In the four years since we spotlighted Mike Baggetta he has been a busy man. He has relocated from New York City to Knoxville, Tennessee; played on David Torn’s Sun of Goldfinger record; gigged with Nels Cline playing lap steel (Cline on steel, not Baggetta), and released Wall of Flowers [Big Ego Records]. The last features a true supergroup power trio, ala a modern day Cream, as Baggetta, Mike Watt, and session legend, Jim Keltner join forces. Knoxville being relatively close to Nashville, Baggetta has been playing here quite a bit and took time before a gig at Rudy’s Jazz Club to come over and talk about Wall of Flowers and the joys of looping with a TimeFactor.
How did this record with Mike Watt and Jim Keltner come about?
My friend Chris Schlarb runs a band called Psychic Temple that has a bunch of great records out. He opened a studio in Long Beach called Big Ego and planned to start a record label component to the recording studio that would release music produced there. When he put the plan together four, or five, years ago, he said, “Would you want to do a record together?” and asked what I’d want to do. I was thinking about the next way I wanted to have my music interpreted. Jokingly, I said, “We should do a trio with Mike Watt on bass and Jim Keltner on drums,” and we had a good laugh. We kept bringing it up jokingly, but after over a year of saying it so much it became less of a joke. We started thinking, “Can we actually do this?” Chris knows Watt pretty well; he’s had him do sessions out there, and I knew a couple of people who have worked with Keltner. Chris was able to somehow get the stars to align. Over a year and a half of planning we got everybody on board and figured out a date it could work. There turned out to be only one day where everybody could be in the same room. Even a couple days before, there was some confusion about the date. And then somehow it worked out, and here we are.
You had only one day in the studio.
There was only one day with the three of us tracking together, but we were there for a good eight hours. I did a separate day for tracking the solo material, but we spent more time on the band tracks. There are four tracks with the trio, one with me and Jim as a duet, and three tracks of shorter solo pieces.
How did the duo track happen?
We wanted to have a variety of different things. “Blue Velvet” is the only cover tune on the album. I did the solo version, and then wanted to try it the next day with the band, but I wanted it to be different from everything else. Talking with Chris, we decided we’d try it as a duo with drums, because that would be a different take.
It’s also an electric versus acoustic version.
Yes, I’m playing electric on the duo.
Why “Blue Velvet?”
I have a soft spot for depressing old torch songs. There’s something about the way it makes most humans feel that I find appealing; tragically dramatic, emotional things that we don’t allow ourselves to feel on a daily basis. It speaks to the quality of music that it can make you feel things you otherwise might not. Around that time, I had heard Lana Del Rey’s version.
Is that the one Dan Auerbach produced?
It might have been, there’s some serious analog delay stuff happening. I like it, but thought, “I should try that too.” On Spectre we did that Patsy Cline tune, “Leavin’ on Your Mind.”
I love that.
I always have one or two of these torch songs floating around.
Was it intimidating when you finally ended up in the room with Mike Watt and Jim Keltner?
They are super sweet, giving, generous, awesome guys. It couldn’t have been easier to make music with them. Generally, I’m not one to feel intimidated by the presence of legendary musicians. I feel in awe, and have a lot of respect for these guys, but I know that everybody is there to try to make great music happen. I know that feeling intimidated is not going to work well towards that end, and for whatever reason, I don’t get that way about it. I go, “We’re all here to do this, let’s try to make some magic happen.”
What was probably more intimidating was that I had been thinking and talking about it for so long that I had an idea in my mind about how the music might sound. I feel, for the most part, that it’s a mistake to have any kind of preconception about something creative. That was the only baggage I was dealing with at the time.
Had Watt and Keltner ever played together before?
They never even met, but everybody seemed to hit it off. Chris and I were there first, and then Watt came and set up. I had never met either of them. In fact, this is my first session as a leader where I cold-called people. I’ve always made records with people I knew. I got the idea from talking to David Torn, because he was telling me about the Cloud About Mercury album. He didn’t know Bill Bruford, or Tony Levin. I was surprised by that, I had assumed you make records with your friends. Over the years, I realized that’s not the case. This seemed like an opportunity to try something different. We had some great conversations in the breaks, it was surprisingly comfortable.
On the first track, “The Hospital Song (Intro),” what acoustic are you playing?
That’s my friend Alan’s, 1931 or 1932 National Duolian, metal body, round neck resonator. I love that guitar. I was staying with him in Los Angeles while I was making this. Chris said, “Why don’t we try a version of ‘Hospital Song’ solo on the acoustic, to get some different sounds.” There’s also Chris’ Danelectro 12-string on it. I did one take on the left, and another take on the right. I may have been playing different voicings for each take. Sometimes, I do that to make it sound like one big chord spread across both channels, and it’s even bigger, when it’s a 12-string. That’s a textural element behind the resonator. There’s a background part on the band take of “Hospital Song,” where I overdubbed regular acoustic strumming, which was a late ’60s Gibson J-50. I was strumming a certain set of voicings and for the second track capoed high up on the neck and played more extended voicings for each chord. Again, the effect is one big 18-string guitar chord.
Was there any processing done on the 12-string? Because it sounds almost like a zither.
If there was, it would be a question for Chris, who did the mixing. I might have run it through my pedal board, so it has a couple of buffers or a reverb affecting the sound.
You did “Hospital Song” as a trio, and then went back and did overdubs on it?
What are those electronic sounds at the end?
There’re two components to it: when tracking live, there was a short sample I put through the HEXE reVOLVER. I had the little HEXE Vario, the expression unit made to go with that, set to quickly go up an octave. I had the glitch sample happening, and then I hit the switch rhythmically to make it jump octaves in time with the song tempo. That way you feel it’s involved in the rhythm of the band, even though the actual sample is probably out of time. There’s an overdubbed part I did later, which is probably another sample in the reVOLVER. I would record the sample, hit the Vario to switch octaves, and then run that into a Whammy DT. I turned that on and moved it from a fourth up to fifth, moved it back down, and then shut it off to get back to the original octave. It’s a short sample that’s being manipulated with a bunch of pitch-shifting rhythmically in time with the song. You can set the slew rate, how fast or slow it moves up or down. You could also set it to go up all the different intervals it has in it.
What guitar were you playing on the electric version?
All the live stuff in the studio is this highly modified 2007 Fender Strat I have. It was a limited-edition Guitar Center model, with a mahogany body, black headstock, and the two-pin vibrato. The mahogany body and the two-pin vibrato were the reasons I was attracted to it. It was the first nice Strat I got after not playing tremolo guitars for a long time. I had a little Mexican made Strat I was playing for a while, with a six-screw vibrato, and that was cool, but I wanted something with two-posts to get the feel a little bit looser. I got it used off Craigslist, and it plays well. I put two big single pickups from Fralin in there. And I put on a Hipshot bridge. I also changed the electronics a little bit. I sent it to Saul Koll, who routed out the vibrato bridge cavity so I get more up-pull and down-pull, like Torn.
Do you have the bridge parallel to the body?
Yeah, it’s flat-floating, but it’s got a wide range on it. That’s been pretty much my main guitar for the last five, six year. I had just acquired the Koll Superior that I play now, with the two Fralin P-90s in it. I used that for all the overdubs.
You started talking about how you have the vibrato bridge set up, first of all, what gauge strings do you use with it?
They’re D’Addario 011-049s. They’re not the NYXL, they’re the standard nickel-wound.
How far up does the G-string go?
There’re a couple ways to measure it, but I have it so that the G-string gets up to about a perfect fourth when I pull up. That sends the B-string up to between a minor and a major third, and the high E-string up about a major second.
When you’re doing those Torn-type pedal steel bends are you doing it all by ear? In other words, you find the spot where all three strings are in tune?
It’s absolutely a Torn thing; that’s who showed me all this stuff. I practiced the pull-ups to the chords quite a bit. I have spent time learning what moves to what. As we talked about, all the strings don’t move at the same interval. Part of it is listening, but it’s because you know that you’re going to move from here to there, and you know what that sounds like from shedding it. But in other instances, you have to alter the fingers a little bit to get something. There are all sorts of movements that you would practice.
If the G-string goes up a-fourth, but the B-string goes up somewhere between major and minor, how do you get the chords to be in tune?
They get close enough, and if not, you give it a little shimmer. Or, if it’s close, but not close enough, with my left hand I’ll bend the string that needs to go sharp a little bit to compensate.
What amp are you using for those sessions?
That was all the Fryette Aether. I bought it when I was out there. I had used the Aether before, when I’ve gone to LA for sessions. Steve has been nice enough to loan me amps to use. I had used a Memphis, a Sound City 30 [distributed by Fryette], and an Aether a few times. I’ve had a long relationship with loving that amp for a lot of reasons. When I was out there to borrow some amps for gigs and the recording, he had two that were done. One was Torn’s and the other one was unclaimed. I said, “I’ll take the other one.” I brought it to the session two or three days later, then brought it back to Steve, who shipped it to Tennessee for me.
What guitar were you playing on the acoustic version of Blue Velvet?
That’s also Alan’s National.
On “Data Point,” did you have the answering overdubs in mind before you played live? Or was that something you thought of after you cut the live track?
Everything that makes it compositional was added as an overdub after the fact. “Data Point” and “Dirty Smell of Dying” come from a much longer group of free improvisations that we did in the studio. I took all of that back, listened through to a lot of it. There’s so much great playing, especially from Mike and Jim together. They don’t have a lot of output in terms of hardcore Avant Garde music, Watt more than Keltner to some degree.
Keltner played on some Bill Frisell record.
Those albums are amazing, but those are songs with forms for the most part. Still, I had a feeling from listening to him that Jim was a great improvisor, and the same goes for Watt. To be able to give something special to an improvisatory performance like that, regardless of what they might say about their own playing, those two are absolute genius improvisors on many levels.
Keltner started as a jazz drummer.
Right, of course. I wanted to try to play free stuff in that session, we ended up doing it for three or four hours. One of the few directions I gave was to improvise as if we’re writing the piece together. For me, it was to make sure I’m not overplaying. As one improvises, part of the goal is to hear something that is good and then develop it in certain ways, which is ideally what great composition is. I wanted to make sure that I was leaving enough space so there were elements I could entwine into a compositional type of piece. This is by no means an original idea; Miles Smiles is like that, and David Torn has many works like that. There’s a laundry list of albums with great music made this way. Two of the pieces are like that. They have a core of improvised material, with elements that come back to it together, none of which I knew at the time, but I knew that there would be elements of like that later.
The idea was that you were going to be adding stuff later.
Yeah, like if somebody was playing a certain rhythm and I mimicked that rhythm, I was thinking, “Don’t do too much, because that’s going to be something you can use later,” to make sure that I didn’t ruin it by overplaying.
How do you use the Eventide for looping?
It’s the Eventide TimeFactor. It is a great looping device that has fallen a under the radar. I put it on the looper setting and that’s all I use it for. I don’t deal with the delays or anything like that. I usually set it to the time range of 24-seconds. It’s not the highest sound quality, but it actually sounds a little bit better to me, because it sounds a little more blurred around the edges.
It’s not lo-fi; if you go to the next one—48-seconds—that’s more lo-fi. This is in between.
A little analog at that point?
I was trying not to use the word, but you could say that. The sound is a little fatter. It’s plenty of time for what I do, and I leave it running on record the whole time. I turn the feedback all the way off, so it’s not holding anything in there for more than one cycle. As I’m playing, if I hear something I want to grab, I turn the feedback knob all the way up. Now it doesn’t delete it, and if I want to make that appear, I’ll turn the volume up. It’s always running live with no feedback and no volume. It’s very much like the old 16-second delay, it’s always running, you hear something you want, you flip the switch, you turn the mix up.
If it’s 24-seconds, doesn’t that mean it is not going to come back for 24-seconds?
If I want to hear it sooner, I can put it in reverse, which gets it to come back fast, although it will be backwards. Or, I’ll press an expression pedal all the way down, so the speed goes up two or three times as fast, and it will come by faster.
That will also raise the octave, won’t it?
What I like about the TimeFactor is that it has a time readout; you can see where you started the recording, and when you see the time coming back up, you can bring the pedal back down.
You speed it up to get to the point where you want it.
Yeah, if I want to hear it right away, I grab it, I’ll speed it up, notice the readout, and back off when it gets close. It’s not a perfect science, but I don’t want it to be. There are a bunch of loopers out there, and people think, “I want one that’s always listening, like the old Electro-Harmonix 16-second.” I feel like you can do that with any of them, you always let it record, and you turn the feedback all the way off. Then when you want to grab something, you change those parameters. This one does that well. I have the expression pedal hooked up to the speed, and therefore the pitch. It also accepts a three-button foot-switch, which I have on the floor. It has recording and reverse, which is great to go back and forth and get glitchy sounds. And the third button, is a tap-tempo button.
You can make it glitch with the tap-tempo button. There’s the rotary switch/button you use to select what kind of delay machine you want it to be. If you hold that button, you go into tap-tempo mode. You can then tap that button to enter the delay tempo. But you can’t do that in loop mode, because it always goes to stop; you have to have tap-tempo on a separate switch. When the loop is running, it’s usually showing the time in milliseconds, but when you enter tap-tempo mode, it starts showing it as beats. If you’ve already recorded something outside of a beat grid, this doesn’t make any sense, it’s showing you an arbitrary number of beats based on a tempo setting you haven’t entered yet. I disregard that completely. I set it to a slower or faster tempo than the machine thinks it’s at, at which point it doesn’t compress or stretch the loop, but instead slices off however much it doesn’t need, or repeats and then slices however much it wants to add back on to fit the grid you’ve created. Long story short, all of a sudden there’s this weird glitch, and then it starts again. You can manipulate that with the tap-tempo. When you can go back out of tap-tempo mode, and it keeps the glitches in there, and you can manipulate that as you play.
I changed over to using the H9 with the looper algorithm for a while, controlling it over Bluetooth with an iPad, but they fixed the tap-tempo in there to make it work normally, which is not exciting. And with Bluetooth, when you push the button on the iPad, there’s a slight lag before the action actually happens. It bugged me that things weren’t happening as fast as they were with the TimeFactor.
The other thing I like about the TimeFactor is that you can window through the loop. The TimeFactor makes it easy to reduce the length of a loop, so you can play only ten seconds of a 20 second loop, or eight seconds, etc. You set the length and then you have a knob to move the start point, so instead of having a 20-second loop, you can bring it down to a four-second window—and then you can move that window, so it plays the four-seconds at the beginning or the four-seconds that start at the three-and-a-half-second mark. You can expand or compress that window and move it throughout the length of the loop. You will only hear a little piece of it. That comes in handy if you have something that’s in a couple of different keys, and you don’t want to deal with the pitch-shifting thing. You could set a 20-second loop for example, and then put the run time down to 10-seconds, record something in F, and then window it over to starting at the 10-second mark. You can then record something in B-major, and open it back up, and manipulate when you hear the F part, and when you hear the B part, by windowing back and forth between them. There’s nothing else I know of that does something like that easily. You can also make it sound glitched out, if you let the whole thing play, and while it’s playing bring the window down to .05 seconds, you’ll get a short glitch. And then you can open it back up. You almost get into a turntable style rhythmic effect.
It sounds like it does a lot for hardware. In Ableton Live, you can do something like that with clips, but you can’t have that running permanently. I can’t think of another hardware looper that does that.
The Oberheim EDP does it, but I don’t think you get the smooth delay style pitch-shifting that this has. Nothing does everything, but the TimeFactor does a lot, between windowing, long looping time, reverse, ease of use, the weird tap-tempo glitch thing, a great low-pass filter, and full feedback control. You can set it up to work in a few different ways, you can not use reverse, and instead have it do a repeat play thing. I feel like the TimeFactor doesn’t get enough notice, but it’s pretty heavy duty.
Is that how you created the background on “Of Breads and Rivers”?
That might be two passes. Those loops are pretty sparse, because I knew I was going to do another one and I wanted them to interact in unexpected ways by not having too many elements involved. If you just have a few things and manipulate them, they feel like they’re playing off each other. I did one whole loop track, went back and did another loop track, where I entered different material from the first, and then played the melody a couple of different ways with the acoustic and the electric instruments. That’s the same approach I did for Ornette Coleman’s “War Orphans” on the previous album Spectre.
What’s the spacey reverb sound at the end of “Dirty Smell?”
It’s the same reverb on everything. I don’t run stereo or wet/dry; I usually run everything through one amp, because I like it when things are getting jumbled up and come in and out of focus. There’s a healthy dose of spring reverb on the Aether amp all the time, and I couple that with the Neunaber Stereo Wet pedal. I have it set to the octave, or shimmer setting. The reverb on that track is brought out more because of the feedback; it’s hitting it a little harder. The sound itself is feedback from the guitar live. Anytime I want feedback, I use this old pink Guyatone WR2 Wah Rocker pedal. It’s an auto-wah envelope filter with the sensitivity and range set pretty high. Usually, I turn a fuzz or distortion on, and have the Wah Rocker after my volume pedal. I’ll have the guitar volume off, and then I can play or not play anything. And as I bring the volume up, the Wah Rocker seems to compress the signal a ton and you get the feedback with no problem whatsoever. I manipulate it with the volume pedal. As it’s making it feedback you can get the pitches to change easily. It also adds that filter sound.
How did this particular rhythm section affect your playing?
That’s a good question.
How is it different than playing with Jerome and Billy for example?
I think playing with Mike and Jim was different because they weren’t necessarily playing things that were busy, or heavily influencing the music. If I’m playing with a more jazz oriented rhythm section, there’s already an understanding and an expectation that people are going to be messing with the feel, the form, adding things, and playing off of each other in apparent ways. I love that; but Mike and Jim weren’t playing that way. Sometimes I play with people that are great and I feel like I don’t have to do anything, because it’s already going to sound like a lot of stuff going on. I felt if I didn’t play much in this session, it would still feel great, but be a little bit more groove oriented. They play in a more static way than a jazz-oriented rhythm section, but not fully. Jim is always evolving whatever groove he’s playing, it’s not going to stay the same; he’s slowly changing and altering it, to the extent that you almost don’t notice. And the same with Mike, they change as they play, but it’s not very sudden and apparent when things change, it’s more of this long form evolution of a groove. How does that make me play different? It leaves more space for me to fill in musical information. I’m not getting an influx of rapidly changing information, so it gives me more breathing room, and more opportunity to let the space that’s already there continue to be there. That’s why I love their playing.