG Ballard, Iain Banks, Angela Carter, William Vollmann, David Foster Wallace, Richard Brautigan, Jonathan Lethem. Musicians: Mark Kozelek, James Plotkin, Justin Broadrick, PJ Harvey, Caspar Brotzmann. I could go on in both categories...
PSF: How should people refer to your music-as jazz, or experiemntal or avant-garde? Maybe none of these?
AB: For the sake of expedience, I usually just describe my music as ambient/experimental. But I do think I incorporate lots of other styles -- post-rock, electronic, classical, jazz, etc..
PSF: When was the first experiemental group that you formed?
AB: I started performing experimental music as a solo artist in the late 90s as a solo artist. My first experimental group would've been ARC, a trio which began in 2001 and is still sporadically active.
PSF: How is writing poetry different than composing music?
AB: I find writing much more challenging. Music for me is much more free-form, spontaneous and intuitive. Writing does have those elements, but it also needs to be much more precise and crafted and, as such, takes a lot more time to produce. Music stands by itself; writing needs help getting to its feet...
PSF: Typically, where do you find inspiration for your compositions?
AB: I get inspiration from all over the place- but I guess generally speaking just the process of sitting down and playing/looping/sampling/whatever is inspiration enough.
PSF: What's the ideal setting for you to compose and to record?
AB: My set up is pretty compact, both for performing and recording, so I can pretty much compose/record wherever I have space to set-up. Right now, that's just here in a corner of my apartment, which is perfectly comfortable for me.
PSF: Ideally, do you like to labor extensively over your pieces? Do you have any kind of self-imposed limits that you place upon your work?
AB: It depends on the nature of the recording project, but usually I do not labour extensively on pieces. I like to keep an element of spontaneity present in my work and excessive editing/manipulation/whatever often obscures that. As for limits, that again depends on the nature of the project.
PSF: When you're working on a piece, how do you figure out when it's finished and sounds just right?
AB: To be purely subjective: when it sounds right.
PSF: Since a lot of your music is mood and atmosphere based, how do you make it sound right in all of the different places that you perform at?
AB: That is the main challenge of performing and sometimes it can be great -- when a performance space enhances the sound or boosts my own creativity/inspiration -- and sometimes it can be exceedingly frustrating. I have had lots of shitty shows because of poor sound, other technical problems, or sound technicians who just do not get the idea of atmospheric/soundscape-based music. Or simply the physical space of the club is just not conducive to the feel of the music.- but I always try to adapt to the space as best I can.
PSF: How do you know when you've given a good performance?
AB: When I feel that I've actually gotten into the music -- not just that the audience has connected with the sound, but that I have too.
PSF: For an ideal place to record or perform, if you did think about that for a bit, where might these places be?
AB: Well, I always do enjoy performing in atypical venues -- it gets pretty tedious playing crummy bars all the time. So when the opportunity arises to play in a church or a gallery, that's often a much more interesting (and inspiring) show. Such venues often make for nice recording as well, since they have a natural resonance that is often absent from clubs.
PSF: Do you think that you also use silence as a compositional tool? If so, how?
AB: Relative silence, sure- I'm prone to filling all space with sound, but that sound can be quite miniscule and near-silent. Sometimes the smallest, more-difficult-to-hear sounds can be the most interesting.
PSF: How would you describe your solo work versus your work in Nadja?
AB: While they are essentially the same -- same technique/methodology, same set-up -- Nadja has a very specific aesthetic which defines the sound. With my solo work, I don't really have an aesthetic constraints, which allows much more freedom to experiment.
PSF: For your collaborations, how much control are you willing to give up and what kind of working relationship is ideal for you with a collaborator?
AB: That again depends on the nature of the project. I'm quite willing to give up all control if the results are worthwhile -- and I've found that the most satisfying collaborations are those that result in music that I find entirely unexpected, which usually demands relinquishing control from all participants.
PSF: You have a very extensive discography. What's allowed you to have such a large output?
AB: Simplicity of set-up, both recording- and performance-wise.
PSF: Having worked a composer and musician for over 20 years, how do you still motivate and challenge yourself with your work?
AB: That can be an issue, but there are always new genres/styles/sounds to explore. I still haven't done a hip-hop album...
PSF: What have you tried to accomplish in music?
AB: Balancing my own and my listeners' satisfaction, I guess.
PSF: What kind of advice would you give to a young eager musician just starting off?
AB: It's a cliche, but it still has merit: Be true to yourself.
PSF: Could you name ten of your favorite albums?
AB: Sure. Stina Nordenstam Dynamite, Swans Swans Are Dead, Godflesh Pure, Red House Painters Rollercoaster, Big Black Songs About Fucking, Neurosis Through Silver in Blood, Miles Davis In A Silent Way, Caspar Brotzmann Massaker Koksofen, The Legendary Pink Dots The Maria Dimension, PJ Harvey Dry.
Learn more about Baker at his website
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