Left to right: Timmy Scott, Scott Baker, Jeff Yantz, Pete Socha
Photos by Julie Baker

Interacting as a well-tuned musical group, Scott Baker and the Universal Expressions gears up to release its new CD, Details and Desire. Baker took a few minutes to talk about the group's creative journey, enthusiasm, and, of course, the new CD and release parties in Bay City at Bemo's and Brewtopia Coffee on March 18th and 19th.

Scott Baker & the Universal Expressions has been active in Mid-Michigan for a handful of years. How did the group come together?

When I went solo in 2005 coming out of the group Muddy Gumbo, I played a number of solo acoustic shows. When the time came come to go back out electric with a new band, I originally just called it Scott Baker & The Roux, then the Scott Baker Band—which I thought was a boring name. My drum bandmate from Gumbo Timmy Scott came back to play in late 2005/early 2006 and from that point on I renamed the band The Universal Expressions because I wanted to cover more than just one style of music. We were known as a jam band and a blues rock band up until then. By the time bassist Pete Socha joined the fold, we have had a revolving door of great musicians come in and out on second guitar, vocals, or keyboards or a combination. Jeff Yantz has been on harmonica/guitar/vocals with us for a year and a half now and did Details & Desire with the three of us.

In an age of creative differences and disbanding groups, what keeps the group together?

There is a drive we have to perform music—especially the original music, that keeps the heart of the band beating. The combination of the core of the band, Timmy, Pete and myself—I couldn’t be a luckier songwriter to have two such dedicated players wanting to reach out and do something different. This year marks the tenth anniversary of Timmy and I playing together over the years. We know when we hit a note, exactly what the other is thinking. And Pete is like the glue that holds it together—you couldn’t get three more different characters, which I think keeps it fresh for all of us. But like I said, I am one lucky songwriter. I don’t plan on eclipsing a good thing. Performing original music is what I do. With some tasty covers, of course!

As well as covers, you perform original songs. Tell me about your songwriting and composing process.

Songwriting for me was the reason I started playing. Releasing albums is like a family portrait for the time being. For me, songs come in every form, from batches to ideas that I keep to be used with the right other ideas. When the time comes to either get something new out or when I have a stockpile of tunes written that we like to play, I know it is time to get into the studio—as long as there seems to be a theme that ties the tunes together. In Muddy Gumbo, we spent a few years writing songs and putting an album together (Continuous Rotation, 2001), just to do it. Then we had enough material remaining for an EP (Capture The Moment, 2003). In 2007, I cut my first solo album with the Universal Expressions, Between Seasons

Since then, songs have started to trickle out as soon as 2008 when many of the songs on Details & Desire were crafted. A song or two will emerge in our set, and we’ll have a little while to whittle it before we go in the studio and pair it with other material. We worked on Details & Desire from January to September of 2010, and in that time I was able to begin writing more songs for yet another release.

I like to go up north and write. It frees my mind from the daily grind. My wife’s family has a beautiful spot in Sugar Springs north of Gladwin that I will sometimes go up and create at—a large portion of Details & Desire was written up there. I also have a cabin in the Upper Peninsula that I like to get away and just see what I can do—a lot of times by myself just to focus on the songs.

On the other side of the coin, at home here in Bay City, many songs pour out too, between working and daily life. It’s a great feeling to get a root of an idea out of the blue and to be able to flesh it out into a full-fledged song. I look forward to bringing the guys something new for them to put their own rhythm section stamp on. Sometimes they spark me to take the piece of music into a different territory. That’s where having a core band is so special.

For the launch of Details and Desire, you'll be performing separate acoustic and electric events. What made you decided on this unplugged/plugged approach?

I was tossing around ideas about how to do a great record release party and make it memorable. We had a few original ideas and offers, but at the end of the day, I wasn’t hearing anything that seemed to make sense to do one night. When we did Between Seasons’ release party in November of 2007, we tied it with a fundraiser to get people to come out to the beautiful Masonic Temple in Bay City. We just sold CD’s and the room was provided and over 300 people came out.

This time, I wanted to make sure the band was compensated, as well as selling the new CD. So my idea was to make it a two evening special event, to give our fans their choice to attend one or both of our unique shows—since we play electric and acoustically often. Our two spots that act as a home base for us of sorts have always been Bemo’s near the south end of Bay City and Brewtopia Coffee back across town. I think our fans that would like to come to a party will be able to at least make one night and hopefully get a copy of the new CD. And like our last record release, there were people out just to hear something original and new—people I have never seen and friends from my childhood. I hope to see some new and familiar faces once again here in Bay City and a pair of shows, in two different settings, should really be a great opportunity for original music lovers to get to see a band celebrate creation.

Different tracks on the album reflect different musical styles, yet over the years you've earned recognition locally for the blues. How deep do these blues roots go?

One of the things about Details & Desire is that I wanted to focus on ‘songwriting' and not just the rock, acoustic and jam songs—which is more of where I come from. There is a little bit of everything on the new CD, from rockers to Americana pieces, to psychedelic styles and even a singer/songwriter piece in the middle with the track "Modern Day Hippie." Jeff Yantz and Andy Reed co-produced the record and helped us get the songs out this time and focus our music into something other than long rock songs or funky jams. I think its part of my songwriting evolution and part of the band being able to showcase the fact that we know more than just a few styles.

Another facet is that so many CD’s that are released in the past ten years independently seem to have a constant tone and don’t have a good flow, heart, or soul to them. I wanted to bring back my favorite part about getting into a band or a musician and that was like some artists from the late ‘60s and throughout the ‘70s; there were some awesome albums that touch on many styles of music from just one LP! There is a lot of ram-it-down-your-throat loud stuff out there nowadays, and it can be fatigue inducing to the ears. I wanted to bring back some vibe of peaks and valleys in a great listening piece of music—even if the ‘record’ or ‘CD’ is a dying art. Hopefully when someone downloads one song from us, they’ll want to hear the whole record and be able to see the frame the portraits are built around.

© Jeanne Lesinski, 2011