Critical Questions: ShadowBox's Bonnie BaxterBy Chris Payne
Lucid dreaming with an electronic experimentalist.
For ShadowBox's Bonnie Baxter, making music is all about entering a world outside of the physical realm. On the promising Haunted By Colors EP, Baxter indulges in her newfound love of the Korg Electribe and creates a dizzying electronic world out of her home recording studio. Baxter recently sat down with Critical Mob to discuss those faraway places, the year 2040, and how we all might already be cyborgs without even knowing it.
CM: I read that you were in an indie rock band before ShadowBox. What was the name of the band?
BB: It was just under my name, Bonnie Baxter. I was acoustic for a little while when I came to New York from Connecticut. I was playing open mics for a while and playing with different bands. When I came to New York, Bonnie Baxter was me, another guitarist, and various drummers. Actually, my manager was a drummer in Bonnie Baxter for a little while. And then it just kind of morphed. With me living in New York City, I was exposed to lots of music and it just turned into a different thing after a while. It just quickly morphed into a more electronic world. But still, I play guitar and I like morphing it with electronic music.
Have you been to any good shows around New York lately?
I definitely want to plug Chrome Canyon, which is Morgan (Whirledge) from Apes & Androids. He just got signed to Stone's Throw. If you want to see an amazing electronic live show (like, really live), you have to see Chrome Canyon. They're going to be playing all over New York (they're going out to L.A., too) but they're in New York right now. The live show is just spectacular; so much goes into it. And the music is just unreal.
Could you talk more about what led you to move from guitar to electronics?
Basically, I just fell in love with this machine. I wasn't even listening to a lot of electronic music when I picked up the Korg Electribe. I kind of hit a wall with the guitar and I was just looking for another way to write music. I just fell in love with the machine- just playing around with different stuff. Like, going to Main Drag Music; they have tons of different keyboards and I was like, "Wow, this is a lot of fun." I just picked it up and I guess it turned into more electronic-sounding music.
Your video for "AM" shows your home studio; how much of Haunted By Colors was made there?
Everything was recorded there. Everything except for the mastering; we had a couple friends that we sent it to.
Before, when I was in the rock band, I had very minimal recording skills. I had like, a four-track, or something. We would go to different producers or friends, and it just never really sounded that good. I just wanted to learn how to produce my own stuff. So this came naturally.
But I think that's what everyone's doing. It's easy to get your hands on software and it's more user friendly now. So everyone's kinda jumping on that.
And you've worked extensively with producer Icky Doome, right?
When I first started ShadowBox it was just me. He slowly started just mixing my stuff. Now, he's pretty much part of ShadowBox, which is cool. And it's great to have him for the live element, too, with more things going on. I can't do everything myself and I want to make it as live as possible, so it's great to have him on board. For the next stuff, he's definitely going to do more co-producing with me, which is fun, because I definitely miss collaborating with other people.
So when you play live, is it just you and him?
Yeah. Hopefully in the future, there'll be more (members).
How long have you been working with him? It goes back a few years, right?
Oh, yeah. I've known him for six, seven years. He was playing in the rock band with me as the other guitarist. Then I slowly moved away from that and was doing my own thing. But I kinda missed working with him. We make such a great team; we just feed off each other. I had trouble working with a lot of other people, so I knew at some point we'd have to come back together. He's always been a part of my music in some way. He always gave feedback, like my third ear. It's good to have someone (even when you're working by yourself) so you can be like, "What do you think about this?" Your ears get numb after a while. But he co-produced on the Haunted By Colors EP and the Lady Doome EP, which was a short EP I did before that. The thing is, everything that I made was on the outside of the box. I would do everything I could to get the song ready, but once the song went to Logic, that's when I would have him come in and share ideas, maybe add a little keyboard. And he mixes most of my stuff. Sometimes I just have to step away and get some fresh ears, you know?
How much gigging have you been doing as ShadowBox?
Not enough. I have a couple shows coming up, I'm definitely looking for more shows. I'm still doing a lot of booking on my own. I don't have a booking agent right now, which usually helps. But I'm definitely going to try to get on CMJ. I'm going to go to the UK, hopefully in the winter. I just want to keep playing live. I love playing live.
Are you thinking of doing South By Southwest?
Oh yeah, I booked my own South By show not last year, but the year before that.
You mention that ShadowBox is about this relationship between technology and nature. How does that influence the record? Is manifested it in the lyrics? The music?
Getting into more technology in my music, it's all very fresh to me and it's just amazing when you can sit in a room and play something that you feel is like an extension of yourself. I draw so many influences from dreams. I'll just sit there and play around with stuff and it turns into something bigger than myself.
It's trying to communicate "beyond the physical," right?
Yeah, it's very metaphysical. That's the future; slowly, we're all going to be part computer!
Yeah, it's like we are already with Twitter and Facebook. It's like we're all cyborgs already. We all have these alternate personas. It's crazy!
Some people are a little scared by it, especially the older crowd. But you have to merge with the future, because if you don't, you get left behind. But I don't want to be part computer just yet!
Are you really into social networking for ShadowBox?
Oh, it's so important. I use Twitter. I can't get involved with too many, because then you're just stuck on the computer all day. But Twitter is like... I've found a lot of great things that came out for ShadowBox came through Twitter. A lot of the collaborations I've done in the UK were all relationships with I made on Twitter with people I'd never met. Sometimes you want to step away from it, too. But just being a newer artist, it's important. You've got to connect with people.
What were some of the UK collaborators you mentioned?
I've had a few. I did a bunch lending vocals and working on tracks with Lapalux, Ilmsphere, Dj Rum... and a couple here (in New York City) too. I've done quite a few, which is fun for me. That's so different than working online, but it's perfect for me, because when I write, I like to be alone. It's hard for me- sometimes seclusion just works best. So collaborating that way works really well.
What were these collaborations like? Were they on your tracks? Were you on theirs?
With Ilmsphere, I did completely vocals on his stuff. With Dj Rum, it was more of a collaborative effort, with us sending ideas back and forth, meshing them together. So, it's a mixture of both.
With Dj Rum, you were just sending material back and forth?
Yeah, it wasn't through Skype, or anything like that.
More and more people are doing that these days.
What group was it, the Postal Service? They started it!
Do you listen to Purity Ring?
Yeah, I've heard of them.
They do that, too. The singer sings her vocals and sends them to the producer, who will put them through effects, sometimes distort them, and then match them to the beats he makes.
I think a mixture of both is great. To just be in a room... The last collaboration I did, I was in a room with someone. And that was actually really nice. You hang out; you have beers. You're feeding off each other's energy. There's something to say about that.
We talked a little about non-musical ideas that influenced the album, but are there any musical influences that stand out?
Oh, yeah. There's a record store right across the street, so I got a turntable. I picked up some rare, kind of weird, early sounds from the 60s, like before artists could get their hands on keyboards and synthesizers. I just picked up stuff like that. And then Tangerine Dream, because a lot of it's experimental music from the 60s, like electronic music. It's a big influence on Haunted By Colors.
Would you say the lyrics on the record reflect the inspirations for the music (technology, metaphysics) or are they more personal?
So less personal, because they were just fragments of dreams that I was trying to put together. I would do a lot of writing any time I had ideas. Sometimes in the middle of the day I'll remember a dream and I'll just write it down, but it'll only be fragments of the dream. This EP was more about the melodies than the actual words. In the stuff I did before that, words were a big thing; it had to have a story. There's still a story, but I guess they're little fragments of ideas.
Could you talk more about these dreams?
Lately, especially, I've had so many lucid dreams. In the latest one I had, I woke up in my dream in the year 2040. I have no interest in cars, but a speaker started talking to me and showing me the cars of 2040. And also, it mentioned that once the world becomes overpopulated, we'll be transported on conveyor belts called the Lattice Belt. So I just dreamed of this thing called the Lattice Belt. I remember a lot of my dreams. They're like movies, it's really weird. Sometimes when I wake up in a lucid dream, I'll just ask, "Show me something." It's like into the air, and I'll just get fed this information.
That makes me think of future public transportation in cities, those conveyor belts.
Yeah, it was very strange. And I ended up in Connecticut on one of these conveyor belts. It was quite scary. Everyone was so compacted together. And it was so latticed- literally layers and layers of people just getting on and off these belts because there was no room anymore. Hopefully that won't happen in 2040, hopefully way later!
And the title Haunted By Colors, was that influenced by the dreams?
It was, but I didn't like, think it up like, "Oh, this is going to be called Haunted By Colors." I had a track called "Haunted By Colors" that didn't make it on the EP, but I liked the name, so that's how the name came about. And it made total sense.
There were colors in the dreams?
Yeah, but not in the sense that I was just seeing colors. It was just fragments of these very colorful, elaborate dreams.