A virtual Zelig of the original DC punk scene—he played in Embrace, Ignition and of course The Faith (above), and shared stages with virtually every other significant outfit the city ever produced—the musician now resides happily in his original hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. Our resident Dischord expert Dr. Hinely investigates.
BY TIM HINELY
I’ve never met Chris Bald before but would always see his name on many of my favorite Dischord records. I knew he has been a member of The Faith, Embrace and Ignition just to name A few but as you read below you’ll see that he was in many more bands than that (for example, I had no idea that he spent time briefly in Royal Trux).
All of the photos of videos I had seen of Chris Bald seemed like he was all over the stage and looked like an exciting performer. As far as the Dischord scene in concerned, we’ve all read and enjoyed many interviews with folks like Ian MacKaye, Brian Baker, etc but I had not ever seen an interview with Bald and I like to dig for musicians/bands that were more on the edge and not necessarily in the middle of it all.
I emailed Bald out of the blue and he was more than happy to answer some questions. Please read on folks.
BLURT: Where were you born and where did you grow up?
CHRIS BALD: Born in Louisville KY, lived in Chicago for two years when I was really little, then back to Louisville, then moved to DC.
What was your first exposure to music?
My father reviewed music for the Louisville newspaper so we always had different music around when I was growing up, 70’s radio got me into things like Fleetwood Mac, ABBA and Elton John, Eventually into hard rock, Kiss, Aerosmith, AC/DC etc.
At what age did you pick up your first instrument?
My mother had an acoustic guitar that was always around and always out of tune, but it enabled me to get a crude understanding of how to play. I was probably 12 years old when I really started to want to play, my best friend at the time was taking lessons and was a natural talent so I was envious of his ability and self motivated myself to learn. I took lessons around 14 years old but retained only the rudiments.
When/why did you move to Washington, DC?
My family moved to DC because my father was working for Kentucky Congressman Romano Mazzoli, when he got elected we moved to the capitol.
What was your introduction to the punk scene there?
My introduction to punk rock was through the music press, magazines like Creem and Circus, I went to see Elvis Costello in 1978, I was 14, from there my friends and I delved in to the new wave! Ray Hare who sang in Deadline, was one of best friends at that age and we were huge into Cheap Trick. I met Brendan Canty and Monica Richards at school, we dressed similar, Ramones hair, big Blondie pins, Chuck Taylors, When we got to Wilson High School we met Eddie Janney, Bert Quieroz, Alec and Ian MacKaye, Rich Moore, Jeff Nelson and I knew John Hanson from the neighborhood. I found out about a show those guys were playing (Teen Idles, Zones, Untouchables) and went to check it out. It was in a bar and we had to sneak in, but to my amazement the bartender served us drinks. I had never seen music up this close and was pretty much blown away! I remember the back of the stage was a mirror wall and I could see myself dancing in the crowd wishing I had shorter hair!
Was Faith the first band you were in there?
Haircuts followed soon as well as attempts to start a band, Brendan, Ray, Terry Scanlon, Ken Murray, tried to form a band but it was not really working out due to lack of equipment and lack of knowing how to be a band and write tunes. Through becoming friends with Alec MacKaye, I ended up in the right place at the right time, specifically when Henry joined Black Flag and approached Alec about replacing him in S.O.A. We got in touch with Mike Hampton and found out he and Ivor wanted to start something new. Thus was born FAITH [below]
What was the tenure of that band like? How did it end?
The Faith was really a great band to be in, we were very democratic in our decision making, very dedicated to being a good band in the burgeoning scene. We of course had some differences of opinion, and sense of humor, but for the most part we all really liked each other. I was learning so much from Mike about playing music and the shows were amazing, I can’t think of a bad Faith show. Even the last show was a cataclysmic event. Ivor had to give in to the parental pressure of going to college and thus it came to a close. At the time Mike and I were not on the same page and so we went our separate ways. Or so we thought.
Was Embrace [above] next? Was that weird being with Ian and then the rest of Faith?
After the split I started playing with Jeff and Ian since Minor Threat had also disbanded. This lasted a few months until Ian & Jeff went to England for Dischord business and recorded some of the material as Egg Hunt with Tos on bass, and then decide to part ways musically. I continued to play with Ian and trying to find a drummer, Colin Sears played with us a few times but Dag Nasty was forming and so we ended up playing with Ivor while he was on a break from school. This became a very protracted arrangement as we were at the mercy of Ivor’s free time away from school.
At some point in the slow progress Mike Hampton called Ian and indicated he was interested in the project. Ian had been the guitarist so it was a big change of style and dynamic, not to mention some hatchet burial, somehow things started to meld. Mike was writing some of his best songs, Ian was writing his best lyrics and Ivor decided to take another year off from college. We had also expanded our influences and gotten better as musicians. Was it weird being in the same band again with Mike and Ivor with Ian singing? Yes and no; the dynamic was different. In Faith everything felt unanimous as far as the decision making process. In Embrace, Ian would make decisions without asking the rest of us and expect us to agree, this was not always the case. In the end it probably had something to do with Ian’s decision to leave the band, but there were many other complications.
I was no longer straightedge, and was less involved with writing music and lyrics, and kind of unhappy with the trend in the scene towards more melodic post hardcore punk. I was also a guitar smasher so my stage manners were in question. Ian actually kicked me in the ass off the stage at our last show because I had smashed my bass in a very rash fit, I think knowing another band was biting the dust. Three of my close friends got hurt with pieces of the flying bass. It was a low point in my life.
Was Ignition next?
At some point I auditioned for 9353 but nothing came of this as they too were in a state of flux. Ironically, at least in word play, Faith No More broke an axle and got stuck in DC for a week and stayed with me and my roommate GI bassist Mitch Parker. When Embrace ended I was devastated, I really believed that was the band that could have made it big. Thus another leap in reality, trying to make a life in music. I moved to San Francisco and stayed with Mike Bordin from FNM, and helping lug their gear to shows.
After a month or so I moved into Maximum Rocknroll house. I worked at Rough Trade warehouse and was a shitworker for MRR. Was at all the early Gilman St, meetings and early shows. I auditioned for Sister Double Happiness with Gary Floyd and Lynn Perko from the Dicks, but as fate would have it I was with them when they ran into Mikey Offender on the street! At some point Dante Ferrando was on a motorcycle cross country trip, and stayed with me at MRR for a couple days. We had been great friends through the DC scene and Food For Thought restaurant which his father owned and we both worked. He mentioned that Alec was still not doing a band.
That was the spark that started the fire. Ignition [above] is the band I am proudest to have been in. We did the most work,100 shows in 2 years, toured the states and Europe, put out our own singles, put out two great records on Dischord. College for Chris Thomson and business opportunity for Dante ultimately pulled it apart. Alec and I briefly tried to continue with Mitchell from Lungfish on drums and our great friend Spyche on bass, she had been in a speed metal band called Parasite and singer for Press Mob. After a couple of confusing practices, Alec and I decide not to go on.
I started a band called 96 or Chrisbald 96, on a prompt from Cynthia Connolly who was organizing a music festival at DC Space. The suggestion of calling my band the Chris Bald Experience brought my favorite Hendrix tune ” If 6 were 9″ to mind and thus 96 was the new 69 and I had a band name and since I was tired of bands that split as soon as one person left, I created it as an open door line up. I would invite different friends to play as shows became available.
My brother Jon K. (Rain, Gray Matter, Special K) was a pretty regular member. He and I were able to go to Munich and record an album for Glitterhouse with my good friends Julian Weber and Ralf Nemetchek as our rhythm section. We played two shows in Germany one opening for Scream. Eventually my drinking problem and disillusion with the music scene made it hard to motivate recruiting people; we had some line ups with great potential, and some great shows with friends from successful bands (Christina Billotte, J.Robbins, Adam Wade, Craig Wedren among many others). I had no luck releasing the album stateside, so it was always an overpriced import.
I had another short lived band called Lucky 13 with Myra Power, Kathy Cashell, Jerry Busher and Tom Allnut, But it imploded after two shows. I got on stage with Nation of Ulysses a couple times playing tin whistle and saxophone. I went on a few short trips with Bikini Kill as a roadie. Joined Chicago band D.O.G. for a short tour with Bratmobile. Joined Royal Trux for what was supposed to be a long tour, we opened for Sonic Youth the first five nights and I became completely depressed, I was playing on the biggest stages in my life with packed audiences, but I was playing music I didn’t have any passion for with a band that had a really bad reputation with many of my friends. I became completely disillusioned trying to record a song in the studio with them and quit the band then and there. Got stranded in Chicago for a few months. Which was great!
What were some of your favorite bands/records from that era?
A list of favorite bands is probably too hard a task to complete but as far as DC bands go I loved Rites Of Spring the most. 9353 were also an amazing band that never got their due. Bikini Kill restored some much needed faith in punk rock for me, Babes In Toyland, Ruin, Honor Role, I could list a hundred more, music was peaking all over the world.
As an insider who was part of it, how would you sum up those “classic” years as part of the DC punk scene? How do you look back on it?
I think the musical education we all got from sharing our music collections with each other, and the feeling of unity and equality at shows in the beginning of the scene, plus the newness of it all was the true reward for all of us involved. It is sad how quickly back biting and in fighting, and jealousy of others’ success moved in and compartmentalized the scene. Dischord rose to the top and bands who weren’t on Dischord were unfairly seen as lesser, as were the other record labels that were struggling to put out the many great bands popping up everywhere. In many ways the success of Dischord really limited the perception of the DC music scene and also created a lot of dissent in the scene. DC is really a dysfunctional music city; as it was, Bad Brains moved to NY to “make it.” Most of the success stories of DC musicians involve moving to another city.
When/why did you leave DC? When did you go back to Kentucky?
I left DC for almost a year in 85-86 following the split of Embrace, I left for good in ‘97 when my first daughter was born. I had been mugged and beaten in a reverse Rodney King attack, the kids really said “get on the ground, we’re the cops now”! I was having trouble with my landlord and housemates, people didn’t think I was going to be able to raise a child, as they had gotten used to me being a drunk and out of control friend. I moved to Louisville and have been here since, raising my two daughters and son. It was the best choice I ever made. I was too intensely involved with the DC music/social scene, too emotional about my own personal disappointments and the watered down reality of the music being made. I have been able to move on in music and art without any pressure to conform to any taste or style.
Are you still playing music?
I am currently playing in a band called Dubious/Obvious with Gary Bromley from the English post punk band Dif Juz. I have had some other bands, but playing live was all they achieved. I am more into the moment than worrying about archiving or recording. I have a radio show and play a broad spectrum of styles.
Who are some of your favorite current bands?
Bands I listen to now are Stand High Patrol, Mungo’s HiFi, Burial, to mention a few, but I still listen to all my old collection and give it airplay, Ruts DC, UK Subs, Damned, Tricky, Massive Attack, Black Uhuru, Gladiators… like I said the list is huge.
Any final thoughts? Closing comments? Anything you wanted to mention that I didn’t ask?
Obviously nostalgia for the DC scene is at an all time high with the documentaries that are popping up. I went back two summers ago to do an interview for one of them. As is the way of documentation, the angle of questioning is really up to the agenda of the document makers. I felt Mark Anderson was always leading me towards the answer he wanted to hear when I interviewed for his book [Dance of Days; 2003, Akashic Books] and as result I think the book overlooks a lot of what DC was really about. Likewise I found the questions and tactics of the film I was interviewed for [presumably either Salad Days, 2014, or Punk the Capital, still being completed] leaning towards painting a prettier picture of how things happened than the not as flattering truths that I personally lived through. But that is the product the people want.
Tim “Loudfastrules” Hinely is the editor and publisher of Dagger zine, where this interview originally appeared.
Photo credits: The Faith (top): Rebecca Hamell; (middle) Tiffany Pruitt
Ignition: Cynthia Connolly