Salt of the Earth 

Chris Bathgate made one of the best records of the year. So why's he fighting for relevance?

A couple weeks ago, a writer and a photographer were on the highway to Hell — Michigan Route 23 — driving away from Ypsilanti in a car that carried cameras, guitars, and bourbon. All for later. First, they had a record to listen to and some miles to cover. They were on their way to meet a guy who was already in Hell — pop. 266 — drinking a beer.

The car rolled toward a falling sun. The photog plugged the destination into his phone's GPS and the writer popped in Salt Year, Chris Bathgate's latest CD. They talked about the music. The writer considered it "a carefully crafted narrative." The photog responded that "it isn't just bad luck and heartbreak, though you will might hear it that way."

They agreed. Bathgate showed "poetic restraint," the writer thought. Something practiced. Sorrowful.

Silence swept over the car. Salt Year is a tough record to talk over.

The car passed packs of pickup trucks.

Rattling the speakers, Bathgate called out to a woman named Eliza and sang himself into some heartbroken nightmare.

The photog refreshed the GPS and broke the silence. "The record's kind of like a map, right?" he said staring at his phone, waiting for the blue dot to get back on track. "It takes you somewhere."

"But only a sympathetic listener can read that map," the writer added. "But, yeah, through the thickets of a dead swamp forest. Serene. Perilous."

He called it a "soundtrack for insoluble turmoil."

Somewhere far above in orbit, a satellite homed in on the car and the route was made clear again.

Photog goes a ways back with Bathgate. But the writer, from Detroit, had only met him a handful of times.

"I swear it's easier to get a read on the guy through his music than in person," photog said.

"He always sounds like he could use a drink," the writer said and canceled the cruise control and slowed the car as he passed Portage Lake on North Territorial road. He said, "Bathgate's doing better these days. He's got a big spring ahead of him. Did he tell you about Cyprus? Shakespeare? No? I'll let him tell you. But I'm sure he won't mind a couple beers. Wait until you see this bar."

The writer wondered aloud about the title of Bathgate's record, and what to make of Eliza, who more or less haunts the record.

"It's interesting," the photog started, "because we already heard the song 'Salt Year' on Bathgate's 2008 EP — Wait, Skeleton."

The redux saw a change in gravity. "Like, maybe Chris had no idea this sad bastard lullaby was a premonition," the photog said.

He told the writer how, just as Bathgate had begun to experience some career highs, he was met with a couple years of serial lows. Fractured relationships. And not just romantic ones. Financial woes. "Starving artist stuff," he said.

 

It was a beautiful day in Hell. The record had begun to repeat by the time the car pulled up to the Dam Site Inn, a rural dive frequented by bikers, cottage folk, tea partiers (they sell merch at the bar) and, evidently, a prolific and semi-reclusive folk singer who basks in the irony the bar affords.

The sun was on the horizon, but the bar was already dark and dank. Kitschy devil decorations were strewn about. NASCAR was on.

Not that one could tell, but it was happy hour.

A few barmaids mingled with a line cook. Save for the one guy sitting alone in a booth wearing work clothes all covered in paint and grime, the place was empty.

The writer and the photog watched him tilt a can back. When his hand came down they could see his face. He looked worn out, and was. But he forced a smile and said something that made the waitress feel pretty as she approached.

It was Bathgate.

He rose from his seat to greet his guests. A hug for the photographer and a sturdy shake for the writer. A couple cold ones were already on the way over. Bathgate is a gentleman like that.

The first thing the writer jotted in his notepad was "Classic charm, like his music."

Tall and broad shouldered, tired but with good posture, Bathgate had a sort of timeless look. British somehow. But American blue-collar. You wouldn't have guessed it by the sight of him that day, but he's an aesthete, studied in the classics, American lit, poetry and art too.

Three cans were raised.

The writer soon learned that Bathgate had always been a creative but diligent type of guy. Ever since he was a kid. He also confirmed something the photog had said in the car, that Bathgate once had purple hair, the Deftones filled his tape deck and, he once played in a metal band.

The photog studied Bathgate for a moment and said he could see his hardcore streak in the "intensity" he brings to folk music. Even in the booth, Bathgate's posture and brow were serious, and the writer noted this in his pad, circling the words "work ethic" and "furrowed."

By 2001, Bathgate had chilled out a bit and started to pursue a serious solo music project.

He said he was attending a small arts college when his parents moved from Illinois to Dexter in Washtenaw County. They invited him to check out Ann Arbor, take a tour of the University of Michigan. Maybe he'd consider transferring?

"It only took one visit," Bathgate said.

"What did it?" the writer asked.

"That first visit, I happened into the Ark. It was open-mic night," Bathgate said. "I mean, I dug U-M, and Ann Arbor was so much cooler than where I was, but the Ark show sealed it immediately."

Bathgate studied art and literature at the University of Michigan, but continued to record solo. There was a three-man old-timey band called the Ambitious Brothers, followed by a short-lived experimental band, Descent of the Holy Ghost Church, which featured, among other area musicians, the very talented Matt Jones.

The photog helped piece it together.

"There were a few solo EPs in there too, right?"

Right.

Bathgate described himself as "an ambitious kid."

"Actually, every year, since I was 16, I've made a 12-to-14-song album. First they were bedroom tapes, then dorm room CD-Rs. Then the real thing. This is how long I've been trying to make records, man," he told the writer. "Every year."

In the mid 2000s, Bathgate cut his teeth inside a serious Ann Arbor music community. Among his peers are Jones, Misty Lynn, Great Lakes Myth Society, Drunken Barn Dance and the gone but not forgotten Canada. Later Breath Owl Breathe and, to a degree, Frontier Ruckus crashed the scene. And Bathgate couldn't stress enough the importance of Jim Roll, who operates the folk-favorite recording studio Backseat Productions.

These days, Bathgate wades alone in the deepest end of the talent pool.

Just as he was figuring out that he needed to primarily focus on his solo records, Bathgate was picked up to play bass on a tour with experi-pop outfit Saturday Looks Good To Me. "I was a hired gun," he said. The band toured the UK, and Bathgate opened shows with a solo set. It was a huge opportunity. Still, the musician can't help but follow every pinnacle with a pitfall. "But I think I was a shitty bass player who sucked to tour with," Bathgate told the writer. "I remember breaking a string at the Hideout and not knowing what to do, not knowing how to play bass. What note? How do I do this? Guitar math is not computing." Bathgate told them that Scott Selwood, who's now in Drunken Barn dance, said it was the most hellacious tour he'd ever been on. Then he conceded. "But in the end I guess we had a fucking blast. I learned how to not give a fuck."

Bathgate finished his beer, the last of three, and set it on the table with a conclusive rap. He'd perked up.

"Who's hungry?" he said, gathering his things. "Let's head back to my place."

The tab was paid.

On the way out, he mentioned something about bacon-wrapped steaks and a band from Kalamazoo who was crashing at his house for the night. A feast had been planned.

Bathgate, the writer and the photographer stepped outside. The sun had set on Hell.

 

Bathgate lives around the corner from Hell, in Pinckney, on a serene ravine. The house is owned by his father and looks like a folk singer's house should, all dark wood, bookshelves and rickety furniture.

The kitchen looks out onto the water. Graham Parsons was chopping vegetables there. "He's Top Chef," Bathgate said as the three entered.

Parsons plays in Bathgate's band and fronts his own roots rock outfit, the Go-Rounds. He nodded and smiled a hello. His bandmates and some friends from the Strut, the Kalamazoo venue and label, were hanging out on couches and porches, taking turns cooking and smoking. A cheery dude named Jeremy Quentin who makes lighter folk fare under the moniker Small Houses, introduced himself first.

Billy Bragg and Wilco's record of Woody Guthrie tunes, Mermaid Avenue, played in the background.

A very folky scene: Plaid print shirts, work boots and shaggy heads.

Steaks, bacon-wrapped as promised, cooked on the grill with sweet corn, mixing with other kinds of smoke to make for quite a savory aroma.

Bathgate took a minute to clean up, then grabbed a few bottles of Michigan beer and found a seat across from the writer. Others circled around. The dinner party interview had turned into some sort of "live" event.

"So what does a writer and a musician gain from going to art school?" the writer asked.

Bathgate was quick with answers. He's always half in his head.

"I had this class on color theory, learning about context and relation," he said. "Certain colors look different depending on what colors they're put against. And if you stare at enough color, you start to see it differently, you start seeing things you didn't see before. This class was intense. We looked at lot of color, and talked a lot about Cézanne and read a lot of Wallace Stevens. The professor was a hardass. If the homework wasn't good, he could make students cry. You'd have nightmares about this guy. But he got us thinking critically about the most minute things. The way I was thinking was that every time the professor would say something like, 'The thing about color is,' I'd substitute color for music songwriting. I think the same things apply to poetry that apply to music or painting."

"Sounds serious," the writer said.

"Maybe that's the sad thing," Bathgate replied. "It's always been serious. In high school it was serious. It was serious in 2005 when I was recording on an eight-track in the basement of the Frieze Building."

In 2006, Bathgate recorded "Darkness is Vague" a song he said talks about one of the effects of his serious approach.

"There's this experience of having your friends gather round you, telling you that, you know, 'This is the [record] that's going to do it, man. This is your opus. Your most serious record yet.' My retort has always been, 'Nothing's different.' Maybe I'm just a little sharper. But it's always been serious. It will always be serious."

The writer asked if Bathgate thought he was often too serious.

"At times I'm darkly serious," Bathgate said. "These past few years, I've had a hard time with sarcasm, getting sarcasm, having room for it. Part of that is because there's always truth in sarcasm. People say what it is they're actually thinking, but they veil it in comedy. Not always, but it's become hard for me to differentiate, especially when someone comes up after a show and says, laughingly, 'Shitty set tonight.' Are you joking? You're not joking are you? You're talking like your joking but you actually think it was a shitty set don't you?"

It wasn't always this way. How does one lose one's sense of sarcasm? Bathgate blamed it on college.

"It got burned out in undergrad. I hung out with way too many people that were completely, heavily sarcastic, sarcastic to the point where it seemed that most of what was being said was coded insult," he told the writer. "People were picking at each other's deficiencies in ways that made it socially acceptable, which is really fucked up. Terrible. I think I was also that way. I realized that if someone were to write down the conversations we were having on paper, without the implied tones, it'd read as the cruelest thing you could write."

As a kid, Bathgate would crack jokes until he got a laugh. Now he described himself as stoic, stern and pensive.

Parsons chimed in from the kitchen with a little levity. "But you dip in and out of it every few weeks, Chris. One week, you'll want to go to the Dam Site every damn night. Then the next week you'll stay in your room every night."

If it weren't for those somber evenings in, however, the music wouldn't get written would it? This goes unsaid.

Anyone who is at all familiar with Bathgate's music — which was everyone in house that night — knows he spends ample time hanging out inside his head, tapping into solitude as if it were a genre.

All of his songs, Bathgate told the writer, are organized in his head. He has a system of songs, they're all tied to each other by melody, lyric and subject. And, as the writer learned on the way to Hell, Bathgate sometimes re-envisions complete songs, covering himself. Three songs that appeared on an early EP, A Detailed Account of Three Dreams, appear anew on Bathgate's 2007 breakout record, A Cork Tale Wake.

Released on Ann Arbor's boutique label Quite Scientific, A Cork Tale Wake got international attention. It was no small year for indie-folk either: Andrew Bird, the Avett Brothers, the Cave Singers, Great Lakes Swimmers and genre gods Wilco all released significant albums in 2007. Bathgate's stark collection of songs garnered him attention as an especially talented musician, vocalist and songwriter.

He had risen out of the Ann Arbor-Ypsilanti circle. His name was known from Lansing to Grand Rapids to Calumet. Soon he was pulling crowds in cities such as Lexington, Ky., Philadelphia and New York.

In 2007, Bathgate toured the country a few times and booked a successful European tour. But he had a hard time booking shows 40 minutes east of Ann Arbor.

"Detroit's a different story," he told the writer. "It's an enigma. For three years, I played shows at the Magic Stick and the Lager House, at the Guardian Building with Frontier Ruckus and the Sisters Lucas, and at Cliff Bell's on Sundays, which were great even if there were only five people there. But there's something to Detroit. I never got it clicking. I played the downtown synagogue last summer for, like, 10 people, which was seriously amazing. But, yeah, I think I got tired of trying to crack that. Detroit fell off my plate."

He didn't have energy or time to try anymore.

A year of riding Wake, the time came to head back into the studio. But, for the first year since he was 16, Bathgate didn't have an album to record.

Thus was the onset of his Salt Year.

 

After dinner, Bathgate and the writer sat down to talk about Salt Year. The photog found a spot close by.

Bathgate told him that there came a time when songs "started pulling at each other."

The song "In the City," he said, was one of the first that started tugging.

"I start collecting ideas for an album four to five months before I start recording," Bathgate said.

Anyone who was drinking at Elbow Room back in 2008 probably heard fresh versions of songs that would make it onto Salt Year.

"I play half-finished songs live all the time, just to work them out and gauge reaction," Bathgate told the writer. "It's also good to play new songs live early on because it's good to take risks and feel uncomfortable. It's good to go up there with a verse and some melody, knowing the song's only going to be about a minute-and-a-half long. You give yourself room to experiment in the moment."

As the songs started coming together, Bathgate said he realized the record was going to be something unlike anything he'd done. "It's probably the most serious record I wrote in that it's really very personal. It's more directly about my life than anything I've ever done before."

"So it was an especially hard record to make?" wondered the writer.

Bathgate smiled. "It was, by far, the hardest yet," he said. "I almost lost my mind."

The record was written and ready to start tracking by December of 2008. And, like he'd done in the past, Bathgate went into the studio with Jim Roll. Salt Year was slated for a September 2009 release. But September came and went. So sights were set to February 2010. By then Bathgate wasn't that much further along than he'd been in autumn.

Nerves started to swell. Things began to sour. Business got in the way.

Bathgate was broke and miserable. He and Roll weren't seeing eye-to-eye on much.

"You know they say anytime an engineer is on a record for more than a year, they've lost perspective," Bathgate said to the writer. "I think Jim was on it too long."

As money issues loomed, Bathgate started to crumble, dealing with a conflicted heart and a record stuck in the mud.

"I was neurotic and obsessed," Bathgate said. "We started butting heads in the studio and I just felt I needed more time and more time and more time. I needed to experiment and get it all right."

When he finished writing the songs, Cork Tale Wake was still riding high. Then six months passed. Then a year. Then the realization that it could actually take yet another year to get the record out.

And he on top of it all he was dealing with a relationship that was said was "broken, crooked even" but "epically sad ... and unresolved."

Blues.

The writer wanted to know what weighed heaviest on Bathgate.

"In a word, relevance," Bathgate said. "I had finally built up relevance here and had something going in the U.K. for sure. "People in Croatia were hearing my songs. I've been handing out CD-R's my entire career and now I was on the BBC."

What hurt worst, he said, was that, for just a moment, he had tasted sustainability, which he figured was both the best and worst thing that can happen to a musician. "To have that glimpse at what it'd be to just do music, and for that to just vanish with time ..."

One day Bathgate called Roll with tears in his eyes.

It just wasn't working anymore. They'd been plugging away at the record for more than a year. It was even half-mixed. Finally. But Bathgate pulled it. He said it was the toughest decision he's had to make as a musician.

"I kept hanging up," Bathgate said. "I was lying on the floor, right over there, crying so hard I couldn't finish a thought. When I was finally able to pull it together, I called again and said, 'Bounce my files, man. I'm going to Detroit.'"

He brought the record to Chris Koltay's Corktown studio, Case 1/4, where bands such as Akron/Family and the Dirtbombs had cut some of their best work.

Koltay, the writer pointed out, isn't necessarily known for making lush indie folk records. "He's kind of a hardass."

But that's just what Bathgate needed.

"Aside from being super talented, Koltay is indeed a tough guy," Bathgate said. "He's not fluffing me, you know? He broke me down. I was a wreck and he was like, 'Dude, why are you so fucking worried about this record? It's just a record. You're going to make another. So go fucking finish your vocal takes.'"

That was amazing. He's done things in the studio I'd never seen before. Blew my mind a little. He's also a great cook."

The masters were finished in late 2010, and Salt Year was finally released on Quite Scientific mid-April 2011.

The last beers were cracked open long ago. The Go-Rounds were cleaning up or dozing off and the photog pulled out a guitar he'd brought along for the trip. The night waned.

"I have a terrible memory," Bathgate said to the writer, leaning in to his recorder. "I can't remember more than half my life, so that's why I write, to log those important moments, to encapsulate my life in these coded lyrics. I'm singing about my life, man."

"And now it's time to take your life back out on the road?" the photog said.

"I have to build relevance again," Bathgate said, half-worried. "I played a benefit for the Neutral Zone and nobody showed up and I was like, 'Damn, the whole town's forgotten. I used to kill it and now no one's here.' A few shows later, we played early at the Blind Pig on a Wednesday and there was a big rush for our set. After we played the place thinned out and it was kind of like, 'Oh, OK. I guess we're back again? How'd we sneak back into your ears?' Maybe we can even sneak into Detroit this time."

He said he was excited to get back on the road and spend the month of April touring Michigan. In May, Bathgate said he was off to the Mediterranean island of Cyprus to produce music for and perform in an experimental rendition of A Midsummer Night's Dream. "Crazy, right?" Bathgate said. "Between now and then I have to write another album." When he's back on American soil, he'll spend the rest of the summer touring the East Coast. "Feels good to be back at it."

It's the end of his Salt Year.

Before the writer and photog made their way through Hell and back home, there was a woman to talk about. She'd been been on the writer's mind the whole night. Eliza.

The mention of her name elicited Bathgate's widest grin of the night.

"Oh, Eliza," he said longingly. "Eliza is my dream woman." He closed his eyes. "She's a 1930s farm-house kind of woman, but with contemporary intellect. She plays fiddle. She likes to make pie. I haven't met her yet." He opened his eyes. "But Eliza is also a very real woman, whom I did have a very real and intense relationship with. It was love against logic. Eliza's a blurry cloud of real things and unreal things."

The photog, who played the quiet voyeur that evening as photographers often do, failed to snap a single picture. And just when it looked like he was pulling out his camera, he rose out his chair with a fine bottle of bourbon he packed earlier in the day.

"Here's to Eliza," he said with a swig.

And Bathgate said, "I'll drink to that."

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