The post-genre OG’s are a power trio for the ages
For a trio who’ve been together in the studio a total of just two days and has never played a single live gig, it’s positively jaw-dropping that three musicians can achieve the superhuman chemistry they share—a dynamic few can touch.
Most trios, though, aren’t as monumental as this one that counts avant-jazz guitarist Mike Baggetta, legendary session drummer Jim Keltner and Minutemen/Stooges bassist and punk rock lifer Mike Watt as members.
In 2019, the Baggetta/Keltner/Watt power trio first introduced their self-described “post-genre” mettle in the form of Wall of Flowers. With Baggetta bringing six-string pyrotechnics and psychedelic abstractions cut from the Nels Cline and David Torn cloth while the Keltner/Watt rhythm section held down the groove with deep-thinking abandon, Wall of Flowers was easily slotted in as one of the best records of that year, whether filed under the jazz or rock umbrellas.
AUDIO: Baggetta Keltner Watt “Wall of Flowers”
Three years later, Baggetta, Keltner and Watt have dropped its follow-up—a second record no one was sure would happen. Thanks to the persistence of Keltner—session drummer king for the likes of Bob Dylan, George Harrison, John Lennon and Paul Westerberg, amongst tons of other luminaries—Everywhen We Go saw release at the end of 2022. It further crystallizes this trio’s unrivaled alchemy.
Everywhen We Go is a on a whole other cosmic level, showing Baggetta, Keltner and Watt in complete dialed-in mode, more so than on their debut. Like Bill Frisell, the twangy guitar work of Baggetta is understated mastery, Watt’s bass deceptively simple yet huge and the brilliant Keltner, laying down landscapes of beats, percussion, brushes and strokes that are pure subtle beauty, all done with an effortless touch.
The Globe spoke to Baggetta and Watt to get the lowdown on Everywhen We Go, mssv, their other project with drummer Stephen Hodges that was birthed out of Wall of Flowers, Keltner’s genius and more.
Let’s start with the Baggetta Keltner Watt versus the mssv timeline because with these two bands going at the same time it gets a bit confusing!
Mike Baggetta: Wall of Flowers we recorded in 2017, came out in 2019. Keltner doesn’t travel so we got Hodges to play. On that tour, it became mssv. After the tour, we did another tour in California later that year, just the whole state, to warm up the music. Then we made the first mssv studio record. The Wall of Flowers tour we recorded the first, I guess, which is technically the first mssv album, Live Flowers. It’s that CD, mostly it’s the Philly show from that tour but we added the encore from Northampton where J Mascis plays (on the cover of the Stooges “Funhouse”).
Later that year we did the California tour, then we recorded the first album studio album, main steam stop valve. We’re supposed to tour then the pandemic shut us down, postponed it. So then the big tour, amazingly it was still this (past) year, March and April (of 2022). We did forty-eight shows in the U.S. and then right after that, we recorded the next mssv album that’s coming out next fall and we’ll do the next U.S. tour in between. We recorded this non-mssv album, Baggetta, Keltner, watt, part two.
Mike Watt: The bass line thing is mssv. Baggetta Keltner Watt is not mssv. This is a big reason. In mssv, Mike Baggetta writes my bass lines. D Boon never even wrote my bass lines! I never had dudes write me parts. This band, Baggetta Keltner Watt, ain’t like this. Chris Schlarb, the guy who runs the label and the studio, BIG EGO, he put this fuckin’ together. You wanna blame somebody, it’s Chris Schlarb! It’s trippy, I’ve learned about music: you just go with it. There doesn’t have to be a real reason behind it. Just the connec.’ If it’s fuckin’ happenin’ it’s fuckin’ happenin.’
How did this second record of the Baggetta, Keltner and Watt trio come about?
Baggetta: Jim suggested doing the session. I have from the very first session we did the Wall of Flowers session, a solid chunk of that was free-improvisation. We improvised for like three hours or so that day, which a couple of songs from the first album come from—“Dirty Smell of Dying” and “I Am Not a Data Point.” Those come from the improv and those are really the first two chunks of the improv that I edited out then scrapped what everybody was playing, recomposed new material and then overdubbed it to kind of tie together as a pseudo-composition improvisation thing, which is a technique I learned from David Torn.
So, I had another two hours of free improv from that session that…it wasn’t like I only took the good stuff. I just took the first two so I had all this other stuff that no one’s heard. When lockdown happened or maybe it was actually before lockdown, I kind of had this idea to start choppin’ it up. But when the lockdown happened, I really went in and started going to town on it and transcribing all this stuff. Two hours of improv, transcribing what Jim was playing, transcribing what Watt was playing, thinking about what I had played, chopping it up into like, I think it was like another four or five pieces, recomposing material and putting it on there. So, I have this other set of music and I got it mixed and mastered and it sounded like really good—one man’s opinion. I sent to it to (Chris) Schlarb and he was into it. I think he sent it to Jim and Jim said something like, “It sounds real good but if we want to do another record, why don’t we just actually get together again so that it doesn’t just sound like two years ago. We write something that sounds fresh.”
Was a second Baggetta Keltner Watt record something you think would happen?
Baggetta: I didn’t think we’d ever do a second record so this is like a bizarre kind of thing for me. Really cool. I think this has been the thing where I come with a couple of songs and then we improvise. I then take the music and I slice it up and see what’s in there and add things and maybe a couple little guitar interludes to break up this little fantasy land, imaginary musical landscape thing that in a way is like a very weird thing that exists. It exists because I wanted to hear Jim and Mike play together; I was surprised they never played together and that was a way for me to have that happen for myself. But unfortunately I had to also take part in the music (laughs). But I got to hear that because of this thing that didn’t exist and I couldn’t understand why it didn’t exist but it seemed like it was never going to exist outside of this. So, yeah, I was happy that I could provide that and I wanted to kind of hold that idea in the music somehow: to create this little journey through both albums where you’re kind of coming into these things that are sort of these imaginary landscapes. They exist out of time, they exist out of space.
What about that title, Where did that come from?
Watt: Actually, there was a lot of shit left over and Mike made another album of the stuff leftover from Wall of Flowers. But Jim Keltner told ’em, “Look. You wanna make another record, let’s just make another record.” This is Everywhen We Go…it’s a strange title (laughs).
Baggetta: The title is mine. I think it’s something I lifted from Henry Kaiser. The term “everywhen” I’d never heard of before; I think he had mentioned it to me in conversation or something, like really just in passing (laughs) and I was like, “Wait, what?” The idea of everywhen is also kind of insane, like, we’re thinking about every location at once. It’s maybe not really a large step to then think about every time at once and that’s kind of speaks to the timelessness of the sound of—what I think of the sound of great music has, which I’m not saying that this is, but it’s an ideal.
So the seeds were planted for this second record during the first record.
Baggetta: For sure but none of us knew it. The time to do that, which was like right before Thanksgiving last year, there was that kind of COVID lull and everybody thought it was going away again for like the fifth time? So we went to Big Ego in Long Beach again in SoCal. We met there and we did another day of recording and everything from this session besides two of the solo guitar things, everything else came from that day. So, nothing from the previous recording sessions except two of the little solo pieces, “The Measure of Life (intro)” on dobro and then I think one of the other electric pieces. Everything else from this new album is from that new day.
Watt: Baggetta Keltner Watt, those are two days, one album for each day. Two fuckin’ days! That’s it. It’s just the experience. Dude, and I shit my pants. I was scared out of my fuckin’ mind because I wanted to do good. I didn’t want to let’em down.
Mike, then you pieced it all together and it became Whenever We Go?
Baggetta: I learned it from David Torn who told me about that idea where you can sort of play and improvise and then you can go back and listen to what are the strong compositional elements of what you did in your improvisation. Then you can utilize those as a stepping-stone to write more and tie the room together.
Watt, are you comfortable improvising?
Watt: Fuck, no! Scary has hell! You don’t want to let these cats down. You want to do the best you can for them. It’s different with Tom Watson and Raoul (Morales) and Jerry (Trebotic) and Pete (Mazich). I’m the…director, right? I’m giving them direction, right. It’s not like that with this. But there’s still responsibility. That’s the bar. So, when I go in there to help other people, I’m always thinkin’ D Boon and Georgie. Great fuckin’ cats. They way they played it was like maybe we don’t get another shot. They were like, total commitment, and man, I don’t know how Mike Baggetta knows this. But I got to tell you, I like being his bass player.
We have to talk about Jim Keltner. Watt, that must have been a trip to play with this drum legend.
Watt: Yeah, but, man, when you’re with that man, he is so beautiful. You want to be with him. He’s a cat you wanna be with. He has no chip on his shoulder. He’s a guide to be there with you. I haven’t met a lot of cats like him. He’s like the guy that’s always been with you and wants to be with you. A really happenin’ cat. Jim Keltner had sunglasses on, in the studio, which is pretty trippy (laughs) so you can’t really make eye contact. He had a baseball hat. BUT…he has a whole head of hair! You almost use a baseball hat to hide that, right? Not him. Eighty-years-old. A big part of his plan, I think, is the touch. He ain’t a slammer. Even with the kick…he’s really good that way where it’s real personal. Like I said, he’s wearing sunglasses so no eye contact but in other ways, he’s really, really communicative. He really talks with the bass man. The kick drum is probably the closest note to the bass guitar. And he knows that. Actually, he has the same kind of whatever face that I do that you’re trying to dance with the kick drum. That’s bass playing. What is bass about? It’s about trying to dance with a kick drum. I swear to God, I think that’s what it’s about.
I just want to help the other cats out. I wanted to be D Boon’s bass player. I never wanted to be just bass for bass. I had to have a purpose. So with Baggetta, Keltner and Watt, I just want to be the cat that’s there for them.
Baggetta: He’s always playing something different, which is one of the great things I love about his playing. He’s always kind of evolving what he’s playing.
Watt and Keltner are so locked in on the first record and this new one. Did they hit it off instantly playing-wise?
Baggetta: Yeah! The very first time they played is the first track on Wall of Flowers, “Hospital Song.” That’s the first meeting. You can listen to that and say if they are locked in or not (laughs). And the same for this one. The first thing we played was “Everywhen We Go” and that’s the one on the record. I just had a feeling it was going to work because why wouldn’t it? I think they both ascribe to understanding that there are roles that make the music work but they do them in their own individualistic kind of ways. I think when you’ve got people you trust that you’re playing with, you don’t have to even think about that stuff. The question you just asked was never a question in my mind, even before we ever recorded together.
Keltner playing on Whenever We Go is so expressive but he pulls it off in a low-key, effortless manner. How do you look at what his drumming brings to the record? And he’s 80 years old!
Baggetta: He’s up there. I can’t say anything. It’s just like you can listen to it and feel how good it sounds and how good it feels. What I always loved about his playing is he’s in the groove and that is never going away and he supplies the beat and the groove in this totally organic way and it evolves as he plays. Listen to anything he’s done for the most part over the decades and you hear such an infective groove from what he’s playing but you hear it develop throughout the song. So, at the end of the song, it’s rarely like the thing that it was at the beginning but it’s so subtle and so necessary that you don’t even notice what you’re listening to if you’re really trying to hear it. It’s such a beautiful thing that he does that not a lot of drummers pick up on, that you can keep that infective groove but you can evolve it even throughout the course of the song in a way that’s not sort of “look at me drum solo kind of thing.” I think it’s such a beautiful way to make music.
A major piece that stands out on Everywhen We Go is Watt’s bass playing. It’s very much a different beast from the way he played in the Minutemen, fIREHOSE and his solo stuff. On those records, Watt is aggressive and all over the place and on the records with you and Keltner he takes an understated, deceptively simple approach.
Baggetta: I would argue even the other stuff, he’s still doing that same thing. I mean, he’s locking it down, maybe in a less econo way. I think one of the things he’s gotten into is the idea of doing more with less. I only say that because it’s something that I know we’ve talked about, like you don’t have to do a lot to get the point across if what you’re doing is seeded in an honesty already. Then, of course, that’s more of the econo ethos. You can do a lot with very little and I think that’s something he’s kind of into exploring. But I also think that that’s something that I bring with the music that I…make him play (laughs) that I give to him. It’s already a little more rooted in that thing.
Actually, on the mssv tour this past spring, there was a lot of comments to him after the gig that I could overhear like “This is really different from when you played with ‘hose or Missingmen.” And Watt’s response is usually like, “Well, yeah. It’s a different band so what do you expect?” Nobody’s going to go back and try to relive the past and so you keep moving forward and you figure out what it is to evolve in your own music and maybe it’s a thing that is different. But that’s the cool thing: nobody that I would want to work with would want to be doing the same thing they did twenty years ago.
In mssv, you wrote bass lines to play for Watt. I imagine that must be a pants-shitter, as Watt would say, for you to do that for a bass legend like he is.
Baggetta: It could seem that way but we’re buds. There’s no, weird mentor father figure weirdness at all. We’ve spent so much time together and we get along real good. I think we see eye to eye on, actually, a lot of things. I’ve learned a lot from him and I think maybe he learned something from me a little bit. It’s just about working on the music with your friends. I did an interview after we made the mssv record and I said something like my whole life I thought you couldn’t make a great record unless you made it with people that were like your lifelong friends and then I found out that wasn’t true. Talking to David Torn when he was telling me about when he made his first ECM record, Cloud About Mercury, he told me he cold-called all those guys. I had just assumed they’d known each other for decades because the music is so good. Then, of course, they went on to work together a lot more. That changed my perspective like, “Oh, you can make a great record with people you don’t know.”
Watt, what is it about Baggetta that you dig?
Watt: Ya know, Mike Baggetta, I think he trusts shit. He ain’t really hung up on shit. Not expects but hopes ya bring. I think he’s in his forties. Young man! He’s totally from the Nels Cline school. Definitely two years older than me. Nels Cline opened up so many doors for guitarists where they don’t have to play cliches and shit. Nels Cline helped guitarists more than anybody. And, man, I remember the first time I saw Nels Cline, he was in the Charlie Haden Liberation Orchestra and he was playing nylon string Spanish-style guitar, which D Boon loved! It’s trippy how all this shit comes around. You have this younger man makin’ shit happen. I love it! He’s really clever about music. I think with Mike Baggetta it was all about the moment. It wasn’t about having it all planned out. Yeah, he asked me to bring a song but the other shit he wanted just the…this is my guess: he just wanted that moment. Also what Mike Baggetta learned from the first album…the first album he had to do shit on the fly but the second album, much, much more relaxed in a way, for him, I think. But for us, I was a little scared (laughs) but I wasn’t as scared as the first record. But, I tell you, a drummer like Jim Keltner, man, god, that helps (laughs). To have a guy like that on your side, we’re gonna bring it. The whole idea of aidin’ and abettin’…I love it.
Baggetta is one of the best guitarists in the jazz and improvised music scene out there.
Watt: You say jazz and shit but I think he’s more of a music guy. He’s told me what he thinks of his stuff is post-genre. Post-genre…other cats don’t wanna talk like that. They wanna say where they’re at so you wanna know what market they’re targeting. He’s saying no, don’t do that to me.
I think he’s fearless. I know he’s a younger guy but he’s the boss of the situation.