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Baleen mean business with "soundtrack"

Charlotte's music scene has taken a turn in the last few years with the birthing of several new bands prominently featuring electronic elements in their music, foregoing the traditional guitar/bass/drums/vocals model seen so often on Friday and Saturday nights here in the Queen City. There's The Interstellars, Jason Herring's moody post-Latino Chrome/Moonburn offering, and First Night On Earth, the new project from ex-Laburnum singer Wes Grasty. Then there's labelmates baleen, led by longtime pals Mike Vagianos and Phil Disher. Vagianos has taken over the reigns of LiquiLab Records -- formerly best known as the self-started label of The X-periment, the popular Charlotte-area jazz/funksters -- and he's attempting to turn it into Charlotte's finest homegrown imprint. The label has signed a number of acts in addition to the above; however, X-periment members Steve McMillan, Tony McCullough and Derrick Hines didn't stop there. They also joined baleen, bolstering the lineup into a super-versatile quintet that boasts brass, guitar, electronic effects, samples, bass, keyboards and three vocalists.

I recently sat down with Vagianos to discuss the band's new release due in December (soundtrack to a normal life), The X-periment, and the advantages of Charlotte over Chapel Hill.

Creative Loafing: I suppose we ought to start at the beginning. What's the genesis of the name?

Mike Vagianos: (laughs) It's the part of the whale that filters good food from the bad food. That said, the reason we picked the name is because we just liked the word. There's no connection to whales in our music or in any kind of promotional (capacity) or anything like that, it's just the word seemed really round to us. And simple. We like the letter "B" too. (laughs)

Filtering the good music from the bad music?

Right, that also plays into it a little bit. And the name of my studio is Scrimshaw Studios, and scrimshaw is an art form of carving baleen. When the whale dies, they carve baleen into sculptures, and that's called scrimshaw. So there's kind of an underscore to the whale, but we don't make the connection to it in our music.

Big and bloated isn't a description most bands would covet. The band sort of began in Chapel Hill; were you in school up there?

I lived there for eight years, from 1992 until 2000. I had played in a band with Phil (Busher) in high school, and then he transferred to UNC from UNCC, and I said, "Oh boy, my drummer's come back in town!" So we started a band with a buddy of mine, Brian Wingate, and that's how it all began.

Did you do much in the beginning with electronic sounds? How did you come to release Personality Plus (baleen's first record)?

We knew the sounds we wanted, and then we just had to manipulate the equipment to get the sounds. So we went out and bought some very basic digital equipment, ADATs and a mixing board. And the equipment got better and better as we decided to do this for real. We recorded three songs, and said, "Man, we should just do a record." Then we bought better equipment and went to hard-disk on the computer, which gave us all kinds of cut-and-paste capability, which I'm sure a lot of musicians would be aware of now -- it's so easy to do on a computer. Brian moved to New York, so it was just Phil and me, and we finished the last four songs by ourselves. We decided to put it out on the web and just do web distribution, because we didn't have a band to tour with and back it up. We didn't really promote it like we wanted to, but it got our name out there. It did exactly what it was supposed to do. It set us up for this record.

What necessitated the move back to Charlotte?

Actually, to tell you the truth, we were just getting too old. I guess it was the fact that I didn't want to be the 30-year-old hanging out in the coffee shops with the 18-year-olds. I mean, that town never changes. It's constantly an influx of new people, so we decided to come back here, because we knew we could find musicians here, especially the ones we wanted. Heck, we basically targeted The X-periment, because we knew they would be perfect -- to get a band able to back up the music. And to have more than one singer -- now we have three. Our CD is 16 songs long -- that's a lot of one guy singing, you know?

Unless your singer is just...

Thom Yorke? (laughs) Plus, it adds to our style because we cover a lot of genres. I mean, we're definitely based in rock, no doubt about it, but since we have so many different electronic sounds, we'll even go to some Middle Eastern stuff, and some jazz and some classical. It makes sense to switch the voice, too, because it would accentuate that shift.

Along those lines, what do you listen to when you're not doing baleen stuff? Who out there excites you musically?

I definitely like Bjork. All that stuff. When I listen to music, I just listen to how they phrase their songs. I write the songs (for baleen), and then I go out and listen to music afterwards and pick out certain things, like how they phrase their changes and how it's produced, and change our songs a little bit into that. Because I personally believe that most stuff, in fact all stuff, is already written. The originality comes in how you portray it.

How you adapt it to yourself and how you...

Right. The word "original" cannot be used in the truest sense anymore as far as the material. But that's why I love Mr. Bungle. They chop up little bits of songs and put them in their own songs. You've heard it -- it's crazy as hell. It's beautiful. Because they don't pretend to be writing new stuff. They're the perfect example of how to meld it into your own sound.

You get the sense on the record the songs were written sort of untraditionally, like you start with an idea and just see what sticks to it.

That's a great way to put it.

How did you get involved with the whole LiquiLab thing?

How I got involved was we wanted to put this out on a label. If you look at the first album, professionally, it's bad. The sound is fine, but I'm talking about the way it was packaged, because we didn't know what we were doing. We put our web site on it, and that's it. There's no label, no UPC code, nothing. That stuff really adds to the professionalism of the packaging, so we said we want to do this on a label. Derrick goes, "Remember LiquiLab?" (laughs) So I said, "Why don't we put this baleen record out on this label?" And do it right. And then I went out and heard the Houston Brothers, and I thought about the fact that there's some really great music going on right now in Charlotte, and there's no reason why, if I put the initiative forward, that we couldn't get something started.

All the bands are different, but have a sort of common thread.

Very moody. They all like to set a mood for themselves.

But it's not all like atmospheric trip hop or something, or "computer bands" that just spend all their time tooling around in a studio.

I want to emphasize that I don't want people to think that we just sit around in the studio and make music that we're not going to do live. If they go to the show, they'll know that that's not true. You put so much time into that live show, you don't want it to be sold short on the reputation end.

So many people have been burned by a great studio act, then they go see them live and it's a train wreck.

Exactly! It's funny -- we love Massive Attack, and went to see them in Raleigh, and we were just like, "Oh, man." I've heard that they've done great shows, but that wasn't even close. I also think you have to have a different rendition of the song live, but it has to be better than the studio version. If you're going to change an electronic part to a sax line, it has to be better than the electronic part. Otherwise, you need to do it exactly like the record.

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