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F-Art: A F-un Interview With Doug Baker

Mar 14th, 2013 | By | Category: Feature

If you’ve ever been downtown at a First Friday, chances are you’ve seen Doug Baker playing with the F-Art Ensemble of Greensboro. Maybe you’ve seen him play with the Zinc Kings at Tate Street Coffee House. Maybe you’ve heard your son or daughter talk about their awesome music teacher substitute, Mr. Baker. Maybe you were lucky enough to see him break his leg while onstage at 2ArtChicks (him, not you) or witnessed the 80s brilliance of Treva Spontaine and the Grafics. Maybe you’ve seen his name associated with fundraisers aimed at helping fellow musicians. The more I learn about him, the more I realize that he’s kind of everywhere, and the best part is…he’s incredibly nice.

Doug Baker

I recently showed my son some old photos of Doug playing guitar and he said “you can totally tell that’s Mr. Baker because he looks like he’s awesome at guitar and Mr. Baker is completely awesome at guitar.” I couldn’t have said it any better.

1. How old were you when you started playing guitar, and why did you start?

The “why” part is easy; when I was little, it was the usual fireman or policeman career preferences.  I was seven when the Beatles were on Ed Sullivan, and that settled it right there.  There was always a crappy guitar or a baritone ukulele around, so I logged a lot of hours pretending in front of the mirror while I listened to my 45’s.  I’d say I started in earnest when I was around 14 or 15.

2. Did you take formal lessons growing up or just learn it on your own?

There were some group lessons at the YMCA when I was around 10, but it didn’t really take.  My dad and his brothers were all musical, so at some point one of them showed me G, C, and D7 chords on the uke.  After figuring out that those chords were all I needed to play “Ode To Billy Joe” it was off to the races.

I took about 2-1/2 years of classical guitar lessons at UNCG in the mid-70’s.  Those were the only formal lessons I took.  Although ultimately I grew bored with the classical guitar repertoire, those lessons were invaluable as far as expanding my fretboard knowledge.

3. Who are your guitar heroes? If you name Robert Fripp or Phil Manzanera I’ll scream like a little girl.

Well, I do like Roxy, but more as a band than a guitar-y thing.  But definitely Fripp.  That sustained, fuzzy solo tone he gets is one of my favorite guitar tones ever!  I pull Fripp licks out at F-Art shows all the time.

My favorite player right now is probably Bill Frisell.  The way he brings folk, jazz, country and ethnic styles together and still sounds like himself is incredible.  Other influences would include Adrian Belew, Ry Cooder, David Lindley, Frank Zappa, George Harrison, Richard Thopmpson, and Sonny Landreth.

4. What was the scene like in Greensboro when you were in The Graphic? I know that my brother was lucky enough to see you guys but I was probably somewhere brooding and listening to Dead Can Dance at that period in time.

It was a wild couple of years.  I made a lot good friends in that time.  I actually removed myself from the whole thing a little early, I lot of people thought it was because I got married, but it was more because it was becoming more about the preservation of “the scene” than the development and growth of the music.

I should also clarify that at the time, the band was called “Treva Spontaine and the Grafics”.  The name was edited a year or two after I left.

Doug Baker

5. What bands do you play with currently, and what type of music are you doing with them?

I have two ongoing projects. One is the Zinc Kings, an old time string band that focuses on music indigenous to this region.  I’m sort of an utility infielder in the band, switching instruments according to what’s needed.  More often than not, that means mandolin, although I’ve also played guitar, stand up bass, and a little banjo at times.

The other thing is The F-Art Ensemble of Greensboro.  I started playing occasionally with them around 1984 until things ground to a halt around 1989.  When it started back up around 2009 I jumped back in.  We play every First Friday at Mack & Mack.  It’s hard to describe what we do to the layman.  Complete improvisation; we have no idea what’s going to happen.  Sometimes, it’s quite ugly, sometimes it’s unbelievably beautiful.  We take our chances.  My son once described it as “a bunch of old guys who think they’re cool because they play the wrong notes.”  That works as well as anything.

I haven’t done the Rock and the Roll since my last band, Sin Tax, ground to a halt a little over three years ago.  I’m starting to get  the itch, though, to get something going in that direction.

I’m noticing here that I keep saying “ground to a halt” in referring to bands.  I don’t think bands really break up; it’s more like they come and go, grind to a halt and then flare up again.  Always seemed silly that a big deal was made of “reunions”.

6. Is it true that you once broke a bone on-stage?

Sigh, I’m never going to live that one down!  Yep, in 2007.  Sin Tax were playing a show at 2 Art Chicks.  At the end of the last song (Blondie’s X-Offender), I decided to take a leap off the drum riser.  Now, that riser was only 12, maybe 18 inches high.  But I landed wrong and shattered my left leg at the knee.  I was lying on the floor, even some of my bandmates thought it was part of the show.  Well, I guess it was, but not intentionally.  I still have a bit of a hitch in my getalong because of it.

7. You’re teaching guitar lessons to kids these days, and I can personally attest to the fact that the weekly lesson is something my son Mason truly looks forward to. In fact, when I say “hey it’s Tuesday, guitar day” he will awake from his morning stupor and moonwalk. What got you started with this?

Initially, it was out of necessity.  My career working in music stores had gone down in flames, and I needed to do something to generate some income.  The guitar teacher at Holy Trinity Music School had moved away, and Ben Brafford asked me if I was interested in coming aboard.  I’ll always be grateful to Ben for that.  I had had a few students in the mid 80’s when I worked at Moore Music, but this time it really resonated with me.  It felt like a way to give back to music for all it had given me.  Now I teach both at Holy Trinity and at The Cultural Center downtown, as well as after-school classes at St. Pius X. Catholic School. I’ll also be teaching this June at the Greensboro Guitar Summer Workshop, which I’m very excited about.

8. One thing that really bothers me about schools is the issue over funding for anything art-related. For example, we’re looking at a middle school that has no music classes, and that really worries me. Obviously one solution to this is something like what you offer: private music lessons after-school. What are the benefits of exposing kids to music and fostering a love of it? Will kids who don’t get to take music lessons be at a disadvantage in other areas later in life potentially?

You always hear all these figures thrown out on how students who are involved in music do better in school and all that.  While all that’s quite true, we shouldn’t have to “justify” the arts in that way.  It was discussed in a music education class I was in a few years ago that it is through the arts that we learn what it is to be human, to perceive beauty.  And what on earth can be more important than that?

Something else that’s forgotten; music is a REQUIRED part of the curriculum in North Carolina.  If McCrory and his numbskulls try to mess with that, I may turn into The Hulk!

9. I know you’re obviously partial to the guitar, but if you had to pick one instrument that could serve as a basis for learning others, what would it be and why?

I took two years of piano before guitar.  I wish I had kept with it.  I can still get around on keyboard a bit, and have on stage with various rock bands.  The fact that all the notes are right there in front of you makes it helpful for figuring out harmonies and such.  I’ll often take a guitar student to the piano in the adjacent to show for example, how lowering the third takes you from a major chord to a minor chord.

10. How can we all encourage kids to get more interested in music? Obviously we can play it for them and take them to live performances, but should we do more music-related projects? For example, both of my children have had to make a musical instrument in school but it’s been for science. I think that approach was really fun for them. Should we make a bigger effort to include music in other things that we do?

Whenever something like the instrument building project comes up, it should be coordinated with the music teacher.  Whenever I’ve worked in schools, I’ve tried to integrate music into whatever else they’re studying.  Not to, again, justify the study of music, but to show that at every point in history, there’s been music as part of society.  Hearing Stephen Foster in the context leading up to the Civil War, spirituals, jazz, and 60’s soul in the context of the civil rights struggle, Woody Guthrie going from the Depression into McCarthyism…this is all part of the big picture.

If you’d like to get in touch with Doug about lessons, just send him an email.

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5 Comments to “F-Art: A F-un Interview With Doug Baker”

  1. Robert Ashford says:

    I loved Treva Spontane and the Graphic back in the day. My favorite local band ever!

  2. Allen Martin says:

    Good stuff!

  3. Bill Kenny says:

    Great interview with a very good musician and person.

  4. Lisa Gardner says:

    Good interview! Doug is talented, passionate about music, and just a great person in general. Music is and always has been intertwined with societies that produce it, and I’m glad there are people like Doug presenting it that way to the next generation.

  5. shannon Frazier says:

    What a treat to be privy to this interview. Doug Baker is an inspiration to both seasoned and novice musicians. His positivity @ exuberance have shown the way for both. Blessed to call him ‘teach’ & friend.

Leave a Comment for Robert Ashford