This article appears in the September/October 2015 issue, available on newsstands September 8.
It’s ten in the morning on a beautiful summer day and Rayland Baxter is on the phone, hauling ass across Music City. His voice is buoyant, his reactions excitable as we discuss whether his Volvo came with the stereotypical copy of Europe ‘72 in the glovebox — “Nah, there’s a hole in the glove box” — and it is pretty clear that Nashville has yet to wear the edges off his persona in the name of “press training.” Baxter, it seems, does not have a filter. Or, not much of one in any case.
It is only six weeks until his sophomore album Imaginary Man hits stores and the dude is stoked. Eleven songs of deep grooves and cosmic storytelling, Imaginary Man finds Baxter stretching himself and his band beyond the softly strummed intimacy of his debut into a wider world of beauty and awe. It is an ambitious undertaking, where melodies spiral outward like musical fractals and rhythms lay back on a galactic-scale La-Z-Boy, carrying the listener on a cloud of purple smoke to places that may or may not exist.
“A producer is an amazing thing,” Baxter says. “Adam [Landry] and Eric [Masse] got me out of my comfort zone of the quieter finger-picking songwriter vibe. They were like ‘fuckin’ bang that guitar. Get up on that microphone and let’s take these songs out of singer-songwriter world and do what you want to do. Make your own sound. Have a band. Play at festivals. Rock the fuck out.’”
And rock out they do. If collaboration is the unsung skill that differentiates between a good musician and great musician then Baxter is on track to be one of the best. Spearheaded by keyboardist and “local wizard” Mr. Jimmy Rowland, with vocal contributions from Rhianna co-conspirator Mikky Ekko and Delta Spirit’s Matt Vazquez, not to mention a guest appearance by Baxter’s father and pedal steel legend Bucky Baxter, the band is remarkably fluid.
They float along the crest and troughs of Baxter’s psychic wavelength, making a splash when the moment calls for it but every sound made is in service to the song. On tracks like “Freakin’ Me Out” (chorus “I’m losing my mind/ And it’s freaking’ me out”) and the album opening “Mr. Rodriguez” the group — producers, musicians, singers — operate like one symbiotic organism, achieving sentience and teleporting out of the primordial ooze. This is a beast that inhales ideas and exhales grooves in the most organic manner, a beast ready to be unleashed on the larger world.
“So the album, it’s all sort of controlled and contained, but the live shows, they are beasts, man,” Baxter continues. “I get to do some guitar jamming and there’s some really cool differences in the album tracks and the way they come together live.
“I love the Grateful Dead, man. I started off in college just noodling to the Grateful Dead then I go into this sappy — well, not sappy — but quieter singer-songwriter thing and it got lame to me and I was un-entertained … [Now] the door is really wide open and on any song we can just go for it. Sometimes we go for it on every song because we’re selfish and we want to jam.”
But the jams aren’t as selfish as Baxter would like you to believe. For the open-minded listener — for the listener that wants more than just a carbon copy of an album cut when they shell out their hard-earned clams to see a show — Baxter and crew deliver the goods. Baxter has always been an enchanting solo performer but takes on an almost shamanistic quality when the songs expand. He is exactly the sort of wild man you want leading a rock and roll adventure.
“I just ran a red light. Whoops!” Baxter says casually. “What else? I just want to freak out. I’m a spazzoid person and there’s something not right about me being a solo performer and controlling all that. I just want to spazz out. Now I’ve got guitar pedals, I’ve got screaming guitar and I love it. It is fucking awesome.”