Monday, May 2, 2022

Jeff "Skunk" Baxter: Traveling at the Speed of Heat

Jeff "Skunk" Baxter
Image by Joel Manduke

To the delight of his fans, musical icon Jeff “Skunk” Baxter is releasing his debut solo album, Speed of Heat, on June 17th, on BMG/Renew Records. The name, no doubt, is instantly familiar to fans of Steely Dan and The Doobie Brothers. His presence in the music world, however, looms even larger. A renowned studio musician and producer, Baxter’s contributions are as ubiquitous as the famed Wrecking Crew or the Session. His extraordinary talent has graced hundreds of other artists’ work, among them Barbra Streisand, Carly Simon, Joni Mitchell, Carl Wilson, Ringo Starr, Rod Stewart, and the Ventures.

With Speed of Heat, 72-year-old Baxter shows that his creative fires are stoked and that he is moving ever forward. Excited to share his new album with the world, Baxter is returning to the road with a tour that will bring him to Long Island on May 10th, at the Metropolitan in Glen Cove, as part of the Long Island Classic Series presented by Michael “Eppy” Epstein of legendary My Father’s Place fame.

Speed of Heat features contributions from several notable guests, including Michael McDonald, Clint Black, Jonny Lang, and Rick Livingstone. The album’s twelve tracks consist of a combination of originals and “inspired classics,” including a re-imagining of Steely Dan’s  “My Old School” and “Do It Again.” Along with songwriting collaborator and musician C.J. Vanston, the album’s originals highlight the depth and scope of Baxter’s musical genius in vivid relief. In a word: astonishing.

From the driving, hard-edged take of Steely Dan’s “My Old School” to the haunting, a cappella pedal steel featured on “The Rose,” breathtakingly jaw-dropping moments abound. It is unmistakably clear that Jeff “Skunk” Baxter has created a definitive personal statement with Speed of Heat, one which will endear him further to his legion of existing fans while introducing him to a generation of new ones.

During a recent Saturday afternoon, Baxter was eager to talk about the new album and happy to share memories of some of the people and places he’s encountered in his 50-plus year musical voyage. Similar to another guitar-playing peer’s second career as an astrophysicist (Queen’s Brian May), a little-known fact about Baxter is that he is a highly respected defense consultant and counter-terrorism expert for the United States Government. Addressing his alter ego directly during our conversation provided a fascinating glimpse into the mind of a man who is not only an acknowledged musical force, but also a keenly intelligent fount of fascinating scientific knowledge and experience. Read on and enjoy!

 

Image by Jimmy Steinfelt

RA: Congratulations on this new record! I’ve been listening to it pretty much constantly for the past 48 hours. As a musician, I’m kind of at a loss for words.

JB: I really appreciate the compliment, thank you! I had a lot of help from good friends.

 

RA: So I see! You’re going to be coming to our neck of the woods on May 10th, coming to Long Island for a performance at The Metropolitan in Glen Cove, which is part of Long Island Classic Music Series organized by Michael “Eppy” Epstein of My Father’s Place fame. I’m wondering if you have any history with him or that illustrious venue?

JB: I believe I played there a long time ago. I know I played out on Long Island when I was a kid, at the Action House and places like that. But it’s been quite awhile since I’ve been out there, and I’m really looking forward to it!


RA: As far as Speed of Heat goes, the fifty-year span between Steely Dan’s debut album and the release of your debut solo album begs the question: What was behind the wait to put out your own record?

JB: I always thought it was kind of typical for any artist who leaves a very successful band to immediately do a solo album. I thought, nah, I’ll percolate a bit, and it was pretty busy between studio work and producing records and playing with other folks. There wasn’t a whole lot of time! So, I got together with my buddy C.J. Vanston over the course of about the past twelve years. Every once in a while, we’d get together and do a little recording. It sort of blossomed. It was going to be instrumental and then I mentioned it to Mike McDonald and he said he’d like to play on it. (Also) Clint Black and Jonny Lang. I even asked Steve Tyler to sing on it and I sent him a copy of “My Old School” with me doing a scratch vocal. He said, “Who’s that singing?” I said, uh, Steve, that’s me, I just (did) a scratch vocal, and he said, “What the hell’s the matter with you? Why don’t you sing it? It sounds good to me!” I said, well, you know more about this stuff than I do, so okay! (It went) on and on until it became almost half instrumental, half vocal. For the writing process, my buddy C.J. and I had been playing together for many years doing jingles (commercials) together, and we found that we write literally without talking. We could just start playing and things would happen. I (told) him that if someday I ever did a solo record, I would really like to do it with him. That’s kind of how it all worked out.

 

RA: That’s fantastic. You mentioned that you two could write without talking. My ears picked up an almost telepathic communication between the two of you, so thank you for corroborating that! Another thing my ears picked up is how you were able to bring out performances in your musical guests that transcended what they usually did on their own recordings. Clint Black’s vocal on “Bad Move” is markedly different from what his fans are familiar with.

JB: Well, that was actually part of the deal: If you want to play on the record – I had told Mike McDonald and Clint and Jonny that first of all, we want you to write with myself and C.J., and we also want you to do something that you’ve never done before. In other words, I didn’t want it to be typical. (I said to them), if you’re okay with that, welcome to our world! But you’re right—the track that we cut with Clint was very different from anything he’s ever done. It also underscores what an incredible musician he is! We thought it would be fun to explore that with all our friends.



RA: It’s interesting how the greatest musicians—and I respectfully include you—have the ability, when working with other people, to inspire them to reach deep inside themselves and find a level of “best” in others that they didn’t even know they had. Jerry Garcia said as much about his experiences working with David Crosby on the latter’s first solo album. What was Clint’s reaction when he heard the playback?

JB: He was really surprised, but he’s a big Steely Dan fan and the lyrics and the sort of feel of the first 16 bars has that kind of Steely Dan feel to it, and he was right at home. Also, you asked me about how I get the performances out of people. I’ve been producing records as well, for people like Billy Vera & The Beaters, the Stray Cats, and a number of other artists—even the Ventures! That was the whole idea: Let’s see what you got! Because I know that you’ve probably never been really challenged. Not that you’re not a great musician, but I’m here to sort of push the envelope. As you say, it is such a treat to hear someone dig deep.

 

RA: Here’s a technical question about recording. You’ve mentioned a preference for plugging directly into the console, as you did with Steely Dan. Is that solely for guitar, or did you do that for the bass and pedal steel as well?

JB: Pretty much direct. I use a Roland guitar interface that I helped design. I’ve been with Roland for 47 years, so I’ve been designing and being involved in a lot of projects, but yeah, no amplifiers, just plug in, because there’s something about the closeness, the connection.

 

RA: I’ve been a huge pedal steel fan since I was a kid, listening to Pete Drake’s work on George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass. The sound just captivates my ear. What you did on “The Rose,” the immediacy, as you said, reaches out and grabs the listener in an intimate way. Speaking of that track, your bio says that the song was recorded to honor your father. You referred to his life advice to not dwell on your success, to move forward and strive for self-improvement and knowledge. Can you share some thoughts on your relationship with your Dad? It sounds like something that was very, very special to you.

JB: The actual story was that on the 25th anniversary the existence of Guitar Player magazine (I was on their advisory board at that time), they had a wonderful celebration up in San Francisco. They said, we’d like you to do something special for the folks that have passed on who are part of our community. I said sure and I thought about it. I had heard “The Rose” on the radio and said, what a beautiful song! What I’m gonna do is go out and do an a cappella pedal steel version of “The Rose,” and that’s what I did as they were going past the different photographs of different folks. Just as I got to the end of the first verse, Adrian Belew came out, plugged in, and started to play with me. I just love Adrian’s playing, and he's a good friend. By the time we got to the end of the second verse, we had a whole band (onstage). I thought back and said, what a great way to approach this piece of music! So that’s what I did, and basically used that as a template. When I was playing it, I was thinking about my Dad. He was very important in my life, we were good friends as well, and I had a tremendous amount of respect for him. When I was doing the performance for Guitar Player magazine, I tried to make that connection as best and as deeply as I could.

 

RA: It’s a beautiful track.

JB: Thank you! The voice of the pedal steel is incomparable. I don’t think anybody’s ever done anything a cappella on pedal steel, and I thought, it’s time to showcase the voice.

 

RA: Regarding guitar playing, you once said “Style has a lot to do with phrasing, and phrasing has a lot to do with how you speak.” Can you offer any additional thoughts on that concept?

JB: To me, phrasing is almost everything because it creates a rhythmic pattern that people can relate to, which is extremely important, obviously, when you’re trying to play something and have people understand it and become interested. I always refer to the knowledge that one acquires from playing the guitar as developing vocabulary for the guitar. You know, you could play three chords and it’s like, you know, “Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water.” That certainly has a descriptive to it but Jack was brought up in a family that was broken and very poor. And Jill, who came from a much higher economic situation … they were in the mountains alone, and they decided to go up the hill, etc., etc., etc. In other words, I think vocabulary (adds) sophistication and subtlety to the story. If you read “Christ Climbed Down” by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the actual construction of the words has as much to do with the phrasing and meaning as anything else. So, they’re certainly intertwined and tangential at the least, concentric at the best.

 

RA: I wanted to jump, if we could, to 1978 when you left The Doobie Brothers after Minute by Minute. You’ve been quoted as saying that you have to recognize when it’s time to move on. When you made the decision to leave, what were the thought processes that led up to it?

JB: It was a combination of so many different things. The band was changing. If you’re a change agent, you have to understand change and when it’s time. When I brought Mike McDonald into the band, it really, really changed the whole psychological, philosophical construct of the band. For many people, that was a very difficult change. When the band matured and, I would posit, had fully developed and embraced the change, sometimes you don’t really need to be there anymore … and you need to know that, and you need to read the tea leaves, so that’s kind of what happened.

 

RA: Returning to the new album, what were some of the standout writing sessions that you had, and what were some of the more magical moments in the studio?

JB: Certainly, writing “My Place in the Sun” with Michael and C.J. We put a lot of effort into that (not that we didn’t put effort into anything else). Michael’s a fairly deep lyricist in his own right and making sure that the vehicle that we created would showcase him in his best possible light was a task that we took seriously, and took a little more time, I think. (In the studio), C.J. and I have this wonderful ability to play together with non-verbal communication. There are two songs on the album—one is “Giselle” and the other is “Juliet”—that basically were composed on the fly.

 

RA: I loved reading how your daughter came up with a beautiful simile to describe “Juliet” … “like a sunrise.” I actually read that before listening to the track and realized that your daughter is correct!

JB: That’s very kind. I always play my music for my kids, because I want to get their input and sort of gauge how we’re doing here. When she told me that, it really touched me deeply.

 

RA: In researching for today’s interview, one of the things that struck me was the almost ubiquitous nature of your presence in the field. It’s far broader than most people would suspect. Have you lost count at this point of how many artists you’ve worked with as a session guitarist and/or producer?

JB: Oh, gosh! [chuckles] I’m not trying to be disingenuous, I don’t know---500, 600, 800 sessions, movie soundtracks, jingles, scoring … it’s hard to say. I apologize, but I don’t have an exact number.

Image by Jimmy Steinfelt

 

RA: I watched a fascinating video that you did for the D’Angelico Showroom sessions, and a couple of statements you made during that video made me sit on the edge of my seat. One of the things you said  was: “Frequency and oscillation – that’s the glue that holds the universe together. Every time a guitar player plays a guitar, he is in tune with the physics of the universe.” To my ears, it suggested a very unique blend of a scientific mindset combined with a deeper spiritual understanding. Any thoughts on that?

JB: Well, it’s something that I’ve always kind of believed in and thought that I understood, being a kind of a scientist and a physics guy as well as a musician. I was positively reinforced on that by my late friend Charlie Townes, who won the Nobel Prize for inventing the laser. Charlie and I worked together for years up at Lawrence Livermore, at the National Laboratory there on the Laser Advisory Board. I’m still at the lab, actually, after 25 years. Our job was to review every program at the laboratory. It was three-day process (consisting of) myself, Charlie Townes, Dr. Edward Teller, Mike Campbell; a number of different people at the lab were members of the Laser Advisory Board. By around the third day of reviewing programs like “Femto Laser Peening in a Pure Nitrogen Atmosphere” … I mean, everybody’s eyes were watering, and people were passing out. So, Charlie stood up and said, you know what? I’m going to do an hour on theoretical physics and God. Even “Fast Eddie” (Teller) woke up. Everybody was enthralled while Charlie went ahead and explained the glue that holds the universe together, which is frequency, because he knew a lot about that. He understood frequencies and coherent frequencies, because a laser is a coherent set of single frequency. Not only did he understand, but he actually did something with it. Frequency is what holds all of the matter in the universe together. Every time you play a note or strike a chord, a chord is a set of coherent oscillations. A string is a single oscillation. When Charlie talked about the human spirit being a function of the electromagnetic transducer, which is your brain—it’s an electromagnetic engine which runs on electricity, broadcasts and receives, creates frequency, creates radiation which may actually echo forever! Someone won the Nobel Prize for discovering the echoes and the reverberations of the Big Bang, so this is not out of the realm of reality. And when Charlie began to use that to describe the human spirit as a set of coherent oscillations, I said, “Charlie, that’s what music is!” and he said, “You got it!” Dr. Edward Teller was a concert pianist.

 

RA: I did not know that!

JB: Yeah. He loved Mozart. All the wonderful physicists who I’ve had the privilege and opportunity to work with, I’d say 95% of them were musicians.

 

RA: That is somewhat of a mind-blowing fact. In school, were you a science kid?

JB: Absolutely! I was a big fan of the International Geophysical Year and I subscribed to every science magazine there was. No doubt about it!

 

RA: As long as we’re on the topics of science and physics, there was another quote from the D’Angelico video that stood out: “Once you understand the basic tenets of the science and the physics, it really doesn’t make any difference where you go; it’s just a different manifestation of what you can do with electrons.”

JB: That’s right! The way an electric guitar works, in my day job, I describe to a number of my colleagues that a radar as just an electric guitar on steroids. Basically, the way an electric guitar is that you vibrate a piece of metal over a set of magnets that are surrounded by a coil of wire, and when you do that, you create electric current. You create electrons. Once you create those electrons, you can do basically anything you want.

 

RA: I was fascinated to learn about your career as a defense consultant and counter-terrorism expert, and I want to thank you for your service to our country. This question is coming out of left field, but I can’t help asking it anyway. Speaking to your experience the field, and given the U.S. Navy’s apparent ongoing encounters with what seems to be superior science and technology, can you offer any thoughts on what they may be dealing with, and is that a national security threat?

JB: Well, are you referring to what some people call Unidentified Flying Objects?

 

RA: Yes, I’m referring to the story that the New York Times broke back in 2017 about the U.S. Navy’s encounters with these unidentified objects that have been occurring for several years.

JB: My caveat to everything, and this is very important: I am speaking as a private citizen. I am in no way at all representing anything or anyone or any entity that is connected with the United States Government. I need to have that disclaimer. That said, in my opinion, although from a theoretical physics point of view, in an infinite universe that is so vast and so varied, the possibility of alternate life forms and cogent life forms—thinking, sentient life forms—is so real that it would be difficult to argue the opposite. As far as what they call Unidentified Flying Objects, Unidentified Flying Systems, etc., to me, it’s difficult for people to separate technology from alien technology or otherworld technology. After World War II, (there was) the discovery and the uncovering of some very sophisticated technologies that were created in Germany during World War II—swept wing aircraft, jet aircraft, and the “foo fighters” (the phenomena that were following the bombers of the 8th Air Force into Germany that were zipping around the bombers, like globes of light. Thanks to German technology, they invented magnetic tape! We really wouldn’t have a record business if it wasn’t for that. But they also were experimenting in the areas of anti-gravity, and this gets into an area (in which) there’s certainly some controversy about a possible invention called Die Glocke, which utilized some very advanced physics to possibly create a force field that would repel gravity. To me, after the war, both Russia and the United States gained access to those technologies. One could posit that some of what we see is the application of those technologies. I’ll just leave it at that. Could they be sentient beings from another part of the universe? Quite possibly, and there are also explanations that are tangential to that.

 

RA: After this current series of shows, what are your future plans for the coming year or so? Any plans to do another record?

JB: I haven’t really thought about it. Again, I think that’s something I certainly would aspire to. It’s like having children—maybe you need to wait a little bit. Get familiar with the child you have and enjoy; take advantage of, and just live with and develop what you’ve already done. But certainly, I would like to consider it. This whole solo project was the last thing on my musical bucket list. That doesn’t mean it will be the last thing on the bucket list as a singularity.

 

RA: Jeff, thank you so very much for taking the time to speak with me this afternoon. Worlds of respect to you, and congratulations on this wonderful new record.

JB: Well, listen, Roy. I really appreciate you taking the time. Flattered is not the right word—I’m honored that you would take the time to spend with me. 

© Roy Abrams 2022 


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