Singer/songwriter: for most people, the term still brings to mind the sound of one voice and a fingerpicked guitar, or a quiet piano, sketching a monochromatic study of one individual’s emotional landscape. Mike Baker, who performs and records as the Northern California alternative pop/rock act Radio Nowhere, is not that kind of singer/songwriter.
Possessed by kaleidoscopic musical visions and a tendency to spend more time singing about hostage crises than inner pain, Baker plays a whole pawnshop’s worth of different instruments and handles all of the engineering and production chores in solo pursuit of his own brand of panoramic sound.
It’s an amalgam of loud guitars, mistreated beatboxes, catchy choruses and a reverence for classic pop song form that marks Radio Nowhere as something like the missing link between Lyle Lovett and Led Zeppelin. Music fans who’ve always loved these artists, plus Neil Finn, Aimee Mann, Counting Crows and Elvis Costello, but wished that they’d turn their guitars up a little bit, will definitely notice a kindred spirit at work in Radio Nowhere.
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Radio Nowhere first came to public attention on the San Francisco Bay Area bar & coffeehouse scene, but Mike Baker’s musical education actually began years earlier, 200 miles east and 6,000 feet higher. “I got my first taste of both songwriting and performing working at a summer camp up in the Sierra Nevada mountains,” says Baker. “I’d always loved music, and I was just starting to learn to play guitar and write, so when other camp staffers needed a baritone voice to round out their goofy a cappella octet, or someone to write a Hall & Oates parody to teach little kids how to play in the sandbox, I’d always do it.”
Besides picking up his first dose of showbiz seasoning, he also discovered another life-changing resource at camp: a guy who knew where they kept the electric guitar, how to work a Marshall amp, and how to play the riff from Purple Haze. “Thank god!” says Baker. “I was on the way to turning into James Taylor before they told me about Jimi Hendrix!”
Back at sea level, summer over, Baker worked an endless series of strange day jobs – rooftop acorn remover, online rock’n’roll trivia oracle, farm animal impersonator (including a stint as the successor to the late, legendary Mel Blanc [aka Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, etc.] as the famous Berkeley Farms cow) – devoting nights to cranking his own new amp, honing his skills as an electric guitarist, and building up his catalog of original songs. “I actually thought at the time that I was heading to grad school for American History, but in retrospect it’s pretty obvious that I was actually a songwriter and musician and just didn’t know it yet,” says Baker.
The real turning point came midway through a multi-year stint as a writer for Guitar Player magazine, where Baker’s responsibilities included testing guitars all day, checking out different effects pedals, and interviewing rock stars. “It pretty much just pushed me over the edge. It was like, ‘okay, enough with the acorns – let’s see how far I can get with this music thing.”
Baker had connected with quite a few musicians during his time at Guitar Player, most notably original Counting Crows drummer Steve Bowman. “We went mountain biking in the Oakland hills, and in between crashes, he told these hilarious stories about opening for the Rolling Stones. I screwed up the courage to play him my demo, he really liked it and offered to help me put a band together.”
With Bowman as de facto musical director, a rock star lineup that included members of Primus, Mazzy Star, and the bands of Chuck Prophet, Peter Gabriel, and Jackson Browne came together to record Baker’s debut album and join him onstage.
“The core of the band was there and sounding fantastic,” Baker remembers, “but we really needed keys. One of my friends said ‘oh, there’s this other teacher at my school who plays piano – he might be interested.’” This turned out to be the guy who’d played piano on Van Morrison’s “Moondance”, and a bunch of Bonnie Raitt albums besides. He was in.
The band recorded at Berkeley, California’s famed Fantasy Studios (with Carlos Santana in the studio next door tracking the follow-up to his enormously successful “Supernatural” LP). The resulting album, “Interstate Medicine” – underwritten entirely by friends and fans in a pioneering example of crowdfunding – was credited to Baker’s first band, Slim, and garnered critical acclaim and an award from the John Lennon Songwriting Contest. Several songs from the album were picked up by radio stations worldwide, and soon ecstatic reviews were coming in from places like Scotland, Germany, Australia, and India.
Before long, acclaim for the first album began to transition into demand for a second. Baker already had a handful of new songs written, but he was starting to feel more constricted than inspired by the Slim image, and his new music was already demonstrating a subtle evolution in sonic and creative identity. At the same time, he was in demand as a session singer/player and producer of film music, performance art soundtracks, and albums by other singer/songwriters.
Spending days and nights in the studio, he soon learned how to play bass, drums, and keyboards out of necessity – “there was just no one else around,” Baker says – and picked up some crucial engineering and production chops as well. “At a certain point, it started to click. Communicating what you hear in your head to other people is always a hit-or-miss proposition, and I started noticing that I was having more luck just learning to make those sounds myself. I like to think of it as teaching the machines to sing.”
Baker’s self-initiation into the black art of record production proved to the be the catalyst in the creation of a new sound – and a new band.
Radio Nowhere starts with Baker’s old standbys – acoustic and electric guitars, bass, drums and piano – and spikes them with buzzy synths, dubbed-out snares, effected washes of sound and the odd sample to create music poised somewhere between then and now, organic and electronic, sloppy and robotic.
In addition to the aforementioned nods to Neil Finn and Lyle Lovett, the new songs sound almost like Tom Petty fronting Duran Duran, or maybe The Cars’ first album, if they’d been from Reno instead of Boston.
With influences like these, you might guess that Radio Nowhere’s lyrical preoccupations might not exactly fit with the bland love songs and anodyne navel gazing that pervades pop radio and TV drama soundtracks these days, and you’d be right. A quick scan of Radio Nowhere’s lyrics reveals references to New World history, kidnappings, capital punishment, latent Catholicism, medieval torture devices, genocide, shanghaied sailors, running from the highway patrol – “all the catchy stuff!” says Baker. The songs also toy with an element that seems to have gone AWOL from much of today’s music – humor – with occasional sly twists and asides in the manner of Bob Dylan or Elvis Costello.
Radio Nowhere is currently ensconced in the studio, working on an album’s worth of new songs that will be released one by one, as they’re finished, throughout the year. The new tracks are developing in very different directions, yet each one is still stamped with Radio Nowhere’s trademark devotion to thoughtful lyrics and widescreen sound.