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
It wasn't always this way. How does one lose one's sense of sarcasm? Bathgate blamed it on college.
"It got burned out in undergrad. I hung out with way too many people that were completely, heavily sarcastic, sarcastic to the point where it seemed that most of what was being said was coded insult," he told the writer. "People were picking at each other's deficiencies in ways that made it socially acceptable, which is really fucked up. Terrible. I think I was also that way. I realized that if someone were to write down the conversations we were having on paper, without the implied tones, it'd read as the cruelest thing you could write."
As a kid, Bathgate would crack jokes until he got a laugh. Now he described himself as stoic, stern and pensive.
Parsons chimed in from the kitchen with a little levity. "But you dip in and out of it every few weeks, Chris. One week, you'll want to go to the Dam Site every damn night. Then the next week you'll stay in your room every night."
If it weren't for those somber evenings in, however, the music wouldn't get written would it? This goes unsaid.
Anyone who is at all familiar with Bathgate's music — which was everyone in house that night — knows he spends ample time hanging out inside his head, tapping into solitude as if it were a genre.
All of his songs, Bathgate told the writer, are organized in his head. He has a system of songs, they're all tied to each other by melody, lyric and subject. And, as the writer learned on the way to Hell, Bathgate sometimes re-envisions complete songs, covering himself. Three songs that appeared on an early EP, A Detailed Account of Three Dreams, appear anew on Bathgate's 2007 breakout record, A Cork Tale Wake.
Released on Ann Arbor's boutique label Quite Scientific, A Cork Tale Wake got international attention. It was no small year for indie-folk either: Andrew Bird, the Avett Brothers, the Cave Singers, Great Lakes Swimmers and genre gods Wilco all released significant albums in 2007. Bathgate's stark collection of songs garnered him attention as an especially talented musician, vocalist and songwriter.
He had risen out of the Ann Arbor-Ypsilanti circle. His name was known from Lansing to Grand Rapids to Calumet. Soon he was pulling crowds in cities such as Lexington, Ky., Philadelphia and New York.
In 2007, Bathgate toured the country a few times and booked a successful European tour. But he had a hard time booking shows 40 minutes east of Ann Arbor.
"Detroit's a different story," he told the writer. "It's an enigma. For three years, I played shows at the Magic Stick and the Lager House, at the Guardian Building with Frontier Ruckus and the Sisters Lucas, and at Cliff Bell's on Sundays, which were great even if there were only five people there. But there's something to Detroit. I never got it clicking. I played the downtown synagogue last summer for, like, 10 people, which was seriously amazing. But, yeah, I think I got tired of trying to crack that. Detroit fell off my plate."
He didn't have energy or time to try anymore.
A year of riding Wake, the time came to head back into the studio. But, for the first year since he was 16, Bathgate didn't have an album to record.
Thus was the onset of his Salt Year.
After dinner, Bathgate and the writer sat down to talk about Salt Year. The photog found a spot close by.
Bathgate told him that there came a time when songs "started pulling at each other."
The song "In the City," he said, was one of the first that started tugging.
"I start collecting ideas for an album four to five months before I start recording," Bathgate said.
Anyone who was drinking at Elbow Room back in 2008 probably heard fresh versions of songs that would make it onto Salt Year.
"I play half-finished songs live all the time, just to work them out and gauge reaction," Bathgate told the writer. "It's also good to play new songs live early on because it's good to take risks and feel uncomfortable. It's good to go up there with a verse and some melody, knowing the song's only going to be about a minute-and-a-half long. You give yourself room to experiment in the moment."
As the songs started coming together, Bathgate said he realized the record was going to be something unlike anything he'd done. "It's probably the most serious record I wrote in that it's really very personal. It's more directly about my life than anything I've ever done before."
"So it was an especially hard record to make?" wondered the writer.
Bathgate smiled. "It was, by far, the hardest yet," he said. "I almost lost my mind."
The record was written and ready to start tracking by December of 2008. And, like he'd done in the past, Bathgate went into the studio with Jim Roll. Salt Year was slated for a September 2009 release. But September came and went. So sights were set to February 2010. By then Bathgate wasn't that much further along than he'd been in autumn.
Nerves started to swell. Things began to sour. Business got in the way.
Bathgate was broke and miserable. He and Roll weren't seeing eye-to-eye on much.
"You know they say anytime an engineer is on a record for more than a year, they've lost perspective," Bathgate said to the writer. "I think Jim was on it too long."
As money issues loomed, Bathgate started to crumble, dealing with a conflicted heart and a record stuck in the mud.
"I was neurotic and obsessed," Bathgate said. "We started butting heads in the studio and I just felt I needed more time and more time and more time. I needed to experiment and get it all right."
When he finished writing the songs, Cork Tale Wake was still riding high. Then six months passed. Then a year. Then the realization that it could actually take yet another year to get the record out.
And he on top of it all he was dealing with a relationship that was said was "broken, crooked even" but "epically sad ... and unresolved."
The writer wanted to know what weighed heaviest on Bathgate.
"In a word, relevance," Bathgate said. "I had finally built up relevance here and had something going in the U.K. for sure. "People in Croatia were hearing my songs. I've been handing out CD-R's my entire career and now I was on the BBC."
What hurt worst, he said, was that, for just a moment, he had tasted sustainability, which he figured was both the best and worst thing that can happen to a musician. "To have that glimpse at what it'd be to just do music, and for that to just vanish with time ..."
One day Bathgate called Roll with tears in his eyes.
It just wasn't working anymore. They'd been plugging away at the record for more than a year. It was even half-mixed. Finally. But Bathgate pulled it. He said it was the toughest decision he's had to make as a musician.
"I kept hanging up," Bathgate said. "I was lying on the floor, right over there, crying so hard I couldn't finish a thought. When I was finally able to pull it together, I called again and said, 'Bounce my files, man. I'm going to Detroit.'"
He brought the record to Chris Koltay's Corktown studio, Case 1/4, where bands such as Akron/Family and the Dirtbombs had cut some of their best work.
Koltay, the writer pointed out, isn't necessarily known for making lush indie folk records. "He's kind of a hardass."
But that's just what Bathgate needed.
"Aside from being super talented, Koltay is indeed a tough guy," Bathgate said. "He's not fluffing me, you know? He broke me down. I was a wreck and he was like, 'Dude, why are you so fucking worried about this record? It's just a record. You're going to make another. So go fucking finish your vocal takes.'"
That was amazing. He's done things in the studio I'd never seen before. Blew my mind a little. He's also a great cook."
The masters were finished in late 2010, and Salt Year was finally released on Quite Scientific mid-April 2011.
The last beers were cracked open long ago. The Go-Rounds were cleaning up or dozing off and the photog pulled out a guitar he'd brought along for the trip. The night waned.
"I have a terrible memory," Bathgate said to the writer, leaning in to his recorder. "I can't remember more than half my life, so that's why I write, to log those important moments, to encapsulate my life in these coded lyrics. I'm singing about my life, man."
"And now it's time to take your life back out on the road?" the photog said.
"I have to build relevance again," Bathgate said, half-worried. "I played a benefit for the Neutral Zone and nobody showed up and I was like, 'Damn, the whole town's forgotten. I used to kill it and now no one's here.' A few shows later, we played early at the Blind Pig on a Wednesday and there was a big rush for our set. After we played the place thinned out and it was kind of like, 'Oh, OK. I guess we're back again? How'd we sneak back into your ears?' Maybe we can even sneak into Detroit this time."
He said he was excited to get back on the road and spend the month of April touring Michigan. In May, Bathgate said he was off to the Mediterranean island of Cyprus to produce music for and perform in an experimental rendition of A Midsummer Night's Dream. "Crazy, right?" Bathgate said. "Between now and then I have to write another album." When he's back on American soil, he'll spend the rest of the summer touring the East Coast. "Feels good to be back at it."
It's the end of his Salt Year.
Before the writer and photog made their way through Hell and back home, there was a woman to talk about. She'd been been on the writer's mind the whole night. Eliza.
The mention of her name elicited Bathgate's widest grin of the night.
"Oh, Eliza," he said longingly. "Eliza is my dream woman." He closed his eyes. "She's a 1930s farm-house kind of woman, but with contemporary intellect. She plays fiddle. She likes to make pie. I haven't met her yet." He opened his eyes. "But Eliza is also a very real woman, whom I did have a very real and intense relationship with. It was love against logic. Eliza's a blurry cloud of real things and unreal things."
The photog, who played the quiet voyeur that evening as photographers often do, failed to snap a single picture. And just when it looked like he was pulling out his camera, he rose out his chair with a fine bottle of bourbon he packed earlier in the day.
"Here's to Eliza," he said with a swig.
And Bathgate said, "I'll drink to that."
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