Paul Bakke and Isaac Secret of St. Louis-based electronic duo, Bakke and Secret tread in the realm of DJs and thumping house music, but their music – and the way in which they visually present it through photographs, music videos (click here to see their latest!), and their shows – intersects curiously with the language of performance art.
When I sat down to speak with the ever kind, genuine, and dedicated brothers in their downtown St. Louis studio in December, I didn’t want to force any kind of connection between their music and visual art, but I knew that their work had to be deeply embedded in something beyond the musical realm, something that skirted into the world of performance and performativity – and it turned out to be true. In the interview, they spoke of their dedication to music, but also of a childhood centered around performing onstage – acting, singing, and mime – and generally working together. They spoke of the need of translating emotion into something else, of creating characters and experiences in order to set a scene for a musical experience in the very same language as a visual artist might. As this is Arched Art’s first foray into the music realm, I’ll let Bakke and Secret explain.
AAN: How would you describe your music?
PB: A sub-genre of house, maybe electro, I don’t know, full of emotion.
IS: Well, we always write our songs usually starting on a piano or a guitar, so it always comes out of a place of real simplicity and emotion and the heart, and evolves from that. Pretty much any of our songs, if it can’t stand alone, as just purely piano and vocals or guitar and vocals, then it doesn’t pass through into electronic. There’s a pretty high standard whenever we decide, ‘ok we are going go ahead and make this into an electronic song or a house song or whatever.’ And whichever song we decide, we try to stick to the feeling of that song, the way it makes us feel when we play it on the piano. So we always have an idea in our head [like] ‘ok, this is very magical. How do we bring that out in the music?’ But then it also has an intensity to it, so we want to bring that out as well. And, house music is a really great way to do that because there’s a consistent beat that can drop out at different times and then you can have the lyrics and the builds and drops and it’s very emotional to me. It can be very magical or very intense.
PB: We grew up doing theatre and we’re all about theatrics, we’re all about taking people places imaginatively. The more boundaries being crossed, the more fun it is. Not necessarily that it makes it cooler, it’s just more fun for us. The more emotion we tap into the more it gets us going. So visuals just help the other aspects of it.
IS: It’s all about kind of theatre and music – they kind of go together whether it’s a video or a live performance for us. Because a video is just a way to document it and be able to watch it over and over and over whereas a live performance is more of in the moment and a one time thing. It’s all about allowing people to come out of their life for a few minutes and be in another world for a while and just pulling them out.
AAN: So what is your art background?
IS: The only reason I ever did art was because I saw him [Paul] drawing. I mean, both of our parents are artists in some way or another…
PB: I drew a lot more when I was a kid. We performed on stage constantly as children. My dad would throw “kids crusades” all around the Midwest.
AAN: What is that?
IS: …Just like a big event for kids. We would go to different churches and [perform] for kids…Our family would travel around.
PB: Me and Isaac would make up all the dramas and mimes and everything and sing the songs and crap. We did that all our childhood, literally. We moved twenty-one times before age 18, moving everywhere performing for churches, constantly into acting and music.
AAN: When did you guys move to St. Louis?
PB: The first time we moved to St. Louis was in ’89. We were moving back and forth back and forth all over the place…and so we were very sheltered too. We were home schooled every other year (laughs).
IS: To keep us in check (laughs)
PB: And so we were forced to sit there and be imaginative, basically.
IS: Because we had no friends. It was just us.
PB: We moved so much, and socially it was just crazy.
IS: We didn’t have a whole lot of toys, so we built club houses with scraps that we found laying around. And our parents got our toys out of dumpster diving, usually.
PB: It’s true!
AAN: So you guys were always together.
PB: Absolutely. We started doing mime together for 9 years of classes, musical theatre… but I don’t think about the past very much.
AAN: But it does all tie together. It really does.
PB: Yeah. I guess I started the piano when I was a kid, and then I stopped, and started again, and then around 16, no 14, I started really pursuing piano. But the piano teacher that I went to didn’t teach me classically, they taught me how to song write. And literally the name of the place was “Creative Music” so they taught me how to pull out emotion. That was my number one [thing as to] if I was going to pass the class. I had to write songs.
AAN: Was that coincidence? Did you know it was going to be like that?
PB: No, I didn’t know. I just wanted to learn piano.
AAN: That was a stroke of luck.
PB: Yeah. And then Isaac started learning the guitar
IS: Yeah I was learning guitar while he was learning piano. I wanted to take piano but he wouldn’t let me because it was his thing. But it worked out because then we sort of showed each other how to do things. There would be times when I would be stuck and couldn’t write on guitar and I wanted to do something else. So I learned some cords and learned how to play piano. And then he would want to learn how to write on guitar, so I taught him some stuff and we kind of exchanged.
AAN: When I think of image, I think of imagination. When you’re writing or developing a song, do you picture anything in your head to go along with it?
PB: When I write a song, when I’m processing that song, I have to connect to it down here, I slowly connect to it my gut, and then it’ll just progress and I’ll find it more and more and then eventually it will start speaking to me and eventually I’ll figure out what it’s trying to say. And then, images will happen. But, it’s more emotion, more trying to relay a feeling. Actually getting it into words is the hardest part for me. The music part is easy, because it’s the most fun, I think. I spend a lot of time in lyrics, usually.
AAN: And then when you perform it?
PB: I’m usually having fun. But, it depends what song.
IS: Each song is different, I mean, each son has its own emotion to it, its own feeling. It was written out of a certain place, a peak of emotion at a certain point.
PB: Yeah, I mean, when we did mime or we did acting, they taught us to become the character, and so when I’m performing, I usually – if I’m doing it right – scratch that – when I do that – I become that song’s character, like what I was feeling when I wrote it. So, that’s how I picture it. I try to become that.
IS: And that’s what I do whenever Paul writes a song, I’ll become the character in a way, if he needs help writing a song or if we’re working on the song, the music of it, I’ll have to go back and connect to it as if I’m that character so that I have something to offer it. Because I can’t approach the song as – well, because if haven’t heard the song before, or if I’m approaching it fresh, I’ll bring something fresh to the table, but if I connect with it emotionally, I’m almost a part of it. It’s like you can go so far and than somebody else steps in, attaches to it, and then brings it further. So, we’ll do that back and forth a lot. But usually, he starts then songs and then I’ll come in and we kind of work together.
AAN: Do you feel like you have alter egos when you are onstage?
IS: I feel like when I’m on stage…I haven’t been myself until I have been onstage.
PB: Yeah, it’s hard for me to actually go to [another person’s] show. Because it’s hard for me to not be onstage…it’s actually really difficult for me to stand and watch – unless I’m learning, unless I’m there to learn or observe for a specific purpose. It’s really hard for me to not pull to get onto the stage.
IS: Yeah, I’m the same way.
PB: Because it’s natural. It feels natural up there because we’ve done it, all of our lives.
IS: If I do go to a show, unless the shows just incredible, if its like Bjork or Sigur Ros or something, than that’s something where they can take me to another world and I’m happy. But if it’s like almost anything else, then I’m struggling: I either need to leave or learn something or go up there and hide behind them and watch them or something
AAN: Is performing the apex of it all?
Both: It depends.
IS: It can be writing, and it’s almost equal for me. Performance is definitely something in and of itself, but writing is just being there in the moment and bringing emotion…It’s like you’re taking an emotion, which seems crazy, and bringing it into another form.
PB: When we were working on “Fantasy,” you know, on the piano, I was right there, like that exact same place. I slipped and nobody was there except me. And that’s where lyrics come in. I think it can be in both places, it’s just a different type of thing. I think they both equal the same level.
Can you explain to me the technology you use on the guitar?
IS: So basically what we do is, when we play live, it’s similar to what you do in a normal DJ set-up, except Paul is triggering certain songs and manning all of the effects and the filters and all of that, while I am doing all of the mixing. Basically, I’m running my guitar through a pedal that converts my guitar signal into midi information, which basically tells the software on my computer, well to act like a keyboard. So, I’m triggering different samples of the songs that we’re playing at the time, so I can kind of remix it on the fly if I want. Or, I can have two different songs mix into each other by playing different snippets of each one. Different frets different strings, have different songs on them. So I can play them on the fly. And sometimes I’ll just put in random samples or vocals or something. The only thing that I’ve ever seen anybody use that technology for is just to play leads or sounds on their synthesizer, or just play different types of guitar sounds, but never in this sort of setting. Never to play samples of things – I’ve never seen it done before.
AAN: A lot of what you do sounds like translation. You’re translating emotions, you’re translating from sitting at the piano or acoustic to electronic. Why do you feel that need to change things from a raw state?
PB: I like electronic better, I think. At the same time, I like piano, too, just as much.
Why does electronic serve Bakke and Secret better?
IS: It’s like playing a song on a piano is my way of kind of connecting to the song. But then, making it into an electronic song, or writing different parts, it’s like how composers will write songs on a piano and then break it out into a whole orchestra. It’s exaggerating the emotion in a way for other people to feel it as much as you can.
PB: Even though we do play to release piano versions of all of our songs eventually, for sure, very organic. But, not until all of this is established, at least.
Coming from an art background, the first thing we often ask is, ‘What medium is this in? Did the artist choose to paint or to sculpt or make a print? And why?’ So that’s kind of where I’m coming from in asking.
IS: When I was in art school (at The Art Institute of Chicago), my favorite part of art school was being given a project and be combining media. I would be doing a sculpture, but I would have to use something else as well. And so, a lot of what I would do would be to do a sculpture and then I would record almost like a sound track to play with it. One time, I did a sculpture of a horse head, and I made it out of scraps like wood and metal and wire, but it was also a horn – you could blow into its mouth and it would be a horn. I created a story around it, saying that I actually brought it back from a dream. I had a dream that I was in a tribal futuristic world. They were having a ceremony and they used the horse heads to call the ceremony to start. So, I used the horn to create the soundtrack to play along with it. Whenever you approached the sculpture, it was played in a way so that you could hear the sound of a dream.
AAN: What was that called?
IS: I don’t remember. And I don’t even have it anymore (Laughs). The reason I brought that up is because when you asked what medium we choose, it really has to do with creating an overall feeling of the art in a way of it being visual and…you know if you combine sound with a visual then you can really bring them in further than you could with just one. But, with music, it’s always the goal to bring them in with jus the music, and then the visual is always an addition – [to say] – ‘yeah, this was what we really meant by this.’
AAN: With the video [for Fantasy], what do you hope that added visual component is?
PB: With Fantasy, there’s so many different things that we’ve though about and talked about. I love the fact that it’s all nature, and in electronic music, [images] are usually all about machines and technology, and [I love] that we only have nature, and freedom, utopia – that feeling of being there at that moment in time. Nothing dirtying it up, it’s just straight up nature, it’s pure…[We’re] having fun, being happy, us not taking ourselves too seriously…[The video is to show] excitement, add rhythm to it visually. And, with all of the people, we have a group of people, it’s like a ‘get on the bandwagon’ type of mentality, trying to persuade people to go ahead and join up in that emotion.
AAN: Going to your shows, watching you guys, your physical presence adds so much to the performance, so much more than a traditional DJ. With you guys being there, the emotion really does come out.
IS: …Whenever we approach it, we’re approaching it as…well, we’re used to playing as a band performing live, and playing actual music, so what we do is, if we’re just sitting up there, going back and forth between songs, hitting play, that would be so boring, and we wouldn’t ever do it. So, what we decided to do was to combine the two and play other people’s songs, but we only choose stuff –
PB: – that we would feel like we would play in that moment of the show
IS: So we take a lot of time and we construct a whole set the same way that we would a live show you know, as if we were in a band. And we practice just the same. It’s not something where you can just throw the set together the night before.
PB: For us. Most DJs do throw it together on the whim. And that’s great.
IS: Yeah, that’s great for them, but we plan everything out. Every songs in its place for a reason, and the emotion of it, and even if the emotion is just fun and dance-y. But its all there for a reason.
PB: But changeable.
AAN: What do you imagine as an ideal environment for someone to experience your music?
PB: The first thing I would think of would be alone in your own room with the lights off. But, that doesn’t make so much sense. So in a venue, we would prefer to do it somewhere in a theatre hall, like the Fox or something like that. Oh yeah, we would prefer to play there.
AAN: Really? With people sitting in seats?
PB: I’d like to get to that point. But at the same point, right now, no. Right now, we need people to have fun. It’s a journey we’re on. We’re progressing. We’re going somewhere right now, Isaac and I are. We’re trying to get to a certain place.
IS: Right now, if there would be a good mix between the Fox Theatre and like just a dance club, than that would be ideal.
PB: Because I would definitely like for people to sit down to our music one day. But not in this setting, not Bakke and Secret I don’t think. Bakke and Secret is more fun and crazy. Maybe, at 3 or 5 in the morning in the middle of the desert, big, with thousands of people, that would be the best setting. That sounds about right.
Bakke & Secret, (Bakke pronounced ‘bähk’) formed by brothers Paul Bakke & Isaac Secret out of Saint Louis, MO in early 2011. B&S won a worldwide remix competition from The Chaotic Good/OH MY GOD IT‘S TECHNO MUSIC™ released on Beatport.com mid December 2011. B&S has performed with acts such as DJ Jay-E, Cor(e)yography, Thomas & Drue, and The Chaotic Good. Bakke & Secret live mixes have been featured on tuimixes.com and saintcharlesmo.me. For more info, see http://www.bakkeandsecret.com