As regular readers of this column know by now, I love discovering new artists and groups, and this week’s offering is a step beyond that. I got a press release a while back about a Maine native, Kurt Baker, who was bringing his band back to Maine for a show in Portland. Not too exciting, except that he’s bringing them from his new home: Madrid, Spain.
Needless to say, I just had to know more. His group is the Kurt Baker Combo (Kurt Baker, lead vocals, rhythm guitar; Jorge Colldan, lead guitar, backing vocals; Juancho Lopez, bass; and Sam Malakian, drums, backing vocals) and he’s touring in support of “In Orbit” on Steven Van Zandt’s Wicked Cool Records label. Van Zandt is guitarist in Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, by the way.
On Feb. 1 my phone rang at 10 a.m., and I talked with Baker about their tour and upcoming show in Portland.
Baker: Hi, my name is Kurt Baker and I’m calling about an interview?
Q: Excellent. This is Lucky Clark and thank you so much for calling. Where are you calling from, if I might ask?
Baker: Right now we’re in Vienna, Austria. So we’re on the road right now heading to another show in Austria, in Graz.
Q: Very cool. Let me begin by saying that “In Orbit” is one of my favorite albums in the last couple of years.
Baker: Oh, no way — cool. Thank you very much.
Q: Well, having been doing this music journalism thing for close to 50 years, I appreciate a record that reminds me of the past like yours does. Groups like The Red Button, Fountains of Wayne and Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoff’s “Under the Covers” trilogy, all put a modern twist on the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s sounds and styles, and close vocal harmonies.
Baker: All those bands you mentioned I love a lot, too. All the stuff they do is just based in the past and in trying to make a good song, and maybe it’s only three-minutes long but you can’t mess up the formula of good pop music. It’s the perfect length for a song and a lot of the stuff that we did on “In Orbit” is in different styles where my other records have been more kind of firmly rooted in your standard power-pop/punk-y kind of Ramones stuff. But this time, with the new band, we were able to do a little bit more, like some ’60s garage feel, too, which is a big thing that we all love, and a little of the ’70s glam rock. But all of those genres all have a lot in common under the umbrella of just good pop/rock ‘n roll music. That’s really the influences that we were drawing on for the new record.
Q: Now, I’ve got to ask, you’re a Mainer who now lives in Madrid, Spain, right? How did that come about?
Baker: Yeah, I was born and raised in Portland, Maine, and I lived there up until 2013 and then I moved to Madrid that year, the month of December 2013. So I’ve been living there a little over three years now.
Q: But why go there?
Baker: Well, I first got introduced to Spain about 10 years ago. My first band, The Leftovers, we were a Portland-based band and we had the opportunity to do a tour in Europe, so we toured all over Western Europe. We started in Holland, France, and made our way down to Spain. At that time I didn’t know what to expect. All of it was so new to me. But what sold me on Spain was that it was a beautiful country and also because the concerts were much better than any of the other countries that we played on that tour. And as it happened, The Leftovers went back again to Spain the following year and the crowds were bigger and a lot of fun. And because of that I toured over (there) every year. At one point I said, “Well, ya know, why don’t I just move here?!” So I did.
Q: Well, that makes sense, I guess.
Baker: Also I was getting a little frustrated in the United States. It was hard to keep my band together because everybody was living in different cities. It was also hard to tour over in the states — the guarantees for the concerts weren’t so good and it’s hard to get people out. I was kind of feeling stuck.
Q: Wasn’t it hard to leave Maine, though?
Baker: I knew that I couldn’t really live in Portland forever. I love Portland, but as a musician I had pretty much done all I could there. So, I was looking at Boston or Nashville or Los Angeles as an option to move but I finally settled on Madrid. And I think I made a really good decision because being in Madrid it’s much easier to go to other parts of Europe where there’s a lot of great opportunities for playing, the money’s better, you’re taken care of a lot better as a musician, you get food and a place to sleep usually. So, yeah, it just made more sense career-wise for me. And while I was over in Spain that’s kind of how I hooked up with the new project, the Kurt Baker Combo, and if I hadn’t moved there I don’t know what would have happened.
Q: Well, whatever the impetus was, the end result turned out great, in my opinion.
Baker: Yeah, it worked out great. As a musician I’m playing a lot more than I ever had when I was living in the states and I came to Spain to really focus on music. So now, this year, we’re going all over the place. We’re in Austria right now, we were playing in Germany a couple of days ago and in Sweden, and then next month we’ll be going to Italy and then we’re going to be doing a tour in the states.
Q: Speaking of that U.S. tour, one of the shows will be in your old hometown, right?
Baker: Yeah, we’ll be playing at the Portland House of Music, and we’re kicking off the tour at that venue. The guy who runs it, Ken Bell, used to run The Big Easy where I used to play a lot and he was happy to have us at his new club. I went there last year and I love the venue. I’m really looking forward to playing there.
Q: Is there anything, Kurt, that you’d like to have passed on to the readers of this article?
Baker: Well, just that I’m really excited that the band over here is going to be coming to Maine and starting off the tour in my hometown. Growing up in Maine was a great experience for me and now, living in Madrid, I do miss the ocean because we don’t have an ocean in Madrid. It’ll be a great opportunity to come back and play. It’s going to be March 22 at the Portland House of Music. I look forward to it a lot. I look forward to having some lobster, as well. The guys in the band all really want to eat lobster so we’re going to have a little lobster bake.
Lucky Clark has spent 48 years writing about good music and the people who make it. He can be reached at [email protected] if you have any questions, comments or suggestions.