Interview: Nat Baldwin discusses indie rock, basketball, and indie-rockers playing basketball
Nat Baldwin’s music career has been as varied as it has been successful. He was a student of legendary composer Anthony Braxton. He’s been the bassist for The Dirty Projectors since 2005. He’s also released a handful of solo albums, including the new People Changes (due on May 24th on Western Vinyl). But how does the fact that he was the MVP of the New England Class C basketball tournament when he was in middle school fit in with all of that? Well, that award was on the front cover of his previous album, Most Valuable Player. Likewise, the video for his newest single, “Weights,” was shot on a Brooklyn basketball court. As it turns out, Baldwin loves the game as much as he loves music, and he sees the two as linked. Prior to tonight’s show at First Unitarian Church—and while he was driving from Charlottesville, VA, to Annapolis, MD, for a Cinco De Mayo cookout—The Key spoke with Baldwin about the connection between music and sports, the indie-music basketball scene, and the playoff struggles of his beloved Boston Celtics.
The Key: The Celtics are down 2-0 to The Miami Heat. Any thoughts or predictions?
Nat Baldwin: They’re looking kind of beat up right now. But I’m excited that they’re going back home on Saturday. Yeah, I’m hoping they can get it back—but the Heat are looking tough.
TK: You think the Celtics have a shot?
NB: I’m a little nervous about it.
TK: Wow. You always sound so confident about them in interviews.
NB: Regardless of how loyal and dedicated a fan I am, I think—when you’re looking at any team with as much experience as the Celtics—you can never rule them out. A lot of people are saying they’re done, but the Heat just protected their home court, which is what they’re supposed to do. Hopefully the Celtics will be able to do the same, and we’ll be able to steal one in Miami. We’ll see. I’m definitely not ruling them out. It was a tough couple of games.
TK: You have any thoughts on the Sixers?
NB: I like the Sixers. They have a cool young team. I like Doug Collins a lot as a coach. I like [Andre] Iguodala. He was actually on my fantasy team for a little while.
TK: Are you a big fantasy sports player? How did you do this year?
NB: I didn’t do that great. I wasn’t terrible. This was my first year doing it. I really liked it. It kind of took over my life. [Laughs.] But it’s fun.
TK: The album cover for the new record, People Changes, is a picture of you shirtless and holding a basketball. Was that contrived, or were you really walking around shirtless, with a basketball, in an overgrown court?
NB: It was contrived. [Laughs.] I wanted to do some kind of portrait shot and I was in Chicago with my friend David Sampson, who’s an awesome musician and photographer. We were walking around and we found that weird little field in Chicago. We snuck through a fence to get in there and just started taking some photos. And we actually found the basketball in the field. So that was just a sign. That had to be included in the photo. And of course we did a bunch of different kinds of ones. The idea wasn’t for it to be a shirtless photo. We had a bunch of different options. That one seemed to work the best. It just sort of made it weirder and that’s why we chose that one. It was fun to do.
TK: How do your musical life and your athletic life mesh?
NB: It’s linking my two passions together. One leads to the other. I was totally deep into basketball all throughout high school. I didn’t get into music until my senior year in high school. Then I got totally deep into music. I went from one to the other, with music replacing basketball. For the albums, a lot of the songs are looking back on the past, even if they’re not referring to specific things. A lot of them are referring to my past as an athlete, even if they’re sort of disguised as something else. I think there’s a huge connection—more than people think—between music and sports. I definitely have learned a lot and have taken a lot from my experiences as an athlete to my experience as musician. I think there are just a lot of parallels.
TK: Could you elaborate on those parallels?
NB: There’s the obvious ones, like playing on basketball team you’ve got five people on the court. A normal-sized band is around five people, give or take a couple. And so the dynamics are similar. Everyone sort of has their role. There’s usually the star of the team and then there’s usually a front person. So that’s a more obvious one. And then just the discipline that it takes to be proficient at both mediums. I took a lot of the discipline it took to become a good basketball player: endless hours practicing alone, repetitive stuff that a lot of people would think of as boring, drills, hanging out in my basement doing all sorts of dribbling drills—that’s what I spent my whole childhood doing. And then, when I got into music, it was just easy. Getting a practice routine, like already knew about how to discipline myself as an athlete. So it was easy to translate that into music. I wasn’t writing my own music or being totally creative with music when I first started. I was just trying to learn how to play the bass. My first three years of playing all I did was practice scales and try to learn my instrument. I’m really glad I did because it’s allowed me to move into other more creative territory with a little more facility.
TK: What about the creative side? Sports are linear with a winner, loser, and rules. Music is supposed to be this open-ended thing. Is there a conflict there? Or do you see music less open-ended?
NB: I lived in the sports world for so long, and it’s so competitive. That’s what it is: you’re trying to beat the other person. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of that in music, too. People are really competitive. And I never really understood that. I think, maybe because I did that as an athlete and it made sense in that context, I can see that there’s no place for it in my music. It’s so creative and subjective.
TK: What about athletic competition among musicians? The whole indie-musicians-playing-basketball thing seems to be taking off. Have you met any musicians who can match your skills on the court?
NB: [Laughs.] I haven’t come across any that play my position. I haven’t come across any guards that would be able to handle me. But yeah, Justin Vernon [of Bon Iver] is really good. Me and my brother played with him when we went through Eau Claire [WI]. We played at the Eau Claire YMCA. He’s really good. He’s more of a post player, but he’s got a good jumpshot. He’s taller, he’s like 6’5’’ or something. I guess Win Butler [of Arcade Fire] is really good. I’ve never played with him, but we have this weird connection where, before we even met, we were on same summer-league team in Bar Harbor. But the two of us were on tour at different times so we never actually played together. My brother played with him and he’s supposed to be really good. He’s also more of big guy. He’s like 6’5 or 6’6. There’s a few other guys. This guy Micah [Middaugh] from the band Breathe Owl Breathe. I guess the Yeasayer guys play and we always talk about playing but we’ve never played together.
TK: I’m waiting for a musician basketball tournament. I would watch that.
NB: I would love that. Oh, you know who else plays is Steve Marion from Delicate Steve.
TK: I saw that music video of you guys playing.
NB: Yeah, he has a sweet lefty shot.
Nat Baldwin perform with Nick Millevoi and Bronze Float at 8 p.m. at First Unitarian Church; tickets to the all-ages show are $10. —Dave Simpson