Exit interview: Kathleen Baird of STITSR and Shockrasonica

A pivotal member of Madison's experimental music community prepares to move on.

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Madison will lose an important force in its small but respectable experimental music community when Kathleen Baird moves to New York City in early November. Baird and Taralie Peterson, her bandmate in the psych-folk outfit Spires That In The Sunset Rise, moved from Chicago to Madison about seven years ago. For a couple years Baird and Peterson were a pretty quiet presence here, rarely even playing shows in Madison. But over time they became a strong, outgoing presence at local experimental shows. 

In 2011, when Minnesota guitarist Paul Metzger needed a last-minute show, Baird started putting on music at Shockrasonica, aka her living room on the east side. The shows were open to the public (Baird says her neighbors on the quiet residential block of East Mifflin Street, never complained), but had a mellow, potluck feel.  "One of the main intentions I had at the shows was that I wanted the attention to be on the music," she says. Shockrasonica's run adds up to only about a couple dozen shows, but they were never dull: The bills have included touring artists like Japanese noise guitarist Suzuki Junzo and Jon Mueller, and many one-off collaborations among Baird and like-minded Madison artists like DB Petersen and Brian Grimm. (Disclaimer: I've helped set up a couple of Spires shows, and Tone collaborator Joel Shanahan has been a part of some of the Shockrasonica performances.) This Sunday, Baird is throwing Shockrasonica's farewell show, which will feature a solo set from Julian Lynch and a collaborative set between Spires and guitarist/synth experimenter Andrew Fitzpatrick (Noxroy, Volcano Choir, All Tiny Creatures).

Even when Spires landed an opening slot on Slint's east coast tour earlier this year, Baird and Peterson were never too good to keep their hands dirty in Madison, still collaborating and taking an active role in local music. Baird plays piano on one track of the new album from Burial Hex, a long-running project of Madison-based artist Clay Ruby. Baird is mostly moving to New York for a relationship, though while there she'll be booking shows, helping with an experimental label called Perfect Wave, and trying to set up new collaborations, as well as working on her solo project, Sapropelic Pycnic. Baird will keep collaborating with Peterson (who also has a solo project, Tar Pet) and try to make it back to Madison every so often for shows. Ahead of Sunday's farewell show, Baird talked with me about her plans for the future and the creative connections she's built during her time in Madison.

Tone Madison: So are your reasons for moving just personal?

Kathleen Baird: I took a trip to New York in August 2013, and I was maybe just a little bit restless, honestly. New York, I wouldn't be moving there if it wasn't for this particular relationship, just because it is so expensive and really becoming so much of a challenging city for artists, with all these DIY venues closing and stuff. That being said, it's still an extremely vibrant city, and I super look forward to collaborating with a lot of new people and kind of getting more involved with this label called Perfect Wave, which is kind of getting off the ground now. It just released a magazine, but it's also releasing cassettes, also some LPs hopefully in the future. 

Tone Madison: Is there anyone in particular you're hoping to collaborate with in New York?

Kathleen Baird: Yeah. I don't know if I want to name-drop them, necessarily, just because I don't really know, but there's maybe four or five people that I would love to try to collaborate with more. One person who I have jammed with in New York a few times already is Marcia Bassett, who was in Double Leopards and now has a solo project called Zaïmph, and also collaborates with Samara Lubelski. There's this guy Rob Lowe [formerly of 90 Day Men], who goes by Lichens, who I used to know in Chicago and have kept in touch with, and he does mostly modular synth stuff and I'd love to collaborate with him. Those are a few offhand. Also C. Spencer Yeh is someone who I've met and would love to collaborate with. 

Tone Madison: And do you plan to keep developing your solo stuff more?

Kathleen Baird: Absolutely! Primarily because I'll have a lot more time to work on it. I'm sure both Taralie and I will kind of hone in on that more, and actually I'm really excited to hone in on that, because I'm sitting on a lot of material that I'd like to focus in and get some kind of a real release with it. I have a bunch of free-form piano stuff, and more abstract song-structure-y stuff with flute, keyboard, and voice, and I'm just trying to figure out where to put all that. 

Tone Madison: Speaking of collaboration, you also play piano on one track on the new Burial Hex album, The Hierophant.

Kathleen Baird: Yeah! I forgot about that. That was a track that I had recorded in my hometown in this church that I went to growing up, and that particular track was really minimal and sparse and beautiful and I loved it a lot, but this person came in and started vacuuming while I was doing it. It just seemed like a perfect thing to give to Clay. I think we added a bunch of stuff that just masked that [vacuuming] sound.

Tone Madison: In addition to keeping STITSR going, do you plan to keep some creative ties to Madison?

Kathleen Baird: I have so much love for the Madison music scene, I really do, and I would love to help in any way I can from a distance.  It's such a supportive community, even though it's so much smaller than so many other places. Some shows it's not the case, but there's kind of a loyalty amongst the musicians here. And it keeps changing and morphing and stuff. I mean, it always is. It seems like already I can see some shifts happening. I've seen a lot more rock bands becoming more prominent. Good ones, I think. I was in New York three weeks ago and I saw Keiji Haino and Tony Conrad do their little collaboration thing. I've seen them before and thought they were amazing, and this last performance, I was a little underwhelmed, even though I have such high respect for both of them. I went to a couple other shows when I was in New York as well, and I'd think, "DB Pedersen's wild improv things so trump what I've just seen." 

Tone Madison: Yeah, the group of people doing experimental music in town is pretty small, but there are some really highly active people like DB who make that community feel pretty strong,

Kathleen Baird: I call DB the secret weapon of Madison. 

Tone Madison: When you moved to Madison from Chicago, what was that transition like in terms of making music?

Kathleen Baird: Well, it took maybe two or three years before Tara and I really even caught wind of what was even happening, honestly. We probably weren't looking very well, or maybe we had our heads in the sand, or maybe we had some kind of Chicago snobbery going on. I don't know, but we were just not really abreast of what was going on. I think the time when Aaron and Indra were here, I finally sort of embraced the scene with them, even though they had just moved and weren't here for very long, but it seems like there was a lot going on and I was oblivious. It took a while. And that's probably just a personal thing. I don't think I came here gung-ho determined to dive into it, partly because in Chicago, Spires, in the whole time they were a band, from 2001 until 2006, we didn't set up one show on our own, except for one. But all the other shows we were just asked to play. We were just sort of of the mentality that things just come to you. When we started in Madison, things weren't just coming to us. Those first few years, we were actually just going to Chicago all the time and playing, and it's been this gradual process of letting go of Chicago and embracing Madison. I feel like we have an equal footing in both places in a way. There was definitely a shift for me, specifically, maybe two or three years in, of "I'm going to have to go out and find things and make things happen." And that eventually, very organically, led to wanting to do more organizing. 

Tone Madison: Do you have any favorites of the shows you've hosted?

Kathleen Baird: Josephine Foster, when she played here with Victor Herrero. Suzuki Junzo, the Japanese noise guitarist, I thought that was a pretty dynamic set. There were moments where his cord was cutting out, and I don't think he was happy about it, but it was creating this amazing rhythm of electricity in and out. One of the last shows that we did here, Spires collaborated with Rob Lundberg and Tim Russell, and I remember that being a lot of fun. 

Tone Madison: You opened for Slint on their east coast tour earlier this year, which was an unusual pairing. What were those shows like?

Kathleen Baird: It was kind of a bold move of theirs to have us open. I suppose you could find some kind of connection there, but [laughs] it's a bit of a stretch. I don't know if they wanted some kind of female energy. But it was super fun playing in these big venues and these huge sound systems and getting such thorough sound checks and just getting treated so well. But we were really playing to probably not our crowd at all, you know what I mean? But people were super sweet. I think they were also very enthusiastic, and a lot of them were young kids who'd heard of this band Slint, and then you had the hardcore older guys, too. It was very male audiences—probably 85 percent men, and there'd be a token female there in the middle. But it was still fun. And the Slint guys were super sweet, and it was fun to get to know them. 

Tone Madison: Do you have any other projects in the works as you prepare for the move?

Kathleen Baird: As I said, I'm getting more involved with Perfect Wave and I'm helping with some releases coming up. There is a release coming out, just a cassette, of something totally different that I've never done before, just really minimal ambient keyboard stuff with my friend Camilla Padgitt-Coles, and it's this project we have called Tropical Rock. That's probably going to get released in the next month or so. Everything else is yet to be, so we'll see.