Salt of the Earth
Chris Bathgate made one of the best records of the year. So why's he fighting for relevance?
Published: May 11, 2011
The photog helped piece it together.
"There were a few solo EPs in there too, right?"
Bathgate described himself as "an ambitious kid."
"Actually, every year, since I was 16, I've made a 12-to-14-song album. First they were bedroom tapes, then dorm room CD-Rs. Then the real thing. This is how long I've been trying to make records, man," he told the writer. "Every year."
In the mid 2000s, Bathgate cut his teeth inside a serious Ann Arbor music community. Among his peers are Jones, Misty Lynn, Great Lakes Myth Society, Drunken Barn Dance and the gone but not forgotten Canada. Later Breath Owl Breathe and, to a degree, Frontier Ruckus crashed the scene. And Bathgate couldn't stress enough the importance of Jim Roll, who operates the folk-favorite recording studio Backseat Productions.
These days, Bathgate wades alone in the deepest end of the talent pool.
Just as he was figuring out that he needed to primarily focus on his solo records, Bathgate was picked up to play bass on a tour with experi-pop outfit Saturday Looks Good To Me. "I was a hired gun," he said. The band toured the UK, and Bathgate opened shows with a solo set. It was a huge opportunity. Still, the musician can't help but follow every pinnacle with a pitfall. "But I think I was a shitty bass player who sucked to tour with," Bathgate told the writer. "I remember breaking a string at the Hideout and not knowing what to do, not knowing how to play bass. What note? How do I do this? Guitar math is not computing." Bathgate told them that Scott Selwood, who's now in Drunken Barn dance, said it was the most hellacious tour he'd ever been on. Then he conceded. "But in the end I guess we had a fucking blast. I learned how to not give a fuck."
Bathgate finished his beer, the last of three, and set it on the table with a conclusive rap. He'd perked up.
"Who's hungry?" he said, gathering his things. "Let's head back to my place."
The tab was paid.
On the way out, he mentioned something about bacon-wrapped steaks and a band from Kalamazoo who was crashing at his house for the night. A feast had been planned.
Bathgate, the writer and the photographer stepped outside. The sun had set on Hell.
Bathgate lives around the corner from Hell, in Pinckney, on a serene ravine. The house is owned by his father and looks like a folk singer's house should, all dark wood, bookshelves and rickety furniture.
The kitchen looks out onto the water. Graham Parsons was chopping vegetables there. "He's Top Chef," Bathgate said as the three entered.
Parsons plays in Bathgate's band and fronts his own roots rock outfit, the Go-Rounds. He nodded and smiled a hello. His bandmates and some friends from the Strut, the Kalamazoo venue and label, were hanging out on couches and porches, taking turns cooking and smoking. A cheery dude named Jeremy Quentin who makes lighter folk fare under the moniker Small Houses, introduced himself first.
Billy Bragg and Wilco's record of Woody Guthrie tunes, Mermaid Avenue, played in the background.
A very folky scene: Plaid print shirts, work boots and shaggy heads.
Steaks, bacon-wrapped as promised, cooked on the grill with sweet corn, mixing with other kinds of smoke to make for quite a savory aroma.
Bathgate took a minute to clean up, then grabbed a few bottles of Michigan beer and found a seat across from the writer. Others circled around. The dinner party interview had turned into some sort of "live" event.
"So what does a writer and a musician gain from going to art school?" the writer asked.
Bathgate was quick with answers. He's always half in his head.
"I had this class on color theory, learning about context and relation," he said. "Certain colors look different depending on what colors they're put against. And if you stare at enough color, you start to see it differently, you start seeing things you didn't see before. This class was intense. We looked at lot of color, and talked a lot about Cézanne and read a lot of Wallace Stevens. The professor was a hardass. If the homework wasn't good, he could make students cry. You'd have nightmares about this guy. But he got us thinking critically about the most minute things. The way I was thinking was that every time the professor would say something like, 'The thing about color is,' I'd substitute color for music songwriting. I think the same things apply to poetry that apply to music or painting."
"Sounds serious," the writer said.
"Maybe that's the sad thing," Bathgate replied. "It's always been serious. In high school it was serious. It was serious in 2005 when I was recording on an eight-track in the basement of the Frieze Building."
In 2006, Bathgate recorded "Darkness is Vague" a song he said talks about one of the effects of his serious approach.
"There's this experience of having your friends gather round you, telling you that, you know, 'This is the [record] that's going to do it, man. This is your opus. Your most serious record yet.' My retort has always been, 'Nothing's different.' Maybe I'm just a little sharper. But it's always been serious. It will always be serious."
The writer asked if Bathgate thought he was often too serious.
"At times I'm darkly serious," Bathgate said. "These past few years, I've had a hard time with sarcasm, getting sarcasm, having room for it. Part of that is because there's always truth in sarcasm. People say what it is they're actually thinking, but they veil it in comedy. Not always, but it's become hard for me to differentiate, especially when someone comes up after a show and says, laughingly, 'Shitty set tonight.' Are you joking? You're not joking are you? You're talking like your joking but you actually think it was a shitty set don't you?"
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