We welcomed Chris Bathgate to kick off our first WHUS studio session of 2016. Usually with a full band behind him, Chris played a solo set for us but the room was filled to the brim with soulful indie folk through his strong voice and the help of many loopers. Originally from Illinois, Chris now resides in Michigan but tours frequently. For more information, check out his website at http://www.chrisbathgate.org/; his new EP entitled “Old Factory” was released on February 5th.
Onna: Wikipedia told us that you started off in a heavy metal band in high school. How did you eventually transition into folk music?
Chris: It was never transition, I was always into folk music. I just happened to be 16 in the Midwest in the early 90’s, so that was one of the ways that I could rebel. I was still playing acoustic music and was interested in folk and traditional music back then, but I had this other side that I enjoyed. It was a good age to be in a metal band.
Onna: As we are a college radio station, I’m interested to hear how your experiences during college influenced your music.
Chris: They were pretty formidable. I went to college for art and design with a concentration in new media but I spent two years in the school of music. I think at this point i’m allowed to say it, I basically just lied to my teachers and told them that I was transferring so I could get overrides for the classes that I wanted to take. Because you were limited, some classes you weren’t allowed to take, performance art technology, you needed to be a specific major to be in those classes so I just lied through my teeth which isn’t exactly moral, but I also thought that restricting the types of classes I could take when I was paying so much money was also kind of absurd. So that’s kind of my act of civil disobedience.
Onna: Sounds like you made the right moves though?
Chris: Well, morally that’s debatable but I spent a lot of time in music classes, took some music theory and piano classes. They helped me critically think about the way I was shaping music. But the biggest influence on my work as a writer and a songwriter came from art school. I was getting assignments that were based on creativity and solving creative problems. I would integrate the lessons I learned with visual art into music. One of the most important pieces of advice that I received from a teacher was that, “You need to create two pieces of art and I need you to use repetition. And in one instance I’d like you to use repetition to enhance meaning, and the other I’d like you to use repetition to destroy or change meaning in a negative way.” That’s something that I still think pretty critically about to this day. I also took some classes in color theory that somehow bled into the way I think about songwriting. I think you’ll see a lot of process and raw material in my stuff. There are some parts of my records that sound like they were demos. I think that I learned that kind of blend of ‘high polish’ and ‘no polish’ from my favorite visual artist where there’s still precision involved in something that’s erratic and shows process. Due to my experiences in art school, I’m not afraid to show process. I’m not afraid for a chair to creak on a recording and sometimes I’m doing it on purpose. It made me think about mistakes, intention.
Onna: It’s the imperfections that make the creations so special. Do you think there are any misconceptions about folk music?
Chris: I’m gonna say no, I think people have a right to their opinion. I sometimes use the word ‘folk’ with a bit of caution, for some people based on their tastes, when you say ‘folk music’ the first word that they think of and maybe you’ll have to bleep this out but, ‘Oh, so it must suck’ There’s not a lot of cutting edge folk artists, there’s a certain percentage that I would consider cutting edge and innovative and making progress in the genre, but there’s a lot of people who are just doing the thing that folk music does best.
Onna: How has your style evolved from your first album in 2007?
Chris: It’s become less verbose. My first records I tried to squeeze in as many words as possible and I try to use words that you wouldn’t normally speak. I’ll throw the word austerity into a song and I don’t necessarily do that anymore, I’ve pulled back from that. So in a way things have become more general, and I’m more concerned with homophone and things that are polysemic, things that have multiple meanings or heard in one way, written in another. So I’m sort of pairing down the GRE complicated words, I’ve toned it down quite a bit. Back then I wanted songs to do everything, and I think I’ve realized as a writer, at least for me at this point, a song has to do one thing well. And that’s better than having it do many things.
Onna: What does folk music mean to you and what makes it different than other genres?
Chris: To me, it’s a lot like the word ‘indie’. Indie music used to mean music that was on an independent record label. Now it’s a genre of music. Now there can be indie bands on a major label. Now folk music, truly, is music of the people, by the people, for the people. Which technically is all music. So it has a big definiton. It’s definitely a specific genre but I think true folk music that’s doing some other kind of work. Bringing people together, doing something political.. well, you can argue that all songs are doing something political. If it’s being made by a person who isn’t getting a bunch of money or there’s no money involved, if it’s just for experience or joy, I think that true folk music is for people getting together and connecting with each other for any cause and the most simple cause being just to connect. So I think three people in a parking lot with a beat CD spitting rhymes is folk music. I think that’s where the energy comes from, people connecting over music. I think it’s a tricky word though.
Onna: That is such a thought-provoking way to explain a genre. What gives you some of the inspiration for your lyrics?
Chris: It’s either a narrative, an idea/concept that I am exploring to try to proof in action with song, or I’m trying to create a catalyst for someone to feel the things that I feel. So it’s a way to escape that sort of solipsistic, ‘cage of the mind’ feeling. So if I have a specific feeling, I spend a lot of time thinking about it. If you ever get into the Enneagram Test you’ll come to find that I’m obsessed with my own feelings. Way too much time trying to understand what they are and where they come from.Through that cage of my own personality I try to create things that are catalysts so others can feel the same thing. So, a lot of times that’s done through abstraction or narrative, or strange noises.
Onna: What keeps you going on tour?
Chris: Coffee. Great cups of coffee in different towns all across America. and green curry. To be more earnest, it’s rare that I’m presented with so many opportunities when I’m not on tour. I meet people everyday, I have the opportunity to share my music with people everyday when I’m on tour, and that doesn’t come easy for anybody. So, I think that i take a lot of time to appreciate where I’m at and what I’m doing and that it’s a total privilege to have creative business in different towns around America.