You might know your Joey Richters from your Joe Walkers, but many more people fall under the mantle of Team StarKid. We spoke to the uber-talented Clark Baxtresser, who, along with writing for his own band TalkFine, has been playing music for Team StarKid since early 2010. With the SPACE Tour came the new title of music director and the task of taking a bunch of musical theater geeks and turning them into rockstars.
While he’s not recording material with his own band, creating new arrangements of Team StarKid songs – sans sheet music – for the context of a live concert tour, and performing with friends such as Charlene Kaye, Theo Katzman and Darren Criss, Clark is also a member of Jim and the Povolos, the light-hearted side project featuring StarKid members Meredith Stepien, Brian Holden, and Dylan Saunders (naturally, StarKid member Jim Povolo is not a member). To the rest of Team StarKid, his nickname is “Cool,” and when Teen.com posed the question, he was deemed by the rest of the group to be the most “supermegafoxyawesomehot” of the StarKids. The NYC-based musician is slowly but surely becoming a favorite with StarKid fans, and he was charming enough to give us an hour of his time to talk about his bands, the upcoming Apocalyptour, his experiences on SPACE, stripping down Darren Criss’ music, and his past life as an opera singer. After chiding him for getting the Hastily Made Cleveland Tourism Video song stuck in my head, we got down to business.
Are you currently in Chicago or New York?
Clark Baxtresser: I’m actually in Chicago, we’re rehearsing for the tour already so I’ve been sleeping on a couch for the past week and a half. Hopefully I’ll get a mattress in here pretty soon.
You’re staying there until Apocalyptour starts?
CB: Yeah, because we’re starting the tour in Chicago, so I’m just going to be here until then.
You’ve spent a reasonable amount of time in Chicago in the past twelve months, if you stayed there in the rehearsal for the SPACE Tour as well.
CB: I actually lived in Chicago last year. So, that’s how I was able to play for Starship and then I moved to New York in August. About a month after living there, I had just gotten a job working at a restaurant, I got a call from Dylan Saunders saying, “Hey, we’re going on tour, do you want to come?” So I said, “Yes!” and it was great because when I came back to Chicago for rehearsals I already knew the area and it just felt comfortable.
Where are you from originally?
CB: I grew up in Ann Arbor originally.
Did you go to the school there? Is that where you met these people who eventually became Team StarKid, or did you just meet them through living in Ann Arbor while they were at the school?
CB: I went to University of Michigan. I met everyone through Me and My Dick, really.
You’ve played in three of their shows since college, Me and My Dick, A Very Potter Sequel and Starship, is that right?
CB: That’s exactly right.
And was that just playing in the pit band or did you work on the recordings as well, the albums they put out for those?
CB: Yeah, I played in the band for the recordings they put out. For the Starship recording, you can hear that is a little more digital, a little more produced, that was all put together by Jack Stratton who has drummed with StarKid in the past. I recorded my keyboard parts for him and just played the midi instrument.
I noticed the Starship soundtrack was credited with Jack Stratton as producer, and then you and Darren Criss as instrumentalists. Did you guys record all those parts separately, never sat down and ran through it all together?
CB: Yeah, it was a pretty easy process. We were in the middle of the run of Starship and Jack came over to my apartment, we recorded my parts of the whole thing in like an hour, probably. Jack had Darren recorded the guitar separately, I think in California, and then he just sent Jack the recordings.
What is the process of recording a StarKid show compared to recording an EP or an album? Is it quite different, or similar at all?
CB: Yeah, I would say it’s different. So far I think every StarKid recording has been done differently, but the biggest difference is that it’s just a lot more people, a lot more singers, so you have to do all these group numbers and that can be tough. But I think the standard is that the vocals have always been recorded separately from the instrumental, at least for the most part. But it’s changed every time. For their most recent show, [email protected], it just came out last night so I guess I can be all “spoilers…”
Yeah, you can talk about it.
CB: That’s great. The music is very synth-based so that was all produced separately by Nick Gage and Scott Lamps and then they had the singers come in and sing over those tracks.
With all your involvement since nearly the beginning, you’re now very familiar, obviously, with all of their songs. Is that why you were the natural choice when it came to the tour? Because you didn’t just play in the band, you rearranged all the music for the context of a live concert tour as opposed to a musical.
CB: I think they knew that I was familiar with a lot of that previous music because I had played for the shows and I think they knew that I’d be willing to do it. In terms of the arrangements, we weren’t sure how those were going to go because everything about putting on that first tour was kind of an unknown. So I think they didn’t really know exactly what I was going to bring to the table. I didn’t know.
Was your task as music director set from the first offer to come on tour, or did you come into rehearsals as a musician and then find that this role was needed?
CB: No, I think they knew that they wanted it, they needed a music director and someone to play in the band. So I just came out to be that, and a vocal coach, and teaching the music. I guess the standard that we set right at the beginning was that we were going to do our best to treat these songs like new songs. Singers had to relearn harmonies or learn different harmonies, and just try to re-imagine these songs for this new setting, a concert with this specific group of singers and performers. Even though they come from all these different shows and they have a heavy context surrounding them, we wanted to try to approach them from a different angle.
(Clark in rehearsal)
How did you do it, technically? Did Darren and AJ [Holmes, co-composer of two StarKid shows] have sheet music or did you do it all by ear? Did you have to work with those guys to figure out the originals? What did you do exactly?
CB: That’s a good question. For some songs, there is sheet music that exists. We had someone just transcribe recordings that Darren made, the original demos for some of the songs. But a lot of the shows have no sheet music. So, a lot of that was me listening to the recordings, writing out chord charts and sending that to the rest of the band. For the singers, when there wasn’t music, they would just be reading lyrics and I would teach them harmonies and they’d record it on their iPhone or whatever. So, it was kind of a backwards process, to some degree. It was funny that we were doing all this old music that we had done before and yet still had no sheet music for it. For the first show, A Very Potter Musical, no music ever existed but we’ve used sheet music that has been transcribed by fans, and it’s been really helpful for our purposes.
How long did the whole process take for the preparation for the tour? Was it months? Weeks?
CB: I came out a month prior to when we actually left so the rehearsal process was just under a month. The concept behind, or just planning for it, was probably a month before that.
This upcoming tour, the Apocalyptour, you’re doing the same thing, is that right? Rearranging the songs and acting as music director?
CB: Yeah. This next tour – we’re doing a lot of different songs and it’s going to be a completely different show and I think this one will have even more re-imaginings of some of these songs. I’m really excited about that.
The songs that you’re maybe doing on this tour that were also on the SPACE Tour – are you redoing those differently this time?
CB: That’s the goal, definitely. If we’re doing a song again on this tour we want to have a reason to do it again, so that is translating to just altering it slightly. Sometimes it’s just a different cut or we’re matching it up with another song, but we really want to make this a fun, exciting show for people who have seen the last tour – and also for people who haven’t seen the last tour. Just something that exists on its own.
With doing this work, what, so far, has been your favourite song to work on and re-arrange, or that you’re happiest with the end result?
CB: I really loved “Status Quo” from the last tour because I thought it became something different. I really liked the way the guys sounded with those harmonies and I was just proud of how that came together. It’s something that I wouldn’t have thought of originally, it just kind of worked out. We wanted to have a song for the guys and “Status Quo” seemed to make sense. Then I thought that something about that song would lend itself to stripping it down and throwing some nice harmonies over it. So, yeah, that was my favourite one to work on last tour. What’s really great is that I also learned a lot of new songs because I didn’t know a lot of the music from A Very Potter Musical, so I got to become familiar with that, so that was fun for me, too.
And was there any particular one that didn’t work out or that you ended up cutting?
CB: Good question. Yeah, there were songs that we ended up not putting in the show for one reason or another. For some of it, it was just that we didn’t want the show to go on forever. There are some songs that we ended up not putting in the last show that will be in this one, and I don’t want to give that away.
Fair enough! Was there one of the set that was there that was really difficult and took a long time to get to where it is now?
CB: Good question. “Beauty” was one that had gone through a lot of different…there had been a lot of different harmonies on that and different variations from the Starship version to the version that would be performed at various other events. That was one that just needed a start from zero and then build it back up again. I was really happy with how that came together in the end. It wasn’t super difficult, it was just one that we chose to spend a little more time on. Another one like that was “Get Back Up.” There are pretty tough harmonies with the singers near the end of that song, and that’s one we needed to step back from and re-approach it in a different way. It ended up being one of the funnest songs to do in the end. So, yeah, probably those two.
You must be working on new songs now, from the [email protected] show, for the Apocalyptour.
CB: Yes, yes.
That should be interesting, given that you’ve got a band of rock instruments and it was all done with synths.
CB: Yeah, I think that’ll be fun. We’ll have to come up with some creative ways to pay tribute to that original sound but do it with these other instruments.
Those guys, Nick Gage and Scott Lamps, are in Chicago as well. Have they been working with you on that or heard what you’ve come up with so far?
CB: Yeah, Nick has stopped by and seen rehearsals. It’s been good having him there, and he’s just been real helpful in providing materials for working on these songs. They have the full scores written out for all this music, and it’s the most put-together sheet music StarKid has ever used.
I did hear that, that it was all prepared beforehand and it was a bit more structured than previous occasions.
CB: It’s so well-put together, it’s made my life way easier.
Do you have a favourite StarKid performance, as in, just the way it appears in the original musical?
CB: That’s a good question. Let me think for a second. I guess, when I think of music in a StarKid show I automatically go to that first number, “Goin’ Back To Hogwarts.” I wasn’t involved in that show, but there’s something about that song being the first song that a lot of people see of StarKid when they look up what they do. I think that’s some of Darren’s finest writing and just the way it brings the audience in, it sums up a lot of what StarKid does. And it’s just so catchy. It’s such a great blend of fun and funny and it’s a great testament to Harry Potter, and at the same time great pop, great musical theater music. So, yeah, I guess I love that song.
(Darren Criss, Clark and Charlene Kaye perform on the SPACE Tour)
Those last few days on the SPACE tour, when Darren came into the show, how difficult/easy was that, regarding the new arrangements and choreography? I noticed, from the videos I’ve seen of his performance in the group numbers, he really doesn’t pull focus. He kind of looks like he knows what he’s doing with the rest of them, and he doesn’t stand out as not knowing the routine of the show. So how easily did he slot in – did he just do it the way he knew it from the original musicals, or had he done any sort of preparation with how the SPACE tour arrangements were going to be?
CB: A little bit of both. Darren had been watching clips online of the performances so he had an idea of the versions that we were doing and had seen the movements. Also, Darren is a really quick learner and quick performer. When we were designing the show we knew that Darren was going to be involved in those last shows, but we didn’t want to plan on that. We didn’t want it to affect how we did the show, and we just said that we’d figure it out when the time came. It ended up being a pretty smooth transition. We went through song by song and decided how Darren was going to fit in, what parts he would take, and he’s such a talented musician that with harmonies he could just pick a part and sing. He wrote most of the songs anyway so he wasn’t going to do something that would stick out, so that made our lives easier. For the group numbers, we wanted to find funny ways that he could step in while acknowledging that we had been doing this tour for weeks without him. I think we pulled that off in a fun way. It was great having him.
It was very funny from what I saw. I know that even – obviously, a lot of fans were pleased to see him – but I did hear a lot online of fans who were at those shows who were disappointed that they didn’t get to see the show without him, in the way that you guys had worked so hard on. So, that’s a compliment I guess.
CB: Yeah, I guess! I would say, to those fans, I would say they got just as good of a show. It was pretty much the same show, just with added Darren. We didn’t have to change too much to accommodate him.
What was the actual tour experience like for you? Had you gone on tour with anyone before, with a band or anything like that?
CB: No, this was my first tour. I think it was everyone’s first tour except Charlene Kaye’s. She had done some smaller scale tours with her band so they were the most experienced out of all of us. We didn’t really know what to expect. It was a very surreal experience, doing this, for sure. Sleeping on the bus was difficult at times. I think I was the tallest person on tour, and if I stretched out completely on my bunk then my feet touched the wall. We didn’t know how we would handle doing that many shows, and the exhaustion of traveling and doing so many performances. In the end, it was fine. It was a really tough beginning of the tour because we started in Ann Arbor and had a night show, and the next day we had two shows in London, Ontario, and the next day two shows in Toronto. Five shows in this three-day period – it was just a pretty killer way to start a tour! Luckily we’re not doing that again. This next tour we’re not doing any two-show days. I think all in all we’ll be completely better equipped to do this. It’s funny to feel like I’m experienced on tour, because it’s such a crazy concept, but that is sort of what it feels like.
Is there anything that you heard before going on tour, advice that you got or anything that you learned about the lifestyle that you’re going to take into this next one?
CB: I can’t remember any specific advice that I’ve gotten because a lot of the people that I talked to prior to the tour were in the same position I was in, that they hadn’t been on tour before. I guess going in to this next tour I am thinking about certain things like, it’s really easy just to eat out all the time, but that takes its toll. I’m in this mode where I’m trying to eat my fruits and vegetables, or more of those, so I’m going to make an effort to buy more of those and keep them on the bus. We’ll see if that actually happens, it might be wishful thinking.
A musician I know recently posted a list of things online, an open letter to fans, about tour gifts. A lot of fans bring bands gifts on the road, and he posted this list that was like, “All this stuff is really nice but if you want to help us on tour and you really want to give us a present, this is what it should be.” Fruit, gift cards to really common places to stop and eat; that kind of thing.
CB: I would definitely agree with that. We get more than our share of sweets, cookies and cake and whatever. We love those, of course, but you can only have so much! Fruits and veggies, you can’t go wrong!
(Clark performing on SPACE Tour)
What is the craziest thing you’ve seen or experienced due to being involved with these guys and witnessing the hype surrounding it?
CB: I wouldn’t call this crazy, but I was amazed during Starship to find out how far people had traveled. There were people from all over the world who’d come to see the show. I had the chance to meet some of them and I was just blown away by it. There were also a couple of fans, one or two, who saw every show of Starship, which also blew me away. I don’t remember the specifics of how they were able to do that, but they were there. They found their way in. That show is three-and-a-half hours long, so that boggles my mind to think about, to add up all those hours. Then on tour, our largest show was in Boston. It had the biggest capacity, and the cops came after the show because there were too many fans in the street waiting for the performers to come out and sign autographs. We were told by police that we couldn’t go out because it would cause too much of a commotion. That was a nice ego boost for everybody, it felt very rock star-ish.
When you started working with the band for Me and My Dick, were you aware that the group already had this online hype or was it like “…What’s going on? You do what?”
CB: It’s always been a hard thing to describe to people, so I found myself on the other end of that, having to have it described to me. Actually, on the phone with Darren, he was talking to me about the show, Me and My Dick, asking me to play in the band. He said, “You probably remember this Harry Potter musical we did. Well, it’s blowing up online, people all around the world are watching it,” and I was thinking to myself, “Okay…yeah, right.”
You were thinking he was exaggerating?
CB: Yeah. But then I went on to play for the show and I got somewhat of a handle on it during the performances when I saw the fans that came. That made it real to me, I guess, and it’s just grown and grown since then.
On the SPACE Tour you played as well with one of your bands, Jim and the Povolos.
I actually have a bootleg recording of your first show, at the Beat Kitchen, which I listen to all the time.
How did that come about? Was it just a joke band?
CB: Yeah, pretty much.
How did you get started with that?
CB: It was Meredith’s idea. She talked to me about starting a band with her and Mark Swiderski and I said, “Sure, of course,” because I thought that would be fun. It took us a while to actually get together for the first time, but eventually Meredith bribed us with food at her house. There’s a lot of movie watching attached to Jim and the Povolos rehearsals as well. It just kind of came about like that – we were goofing about and singing covers, and we just wanted to have fun, really. We all like singing, we like playing, and the show at the Beat Kitchen kind of fell into our laps because our friend Charlene Kaye was playing. I think it was Julia Albain who talked to Charlene about having us open. We hadn’t even fully decided on the name Jim and the Povolos at that point, but I think Meredith just made the final decision and told whoever was organising the show that was our name. Once it appeared online we couldn’t step down.
(Jim and the Povolos)
What did Jim Povolo do to offend you, or alternately, earn this honour?
CB: I don’t know actually, I don’t remember.
Just sounded funny?
CB: Yeah, I don’t think I was around for when the name was conceived, and then I think Meredith just loved the name and thought it was funny. It is funny!
It is. And I think it took a little while for people to work out that Jim was not actually in the band.
Will we be seeing any of that on the new tour?
CB: No, unfortunately we won’t, we’re not going to have Mark Swiderski with us. He has this great job working at Shure, the microphone company, so he won’t be on the tour. We’ll have Dave Scalia who plays with Charlene. He’ll be doing drums for the StarKid set. Unfortunately we won’t have Jim and the Povolos on the tour, but I’m sure we’ll be putting out more material in the future. There’s a new single that we’ve been working on that hopefully will be released sometime soon.
I like both of the EPs a lot, and I saw a couple of reviews from people who were sent out to review the show, clearly not really knowing what it was all about, saying, “I don’t know what all these kids are doing, but the band that played in the middle was really good!” So, yeah. You guys do sound really good for something that’s primarily –
CB: It’s just a side project.
On the SPACE tour, Jim and the Povolos played a cover of a song called “The Moment” that you wrote for your other band, TalkFine.
TalkFine is your primary band, is that right?
CB: Yes. That’s the main band.
It’s a duo, is that right?
CB: Yeah, I guess right now calling it a band is a bit of a stretch…
A pop duo!
CB: Yeah, a pop duo! It’s me and my friend, Pierce Siebers.
When did you form that group?
CB: We actually grew up together in Ann Arbor. We’ve been close friends forever and started writing music together as far back as high school. We didn’t really adopt the name TalkFine until college. Even then, it stayed sort of a fun thing we did on the side, but the more we did it the more we realised that this is something we really wanted to pursue. We have a lot of material that we haven’t given a release. We’ve gone through a lot of different styles, I guess, it’s always hard to pin down how we would describe our sound. But the main thing that is consistent is that we are primarily songwriters. We like the ability to try to experiment with different sounds. The EP that we have on our BandCamp is heavily electronic because we’re a duo, and that made sense for what our capabilities were. Our most recent single has more of a throwback, old soul vibe to it, which I love, but it’s a very different sound. These new songs that we’re going to put out for this new release called Lesser Known Hits fit more with that feeling. They’re kind of retro, kind of funky, and actually the guy who has been producing this is Jack Stratton.
I was going to ask, was it self-produced or what have you been doing exactly?
CB: We actually write the songs, record the vocals, put a real simple chord accompaniment to it with a few flourishes and then send it over to Jack – who is in San Francisco, so this is all through email – then he works his magic and sends it back, and all of a sudden it’s something we couldn’t have even imagined. He’s been heavily involved with these new songs. For our earlier EP, The Moment EP, that was all self-produced.
If you’re having a lot of production added, how do you play those songs live?
CB: We’ve done a handful of live performances, and those have consisted of both Pierce and I on midi keyboards, and we’ll play them though our laptops and live drums. That has a pretty interesting sound to it. It’s not the full sound that you’d hear in the recordings, it’s a little stripped down. We’re currently working on how we’re going to perform in the future and thinking about getting an actual band together to play something that would fit a live setting better. Our newest single, “Water’s Gettin’ Too Hot,” I think would lend itself so well to a band. Obviously I’ll be a little occupied for the next two months, but once I’m back in New York that is definitely going to be a focus of ours.
TalkFine had quite an extensive collection of videos on YouTube that have now been taken away. Are you trying to rebrand from now or did something happen?
CB: A little bit. They still exist, they just currently are private. We wanted to simplify what we had out there. I think they’re just gone temporarily. Eventually they’ll be back, but a lot of the videos we had – some cover songs we’d been doing and we had some self-made musical videos – a lot of it was just us being silly and goofing around. We want to, at least for now, shift the focus onto this new group of songs that we’re putting out. We’ll definitely have more videos in the future.
You just shot a music video. Is that for the current single?
CB: Yes, yes, we did. Not sure when it’s going to be released. I think we’re in the editing process right now, and the director of the video is a friend of ours, Anthony Morrison, and he’s involved in the editing. I can’t wait to see it.
What’s it going to be like? Is it something realistic or more of a surreal concept?
CB: Yeah, it’s realistic but it’s a music video, too – I’m singing the words and everything, so not completely realistic! It’s funny. It’s actually about a break-up, but it’s a lighthearted take on a break-up.
Do you have a release date for the album, Lesser Known Hits?
CB: It’s May. We’re going to get it out just before Apocalyptour. The plan is to be selling download cards for the full release at tour, so tour kicks off May 9th. Hopefully we’ll get it out May 8th!
You’ve probably noticed that there’s quite a few StarKid fans, some of them a little bit younger, who are discovering this little circle of University of Michigan alumni, New York indie musicians like you, Charlene Kaye, Theo Katzman… Do you have any recommendations for those people who might be keen on what they’ve heard from those few artists associated with StarKid, but who aren’t really experienced in discovering underground music scenes or unknown artists?
CB: Personally, I love finding new music. I make a point to go out of my way and search online for new bands to discover because I just get a kick out of it. I look at a lot of music blogs. That’s how, these days, I find most of my music.
You write one too, don’t you? MP3 Medication.
CB: Yes, I do.
I’ve seen it. You’ve made some recommendations on there, and most of those are quite new, unknown artists, aren’t they?
CB: Definitely. The way I find music, like I said, is through music blogs. There’s this great music blog aggregator called Hype Machine. You can just find all sorts of great stuff on there. The site makes it easy for you to discover new things. I started a music blog my last year of college, which was two years ago now. It’s just something that I wanted to do for my friends, really, because I was always sending people music. It grew a little bit. We have a few more writers on it now and more followers. I just like sharing music that I like with people.
What was your degree in at Michigan? Was it a music degree?
CB: The official degree was a Bachelor of Musical Arts. I started as a voice performance major, actually, and I changed my degree because I realised that I didn’t want to be an opera singer, I just wanted a little more freedom in the music degree that I was getting. That opened things up to me to take more music electives and play more piano. For my senior recital I did a lot of accompanying for myself, and something like that wouldn’t have been possible in a straight classical voice programme.
So you were originally trained as a classical singer, in high school, is that what you did?
CB: Yeah, that’s right, I was going to be an opera singer!
CB: Yeah, it’s funny to look back on that. It wasn’t exactly a huge passion of mine, I just loved to sing. Then, when it came down to college and choosing what I was really going to do, I thought, yeah, I can do this, sounds like it would be cool. It took me about half a year to realise, well, no, it’s not. That specifically is not what I’m passionate about.
Had you ever done any musical theater or are you strictly voice performance, musician performance, as far as that goes?
CB: I did musical theater growing up with this youth theater in Ann Arbor, and then did a lot of it in high school. I love it – I will always love musical theater.
In that case – and you said you consider yourself primarily a songwriter – would you or have you considered composing for StarKid?
CB: I would love to write for StarKid! They always have new projects that they’re working on. They have a couple lined up on the horizon, so I think if we can work out our schedules and make something happen, we’d both love to do that. Definitely.
Thanks so much to Clark for talking to us!