by Generoso Fierro
It was almost three years ago when I first heard guitarist and composer, Mike Baggetta, perform live. It was the recommendation of a friend who compared Baggetta with a string of experimental musicians he knew that I loved, such as Alan Licht and Fred Frith, that pulled me out of my warm house on that rainy and fairly frigid Monday night. That evening, Baggetta, who was accompanied by a bassist and drummer, burned through two dynamic sets of improvised music that compelled me afterwards to seek out as much from his back catalog that I could find.
In the time since that first live experience, I’ve listened to most of Baggetta’s recordings, and I have indeed heard not only some elements in his playing and composition that harken back to the aforementioned guitarist/composers who were part of my friend’s recommendation, but also nods in style to everyone from Jim Hall to Sonny Sharrock in the progression of Baggetta’s recording career, along with his own distinctive sounds that altogether form his clear musical identity.
Over the last two plus years, Baggetta has worked extensively with Mike Watt, and in early 2019, the pair teamed up with Jim Keltner and released the sublime Wall of Flowers album. In March and April of 2019, Baggetta and Watt, along with drummer Stephen Hodges went on tour in support of that album, which resulted in a thicker and more sonic live effort entitled, Live Flowers, and this newly formed group soon dubbed themselves mssv. In 2020, mssv, was in full lockdown with the rest of the world, but in October of last year, the group released another full length album of eclectic and compelling sounds, Main Steam Stop Valve, but with venues shuttered and no potential for touring at that time, the group along with the Big Ears Festival engineered one of the most creative and unique live digital performances that I witnessed during the pandemic.
Baggetta and I discussed that live online event in a conversation that occurred between us in late June of 2021. Our talk took place just a few days after I saw Baggetta perform a club date in Knoxville (this time with drummer Bob Stagner and bassist Evan Lipson). During our talk, Baggetta and I discussed his influences, his early recordings in jazz, and his genre-defying work with Watt and Keltner, mssv, and Stagner and Lipson, and his preferred process, as well as all of the positive lessons learned by creating from a distance during the lockdown.
Q: After I first heard you live, I went back and listened to a lot of your early catalog, which vacillates in style. Your output with Kris Tiner is more in the free jazz vein, while your work with your quartet is more trad jazz. On the other hand, the Wall of Flowers record that you did with Mike Watt and Jim Keltner, the Live Flowers record with mssv, and what I saw a few nights ago are more sonic. You have your own sound, of course, but I also hear elements of everything from Jim Hall to Tom Verlaine to Loren Mazzacane Connors in your playing. I’ve greatly admired your ability to play within all of these styles, but have you found it the case that your initial recordings in jazz led to an assumption from other musicians and the broader public that your playing style would emanate solely from a jazz discipline?
A: I love all kinds of music, and I have been trying for so long to figure out how to make that music myself without any real kind of guide. So often, because of the way things are set up, you are labeled as a jazz guitarist, or a rock guitarist, or a noise artist, but there is no genre for everything when you like everything. For example, I love Jim Hall, whom you mentioned, and I have transcribed so much of his work. I love Jeff Beck and transcribed a ton of Jeff Beck as well, and one of the first things that I ever transcribed was Mike Watt’s song, “June 16th,” off of Double Nickels on the Dime, which features D. Boon’s amazing spacious guitar playing. That was one of the first things that I ever learned how to play off of the record. Learning some of the harmony from the fourth movement of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony has meant a lot to me as did listening to Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr., or Julian Bream performing Benjamin Britten guitar music.
There is so much that I find influential when I think about it, and of course, sometimes you get the reaction from people who say, “Oh wow, I never thought that you would be into that music as I think of you more as…” Then you get people who are accepting because they realize that it is all just music, and it becomes like that Duke Ellington quote, “There are two kinds of music: Good music, and the other kind.” That is the real thing that I am always trying to navigate, as you always have to tell people what kind of music it is before they are interested in listening to what you do, and now when people ask me about mssv and what kind of music is it, I tell them that it is a “post-genre power trio.” I say that because it’s 2021, and I personally think that there is enough precedent that we can be “after genre” to a certain point.
Think about all of the artists who have dealt with this issue in the past, like Tom Waits. There are tons of precedents for artists that combine all kinds of elements from the things that they love and create a personal style out of it. After all that I think that it becomes a non-issue. Now, with all that being said, when you talk about some of the first stuff that I recorded, I am a little conflicted about that because I kind of wish I had waited until I was older and had a clearer vision of this issue before making some records. I don’t regret making the records, because I believe that if you listen to them, there are those genre blending elements are in there, like in those early Fresh Sound New Talent records that I did with the quartet, you can hear me trying to figure out ways to combine avant-garde elements with more composed materials that exist in this other genre. So, it’s in there, and it’s honest of course, but I think this is a real issue for any artist who is trying to evolve as well. What they made five years ago is going to be much different from what they will make five years after that, and so I think that I always have the belief that ten years from now, I’ll look back and wish that I had done something right now because I have a clearer vision of it in the future.
Q: Is there then some thought that those early recordings pigeonholed you to a certain extent?
A: Well no, because I can still do what I really want to do, but what does pigeonhole you is that when you get a couple of reviews, and they call you a “jazz guitarist,” or something like that, you are forever emblazoned with this label, which is cool to be related to this genre that I have had a lot of experience dealing with, but at the same time that labeling speaks more to the shortcoming of the critic than any shortcoming within the music.
Q: As far as other musicians then, like Mike Watt and Jim Keltner, I would assume given the range of what they’ve done throughout their careers, that they would eagerly welcome the opportunity to play with a musician like you who is experimenting in multiple genres?
A: Absolutely. Mike (Watt), Jim (Keltner), and Stephen Hodges have, as you say, created within and across a wide range of styles and genres from around the world, and that’s why I sought them out to make this kind of music. So, for me, when we set out to make the Wall of Flowers record, I knew that these guys are going to get it, even though I had never met them, because they have been such an influence on me to do all kinds of different styles in my own work. I’ve spoken a lot in the past about Watt’s solo album, Contemplating The Engine Room. That album, for me, was the touchstone that made me realize, “Oh, somebody has done this thing that I am thinking of,” as this album is full of all of these different influences from all of these different kinds of musical styles, and they created this thing that sounds like one coherent band that has assimilated all of these references to make new music.
When I first heard Contemplating The Engine Room, a lightbulb went on inside of me that said that I could really do it—that this record could be some kind of a guide, not that I am going to copy it, but it became a North Star in a way. And actually, I was surprised that no one had ever thought, prior to me, to have Mike (Watt) and Jim (Keltner) play together because there are similarities in some of the ways they relate to music that seem obvious. When I had this idea early on, I was stunned that no one had done it yet.
Q: So then from the beginning, you wanted Mike and Jim to play rhythm on the project, but being that they are both in Southern California, and you are currently living in Knoxville, what was the creative process like for Wall of Flowers?
A: Well, I had some songs in my mind that I imagined would sound interesting with Jim and Mike Watt playing on them, and so we got to the studio and did a couple of those pieces that were “song songs,” and then hung out for a while. Then, I suggested that it might be good for us to try and improvise for a while and see what we come up with and see if it works. We then played for about three hours where we only improvised, and I took those recordings back home and chopped them up into little pieces.
Q: You did improvise, but you also brought your composition, “Hospital Song,” that you recorded on your previous album, Small Spaces, for Jim and Mike to work on as well too, no?
A: Sometimes you write a song, and you play it for years and years, and it changes enough that you think that the only recording of this doesn’t sound anything like the way that I play it now, so perhaps it is worth revisiting it. That was the case with “Hospital Song,” and I am happy that we did a version of it for this album because it worked out very well with Mike and Jim playing on it—they changed it by adding elements that I would have never thought about adding to the song myself.
Q: You released the Main Steam Stop Valve album in the middle of the epidemic in October of 2020. I know that you, Mike, and Stephen toured after Wall of Flowers was released in 2019, so were you all planning on touring as mssv again this year?
A: Yes, we had a U.S. tour scheduled for March and April of 2020, but it didn’t get cancelled, it was only postponed. As we speak, I am rebooking the entire tour, so it is now going to happen in March and April of 2022, and what has been great is that the venues that I have reached out to have been so psyched to get back to having live music happen again and have been so overwhelmingly positive.
Q: I am glad to hear that. In terms of the recording of Main Steam Stop Valve, which was released in October of 2020, how did all of you meet up to record the album given all of the covid restrictions in place, or did most of the recording occur prior to everything shutting down?
A: We did a California-only tour in December of 2019 because I had written all of this new music, except for “June 16th,” which is Watt’s tune that we did on my request, and he was cool enough to let us try another version of it. The reason for that request is that I told Watt that I learned the song when I was young, and because June 16th is my birthday, I had imagined then that Watt wrote the song for me for my birthday (laughs). Of course back then I didn’t know anything about James Joyce and such, but anyway…
My plan, which is the way that I prefer to create when possible, is to write all of the music, assemble everyone together, then do a couple of rehearsals, play some shows, and then right after the shows have happened, bring everyone in to record the album. The reason why I prefer this method is that, early on, I was in situations with my music or other people’s music where you have a couple of practices, you make the record and then the tour, but then by the end of the tour you have changed the music so much, and you like the changes, but you have already put out the album, and that’s that. With my preferred method where you tour before recording, you have a scenario where everybody has invested in the music emotionally or spiritually or musically on a different level because you have had to play it in front of people live, and you’ve developed some level of camaraderie as people being in a band, and thus a better way of capturing the spirit of the music.
And so, that was the plan for Main Steam Stop Valve. I had made all of the music, and I figured that we should do some shows and record and see if the music works out better as a band, and for this tour, it might be fun to hit all of the different climate zones in California, which we sort of did, but then I kind of forgot that that whole top half of California is this whole other world thing, but then right after that tour, we went to record the album and did. It was then always the plan to release it in the fall, but then covid happened, and I wondered if it still made sense, but after some thought I said, “Why not?” Like most people, I was buying a ton of music because I was stuck inside, and I thought that other folks who were trapped inside would also like to hear some new music as well.
Q: Then I imagine that, with all of you being trapped inside, you were looking for ways to play together. Is that how the online Ijams event came about?
A: Well, I thought, what else could we do now that might be a little different during this time period, and luckily the organizers of the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville were receptive to trying to do some project together in conjunction with mssv. They asked if we wanted to try this idea of doing an outside performance of streaming video in Ijams Nature Center at the Keystone Wall, which is a place that I have loved since moving here, and we checked it out, and it felt right. But then the issue arose with how exactly were we going to pull this off with me in Knoxville and Watt and Hodges being out in Southern California?
We then came up with this plan to do this multimedia outdoor performance. I created guide tracks for Watt and Hodges to play on for the songs that we were going to do together, and then they had to video themselves at outdoor locations where they were in California and play along on the demo tracks. They would then record their audio and video and send it to me, and then I recorded my parts live at Ijams, playing along to their rhythm section recordings, which meant that I had to have these covert headphones on when I was playing, and then I had to figure out a way to monitor myself too.
At Ijams, we also had to set up these gas-powered generators to run my amplifier and the recording equipment, so it was a very involved effort. We split it up as well. We did about six songs as a band at the end, and I did about twenty minutes of solo improvisation at the beginning. In the middle portion, I played these little elemental guitar parts from one of the mssv tunes, while Watt did a reading from The Sand Pebbles, because that’s where the line, “main steam stop valve,” comes from, although I am fairly certain that the line only is in the film version, and also, that is the book that partly inspired Watt’s Contemplating The Engine Room.
The video was done in these three very different parts, and led up to us playing together as a band in a multimedia way for this hour-long production, which became the album release show. We felt that event was very successful, and since then we have made these 7-inch recordings that were done from a distance in our own spaces across the country, with one of the singles released through the Italian label Improved Sequence even selling out in the U.S. (though it is still available in Europe). We have two more 7-inches ready for release, but there is such a demand for vinyl right now that the pressing plants are all backed up. We had originally hoped to release a 7-inch every three or four months, but now we aren’t sure if we’ll be able to have it out for the tour. Regardless, we have been keeping busy, and now I am writing music for a new album that we are planning to record after the tour, so things are going well.
So, as devastating as this time period has been, we are also thankful that we have discovered these methods to create all of this new music in such a different way. A good example is the Ijams event, which we would have never imagined doing if not for the restrictions brought about by covid.
Speaking of the long distance collaborations that I have been working on since covid, I wanted to mention the other two 7-inches that were waiting to come out. The first other one is mssv with a very special guest, Petra Haden, who did some amazing fiddle work on a few tunes with us, and the other collaborative aspect of that is that it’s comprised of four songs that I wrote based on four visual panels by Scott Aicher, who is a great visual artist. Scott gave us four panels featuring four characters that he created, and I wrote a kind of mini suite of four movements based on each one of these characters. Then, I put some lyrics to them that Watt sang, and Petra joined us playing fiddle on a couple of tracks, and we recorded all of that separately.
The second collaborative piece is mssv meets Nels Cline. I wrote a tune for mssv plus Nels, and then Nels wrote a tune for mssv and himself. This will come out as a 7-inch with one song on one side and one on the other side.
Q: Given that your visual and musical collaboration with Scott Aicher, and as I primarily review world cinema for Ink 19, I have been closely following how some directors around the world have invented all of these interesting techniques to make cinema during this quarantine, which leads me to wonder if some of these techniques that they formulated during this time will become methods that they might continue to utilize after things return to some semblance of normalcy. In your case Mike, now that you have successfully implemented these distance methods of creating music, do you see a future where you might want to collaborate with artists who live in other parts of the globe, where getting together in person is fairly impossible?
A: For me, recording tracks at a home studio is nothing new, but I think that for everyone now, it’s more obvious that you can do things like that at a high level. Whereas, I think that before, most people felt that you could do something like recording a part remotely, but the “real music” happens when you are physically together. Sure, there is some truth to that I suppose, but I also think that now hopefully people are more open to exploring other modes of working together, and I hope that we will see more enthusiasm for trying it seriously.
Q: Well, being that I just saw you perform a great live set in person with Evan Lipson and Bob Stagner, and given your distance work with mssv, I’m curious if that particular collaboration began prior to or during the lockdown?
A: If my memory serves me right, I believe that Bob, Evan, and I did an improvisational gig, similar to the one that you were at recently, before the covid lockdown, but I have been aware of Bob for many years. How it all came about was that, years ago, I was playing at a festival in the U.K., where I finally met this amazing multi instrumentalist named Steve Beresford, who I had admired for some time due to a record that he played on that I loved called, Short In the U.K., which included Bob Stagner and the late Dennis Palmer, who were also members of the Shaking Ray Levi Society, an artist collective based in Chattanooga. So when I met Steve, we hung out for a bit, and I asked him about the Short In the U.K. record, and that is when he mentioned Bob. At that time years ago, I was about to move to Tennessee near where Bob lives, so Steve put me in touch with him. So, when I arrived in Tennessee, I reached out to Bob, and we met up a few times, but only recently have we begun to collaborate musically. As for Evan Lipson, I’ve loved his playing for a long time, and Bob and Evan have known each other for a while, so it all made sense as we were all in tune musically.
Q: So, given how you prefer to play with people before you record, is there any chance that you’ll be recording with Bob and Evan anytime soon?
A: Actually yes, we are planning on recording in a couple of weeks. At this point, most of what we have done together has been improvised music, so I think that is what we will do on the recordings.
Q: That is good to hear. One of the aspects of your performance with Evan and Bob from a few nights ago that I loved was how all of you experimented with and explored every inch of your instruments—Evan strumming behind the strings of his upright bass and even utilizing a chain around the bridge at one point, to you playing under the bridge, to Bob hammering on all parts of the drum hardware.
A: For me, it does speak to the early influence of somehow finding out about musicians like Derek Bailey, Fred Frith, and Henry Kaiser and realizing that there are all of these other ways to play the guitar that are equally valid.
Q: I’m glad that you mentioned Frith because there were many moments from your show with Bob and Evan that reminded me of the night a couple of decades ago when I was fortunate enough to catch Massacre at the Knitting Factory.
A: Frith did have a big impact on me for sure. You know, I’m not even sure why I thought this as a teenager, but I never had that thing where I thought, “That isn’t how you do it.” I always had the idea that this is another way to play the guitar. I’m not even sure as to where I picked that ethos up from, but I’m thankful, because it left me open.
So, when I am doing improvised music, to me, it is like composing in real time. But when you improvise with other people, you are composing a kind of group project in real time together. So, there is this idea of compromise in that you are all working towards something, but that thing is not clearly defined, and that was what happened in the tracks with Jim Keltner and Mike Watt for Wall of Flowers. That is the same way that I compose some music and parts of some of the songs with mssv, and it is also the same idea of some of the things that happened early on with the Fresh Sound Quartet, and it’s the same thing that happens with Kris Tiner. That element is always there. It’s not different, it’s all part of the same thing to me.
Photo credit: Bill Foster