An Interview with Mike Baggetta
By Andrew Daly
Sparse, yet spiritual – those are the first thoughts that come to mind upon completion of Mike Baggetta and company’s latest record Everywhen We Go. No, that’s not a typo, and oh yeah, that company I mentioned, it’s legendary bassist Mike Watt and drummer Jim Keltner.
Indeed, quite the star-studded lineup of indie and punk vets for this record, but pay that mind. What’s most important is the buffet of love sounds the veteran trio has managed to elicit across this record, which for those keeping score, is their second. I’d wager that if you enjoyed Wall of Flowers (2019), then to be sure, Everywhen We Go will be for you.
But if you’re expecting punk vibes or indie tropes, divert your expectations, as Everywhen We Go is loaded with all the above, as well as interjections of jazz and more throughout. Ultimately, there are a ton of records out at any given time, many of which deserve your attention. So, consider this your call to arms to make time for Everywhen We Go; you won’t regret it once you’ve finished.
Busy with a myriad of revolving projects, Mike Baggetta dialed in with ClassicRockHistory.com to recount the original of Everywhen We Go, his approach in the studio, working with Mike Watt and Jim Keltner, and a whole lot more.
As a young musician, what was the moment which first sparked your interest in music?
That’s an easy one. My dad plays guitar, and I think that just being able to see him and watch him play and hear the sounds and songs around the house my whole life was the biggest influence. I remember he had like a wedding band at the time that would mostly play that kind of function and stuff every weekend, so he’d get home after the gigs pretty late after I’d be asleep already.
I would wake up in the morning, and out in the kitchen would be the amp and the guitar in their cases, sitting there because he’d brought them in the night before. I can remember staring at them like they were these magic boxes that had something special in them, and I used to bug him to play something for me and set them up.
I remember especially he’d just do something like play a major chord and tell me it was happy and then some minor chords, and I would feel kind of scared! He also gave me my very first guitar lessons and showed me how the instrument worked and really how music worked with your emotions in a way as well.
Who were some of your earliest influences that first shaped your style?
As I got into discovering my own music and the things that really spoke to me, looking back, it’s kind of striking how diverse it was, like stylistically, but I think that is actually pretty common for people my age in a way, too. I mean, there is a lot I could list, but the biggest ones on top of my mind right now probably were Jeff Beck, John Coltrane, Nirvana, Living Colour, David Torn, Dinosaur Jr., Ralph Towner, Sonic Youth, and Miles Davis’ electric/rock bands.
And then, when I heard Mike Watt’s Contemplating the Engine Room album in college, a big light bulb went off for me about how you don’t have to pledge allegiance to one genre and division of music and you can incorporate everything you need and still have it sound like one cohesive statement. That was huge for me.
How would you say that style has evolved as you’ve moved through your career?
You know, I don’t think about that too much, but I’m sure that little pieces of things I hear that really speak to me definitely work their way into the way I’m trying to play and the way I’m trying to write songs. It’s rarely a very conscious decision, though. What I do try to keep in mind is that you have to be true to yourself as a musician.
Like, that’s the most important thing out of all of it for me. I really want to keep pursuing the idea of being the truest version of myself in music because there isn’t anyone else that can be that, you know? Why not be myself? No one is an island, of course, and yes, I definitely have influences, but it’s never like I sit down to learn someone else’s music for the sole intent of incorporating it. I think if I just keep following new things that speak to me, then that process inevitably happens pretty organically, and I don’t stress over it.
Though I will add that one of the biggest new things for me is writing more songs with words and then trying to sing them with my band, mssv (Main Steam Stop Valve). That’s been a real eye-opener in the way that words can help to craft the way the music unfolds, and vice versa, big time. My friend Steve Gigante has been pretty important in helping me understand that better too.
What were some of your earliest gigs where you first cut your teeth?
My earliest gigs were filling in for my dad in his wedding band when he couldn’t make it or wanted the night off! I can’t believe he trusted me, I was in high school, to do a good job for him on those gigs with his band. And I was super nervous about it every time, too, that I would mess his whole thing up! Like, just come in wrong for the solo in “Johnny B. Goode” or forget the chords to “Whiter Shade of Pale” or whatever.
But it also was a huge confidence booster at that age to be entrusted with that responsibility and have to try and keep up with the older guys that knew what they were doing. And, of course, I always wanted to do a good job for him and also try and show his bandmates that I could do that kind of stuff too. I’ve done a lot of shows since then, but I don’t think I’ve ever been as nervous as I was on some of those!
Let’s dig into your newest project, Everywhen We Go. Tell us about its inception.
Sure thing. This is the second album from me, Jim Keltner, and Mike Watt. Our first album from us came out in 2019, and it’s called Wall of Flowers. The whole thing started when my friend Chris Schlarb told me he was thinking of starting a record label to go along with his new studio out of Long Beach, CA, named BIG EGO. Chris asked if I would do a record for him, and I said, “Sure,” but that I wanted it to be something I’d never done before, and that was trying this idea of cold calling some guys to play with.
See, I’d always thought that pretty much every album I’d heard had been made by bands or musicians that were friends for a long time or knew each other forever. The idea that you would just ask some random people to play with you that had no personal connection with seems totally insane to me. I mean, I knew it happened, but for the most part, it didn’t really sit right with me, or maybe some of the examples I’d heard I thought sounded kind of jive or whatever.
Anyways, we can zoom in on one conversation I had with another friend named David Torn. I was asking him about his first album for ECM, Cloud About Mercury, and he told me he didn’t know any of the people on that record before they were gonna make that music, and that blew my mind. I had always assumed that because it was a great record that they all must have been like best friends forever! But, it was not the case. So that gave me insight that, like, “Okay, maybe you could do this and get the music to a place it wouldn’t get to otherwise.”
That’s what I wanted to try, and I told Schlarb that I’d had this idea that Jim and Watt would be a killer creative rhythm team. The stars aligned, and we had a day together to make the Wall of Flowers record. But we ended up with a lot more improvised music from that day together, and I was assembling some of that for an additional album release. I think it was Jim at one point over email or something after hearing some of that, who said, “Well, why don’t we just go back and record again and see what we get?” So, that’s what we did, and this is the album that came out of that second session.
How did you meet Jim Keltner and Mike Watt and ultimately begin working with them on this project?
Like I said, that was just the idea to ask a couple of people to play me that I’d never worked with before. So, I didn’t know them before that first session in 2019, and in fact, they had never met each other before that day either. Chris Schlarb made the connections, though, because he had done some projects with Watt already, and I think he had a couple of friends that put him in touch with Jim or something like that.
But you know, a good lesson here is that these guys had really no reason to do this project like they didn’t have to do it. I know I sent some demos out of some of my music, so I think it was some combination of them, maybe hearing that and then finding out we knew some people in common that helped reach them. But it just goes to show that it is still about the music to a lot of people.
There are no head games about “why would I do this project?” or “what’s in it for me?” kind of a thing with them. It’s really beautiful. I always want to keep that innocence with me of just wanting to make something great. And I think both those guys reinforced that lesson to me many times over. Just by agreeing to do these albums, and by the way, they just continually wanted to keep improving the music while we were in the studio. Really inspirational to me.
From a songwriting perspective, how have your collective experiences affected the music?
For me, I think the songs that become the most memorable that I write by myself are the ones that come up quickly out of a feeling. It’s hard for me to rush that process or to push it too much. I mean, I work at the craft of writing a song, and I always have like dozens of little snippets on my phone recorder and around the house and stuff. I like going back to those at different times and fleshing them out in a different light; that seems to work well for me.
I also think about the people I’m gonna make the music with and try and write bass parts that make me think of something through a lens that Watt might like working or just the feeling of something I’ve heard in Jim’s drumming for this project. Watt also wrote us a piece for this record called “Yank It Out,” and while I can’t speak for him, I do know that he was listening to a lot of that newest live John Coltrane A Love Supreme album that had come out last year, so I have a feeling that worked its way in there for him somehow.
And the songs on the record that were group-composed, those came out of just improvising together and playing in the studio. Jim or Watt would start something, set something up, and we’d just get into making something happen in the moment. It’s another lesson for me in trusting the people you play with to listen and react and give and take for the good of the song. I just have to try and remember to keep playing less, I think, too.
How about the production mixing side of things? Take me through that process and how the final sounds were honed in.
Well, Chris Schlarb mixed it, so he made a lot of those decisions, and everything he does usually sounds perfect to me, so that’s pretty much that. I can tell you that I did do some overdubs to fill out a few things here and there, though not too much this time around. I was lucky enough to get introduced to a great place near me in Gainesville, FL, called Pulp Arts; that is just a killer great studio staffed by awesome people where I did all my acoustic guitar overdubs for this record.
And also, on some of the group-composed songs, I went back to transcribe some of the key elements and then recomposed new material to record on top of that to help give the feeling of them being these little secret songs that kind of maybe sound improvised, but also maybe composed. I like the idea that both those elements trade in each other, so the listener is left feeling like it’s a pretty human sound. That’s another idea I learned from David Torn as well, who we were also very, very fortunate to have master this album and deliver the sonic imprint home for us in a way that no one else can do.
Considering this is the group’s second offering, how have you progressed?
With the couple songs that I wrote for this album, “Everywhen We Go” and “Measure of a Life,” I had the advantage of having been in the music with the guys before, so I could feel a little better about writing some songs that would allow them to just glide right in and spend the energy on making the magic. I think since we also now knew each other a little bit already, you can hear that familiarity and camaraderie come across in the way we play together and in the group’s collective pieces as well. And, of course, it’s just a different time, so people feel different types of ways and have different things to give, but you do it with the same type of character behind it in a way. That foundation of personality still remains.
Will the material get any time on the live circuit?
Well, I never say never, but I get the feeling this is always more of a recording band. Watt and I tour together in my other band, mssv (Main Steam Stop Valve), with the great Stephen Hodges on drums, and even though that band sort of grew out of the Wall of Flowers record in its own way, we have very different music we play. We have some touring in the works for 2023, with that group for sure coming up when we put out our next record then.
What’s next for you in all lanes?
I’ve been lucky to stay pretty busy with music. In addition to the new mssv album coming out next year on BIG EGO Records, there will also be a new duo record of myself and Viktor Krauss on bass for Destiny Records out at some point, as well as a first record from another new band I’m in called Dumbass Youth, with Steve Gigante and Evan Lipson.
And I try to get out on the road as much as I can too, either with mssv or just various solo projects and collaborations with other people I love playing with. I really, really dig bringing the music out to the people where they are at. It’s so hard to get people to do something good for themselves some time, so I like to try to make it a little easier for everybody to experience something new.
Mike Baggetta: The ClassicRockHistory.com Interview article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2023
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