"It’s like we’re playing a Ouija board"

"We were originally planning to move to New York, but after spending some time there, we realized we'd be like a needle in a stack of needles," says Stuart Baker. So he moved his group — The Baker Family Band — to Austin, Texas.

In the moment: Stuart Baker makes records to represent "our current sound at that time," taking risks, trying new directions and watching what it spells out. Photo by Lydia See

Austin, especially in relation to New York, is inexpensive. Baker says the group works day jobs in restaurants and has plenty of time for music. Of his new home Baker (who is sometimes known as Mr. Baker; his spouse and the band's keyboardist, Liz, is Mrs. Baker) says, "The response has been really good. People come up after shows and tell us they haven't heard anything like us in Austin." And that's saying something for the home of South by Southwest and any number of critically-acclaimed Americana and indie-rock acts.

But the Baker Family Band, which formed in 2005, called Asheville home until last summer. Following a tour in support of 2009's Old Civilizations Put to the Sword, they relocated, but reviewers, journalists and music fans continue to lump the Americana/pop/experimental quintet in with North Carolina bands.

"Hell yeah!" says guitarist Ben Dehart, a recent addition to the lineup (most recently, drummer Darryl Shomberg II was added, and the group's current tour is Shomberg's first time out of the Lone Star state). "I'm a North Carolina man. I'm going to move back there eventually," says Dehart, who grew up near Baker in Kernersville.

"I'm still feeling like I'm from North Carolina because I've only been in Austin for a year," adds Baker. But his music (which jumps genres from album to album, embracing new themes, textures and approaches) suggests that Baker's inspiration does not depend on place. When he first moved, he says, he "got a burst of song writing for a few months."

The Bakers will debut some new work at their Grey Eagle appearance this week. (Their circuit takes them, according to kickstart.com, "up to the Great Lakes, over to the Big Apple, and down to the Louisiana Bayou." But, says Dehart, "Our biggest fan base is in North Carolina. [Asheville] was a no-brainer.") As for what to expect at the Grey Eagle show: "We're going to play new songs [and] the old songs will have a different feel," says the guitarist.

Of the new songs, Dehart says, "They're more tribal, almost. They're more fun for me to play." The current format of the band includes additional percussion, with band members jamming and dancing on stage. "Most of the songs are through-composed and they don't really repeat choruses. They just keep going," says Baker. "A less controlled sound, more of an explosion."

Baker has always been a cathartic performer, somehow managing to strum a guitar while leaping into the audience. He's also always been a quick-change artist, equally adept at the synth-pop of "Bakers Can't Be Choosers" from 2007's Transaction, the folky, banjo-led track "Loneliness" and the heavy, layered indie-rock of "Seven" (both of those from Old Civilizations).

"The main goal in Old Civilizations was to have an album that represented our current sound at that time. It was an important step for us, artistically, in finding our sound or direction," says Baker.

"It's almost more a documentation than a presentation," adds Dehart. "Get a sound and then we can step back and move on from it. I've never made an album that I felt like was finished."

Another change for the band is a move toward collective song writing. "In the past it's been I write all the songs," says Baker. "Now Nathan the bass player will come up with a banjo line … everyone will suggest parts. I trust them, so it's easy to let go of the steering wheel. It's like we're playing a Ouija board: We're all just watching what it spells out."

Taking risks and trying out new directions works for the Bakers. "We've gotten good responses so far," says Dehart. "We've loved this tour and have been blown away by the turnouts." (Baker admits that the sizable crowds might be showing up for the local acts at each stop — he's excited about playing with Pennsylvania-based Ends of the Earth at the Asheville show and describes them as "a really cool band" —  but also says "we've definitely converted some fans … whether they know it or not, they're there to see us.")

What else works for the Bakers is the husband-wife element which, in touring bands, is either a boon or a disaster. Mr. and Mrs. Baker were actually a duo before extending their family, and the sweetness of the Baker spouses' harmonies says much about their amicable relationship. "She's easy to work with," says Baker. "It's just kind of natural, what we do together. It makes it more enjoyable for me — the two things I love most are music and her."

Alli Marshall can be reached at amarshall@mountainx.com.

who: The Baker Family Band with Kovacs & The Polar Bear, John Wilkes Boothe & The Black Toothe and Ends of the Earth
where: The Grey Eagle
when: Friday, June 25 (9 p.m., $8. thegreyeagle.com)

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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