John T. Baker formulates, percolates and produces, slowly
BLACK AND WHITE:
There is nothing half-baked about Baker’s songwriting.
Knoxville’s shadowWax appear poised for larger success
by John Sewell
Rock’n’roll music is generally thought of as three chords and a crotch. Like it or not, the genre is essentially nothing more than a platform from which performers, usually male, can strut their stuff and broadcast a mating call to anyone within their usually over-amplified range. Rockers present their music as if it all came in a jumping jack flash of inspiration, rarely alluding to the sometimes-laborious process of songwriting.
But there’s always another angle. Beach Boys auteur Brian Wilson perhaps put it best when he described his multilayered compositions as “teenage symphonies to god.” Yes, quality rock’n’roll often results from intensive crafting that is somewhat akin to the processes employed in literature and visual art.
Knoxvillian John T. Baker is one of those intense artists who spends countless hours shaping his music before presenting it to a band. Most known hereabouts for his role as a member of the perhaps permanently on hiatus French Broads, Baker is now creating his skillfully rendered music in his home studio.
“I’d hate to say that there’s a formula to what I do,” says the affable and self-effacing Baker. “I really enjoy the process of writing and recording more than I do playing with a band. The most exciting part is the overdubbing. It’s just me in my little shed late at night. The part that I’m in it for is the lonely part.”
These solitary nocturnal efforts have certainly produced a strong body of work. Baker’s second solo album, Man in the Street (Disgraceland Records), presents 14 artfully constructed pop/rock nuggets that draw comparison to Chris Stamey, Alex Chilton, Elliott Smith, and even Brian Wilson. For Baker, the emphasis is on strong melodies, harmonies and introspective lyrics, delivered over a foundation of jangling guitar crunch.
“I’m a huge Beatles fan and if any of that comes through in my music, well, I’d consider that a success,” says Baker. “Of course I realize that comparing oneself to The Beatles might seem a little over the top. I’m just making guitar-based pop music.”
Something of a musical mad scientist, Baker’s oeuvre is certainly informed by technology. “Halfway through the recording of Man in the Street , I changed my recording setup to 48 tracks,” says Baker. “I’ve always been interested in vocal harmonies and now that I have unlimited tracks, I just played with those a lot. I’m a huge fan of Brian Wilson’s vocal sounds, and I tried to explore that.”
In the live setting, Baker is backed by the band Econopop, which features The Ghosts’ Jason White on drums, Chuck Watt (also of Nug Jug) on bass, and longtime collaborator Jim Rivers on guitar. “Jim Rivers has always been my musical partner,” says Baker. “We’ve played in lots of bands together and he’s a good musical foil.”
While Baker enjoys the band vibe of Econopop, there’s no denying who is in charge of this operation. “They came in knowing that we’re trying to play what’s on the recordings,” says Baker. “I’ve played in bands before where I was the songwriter and the singer. And in those situations, I felt like I was doing 90 percent of the work while the credit was given to the band.”
Interestingly, although Baker likes to assume the musical helm, he’s a bit dubious about his role in performance situations. “I would prefer not to be the frontman,” says Baker. “I was always thrust into that spot. But I think that the good frontmen in the world are the Roger Daltreys, kind of like that. I’m pretty reserved and I’m not good at that. And I know that there’s no way I’m ever going to be a pop star.”
Well, that depends on how you define star. Baker’s new album, as well as its antecedent, Rough Skeleton , is certainly on par with the spate of high quality recordings recently released by his contemporaries, such as Tim Lee, Todd Steed, and the Westside Daredevils. And that’s high praise.
“It feels like there is a nice synergy among musicians in Knoxville right now,” says Baker. “There’s this great cooperative attitude, and I feel like there’s a stable of musicians that I can call on. Bands seem to just want to help each other.”
Excited about his interaction with other locals, Baker nonetheless focuses the attention on the fruits of his labor, the recordings. “I spent a lot of time in the recording process trying to make it occupy stereo space. So I hope that people will listen to this on headphones. Sometimes, I think people just listen superficially. And I’m hoping that people will go into this a little bit deeper.”
Who: John T. Baker and Econopop
Stepping into the Light
by Mike Gibson
A couple of things set Knoxville’s shadowWax apart from the other artists who are playing this year’s Sundown in the City concert series on Market Square. It’s the only local headliner on the bill, and it’s also the only headlining act who isn’t signed to a major label, or at least a major indie.
But that could change soon; shadowWax is a band on the rise, which is one of the reasons that Sundown promoters A.C. Entertainment saw fit to include it on a roster that also features better-known national acts like Little Feat, They Might Be Giants, and Gov’t Mule.
“Tony Smith [Knoxville resident and former Metallica tour manager] was like a mentor to me,” says shadowWax singer Eric Christopher. “He told me ‘they’ll come to you when you do what you need to do.’ And everything he’s said has proven to be true. Right now, we’re talking with six major labels.”
What did Smith tell him? “They (record labels) want to see how many records you can sell on your own, and whether you’ve taken over your own backyard,” Christopher says. “Labels don’t put their balls on the line for unknown bands anymore. You can’t beg them to come looking for you.”
They’re hard-working, savvy fellows, these shadowWaxers. Christopher and longtime friend/fellow Middlesboro, Ky. native Khhriss Hamlet pepper their speech with references to record sales and sponsorships and spins. Spins, for the uninitiated, are a measure of how many times an artist is played on a particular radio station, and Hamlet notes with some pride they’re getting 12 per week on Knoxville commercial rock station FM-94.3. “That’s great for an unsigned band,” he says.
But don’t think ambition is their only virtue. On their debut full-length CD (following up a trio of local EPs) Invitation Karma Crash , shadowWax plies a particularly pleasing mix of pop and post-grunge influences—think STP with even more hooks, and without the poseur bravado.
The road the band took to becoming one of Knoxville’s most popular local acts was a long, circuitous one, to say the least. It started in Middlesboro, where Christopher and Hamlet were childhood friends, and sometime-bandmates beginning at age 16.
In their late teens, the duo left home together, heading west to the Conservatory of Recording Arts in Mesa, Ariz., where they both planned to become recording engineers. On graduation, they both accepted internships on Nashville’s Music Row, where they came to a couple of important realizations.
“To be blunt, I absolutely hated it, and I hated Nashville,” Christopher says. “And I think we both realized we weren’t meant to do our thing on that side of the glass.”
Thus came their relocation to Knoxville—the closest equivalent of big-city living for a pair of Middlesboro boys—and, eventually, the founding of shadowWax’s first incarnation some four years ago.
That first version was “a much angrier band, soundwise,” Christopher relates. “The chemistry just wasn’t there for writing songs. I like hearing a song breathe, and what we were doing sounded constricted.”
Hamlet and Christopher parted ways with their original drummer and guitarist after about a year and a half. They laid low, for a while, but eventually reemerged with former Copper drummer Beau Baxter and guitarist Rocky Norman, whom Hamlet met while working at a local music store.
That foursome would eventually gel as the unit that released 2005’s Invitation Karma Crash , a strong, slickly recorded opus that, according to the band, ranked as the No. 1-selling CD at Knoxville’s Disc Exchange for eight consecutive weeks.
“We decided that if we were going to do this, we wanted to do it right,” Hamlet says. “Let’s make a record comparable to the records that are out on the market today. I still don’t know how we raised the money, because everyone in the band is penniless.”
In addition to having successfully pushed its way onto local FM commercial playlists—no small feat in the era of corporate radio—shadowWax is looking forward to picking up spins in Nashville and Chattanooga as well. The group also has sponsorship now, from the makers of The Beast energy drink. Throw in the impending Sundown showcase, and it all sounds like shadowWax may be a band on the verge of breaking out.
“We’re really proud of (getting Sundown),” Christopher says. “We’ll be the heaviest band to play Sundown, or at least the heaviest one in a while. I don’t know; maybe we’re their big gamble. Maybe there are lots of bets going down on this one. It doesn’t matter. We’re still thankful.”
Who: shadowWax w/ Jescoe