Preview: Chris Bathgate at Top of the Park
After a five-year hiatus, local folk singer-songwriter Chris Bathgate is back in the national spotlight with his new EP Old Factory. The Grand Rapids-based artist was first catapulted beyond the Midwest’s music scene with his 2011 album Salt Year, but the pressures of touring led to a five-year hiatus.
Bathgate’s latest batch of songs finds him sounding refreshed and reenergized. Old Factory is more upbeat than his often melancholic earlier records, and he says he’s already hard at work on two new full-lengths—a full length solo record, and the debut LP for his collaborative project SKULLLS.
This Thursday Bathgate will bring a full band to Top of the Park (which he calls “one my favorite performance opportunities”) for a free show. I caught up with Bathgate to talk about returning from his hiatus, the influence of nature on Old Factory, and the new direction his music seems to be taking.
Q: You’ve expressed some regret for how you handled the national attention Salt Year attracted. NPR exclusively debuted a track from Old Factory, so obviously a lot of people are paying attention to you again. Did you anticipate being in this position again?
A: I didn't expect NPR to promote this when it came out. Stephen Thompson, the gentleman who I guess premiered that announcement, has been a supporter for years. It's kind of strange. He's this kind of elusive figure in my life. I won't do anything for two years, and then I'll put something out and NPR will call. It's kind of nice. I think a lot of that national exposure is credited to him maybe being on top of it.
I think it's pretty easy to forget about artists, especially when they don't do anything for two or three years, or at least they aren't in the public eye for two years. That was a pleasant surprise. It wasn't something I was shooting for, I was just excited to have music coming out. The vision had been solidified for so long, so it was nice to finally get to share those songs.
Q: Do you ever feel pressured to keep up with those expectations: to release music at a faster pace?
A: I think trying to keep up momentum is a goal, but I've never really let it bring me down. I don't know if my process allows for that kind of visibility, of putting something out every 8 to 12 months. It takes me a long time to do anything with music, and I think that's better. You can only release a record once, you know? It's better for me to take my time and make sure everything's up to snuff and everything comes out the way I want it to. The art's always been my number one priority. Maybe my process and the way the music industry works don't line up, but that's just fine with me.
Q: You had a long time to sit with the material on Old Factory before you finished the record. How do you feel about the final product?
A: I'm still making minuscule edits. When I went back I already knew exactly what I wanted to change about what I'd worked on. I re-tracked some strings and some drums. I had a long time to think about those things. If the hiatus did anything for that record, it made me see where I needed to shore some things up on my end, at least compositionally and sonically. It gave me the space to fall out of love enough with the songs to find out what core parts needed to change.
Q: Nature had a big influence on this record. Can you talk about how that manifests itself—lyrically or sonically—in these songs?
A: I guess the most obvious connection is the song Acorns and its percussion section. The inspiration for that song comes from being on my back porch while there were acorns thumping on the roof on the deck. So that's an actual sound in nature, and I think something I had been thinking about as well, conceptually. Not to sound obtuse, but it's an interesting thing to me, the seasonal downfall of acorns. It's like word painting. The percussion on that song is directly attributed to that. I didn't write it: an oak tree in my back yard did.
I was thinking about humans in nature. When do we feel a part of it? When do we feel excluded from it? When do we feel greater than it, and what really connects us? All of those things were rolling around pretty heavily in my mind when I was making that record.
Q: Old Factory sounds more urgent and uptempo than your previous records. What do you think accounts for that?
A: Before Salt Year it was pretty rare for me to play with a full band. The majority of my material is kind of lilting and slow, and somber, even. I think working with better and better studios, being more interested in percussion and drums—there's definitely a lot of rhythmic stuff happening on Old Factory—I think that's just the direction my interest has gone.
Coming out of an 8-track home bedroom folk mindset, I feel like I had never been able to get high-fidelity recordings of drums. They've been the most complicated to track coming from when I was first starting out, and as I've gotten into better and better studios I have the ability to lay down two full drum kits and have it sound really good and be able to use a lot of expensive overheads and stuff like that. I think the rhythm comes from my color palette as a composer, that I haven't been able to use those colors in that way up until recently. That expansion pack—the ability to record high-fidelity drums—comes from that. I think it's maybe me over-exercising that new ability.
Q: What can we expect from your show at Top of the Park?
You're going to hear some of the arrangements from the record slightly tweaked, with a full band with a full horn section, which I don't play every show with, but Top of the Park is one of my favorites. That's something that hasn't happened in a while. We'll have three horns as well as pedal steel. Some of my songs are really just about the arrangement, and we're going to have the capacity to flex those muscles at Top of the Park.
Steven Sonoras is a writer living in Ypsilanti.
Chris Bathgate will play the Ann Arbor Summer Festival’s Top of the Park at 8:15 pm on Thursday, June 16. He and his band will perform on the Rackham Stage, located at 915 E Washington St. Admission is free, and venue and parking information can be found at a2sf.org.