Theo Baer: Getting Ready Each Day to Face the World
I first met Theo when he moved into our collective house in Ditmas Park in 2010. I now meet Theo at his current collective house, doubled in size to twenty roommates, two cats, and a one eyed dog. Theo’s bedroom is a tiny cave in comparison to the massive house. I come bearing a few Brooklyn lagers and we settle onto his mattress on the floor, a hanging rack of clothes brushing the top of my head, and my feet stretching the length of the room to his desk and keyboard setup. Upon entering the room, you are surrounded with a sense of history and movement. Scattered around the room is soldering equipment and cases full of Little Bits - Theo’s dayjob is building robot kits and handmade synthesizers for kids.
Since studying classical composition with the New York Youth Symphony from 2013-2014, Theo has been playing in several bands. His solo project, iTBoy, was born in 2013 and released his first ep in November. A thoughtful and dynamic little cassette, you may find yourself laughing, dancing, making out, and crying all in the twenty minutes that is Euphoric Recall. Theo’s voice echoes softly but just strong enough in the background of several tracks on the ep, like a dream you dreamt and have just on the tip of your tongue upon waking. The album, like Theo himself, will slow you down and invite you to sit and listen.
While you can stream the full ep on soundcloud for free by clicking this link, I encourage all of you to click “Buy Now”, or even “Send as a Gift” because how cute is that and what could be a better gift to a faraway friend?
How long have you been working on
It took almost 2 years to get it out. I’d been working on the songs for months before that, but the official recording process took about two years. I worked with a producer, who is also a friend of mine from Pennsylvania. I would go back and forth over the weekends when I could, and we would spend hours talking and listening. And that’s when we really developed a lot of the ideas. He said to start with imagining everything you want - go grand, like the New York Philharmonic or whatever - and then we’ll see what we can actually do.
Is that the fantasy - the New York Philharmonic?
In some ways. I’ve written for orchestras before, and I love it. It would be sweet to write for an orchestra again. But, yeah, it’s the goal in a broader sense - getting to a level where a collaboration like that wouldn’t seem so crazy. But, like, fuck the New York Philharmonic. I have things against that sort of uptown institution. I really tried to fit in there for many years. I studied classical composition. And I definitely don’t regret being uptown. I learned a shit ton, and I use those skills, but it’s just incestuous up there. And probably racist. I don’t know. I used to want that so bad.
What’s the goal now?
I just kind of veered left. It’s whatever I want now. And it’s less about academia.
How do you think formal education has influenced your musical development?
I think it has greatly influenced me. But you can’t let it influence you too much. You have to kind of take what you need, and try to not get stuck in it.
What music were you listening to while working on this album?
I like a lot of ambient stuff, and I like contemporary classical, and also just classical music, especially 20th century classical. But in the past couple years I’ve been really into dance music. There are a couple scenes that I follow, one of the most prominent being this Norwegian dance music. It’s very disco inspired, a lot of analog synthesizers, and very through-composed, like ever-changing compositions. There’s a whole documentary about that music that’s pretty interesting – Northern Disco Lights. It’s free to watch online if you joogle it.
And then there’s this label out of Berlin and Detroit called Ultra Majic. This guy Jimmy Edgar runs it. It’s kind of minimalist techno house. I love house music. I listen to a lot of 90’s house.
Is there one band or genre of music that’s stuck with you throughout your life until now?
Hmmm, it’s really a toss up between classical or jazz. I listened to a lot of classical music growing up, and I listened to a ton of jazz in high school. And I can always come back to those things.
Where do you find all this music?
I find a lot online. I used to listen to a lot of music podcasts – Xlr8R Magazine, Rare Frequency, Komputer Cast.
How do you feel when you are playing your music in front of an audience?
It depends. You kind of black out, haha. For me it’s a big whirlwind. Especially when I’m playing solo. When I’m playing solo, I’m a wreck.
Before or during?
And what about during and after?
Well, during is kinda scary, but you can’t stop it. You kind of accept it and go with it and try to enjoy it. I mean, it’s not hard to enjoy it. I do enjoy it. But there is a certain amount of stress, and then after it I feel usually pretty great, you know, if it goes well. I think performing is a way for me to yell, or say something loud. Cause I’m not a loud person, or don’t always have the words.
How would your album be best experienced? Is it meant to be listened to live or, for instance, sitting in your room alone listening to the cassette start to finish?
Well, that’s the thing about my stuff. What I do live versus what I do in a recording is very different, and I like it that way. I never do the same show twice.
Does that mean you improvise a lot while playing?
Sometimes, but I spend a lot of time planning it out also. There are specific songs that I do. They usually run into one another - one long set. So I think both hearing it live and listening to the recording are preferred. When you sit and listen to the recording, the ideas are really realized there.
What’s your setup? How has it changed over the years?
I started out not using any tonal instrument. I would use cassette loops. Cassettes and an ipad was my first set up. I used to play more trumpet, now I play more keyboards. It kinda became more song oriented. It was very experimental, more sound art stuff in the beginning, now it’s become more composed. I’m using two keyboards. The big one is a Roland Juno 6. It’s a classic 80’s synth, and it was my first synthesizer. And then I have this smaller keyboard, which is a Yamaha Reface CP, and that was one of the best little investments that I’ve made in recent years. It’s super portable and has all the effects built into it. It has everything I need for the bands I’m playing in right now. And then I also use a Roland TR 626 drum machine, which is another 80’s classic, which I kind of stole from my high school. Well I just kind of borrowed it and never gave it back...
What time of day do you like to work?
What do you eat for breakfast? … Do you eat breakfast?
Not usually... but lately I’ve been taking advantage of the free cereal at work and eat Honey Nut Cheerioz in the morning. When I was more on time to work I would stop for a donut. I love donuts. And when I was really on time I’d stop for a bacon egg and cheese.
What are you reading right now?
Haha, oh, I... I’m bad. I’m not really reading right now. My boss just gave me a book that I might check out. The last time I read I was in the mental hospital, cause there’s not much else to do there. It was the San Francisco Tape Music Center – a collection of essays from the 1960s, either about or by the people involved.
What are you listening to right now?
There’s this one J-Pop producer that I really love, and he does this group called Perfume. It’s a J-Pop trio, and it’s amazing to me. I just found it on vinyl. I’ve seen them twice. The first time I went by myself, around 2014. It was so fun. And you wonder about the people that are gonna show up, and it’s definitely quite a diverse crowd, and you’re like, who the fuck else follows these people. But there were thousands of people there. It’s high energy sugar coated J-Pop. It’s so charming. The whole thing just kind of wrapped me up.
Is there a total dream show you would like to play?
I guess I’ll go with the first venue that came to mind - EMPAC - it’s an experimental media performance space. It’s in Troy, and it’s state of the art - you can hear a pin drop. And my favorite band since high school is another Norwegian band, Jaga Jazzist [pronounced with the Norwegian-est accent you can muster up]. So to write something for them would be pretty amazing.
A lot of people are inspired in their art by love or heartbreak or by some drug or caffeine. What is your inspiration and what is your stimulant of choice?
There are definitely some drugs, haha… I have a long and complicated relationship with drugs. I can’t imagine it hasn’t shaped my work in some way. And I don’t necessarily think of it as negative. But those drugs have taken me to the hospital. And then that creeps it’s way into my music in different ways.
And I was in love. I was in my first adult relationship while working on the ep. You know, there’s always something that makes me make art. I just have to. It’s the thing I know how to do best, or most. What inspires me comes and goes and finds its way into the messages I put in my music.
There’s a lot of different sounds packed into Euphoric Recall. Where do your sounds come from? Where do those birds come from?
I use a lot of samples. The birds are from this cassette called, like, Sounds from the English Meadow. That song is called Conqueror, and I always have this vision of me, or not me, getting ready each day to face the world, especially as a trans person, and putting on your armor. And so the birds are there to be soothing for the anxiety - sort of like a morning, or a nice beginning.
On the first track, This is, there’s a clip from my favorite composer, Dmitri Shostakovich, and it’s a 1941 radio address in Russia - war propaganda stuff. And then the second track, that’s Richard Maxfeld being interviewed. He’s a sound artist, and that was about his piece called Cough Music, where he made a sound collage with all of the noise coming from the audience during a recorded concert. Has some nice stuff. He actually jumped out of a window. And that kind of resonates with my mental health stuff.
And then in the last track, People I know, there’s a preacher, and that’s actually my uncle. I found this tape in my parents’ closet. And he died in his 40's when I was pretty young. He was a big civil rights activist in Mississippi. He lived on a huge commune in Mississippi, which I used to go visit when I was younger. I like to source from family recordings.
In that same track, the interviewer asks Richard Maxfeld, “what is the listener’s experience”? I’ll flip those words back to you: what do you think, or what do you hope, is your listener’s experience?
I would hope that it takes you a lot of different places.
Photos of Theo by Kyna Marie.