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.

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Concert Review: Dirty Projectors at The Trocadero

Dirty ProjectorsHow much can you learn from several rows’ worth of bobbing heads in front of the stage during a Dirty Projectors show? More than you’d think. (For starters, avant-pop is surprisingly popular among the backward-baseball-cap-wearing crowd.) But perhaps the biggest lesson learned during Wednesday night’s performance at The Trocadero was that—despite Dave Longstreth’s impressive ability to combine noisy guitar skronk and high-minded musical concepts with more conventional songwriting techniques—Dirty Projectors’ blend of experimental indie-pop doesn’t lend itself to the kind of “oh-man-ARE-YOU-FEELING THIS” live experience many show-goers were apparently looking for.

The fact that tracks such as “Cannibal Resource” (from last year’s Bitte Orca)—with all their stop-and-start lurches and other rhythmic shifts—aren’t of the toe-tapping, head-bopping variety is hardly a revelation. But, when the band began playing that very song early into Wednesday night’s set, damned if those in attendance didn’t try to force it anyway. The result was reminiscent of, say, the scene at any given math-rock show in the mid-’90s: members of the crowd initially moving with the beat, getting lost, clumsily nodding out of step with the song, then standing still for a moment while trying to find the rhythm once again. Repeat that process during “Temecula Sunrise” and “No Intention”—two other big crowd-pleasers of the night—all the way through the rest of the band’s 80-minute set, and you get the idea.

The funny thing is—unlike the aforementioned math-rock bands of yesteryear—it’s not as if Longstreth is intentionally trying to trip his audience up for the sole sake of showcasing his considerable technical prowess. It’s more that Dirty Projectors’ music works as both intellectually challenging art-rock and crowd-friendly pop at the same time—simultaneously satisfying both the brain and the the body in two very separate ways, and creating an irreconcilable disconnect between the two. Yeah, we know that sounds like a bunch of bullshit, but seriously: The next time you see Dirty Projectors live, try telling the rest of your body to stop awkwardly moving on its own when “Stillness Is The Move” makes the jarring transition from the main riff to the bridge, and let us know how that works out for you. It didn’t go so well for the audience at The Troc two nights ago.


Tonight’s Concerts: Dirty Projectors at The Troc; Tortoise at World Cafe Live

Dirty Projectors

Because nine tracks of the most challenging, impossible-to-pigeonhole music to recently fall under the general description of “indie rock” just isn’t enough, Domino announced last month that it will release an expanded two-disc edition of Dirty Projectors‘ critically acclaimed 2009 album Bitte Orca. The reissue (which drops on September 27) will feature live acoustic performances, B-sides, and a cover of Bob Dylan’s “As I Went Out One Morning.” In anticipation of the release—and in continued support of the band’s seven-song, digital-only Mount Wittenberg Orca EP (released earlier this summer)—the sextet is back on the road, including a stop at The Trocadero tonight; in an interview with Philadelphia Weekly‘s Michael Alan Goldberg, Dirty Projectors ringleader Dave Longstreth mentioned that tonight’s performance will include “a lot of Wittenberg stuff, Bitte stuff.” Good news for anyone who can’t wait a few weeks for the reissue to become available. Dirty Projectors perform with Owen Pallett at 7:30 p.m. at The Trocadero; tickets to the all-ages show are $15–$17.

Post-rock’s time in the big-indie spotlight may be but a distant memory, but Tortoise—one of the primary progenitors of the genre—still manages to keep itself relevant. The band’s most recent album, 2009’s (appropriately titled) Beacons Of Ancestorship, showcases John McEntire and Co.’s continued mastery of post-rock, while proving that there’s still plenty of new terrain for band to explore in the late ’00s and beyond. Tortoise performs with Grimace Federation, Greg Davis, and Ben Vida at 8 p.m. at World Cafe Live; tickets to show are $22–$35.