Bill Baird has had an eventful decade. He rocketed to fame as a founding member of Sound Team, an indie band that at its peak was touring worldwide, released an album on Capitol Records, and even opened for Arcade Fire. Baird then founded Big Orange, an analogue recording studio, with his bandmates. But with fame came friction, and after Sound Team broke up in 2007, attempts to share Big Orange were unsuccessful. Needing to move on, Baird found an ad on Craigslist and rented a “cinderblock garage, a shack,” in East Austin and named it Baby Blue.
I arrived at Baby Blue on a 106 degree day to find a smashed up van with a log inside, a jaggedy fence cobbled together from scavenged lumber, and of course, the pale blue studio itself. I sat with Baird on the van’s removable middle seat to discuss lo-fi aesthetics, the profundity of imperfection, and, as he wrote in the book released with his latest album Loveshines, “the glory of decay and chaos and the world’s constant rebirth.”
Would you call Baby Blue a lo-fi studio?
I’m all about the DIY aspect. Lo-fi doesn’t really have anything to do with fidelity anymore; it’s more a leave-the-warts kind of approach. It took me a while to figure out that what people are talking about when they say “lo-fi” is an approach, not necessarily actually fidelity. It’s more about playing from the 4-track aesthetic.
What would that aesthetic be?
You tend to treasure mistakes rather than eliminate them. Usually with a computer the first thing you do is delete it, but with the lo-fi type approach maybe you realize that the mistake is what makes it interesting.
Do you think there are types of music that lend themselves to lo-fi recording more than others?
Context is everything in art, so...I bet if Lionel Ritchie made a lo-fi-type album it would be incredible. Instead, all the wrinkles get pushed out and it becomes Lionel Ritchie as we know it. Anything that verges towards the overproduced could use a healthy dose of the lo-fi attitude.
Front of Baby Blue
How did you come to the decision that you wanted to start a place like this?
I started another studio called Big Orange, and now they do all the Daytrotter taping and stuff there. Basically when Sound Team broke up we tried to share the space, but it just wasn’t working and I needed to move on in my life anyway. So I moved out, put all my stuff into storage and was debating selling it all and then I saw this ad randomly after looking for months. I literally jumped out of my seat, because places like this are kind of hard to find at this price. I realized that if I was going to do the studio thing again, that this would be it. I’m not much of a marketer, so I rely on DIY-type shows and parties to help pay the rent here.
Tell me the story of this building and how you came to be here.
It was a blues bar for a long time called the East Side Lounge. This whole street used to be crazy, with a kind of open-air drug market vibe. When I moved in, the previous tenant was a restaurant called “Fish 'R' Us,” like Toys 'R' Us. And there was a nautical theme and everything, with oars and a fresco with an afroed black merman. It was surreal and sketchy as hell. [Author's note: The creepy merman fresco still graces the wall of Baby Blue.]
When did you move in?
Two years ago. I’ve had some really great people play here, like Mike Watt, Tuneyards, saw Sean Lennon here, Ryan Schreiber dancing like a dork, my friends...
What recordings have you done here?
I’ve recorded a number of my own albums, Jesse Woods, the Generationals...
Tell me about the equipment you use.
I have a Soundcraft 32-channel TS24, really old and cranky and very difficult to use - it took me months just to figure out how to get a signal to pass through it. So I’ve got that mixing board and an Otari MTR90 2” tape machine, with an MCI 1/4” two track for mixing.
Where does the name come from?
First of all, the color. Second of all, the George Strait song. Third of all, the Bob Dylan song. Fourth of all, my old studio was called Big Orange and it seemed like the exact opposite — orange is the opposite on the color wheel, big versus baby...go figure. [Author’s note: Also, of course, there’s the Bill Baird/Baby Blue double-b thing going on.]
Bill Baird in the Studio
Best-case scenario, what do you want to do with this place in a year?
I would have enough money to burn it. I mean, best case scenario, in some beautiful dreamy fantasy land, I would light this place on fire with million dollar bills.
Then let’s have a lowercase-b best-case scenario...
Yeah, that would be so wasteful. Realistic would be, I just want it to be self-sustaining so I can keep doing what I do. Best case scenario would be I get my board fixed, so everything’s working. Continue having great shows, have it serve as a community hub.
Did you learn anything at Big Orange that you did or did not want to do here at Baby Blue?
I’m certainly learning all the time, because I’m fucking up all the time. That’s how you learn! I learned about the pitfalls of sharing a space, and the beauties. The need to have a clear vision. I wanted to keep the chaos — I mean, obviously!
I really like the chaos of this place!
I really dig it, too. The decay upon decay. Big Orange is much more meticulously maintained, and for this place I thought I was just going to let flow the raging torrent of creative, expansive energy, and try and funnel it occasionally. Sometimes it verges too much on the chaotic, like when a log gets thrown through a window of a car.
Baird may have described the birth of Baby Blue best in the typewritten liner book that came with his newest album Loveshines, which was recorded at the studio:
“set about creating the ideal space, wide open and spacious with room for the mind to wander in strange directions. and that’s what I now do with much of my time. let the mind work its will against the hum of solid state electronics and magnetic tape reeling and keyboard squealing and my perfect vision of beauty still somewhere out of reach, but closer than before. all the mess of the past, all the tangles and tears and arguments and sunrises and sunsets and colors and friends never seen again, they all feed into the vision and make it stronger, and only strengthens my will to push into someplace deeper, more personal, more universal, just to get more pure. that’s the movement. sometimes you gotta wade through shit to get there though.”