Sound It Out: “20 Questions” #13 — Mike Baggetta

Another installment of the recurring “Sound It Out: 20 Questions” feature on, with an artist answering a survey inspired by the famous Proust Questionnaire…

(Mike Baggetta, performing at Greenwich House. Photo: Bart Babinksi.)

None other than six-string star Nels Cline has said: “Guitar poet Mike Baggetta veers daringly and compellingly from patient, elegiac freedom to searing, oozing sludge rock without the slightest hesitation – cool!” Mike, born in 1979 and raised in Agawam, Massachusetts, is indeed a richly inventive guitarist, one who has absorbed influences from Jeff Beck to David Torn into an utterly individual, deeply expressive style. Mike was a standout of Sound It Out’s “Monk on Guitars” all-star fifth-anniversary extravaganza last June at Greenwich House. Bill Milkowski, reviewing the show for DownBeat, had this to say: “The real find of the evening was Mike Baggetta, a kind of post-Frisellian sonic explorer who brought an audacious touch to the proceedings with his wild whammy-bar articulations, crazy harmonizer effects, ambient looping and rippling arpeggios. His renegade approach to Monk’s playful ‘Locomotive’ was full of subversive surprises and yielded new possibilities for Monk’s timeless music… Baggetta delivered an abrasive six-string assault full of hellacious skronking, string-scraping and a general hornets nest of fuzz-toned dissonance that headed into Sonny Sharrock territory.”

Mike moved to New York City in 2003, after graduating from Rutgers; he has since recorded a series of albums for the Fresh Sound label, including the excellent quartet discs Thieves and Secrets (2014) and Source Material (2011). Mike’s most recent release is 2015’s beautiful Spectre, featuring him by turns atmospheric and scything alongside bass guitarist Jerome Harris and drummer Billy Mintz. The guitarist has also recorded in a duo with trumpeter Kris Tiner, as well as contributed to sessions and shows by David Torn, Psychic Temple and Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society. Having recently moved to Knoxville, Tennessee, Mike is currently preparing Wall of Flowers, the first of two albums he recorded with a pair of rock icons: bassist Mike Watt (of Minutemen and Stooges fame) and drummer Jim Keltner (one of the world’s most recorded session players, from the ’60s to today). Mike has led both his quartet and his trio in the Sound It Out series, in June 2014 and November 2016, respectively. On December 14, 2017, he plays the year’s final Sound It Out show, co-leading a dual-guitar band with fellow ax-wielder Anders Nilsson and the subtly grooving rhythm section of bassist Jerome Harris and drummer Satoshi Takeishi. About this upcoming show, Mike says, with his characteristic warmth: “Anders is a kindred spirit as a guitarist. He explores sound on the instrument in an inspiring way, one that always seems to yield surprising results from me. I have thankfully been able to collaborate with Jerome Harris for more than my fair share, yet I have never played with Satoshi before, only admiring his playing for more than a decade. It’s going to be a blast for Anders and I to explore our original music together, as well as play some tunes by Zappa, Blood Ulmer and John Abercrombie.” — BB

  1. What was the first jazz album you fell in love with and stayed in love with?

In a Silent Way by Miles Davis. It was one of the first jazz albums I ever owned. I don’t remember quite how that came about, but maybe I just asked for a Miles LP for Christmas and that was the album that appeared. I had never heard anything like it! I was deep into classic ’60s-’70s rock at that point – Led Zeppelin, Jeff Beck, Cream – so in a way it was an easy album for me to slide into. But the combination of long tunes, evolving forms and Miles’ vibe in that music was absolutely unreal to me. I had no idea what was happening or how everyone knew what to do to make it sound so good. Even John McLaughlin’s out-of-tune guitar chord in the beginning sounds beautiful to me on that record!

  1. What do you think is one of the most overrated jazz albums ever?

Breathless by Kenny G. There, I said it!

  1. What’s one of your all-time favorite non-jazz albums?

Wired by Jeff Beck. This was a find in my dad’s stash of records. If it wasn’t worn out already, I definitely put a lot more wear on it. That was another case of not knowing fully what was going on, but the sounds and attitude of that album spoke to me deeply. In fact, it was from his version of “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” that I figured I should look into this Charles Mingus character, and that pretty much really got me into jazz…

  1. What’s the last album you listened to from beginning to end – and did you like it?

Switched-On Bach by Wendy Carlos. My guitarist friend Chris Welcome gave me a tape of this about 20 years ago when we were in college, and it was on constant rotation in my Chevy Beretta for a long time. I think the tape might have even broke… In any event, I recently found a great pressing on vinyl and listened all the way through. This album exemplifies something I love – taking a form of great music and doing it in a completely unexpected way that yields results never imagined from the original works. The hilariousness of Bach on a synthesizer isn’t lost on me, but the fact that it was controversial upon its release never hurts to win points with me.

  1. What’s your favorite film score?

There are wonderful scores by Herrmann, Takemitsu and Badalamenti that are very important to me, but I’ve been listening a lot over the past year or two to David Torn’s score for The Order. It speaks to me on many levels – the Arabic influences in the dense and beautiful orchestrations, the exciting rhythmic and textural elements. The album stands on its own as a deep set of music, but the score also enhances the film. More than half the reason that I enjoyed that film was because of the music.

  1. What was the most recent concert – of any genre – that made you fall in love with music all over again?

I was absolutely entranced by Blonde Redhead’s concert at the Mill & Mine as part of the 2017 Big Ears Festival in Knoxville. Their music was as emo, ambient-y and shoegaze-y as ever, all of which I love unabashedly. But it was also the peak of a bad allergy season here in the early spring, and Kazu, the band’s vocalist, was clearly struggling to breathe because of her allergies. Yet she gave the show 110 percent – and the band sounded as amazing as ever. At a certain point, it became clear that the set could only last so much longer, even as they delivered in the face of adversity. Everybody there understood, and it was a wonderful moment of communal understanding.

  1. What’s your favorite quote about music?

“A note can be small as a pin or as big as the world. It depends on your imagination.” — Thelonious Monk via Steve Lacy’s notebook.

  1. If you could have a drink with any visual artist of the past, who would it be?

Edward Hopper. I love how he transforms the mundane into absolute magic through a simple element, like light.

  1. What are the top three tools of your trade?

My imagination, my health and a guitar.

  1. What’s your most indispensable piece of technology that isn’t music-oriented?

I will admit that it’s probably my smart phone. Sigh… It is just so easy these days to be in touch with people in any number of ways, as well as plan travel, read books and the news, reference any number of things. I do my best to make sure I don’t give myself ADHD with it, but the damn thing definitely has its place in my modern life.

  1. What are your top media sources of writing/opinion/news about music?

I don’t really keep up with music in that way for a variety of reasons. So, my top sources are my friends and colleagues – word of mouth. 

  1. What non-musical/non-technological quality is most important to being an enduringly creative musician?

I think it’s vital that an artist is first and foremost a quality human being – and that will come across in your music.

  1. What living person do you most admire – and what’s one quality he or she has that you most admire?

Two people – my parents! They are incredibly supportive, generally optimistic no matter what and always keeping busy with some kind of work or self-invented projects. They are really inspiring, having taught me how to persevere through all kinds of situations. And I appreciate more and more of their wisdom as I age myself… even if I don’t call them often enough!

  1. What living person do you most despise – and what’s one quality he or she has that you most despise?

Anyone who puts selfish interests above the greater good of an equal, just and responsible society. I’m afraid that a list of those people is far too long these days.

  1. What’s your favorite place in the world?

I will always be partial to my homeland of New England – simple, natural, resolute.

  1. If you could live in another time period, when would that be?

The time when there were no smart phones. I only got to experience about 20 years of that – and I would’ve liked to have lived more without them around.

  1. What book would you most like to read again?

For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway. That was the first book of his I ever read, and the beauty and patience in his writing drew me in so completely to the foreign and dark themes, leaving me entranced.

  1. What film haven’t you seen that you feel like you should?

Dune. Even though I’m a big fan of most everything David Lynch has made, I’ve never seen that movie because I’m not really into sci-fi. But maybe I’ll watch it after I finish this questionnaire…

  1. What aspect of the past do you miss most – and what’s one thing you look forward to about the future that doesn’t yet exist?

I may be way off base, but sometimes I feel like empathy for others has become passé. It seems to have become less of a consideration both for individual people and for our society as a whole as time marches forward. I don’t know if this has to do with Facebook or reality TV, or if I’m just being too old man-ish. But I look forward to a future when we all can be more considerate of others. I’d think that this would lead us to make decisions for the good of all people.

  1. What would you like your last meal to consist of?

There are some things that I can’t eat due to digestive issues, gluten being one of them. There is a gluten-free bakery in the Islington section of London called Artisan, which makes a gluten-free sourdough that is unreal – easily better than regular San Francisco sourdough. I could eat a whole loaf of that bread and feel totally at peace…