After 30 Years, Ex-Georgia Satellite Dan Baird Embraces the Rock ‘n’ Roll ‘Circus Life': Exclusive Interview
As a member of the Georgia Satellites, Dan Baird enjoyed immediate success with the band's self-titled debut LP in 1986, thanks largely to their left-field hit "Keep Your Hands to Yourself" — a tongue-in-cheek ode to heavy petting that proved for a fleeting moment that a song didn't need synths, drum machines, or heavy production to earn a spot on the Top 40 during the Big '80s. Raw, raucous, and a little bit rude, it summed up much of Baird's mission statement as a songwriter in just under three minutes and 30 seconds.
The Satellites' window of opportunity at radio closed quickly, and although Baird started his solo career with another cockeyed grin of a hit single in 1992's "I Love You Period," he was one of many veteran artists who became less of a label priority during the changing of the guard that unfolded in rock 'n' roll as the decade wore on. After 1996's Buffalo Nickel LP, he struck out on his own and started over as an independent artist.
It's a tough gig, and it was even tougher before digital recording and distribution and internet technology allowed artists to record and effectively promote releases for a fraction of their former cost. But Dan Baird has survived — and thrived — by plugging in and turning up in a variety of locations, whether it's with side bands (including the Yayhoos and the Bluefields) or on European stages, where he and his band Homemade Sin have been a reliable concert draw for years.
A pair of new live albums (Acoustic and Electric) and a 2013 studio effort, Circus Life mark the most recent additions to Baird's discography, and he sat down with Ultimate Classic Rock during a rare lull in his schedule to talk about where he's been and where he's going — including another round of European dates and the next Homemade Sin LP.
Next year marks the 30th anniversary of the Georgia Satellites' first full-length record. You've put together a pretty extensive discography since then.
They've been mostly fun to do. Some were arduous, only partially. They all have some fun. I guess every record's had it's hard times.
I think that's often true of the good ones. If they come out too easily, maybe they need to stay in the oven a little longer — although I'd argue that none of yours sound labored. That first one was a sorely needed gateway into loose, Faces-style rock during an era in which the mainstream sound of the genre was a lot more produced. You guys were really swimming against the tide.
I don't know if we were swimming against the tide or, as Wee Willie Keeler said, "hittin' em where they ain't.'" If everybody out there is going to flatly ignore this genre, fine. The fact of the matter is that, on the right wing of things, the Fabulous Thunderbirds had had "Tuff Enuff" the year before. On the left wing of it, you had Jason and the Scorchers, who had opened up college radio to the fact that this raggedy-assed rock and roll — simple, just really loud folk music — can still be great. If you let it be. It can still be fun. It can still be a bunch of things.
But yeah. The only one I wish I had back was the second Satellites record [1988's Open All Night]. I feel like there's six good songs on there, and...yeah, it could have been better. That was on me.
The first time we spoke was in 1992, and you expressed pretty much those exact sentiments about that album.
I pretty much stay with that. I'd trim both Homemade Sin records by a couple of songs. Just looking back on them, there were a couple that weren't that special, necessarily — because they were written, we did 'em.
We're going into a funny world here — we're getting ready to think about making another record. We're gonna fly ProTools tracks all over the world - Sweden, the land they call Wisconsin, and here in Nashville — and make another record, I think.
We're going to do a few songs in a studio up in Sweden where we're going to be for a couple weeks, but I made a promise: Only 10 songs. Ten songs is a lot to digest. We don't have the palate anymore for the brooding, epic records that we used to. You remember when people used to listen to a double album all the way through.
That's really interesting, because flying digital tracks around like that seems like it'd be almost the antithesis of the loose, raw approach you've always taken with your music.
Well, it'll be very interesting, because we do have some time in the studio all together. There's a couple songs that we can see aren't going to behave correctly unless we're in the same room. There's going to be other ones that are morphing as I'll lay out a general outline. I've done this kind of recording with the Bluefields before. You add one layer at a time, rather than doing a whole cloth thing. We'll see if it works, you know? And how well it works and what lets us down. But I think it's an experiment worth trying.
It's something that...well, what happened is I bought a ProTools rig because it's fun to write with. I got it in February, and I've got at least a dozen songs. I had every intention of just writing some songs for myself and having fun, and I went, "Wow! This is coming out better than I thought!"
The thing's become so responsive, and the fact is, to record on tape now requires that you have an engineer that knows what to do with tape. Someone with a set-up tape machine that's been tweaked, everything in place to make that thing a goer. Are you going to buy five reels of tape? You can buy a computer and a ProTools rig for five reels of tape! You know what I'm saying? It's become ridiculously expensive to record the old school way and no one is making records that cost — you're either making either big budget movies or little guerrilla movies. Since we're making little guerrilla movies, you want to be lean as possible; you want to strike quickly and have things bear fruit quickly.
People often talk about how digital recording is cheaper because you don't need tape, but we don't often consider something you touched on when you mentioned needing an engineer to run the machines — the fact that digital home recording, and all the changes in the major label system, have helped wipe out a whole ecosystem of music professionals who can't support themselves anymore. Engineers are just one part of that.
Yeah, that's true. The guy that engineered and produced the Homemade Sin records, Ben Strano, is now working at the hardware store up the street. He had a kid, his wife had a decent, steady job, and he decided that he could not make the kind of music he wanted to make, pay the bills, and have her stay at home, so he became Mr. Mom. He works four days a week up there and has the kid at a daycare center.
Engineering is like every other skill — you have to keep doing it to stay fine-tuned. I should be singing more than I do. Believe me, if you've ever seen one of our first shows in a run, you'll understand that my voice is just all over the place. There's some fun shows, granted, but my voice is a mess for a couple of days and then it starts finding itself and honing. It just takes time. I was talking to Ben and he said, "Dan, it takes me three hours to get into really being an engineer, every time I open it up. I haven't got three hours." Point taken. You don't want to do crappy work if you're proud of yourself.
Those gigs started drying up in the '90s, and a lot of people ended up where you are now, in Nashville. But sessions there move at a much quicker speed.
Nashville has always been about "fast." One of the great things here is...your engineers, when you hire one, man, they have the drums set up at 9:00 and your bass player gets there at 9:45 with the rig. They're just waiting on guitars. They're gonna use the house organ and piano; guitars and singers are the only things they're going to need to get a sound on. Eleven o'clock, you're cutting records. And if you're using all Nashville pros, if you're not knocking them down four or five a day, you're screwing around. You are screwing around. First-call guys are having to go out on the road now to sustain their living.
ProTools has basically killed the old Nashville studio system. It's what happened. And rather than be a Luddite about it, it's just time to move along. Yeah, sure, I miss the days of quarter of a million dollar record budgets. But say, someone in my shape, I'm known for one song, basically, to the world. That came three decades ago. I am now an old geezer. To even begin to make back that quarter of a million, it would be like "How are we going to sell a hundred thousand copies of this?" Man, if I sell two to seven thousand records, I'm fine!
It's a funny thing. Times have changed so much, and in all change, you lose something and you gain something. You get more and more people able to make their own records — that's good. But at the same time, more and more people making their own records means I have less and less time to hear them. And it will get real interesting and stay that way as time goes along. I don't know where kids go to play now to get their chops. You know? If you're 20 years old, where do you go play? Where does your band go? What kind of music do you play? I can't imagine anything other than the most extreme rivethead kind of thing getting together and saying, "YES! Let's start a band!" I don't know where you go to hone your craft — in front of people who watch you screw up. "Oh, he got better, whoa, he's pretty good now!"
You get your lessons the hard way. I don't know where that goes anymore. But then again, I don't need to. I'm over 60. Anyone over 60, you're an old guy. It's cool. I've made it this far.
And you were over 40 when you cut your last major-label record, your 1996 solo album Buffalo Nickel. So let's talk about that journey, because you managed to make your way as an independent solo artist before technology made it as easy as it is now for an artist to reach out to fans — and you did it without trading really heavily on your past. How did you go about starting over again?
I've always had a pretty strong sense of right and wrong, and I knew when I had just just finished being a Georgia Satellite, you know? It was time for me to go. It was okay. I got through that and dealt with that pretty well and went and did two solo records for American, and it was kind of like...the time of my kind of music had kind of passed. It was the grunge years. Everybody wanted the big heavy thing, and I wasn't going to try and re-invent myself as a hippie/jam band kind of guy — although I love hippie jam bands; in fact, I'm wearing my Grateful Dead shirt. But I've always kind of known what was right and what was wrong to do.
I moved ahead with a band called the Yayhoos — [guitarist] Eric Ambel, [drummer] Terry Anderson, and [bassist] Keith Christopher — and we cut a record. Then I began to do solo tours over in England with Mick Brown, my current manager. Him and a buddy of his, now who resides here in Nashville, said, "Come on over for three weeks," and I said I wanted plane fare and a dollar amount that was very reasonable to me. "Guarantee that and you've got me for three weeks." That worked out, so I came back over the next year, and the year after, and we've been working ever since.
The desire to write songs and sing and play has not gone away. And to do it well! I'm not going to say that I'm better than this person or that person, but I'm okay at it. I'm learning now, I still gotta get better at being a singer of notes. I'm a good singer of attitude and movement and time. I need to be a better singer of the note. It would help me.
Notes can be overrated.
Notes can be overrated! And dwelt upon too much if there is no attitude. The attitude still has to kick butt. But you think you're done learning and you go, "Man, try learning the melody of this song. You don't know if you want to sing the third or the fourth there. You're singing the third and a half. It sounds terrible. You're singing a quarter tone, f---ing horrible. Learn how to sing. Please."
The fact that you've found such a receptive audience in Europe is really interesting to me. The Satellites were obviously very influenced by bands like the Faces and the Rolling Stones, who were in turn influenced by American music, and now you're over there...
Yes! It's a revolving thing. There's a documentary about the Band and the recording of the first two records. Levon's in there with a pair of blast sticks. They're recording him, I don't know when, but with a video camera with a couple of microphones on it. An old camcorder. He's talking about "Up on Cripple Creek," and he says, "First we started off kind of straight: [sings] 'When I get off of this mountain...' [imitates beat] But that's gonna get old quick." So he gets out his blast sticks and he starts playing, and I realized right there, the beat on "Cripple Creek" — if you put the foot, the extra kick on the other side, you get "When the Levee Breaks." I thought, oh my God, Earl Palmer was the influence for all of those guys. Arkansas or England. It keeps going around. People rediscover, and it's good.
The reason I think we do well over in Europe is that Europeans have a much more of a sense of history and much better memories than Americans do. Also, quite simply, the populated centers are very convenient to get from Town One to Town Two without spending more than six hours in the van. If you can keep your drives down to five or six hours, you end up doing your own gear, taking care of stuff. You got a couple extra helper guys and it's fine. You can do it all. If you had to do eight or nine hours like here in the States...
You know, if you guy play in Austin, you'd better have a gig in Dallas or Houston — and those are just three there, and then there's Chicago. How long to get to St Louis? It's not a fast trip. Europe is just conducive to touring. Plus, you gotta remember — when nobody give any of the old jazz cats the time of day in America, they found a home in Europe. People went, "I'm gonna go watch a master at work!" Or at least someone really good at what they do. I think that's kind of what's happening with us. We keep trying, honest to God, we keep trying to do American shows, it's just not very likely again.
Let's talk about these new live albums — a pair of double albums, Electric and Acoustic.
The acoustic set was the first and only time we've ever done that. We had an off day and went to a place in Bedford and rehearsed and we realized "We can do this!" I think if we had to do it again, I would have dearly loved to have had my acoustic guitar. I've got a 1958 [Gibson] J-50 that just sounds like butter —pure butter. It's not afraid of a drum kit. I'll put it on one side of a record against a raging electric guitar and that volume balance and the acoustic will go clean as electricity. It doesn't care.
Also, we had all come down at varying times with the creeping throat crud, so we edited out the "Dan blowing his nose every third song." Snot is the enemy of singing — you'll have to work harder and harder to get the note and there's this wad sitting on the back of your sinuses. You can hear by the end of it, my throat is really beginning to get exhausted at the end of that acoustic show. I quit smoking three or four years ago — I have my tobacco chew, so I'm not tobacco-free, but I am smoke-free, which has done my lungs an enormous amount of good.
You've also started selling your most recent studio album, Circus Life, on vinyl.
Well, it's nice. I don't have a turntable. My CD player broke and I haven't replaced it. I just play files — I'm like the kids. I'm trying to learn from the kids. What's the easiest way to do this? Not have anything tangible to go and look for. I like books, I like records, I like the things that make them. I like all that stuff. But, you know, I like the '57 Chevy, and you can't have a nation full of cars that throw that much crap into the air.
We got bugged about [vinyl] enough times. Over in Germany: "Veenil! You have veenil for sale!?" [Laughs] Finally, we just bent to the pressure. It's been accepted very well. I think people who don't even have turntables just like the larger artwork.
Which is beautiful, by the way.
Yeah! Joe Blanton did that. We stole a bunch of it from the internet. Some cool images. And the title of the record, you know, [guitarist Warner E. Hodges] always says, "We're just circus people. We come into town, we throw it up, give you a show, tear it back down, pack it away and move on the next town and repeat."
We are just circus people. If you're not circus people, you are not going to do well in this business, and that's what it takes. You know, Ronnie Lane tried to do it really as a circus, and it failed miserably. I think Ronnie was a master of good ideas, but a lousy nuts-and-bolts guy. You need a nuts-and-bolts guy hanging around.
What are the chances of hearing anything new out of the Yayhoos or the Bluefields?
New Yayhoos? At this particular point in time, it's probably pretty dim. New Bluefields is a much better possibility, but it will require Joe Blanton, who has gotten himself this job and he keeps getting promoted. With great money, comes great responsibilities.
I'm certainly hoping that the Bluefields can do one more thing. I love playing bass with Brad Pemberton playing drums like nobody's business. It's rare you find somebody like Brad — within four bars of music he was going, "Okay, Dan needs help here, and we're fine everywhere else." Plus, Joe is a fantastic singer of notes. My God. When he lets go, he lets the attitude come with it, and it is fantastic. It's fantastic. He's the guy that made me keenly aware that I was not a good singer of notes. I'm hoping that the Bluefields have at least one more record in us before that company just swallows Joe up or makes him president or something.
For listeners who may have lost touch with your music over the years, how do you see the new stuff fitting in with your older material?
It's all American music. The rock and roll heart hasn't gone away. I've actually written a couple songs about getting older, but I'm not going to back down off what I am and what I like and how I like to do it, and it's gonna have humor and intelligence and intensity when it works right. When it doesn't, it's going to hopefully just go "ech" and get thrown away. That's one of the things about writing a bunch of songs and limiting yourself to 10 on a record.
It will be some familiar stuff, some strange stuff, some older guy stuff, some stuff where I refuse to age a minute. All the way around.
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