Every week, KEXP features a new local artist with an interview and suggested tracks for where to start. This week we're highlighting Whidbey Island's own Baby Island.
Some collaborations just make sense. Formed between members of Arizona's The Format and Olympia local legends LAKE, Baby Island started collaborating in 2010 and released their self-titled debut tape back in 2012. In both of their previous projects, the bands had penchants for the power in quieter moments -- embracing folk-like arrangements with colorful, fantastical lyricism that accentuates the beauty in the emotions they're trying to convey. All this through the whirr of a cassette tape -- their preferred format. We caught up with the band's Elijah Moore and Mark Buzzard to delve into their thrift shop beginnings, the importance of the Whidbey Island grange hall where the record their music, and the appeal of cassettes in the modern era.
Baby Island is a supergroup of sorts, with members from The Format and LAKE. Where did your paths first intersect and what made you initially want to start a new project together?
Elijah Moore: My partner (and bandmate in LAKE) Ashley and I had just moved to Whidbey Island from Olympia, WA when we met Mark at a thrift store (probably around 2008). We got to know him over the course of a couple years because he worked at the local guitar and music store. At one point I asked him to accompany me on guitar for a solo show and I loved his playing. We began jamming in my trailer practice space with Nick on drums. The intention was to make loud and aggressive music, but it ended up sounding more like the Beach Boys than the Jesus Lizard.
Mark Buzard: I met Ashley and Eli in 2008, in a thrift store, not too long after The Format called it quits. I was familiar with artists like Phil Elverum, Karl Blau, Little Wings, and LAKE before I moved to Whidbey in 2005, so needless to say, I was a bit star struck. I didn't want to seem creepy, so I introduced myself and we exchanged contact info. It was pretty trippy to be honest.
Your latest album, Break the Lease, is your first release in five years. What were you doing during that time and what made you decide now was the time to regroup and put out new music?
EM: Shortly after finishing our previous (and first) album, I moved to Olympia to work with my other band LAKE on a couple albums. I moved back to Whidbey Island at the end of 2014 and Baby Island began playing together again. With Baby Island (or any band I've been in) sometimes it feels like the right time to work together, and sometimes it doesn't. It's been nice with this band to have very little external pressure or time constraints. We left no stone unturned and worked on the album until it felt finished. A day here, a day there, an hour here, an hour there.
Besides working with LAKE I've also done a lot of session work over the last few years with Tucker Martine at his studio in Portland (Flora). Also touring in Karl Blau's live band, and working on film and video projects.
MB: We started recording basic tracks in 2015, chipping away at it for the past two years with the intention of releasing it somehow. In the Spring of 2017, Hello Records approached us about releasing the album and it felt like an excellent opportunity.
You recorded the new album in the same grange hall that you recorded your debut. What made you want to go back to the roots of the project and what makes this space so fitting for what you were trying to do?
EM: First of all, as an engineer and producer, I find that the more character that space you're recording in has, the easier it is to make an interesting record. This probably has more to do with my limits, but a least I know what my limits are!!! I used to work at the hall as the building manager, I had my wedding reception there, and I love making music there. It's inspiring to be in an old building where so many people have had their first kiss, gotten married, danced to Ike and Tina Turner, etc. It's a precious building and also very affordable to rent. Most importantly it has a "sound" all its own (big wooden building, wooden floor, squeaky floorboards). Also, when we recorded our first album we spent a couple days there, sleeping there, etc. We felt like a portal was opened for us in that building and we knew we would have to go back and re-enter that dimension.
MB: The hall seems like the ideal place for us to convene: it's familiar, it has vibe, and just the right amount of decay on the reverb.
Thematically, what ideas were you trying to convey with the new album? How did the songs first start taking shape?
EM: The lyrics for this album are a mixture of a few different ideas, and a couple are even covers. It does still seem to have a theme of some kind though. "Mercury Life" and "Break the Lease" are probably most central to the album's core lyrical point. "Mercury Life" was written shortly after moving back to Whidbey Island, and after a long US tour with LAKE. At the time my partner Ashley and I didn't have a place of our own and were jumping between house-sitting jobs, sleeping in an RV, and staying with friends. The song is about craving a stable, healthy life. "A way for mortals, away from giants, a way with morals, a way with gardens." The idea of having an actual garden seemed like a distant dream.
"Mystery Lies" was an alternative title for the song (and album). It's in reference to the idea that a wild, traveling, artistic life might not necessarily make you happy or be deeply rewarding. "Mercury Life is making you die." "Break the Lease" is about breaking out of what you perceive to be destiny. It says that you can always quit your job, relationship, band, etc. It says that you're free in a similar spirit that great spiritual music says that you're free.
Many of our songs are born in the practice space. I'll mumble sounds and melodies over the course of days, weeks, or even years until words take shape. Sometimes Mark might hear something different than I'm actually saying which is usually better, and occasionally suggestions from him or Ashley will help put the final touch on a song. My hope with a Baby Island album is that the songs are 1/3 funny. "Tobacco" is (hopefully) the funniest songs I've written. It's making fun of partying and masculinity (making fun of myself). The lyrics were all written in a matter of minutes. It's easy and dumb/fun.
In general, it tries to touch on all the human themes, hopefully. Relationship problems, dissatisfaction with convention ("Bury the House"), difficulty falling in love ("Love is Code"), love ("Sweet Love"), high school and college ups and downs/challenges/insecurity ("Spin Around"), religion ("That Mission"), peace, understanding, and acceptance ("Endless Meaning").
MB: Rehearsals are a great way to work and develop new ideas -- and even a portion of that comes through improvisation and "jamming."
I noticed on the Baby Island album, there’s the track “Bury the House” which also appears on LAKE’s 2013 LP The World is Real. Which version came first and why did you want to include that song on this project?
EM: The first version was the version on Ashley Eriksson's solo album Colours (Ashley is the other main songwriter and singer in LAKE). LAKE's version came second. When LAKE recorded the song, I really wanted to do a version kinda like "Break on Through to the Other Side" (by the Doors) but we ended up doing more of a prog version. So, once while jamming at a Baby Island practice, I started singing the song. It worked immediately. This is the version of “Bury the House” I always wanted to hear. There are so many songs in the world, I get the same satisfaction from covers as I do from originals. Especially when the cover is written by my friend/wife!
Your band often gets strongly associated with the cassette format and both of your releases so far have been exclusively done as tapes and digital downloads. What appeals to you about cassettes? Do you feel like it adds another element to the music itself?
EM: Well as of today, most music is listened to and enjoyed digitally. I have a hard time letting go of the physical format though. I like having an object. I like the songs being stored on a physical medium that has some personality. CD's are less and less popular, vinyl is usually too expensive, but cassettes are affordable and have a sonic character all their own. Often an album that sounds a little too digital or harsh can really come alive on cassette. Of course, we'd love a vinyl release, but cassettes are very cool and seem to be getting kind of popular -- even though it might be mostly novelty. It's nice to have something that people can take home with them after a show, even if they don't have a tape player and listen to the album exclusively on Spotify or iTunes.
MB: I grew up with a Walkman. One of my first ways to record was through a cassette recorder and built in mic, a Talkboy™.
What’s next for the project? Is there a tour in the works? Any plans for new material?
EM: We're working on a bunch of new songs right now. Hard to say when production on our next album will begin, but I'm sure it will. We are beginning to plan a handful of NW shows this autumn and hope to make it as far south as Los Angeles and Phoenix in the next few months. We are also about to wrap up a very interesting video for "Mercury Life."
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