Hello, friends, and welcome to “The Annotated Road Taken,” Episode 10. This week, we are joined by the rhythm section from Vampire Weekend, bassist Chris “Baio” Baio and drummer Chris “CT” Tomson.
That’s right: It’s a very meta season finale! Through coordinating and figuring out this first season of The Road Taken, Baio and I have dived deeply into many insights about the touring lifestyle, some highly personal and some unexpectedly universal. In the episodes with artists whom we had never previously met, our guests’ experience inevitably led us to new perspectives on issues we had long investigated. What was unexpected, however, was the new insights we gained while talking to people whom we knew quite well. There was something special and freeing about sitting down with the specific, conscious purpose of “talking about touring” that allowed us to ask questions we hadn’t previously thought of or focus more deeply on issues we’d discussed only superficially.
So what better way to both celebrate and wrap up the first season of TRT than to take that surprising insight to its logical and spiritual conclusion: interviewing each other!
As we’ve discussed at length on this podcast, touring is truly a communal endeavor, involving many more people than the audience sees performing on stage. While this group effort can result in life-changing and -affirming experiences for all involved, it can also be physically and emotionally taxing. Other than the occasional hotel room, there is almost no fully personal space. Everything is done in a fully public or semi-public sphere: performing, eating, drinking, sleeping, bodily functions, etc. Even when the interpersonal vibe is stellar and wholly positive, this constant contact can still wear you out. As such, when you spend so much of your time doing the actual work and business of touring, often you don’t really have the bandwidth to investigate the emotional and logistical well-being of the people you are doing it with.
And that is precisely why the opportunity to mindfully focus in on Baio excited me. Baio is not a literal brother but he is damn near close. Starting as knucklehead buddies in college, through traveling the world via pretty much every known form of transportation except for helicopter, I have spent more time with Baio than almost anyone else in my life. I feel like I know him and his habits intimately (that dude loves to run while holding his cellphone and likes to get the restaurant check very soon after finishing the meal!) and will forever feel connected to him as part of our crazy shared Vampire Weekend experience. And yet. Until this conversation, I’d never really asked him what his favorite onstage experience has been. I’d never really asked him how his experience of touring has compared to what he thought and hoped it would be when we started. Even if I had a general idea of what his thoughts and feelings were, I had only occasionally heard him really share his conclusions in his own words. It was a conversation I was excited about and it did not disappoint.
If you are listening to this podcast (and furthermore reading this annotation), then I’m guessing you know who Baio, Vampire Weekend, and I are, but here’s a brief overview just in case: Four guys meet at college. Didn’t wear T-shirts onstage. Three songs on a Myspace page led to online excitement. Touring in a minivan. Debut album released in early 2008 to seemingly equal amounts of appreciation and disdain. Touring in a larger van. Sophomore album in 2010 changes some minds but solidifies us as more than a one-album wonder. Touring in a bus. Third album in 2013 represents a bit of a tonal shift and again seems to divide critical and fan opinion but still debuts at no. 1. More touring. Grammy. Long break for life and various non-VW projects. Return expanded and well rested in 2019 with Father of the Bride. Lots more touring except shows are now more than two hours long and we have a request section. Ringer podcast.
So please join us for my extreme overuse of the word “zone,” multiple visits to my own personal shame spiral, and Baio’s excellently dramatic poetry reading skills.
Let’s get into it!
03:21 “I was drawn to him by something positive and welcoming, not to mention some excellent sideburns …”
I met Baio about halfway through college, when he was suitemates with our bandmate Ezra Koenig in the Columbia dorm Ruggles (sixth floor, I think). His vibe was notable because, unlike a lot of our peers (myself included) who were either adopting some persona or trying to do so, I got the sense that Baio was comfortable in his Baio-ness and was friendly to an almost disarming degree. After overcoming some early intra-Columbia radio station beef (he at the freeform WBAR, and myself at the more institutional jazz-heavy WKCR), we soon became friends and I’m glad we did. And I’m not joking about the sideburns; they were stellar and almost Neil Young–level (see above) I still lobby him from time to time to bring them back but have so far been unable to convince him of their merits.
04:11 “I’ve known you for, what, like 14 years now?”
I think it’s more like pushing 16 at this point! Whatever the actual number, this comment speaks to one of the odder, more existential aspects of being in a band with a lengthy career: The people and attendant personal relationships need to sustain and remain fruitful, even as the members’ lives change, grow, and evolve. I really liked Baio in college, but if you had told me then that I would spend tens of thousands of hours with him throughout the following two decades, I couldn’t have been sure that our friendship would survive. I knew that playing music and performing with him was fun, but would I really want to do another 10-hour drive from Austin to El Paso together? Perhaps there are some mystical aspects of personalities and vibes that draw people together creatively in the first place that allow for such sustainment. Thankfully I still feel very connected with Baio and almost everyone who has helped make Vampire Weekend’s touring life possible. I hope they feel similarly.
05:11 “I think the most literal answer was a Beach Boys show when I was 3 or under …”
The first concert I ever attended was a late-’80s Beach Boys performance, now relegated to hazy memories, that I saw as a toddler (this general idea), although the poster that I kept in my bedroom from that show probably had a bigger influence than the music itself. More to the point of Baio’s question, however, was when an Allman Brothers Band concert at the PNC Bank Arts Center blew my teenage mind in the summer of 1999. Derek Trucks, then a newly baptized member of ABB and only a few years older than me, was particularly inspiring; his slide guitar solo during the encore of “No One to Run With” was transcendent (similar in spirit to this performance) and made me go immediately home and pick up the guitar that I had owned for a few years but never really played. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that attending that concert altered the course of my life in the best possible way, so thank you, Mr. Trucks and the ’99-era Allman Brothers Band!
12:15 “I had a Santana tablature book …”
I mean, who didn’t? I lived for Santana’s occasionally easy-to-learn solos and new-to-me scales and phrasing. I still have that book of guitar tab, and I still consult it from time to time. As such, my first live performance in “the rock zone” was at a high school coffee house where my friends and I covered the Santana classic “Oye Como Va.” While I’m sure the actual performance was perfectly serviceable and probably hella stiff, the emotional mix of nerves and adrenaline was the type of powerful feeling I still chase to this day. While, alas, there is scant documentation of that performance, please enjoy this version from Santana’s recent Supernatural Now tour at Jones Beach, where Baio’s dad was somewhere in the audience, grooving along with a freshly cracked rib.
14:45 “The sheer boredom of it and the repetition …”
Here Baio mentions two highly relevant aspects of touring that we started The Road Taken to investigate. In fact, one of Baio’s ideas for the title of the pod was “The Other 22,” in reference to the overwhelmingly large majority of daily hours that a touring musician spends offstage. I think we’ve given these unsexy but constant topics plenty of time so far and, indeed, one of the reasons I’ve done these annotations is to drive that point home. As an audience member you see the show in front of you, a collection of hopefully chimeric moments that could only happen in that room on that night. Except, those moments, or at least ones very similar to them, also happen in the next city on the following night as the tour rolls ever onward. By collecting all of these relevant video clips and documentation, I’ve tried to present the overwhelming totality of touring. Different cities, different outfits, same band, same songs. I still find it all fascinating and hope you do as well.
17:00 “I gotta say I was pretty blown away by the Chemical Brothers this summer …”
For Baio’s favorite non-rock-show audience experience, he quickly says that the Chemical Brothers’ recent tour is high up there. I can attest to the fact that after he saw them a few times at European festivals this summer, he was truly abuzz! Here are some tastes from a show Baio got to see recently on a night off in Paris. More formatively, he also mentions seeing the classical pianist Maurizio Pollini at Carnegie Hall performing Beethoven’s “Waldstein” sonata as an important, moving experience.
21:33 “That’s gonna be great for the annotation, by the way …”
This is the sort of meta comment that I could only really say on this TRT self-exploratory finale. When asked whether he had any specific inspiration for his notably vibrant onstage performance moves, Baio gave me a characteristically detailed response. For overall passion and straight-up coolness, he swears by early videos of the Clash, and for let-it-all-out release and enthusiastic abandon he takes inspiration from At the Drive-In (specifically guitarist Omar Rodríguez-López) performing “Arc Arsenal” from Big Day Out 2001. Thanks, Baio, these are great for the annotation!
22:29 “I think my shoulder thing, where I slam it down …”
From the man himself, out of all of the many iconic stage moves in Baio’s repertoire, his personal favorite seems to be his “shoulder thing.” A little hard to describe, I think of it as something of a mix of the Jersey Shore fist pump (“beating up the beat”), that Russian-style kneeling dancing, and getting one’s eagle on. What a legend. Here is the “shoulder thing” in action during our performance of “Cousins” at Glastonbury 2010.
22:58 “We played a couple nights at Bowery around the first album release …”
My most embarrassing onstage moment was an early one, during our then biggest and most spotlit shows at Bowery Ballroom in early 2008. Coinciding with the release of our first album, these hometown shows felt very high-pressure to me as I knew a lot of press (both sympathetic and critical) would be in attendance at a venue that we had all dreamt of playing only a year or two earlier. Whether this was the pressure influencing me or not is hard to say, but I got a little theatrical at one point during our opening song, “Mansard Roof,” and accidentally let a drumstick fly right out of my hand. It was very obvious and I probably started blushing immediately, although while I was personally quite embarrassed, thankfully, it did not seem to hurt the general reception of the show. Here we are from that show playing a relievedly mistake-free “I Stand Corrected.”
25:46 “My single least favorite part was driving into Montreal … and it was so fucking cold …”
I also remember it being utterly and truly freezing this day! This evening was toward the end of our last tour of the year, and having spent most of the previous six months in a van (including being initially denied a Canadian border crossing late the previous night), we were all tired and run down. While the data shows it was indeed cold on December 14, 2007, those numbers don’t do justice to my memory of being chilled to the bone. My God, that wind! We attempted to warm up with a dinner of smoked meat at Schwartz’s (which only partially helped). But we still managed to do our thing on “A-Punk” at the show. Baio is hiding his personal weariness well; he was a true pro from the start.
28:15 “’Cause we hadn’t played in so long and we were doing radio stuff early in the morning …”
The way album cycles and campaigns are structured, generally most of a band’s promotional duties—those performances with the largest media reach—happen early on before songs really get road-tested and worn in. For me, those early performances are always the most nerve-racking whether they’re on British radio at 8 a.m. or at an ice-cold NYC studio, as I haven’t yet developed a true public comfort with these songs and here we are performing them for potentially very large audiences. As it tends to be in most metrics, SNL is the most nerve-racking of them all: You can see me physically exhaling after I passed a particularly tricky section of “Diane Young” in 2013:
34:02 “I had one that was one of the best and one of the worst, when we played New Year’s Eve at Falls Festival …”
Here Baio describes a show that was simultaneously transcendent and terrifying! Vampire Weekend had the honor of playing in the midnight slot at the Falls Festival in Lorne, Victoria, Australia, soundtracking the transition into 2014. The energy at that show was incredible, with the normally rowdy Australian crowd feeling extra-hyped by the holiday which pushed us to really bring it as best we could. Most of the show was dynamic and super fun until we came to the actual midnight countdown and the ensuing “A-Punk” that we dropped right at the start of the New Year. Out of nowhere a number of celebratory flares popped up in the crowd, with one particular flare being thrown from a fairly far distance onto the stage and nearly hitting our guy Baio. Luckily, he dodged the projectile but the flare still wreaked some havoc by temporarily setting part of our stage on fire. As always, we didn’t stop playing, but in hindsight maybe we should have! See the elation and the trepidation below, with the flare and fire coming in around the 1:50 mark:
55:55 “You live to play another day …”
While I say this here specifically as advice to my pre-tour 2007 self, it remains something of a mantra for me and one that I have to constantly remind myself of to this day. Whenever I miss a fill or don’t quite nail something, I have a tendency to dwell on it. Even as the song, show, and music move forward, some part of my mind remains on that passing mistake, unable to let it go. If I dwell too hard or too long on a single bad moment, almost without fail, that leads to other mistakes and so it is imperative to try to stay mindful and present. Obviously, I try to learn from mess-ups and get better as often as I can, but it remains important to remember to let that stuff go. As one’s experience and context of touring grows, you begin to see that, for both the highs and the lows, there is always another show, another song, another fill coming right up to replace what has already passed.
59:50 “I would love to talk to a pop star …”
So would I! As Baio and I think about potential ways to approach the future of The Road Taken, to make it wider, deeper, and (hopefully) better, there are so many ways we could go. I think one obvious way to do that would be to talk to people’s whose experiences are as big and rarefied as they come, the Taylor Swifts and Adeles of the world. I think it also means talking to more people who aren’t on stage, the booking agents and the tour managers who make sure that the shows you love to see actually happen and become a sustainable business. This first season has definitely been a learning experience for myself, but one that I will treasure immensely. From a slightly random idea I had during a solo eight-hour drive during Dams of the West touring two years ago to sitting down with my hero Chris Hillman this June, it has been fascinating and super rewarding to see it come together. I hope that you guys who have listened (and read!) along have felt the same way and have learned along with us as we investigate this pesky touring mystique. Please keep in touch with us at email@example.com with any ideas, questions, comments on how we can improve, and what you’d like to hear more about in the future. Thank you to everyone here at The Ringer (as I’ve said before, it’s a truly great website) and everyone who has taken part in TRT from any distance. See you out there again soon!