|photo by Gianni Neiviller|
A journey of self-discovery can often lead to a creative breakthrough.
That was definitely true for Mat Baker, who records under the moniker Batmaker.
From 1995-2005, the Riverside native – who attended Poly High at the same time as Mayor William “Rusty” Bailey – did two stints as Agnes Gooch front man.
The Los Angeles post-grunge band released an album distributed by Warner Bros. (1997’s “Blind”) and another one independently (2005’s “Now I See”). They received local alt-rock radio airplay, played prominent events (Lollapalooza, X Games, KROQ’s Weenie Roast) and shared stages with Incubus, No Doubt and others.
Then the singer/guitarist realized being on a major label wasn’t what he dreamed. “I thought once you got signed, you were taken care of and everything [the record company] told you was the truth,” Baker said. “It was a big learning experience. I was burnt out by the whole industry and all the promoting. I was soul searching and that’s when I started to travel.”
Over the next few years, the musician led a nomadic existence in multiple countries throughout Asia and Europe.
“I knew I’d find something. Didn’t know if it would be a girlfriend, a job, a career or just a place to live.”
All music making stopped. “I was labelling myself too much as a writer, a suffering artist,” admitted Baker. “Travelling got me out of my own head, showed me how big the world is, how small I am and how my problems relate to other people.”
Upon returning to Riverside, he went to night school at Chapman University and attained a teaching credential. An Agnes Gooch bandmate’s wife happened to be opening an alternative neighborhood school in LAUSD.
“She got me in. I did my internship as a second grade teacher and the music position came open. I jumped in and they let me do what I want. This will be my seventh year at Larchmont Charter School.”
Meanwhile, a visit to a faith healer in Guatemala resulted in a crazy and emotional two-hour session. “I wrote a song that night. Then [the inspiration] came back. I swore that I wouldn’t abuse it. I was just trying to let everything flow out of me. A lot of my writing comes from opening myself up from doubt.”
Baker’s friend Ondi Timoner, a Sundance Grand Jury Prize winning filmmaker, pushed him to finally make music again in 2012.
“I had all these songs from the travels and new ones from the revelations I was having,” he recalled. “I knew I had to do it.”
After connecting with bassist Gianni Neiviller, a Kickstarter campaign was launched to help fund the recording of latest album “Overcome” (Baker’s dad also chipped in). They recruited more than a dozen musicians, including keyboardist Jason Yates from Ben Harper’s Innocent Criminals, former Morphine sax man Dana Colley and fellow Riversider John Hoskinson.
The latter’s sister Judy was a high school friend of Baker’s. She is now married to Riverside’s mayor. Baker met Bailey while playing soccer in school. “He was a younger classmate, so I didn’t hang out with him that much. But he always seemed like a [real] go-getter.”
Around that time, Baker was in Threat, a heavy metal group that frequently played the DeAnza Theater and won a couple Battle of the Bands contests there. After graduation, Baker toured with Inland Empire punk outfit Justice League and later got into heavier rock sounds.
John Hoskinson previously played with Baker while attending Notre Dame High in the Eighties. He contributed backing vocals to most of the “Overcome” songs after being one of the initial funders and plays live in Batmaker.
Among the strongest local indie releases last year, “Overcome” features introspective pop/rock (“Echo Park Tsunami”), rollicking Squeeze-type textures (“Time to Go”), some grooving R&B with true life lyrics (“Baker Baker Baker”), McCartney-esque chamber pop (“Sunshine State”) and a fun, country-tinged number (“Soap on a Rope”).
“Mat’s songs are playful and energetic while also being incredibly earnest and thoughtful,” noted Hoskinson.
While a couple songs already used sax, Baker really wanted the real deal for “More Morphine,” his alluring, jazzy tribute to Colley’s late bandmate Mark Sandman. So Baker contacted him through Facebook and explained about being a big fan.
It touches upon Baker’s time living in Boston while a student at Berklee College of Music, going to Morphine gigs and shrewdly incorporates several of that group’s song and album titles into the lyrics.
“I sent him the track. He mailed it back to me and I kept everything – just amazing. I used it all.”
The epic “All Alright” veers from dreamy to chugging Cheap Trick rock territory, though Baker said he was “trying to rip off The Pixies.”
“I love the abrupt changes of mood and tempo in that song and the lyrics are just great,” enthused Hoskinson. “Gianni's bass playing is also sublimely wonderful.”
Cello-enriched closer “Ballad for William Walker Atkinson,” loosely based on the author and pioneer of the 19th Century New Thought movement. Baker “learned about him when I took a meditation course in Guatemala and somebody gave me a book.”
The endearing music video stars Baker’s young Larchmont students. “I asked the kids if they’d be interested and then the parents individually,” he said. “These are my best kids who are really good in class. I wanted it to be a nice experience.”
A loose relax and enjoy life theme runs throughout the CD. "I write songs that are mantras I need to say; what I've learned," said Baker.
This past summer, he embarked on a wide-ranging, cross country solo acoustic tour that encompassed fans’ living rooms, a yoga studio (he is a licensed instructor), distillery/art house, baseball diamond and beyond.
Using a storyteller format, Baker felt more people would get into the show and he was right. “When they heard the words, they were more intrigued. I got a great response. It inspired me to continue with this.”
Batmaker performs at 9 p.m. Nov. 14 at Hotel Café in Hollywood. Purchase the album via iTunes or www.cdbaby.com, stream it at Spotify. For more information, go to www.hotelcafe.com or www.batmakermusic.com.
A version of my story originally appeared in the Oct/Nov issue of www.riversidethemag.com