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Former Denver guitar maker Scott Baxendale has attracted some impressive clients in Athens

Scott Baxendale performing at the 40 Watt in Athens, Georgia
Scott Baxendale performing at the 40 Watt in Athens, Georgia

Master luthier Scott Baxendale lives in Athens, Georgia, these days, but he still has Denver on his mind. In fact, he says he has plans to move back here at some point. Right now, though, the guitar maker and former Colfax Guitar Shop owner has his hands full in Athens, between running his latest guitar shop -- which boasts some high-profile clients, including Wilco, R.E.M., Sonic Youth, Of Montreal, Buddy Miller, Justin Townes Earle and Steve Earle -- and teaching at the Athens Luthier Academy, which he founded.

See also: Denver filmmakers take to the road and Do It for Johnny

We caught up with Baxendale, a longtime veteran of the Denver scene, to find out what he's been up to since he moved. We also spoke with him about Bones in the Desert, the album he just released with Athens legend Jack Logan, much of which was written and recorded in Denver (Baxendale is a first-rate guitarist himself). He also gave us the scoop on what happened with Do It for Johnny, the documentary about getting a screenplay based on his life into the hands of Johnny Depp.

Westword: Tell me about the album you did with Jack Logan.

Scott Baxendale: Jack Logan is sort of an underground local legend. He did these comic books called Peter Buck comics in the '80s. He's just a really prolific lyric writer, and my music and his lyrics have gelled together for this record. It's been pretty exciting, because we just get to work at our own pace and get to draw from all these incredible musicians that we can bring in to do a track here and a track there. It's pretty fun.

I was reading about how John Neff, formerly of the Drive-By Truckers, is his brother-in-law, and he introduced you two.

Yeah. John's two sisters are married -- one of them to Jack Logan, and the other is married to William Tonks, who plays in the band Bloodkin. And they both play in all kinds of other bands, too. William Tonks plays in about five or six different projects, as well. But they're all amazing. I met Jack through John Neff. Turns out, he was working in the same industrial complex where our shop is. He was working three doors over with this guy who makes these wax candle things that he sells.

So for the longest time John told me, "You need to give some of your music to Jack and let him write some lyrics to it." So I just compiled a CD of some stuff that I had been working on and just random stuff not thinking that he'd come up with anything -- just stuff to fill the CD up. Then, two weeks later or less, he came back with the first batch, and then he'd have like ten songs that he'd written lyrics to my music.

He just takes the demo track and he puts it on his four-track. He uses his four-track to come up two or three vocal parts that he puts on there with the lyrics. Then he burns that off on a CD and gives that back to me. I set up the master tracks and record the master tracks, or some of them have the master tracks recorded, but usually they don't.

So I set up the session, and record the rhythm track, and I'll get him to come over and lay the vocal on it. We'll do one song at a time, and he'll come over and do song, and then I'll do all the other producing and stuff. It just worked out fantastic.

I just sort of felt like his lyricism and his ability to write lyrics to my music just sort of legitimized my music, after a long time of wondering if it had any legitimacy at all because it was all instrumental. And it didn't really have an audience. This music seems to have an audience all of the sudden because of that.

Some of the demos you recorded in Denver, right?

Yeah. Maybe half the record I had either written the song or recorded the tracks in Denver before I moved. A couple of the songs, like that song "Run For Your Life," was virtually completely recorded in Denver, other than the vocal and maybe the bass part. Then, "Technical Difficulties," a lot of that was recorded, and "Erased," the rhythm track for that was recorded... and so I'd say maybe half the record was.

On some of them, I'd use just a portion of those tracks and then re-record a couple of them. The very first song on the record, "What Have You Been Up To," is one of those songs, and originally, it all these percussion loops and drum loops that were kind of the drum track.

I just had Brad Morgan come in play the drums to it, and I just took out all that stuff off. Because it was recorded in loop fashion it was really to record new rhythm tracks, which is kind of backwards to record. I was able to record new bass and drum parts to those songs really relatively easy, and it worked out really well I thought.

Brad's with the Drive-By Truckers, right?

Yeah. Brad Morgan plays drums on the record. And my shop right now is right next to Dave Barbe's studio. As we're talking, they're over there mixing their new album right now. I was just next door showing Patterson this new guitar that I painted green for him. It's pretty cool. With Barbe's studio next door, we get a lot of traffic from there because we'll loan them guitars to use, and they have several of our rebuild guitars over there that they keep in the studio. Eventually any band that comes in there to record ends up coming into our shop and usually having us do something or gets interested in some of our guitars that we do, the rebuild guitars especially.

It sounds like you guys have been dealing with some pretty big clients over the last few years.

As soon as I got here, I met DeWitt Burton, who has been the long-time guitar tech for R.E.M. Of course, they were basically breaking up, which is really just more of a restructuring of their business model more than it is they are actually breaking up. I have a feeling they'll be getting back together and doing something before it's all said and done, unless something happens to somebody. But I would imagine there will be some sort of R.E.M. reunion at some point. They just had too many people on their staff, and the record business is so different from when they were in power, so to speak.

They had a big staff of about fifty people, and so they retooled all of that. They kept DeWitt on. But I got a little sidetracked -- DeWitt got a temporary gig for the summer working for Wilco, and he took several of my guitars out there to their loft in Chicago. They fell in love with the rebuilt Harmonys. Jeff Tweedy just fell in love with one of the guitars that we did, and it became his main guitar, and it may still be. I hope it is.

Then Nels Cline had an old '40s Harmony that he sent to me after he got back because he loved what we did to them, and we rebuilt it for him. He says he loves it and that he plays it all the time. It's kind of interesting. Even though we're building custom guitars and I've got more orders now than ever, it's really the Harmony rebuilds and the Kays that really have the attention of the working class musician.

Why do you think that is?

There's two reasons why. One is that they're old and they have a really cool retro look to them. These guys now buy these new Fenders that are relic-ed in the factory to make them look old. These are really old guitars, and then after I rebuild them, they play and sound so amazing that they compete with guitars that were made by Martin and Gibson in those days, and, in fact, sometimes surpasses them. We sell them at a price that competes with stuff made in China and sold at Guitar Center.

We just finished up a Kay super jumbo for Buddy Miller, who's a big producer in Nashville. He loves the old Harmonys and Kays and old guitars and stuff. He does stuff with T-Bone Burnett and that kind of thing. So, Lera Lynn, who was in Athens, bought one of our Kays, and she just immediately started touring relentlessly with it. She got on Prairie Home Companion, and they gave us a couple of shout-outs on there. She talked about the guitar on there, and that got a lot of attention.

She's since moved to Nashville, and she's kind of become I think one of the darlings of Nashville at the moment. She's been promoting the hell out of us. It's just amazing what she's done for us. So it really couldn't have been a better move for what we're doing in terms of guitars to come here because it's really opened up the door. Surprisingly, I didn't think we'd start connecting with Nashville, but we really are starting to do a lot of business with people in Nashville.

Keep reading for more of our chat with Scott Baxendale

What was your initial reason to move out to Athens?

I was in partners with my son, and we had a bit of a falling out, and he decided he wanted to go and start his own shop out in Littleton. And it just really kind of devastated me, and I just really felt like I didn't want to stay in that location and become a fierce competitor with my son and have a cross-town rival over repair business. I just didn't feel that that was productive in any kind of way to do that. At the same time I had just met Pam, who is now my wife. My ex-girlfriend was being a total psycho stalker.

So I had all this going on at the same time. And the recession was at its lowest point -- the worst part of the recession. It was actually very cheap to move in comparison to what it would have been now, for instance, because gas was still $2:50 a gallon when we moved. It hadn't quite jacked up, and the rent was dirt cheap down here. I have four times the space for less than what I was paying for that space on Colfax. And it's right next door to one of the central hubs of the recording world in this area.

The other reason for the move was that I was trying to switch the focus of my business model. When I had a storefront with a counter right up in the front on Colfax, I was dealing with just general repairs and just basic guitar stuff all day long. I was really trying to move away from that and get focused on building and less on doing the day-to-day repairs, and not being the general fix-it shop for everybody's shitty guitar that needs to be fixed.

That was sort of the bread and butter on Colfax, and it really made it hard for me to focus on building a guitar. So, I'd be building $6,000 guitar, but I would constantly have to stop building it to find somebody's fifty-cent piece for their $10 guitar. It didn't make any sense logically. So I was thinking of retooling the whole focus of the shop, and also started teaching lutherie to students. I started a school.

When I came it down here, I retooled it so we don't have a storefront anymore. We're an office in a business park where we take in guitars and stuff. And we do have a showroom, but it's not anything like it was on Colfax. We have a shop upstairs, and I have this school that I teach in the main part of the shop, and I have anywhere from to one to three students at a time. I try to spend my time teaching. That's where the Harmonys -- that's the product of the Harmonys -- is that comes from the teaching. Those are the guys who end up doing most of the work on the Harmony rebuilds.

While I'm teaching them the stills and they're testing them out on these Harmonys, then I've split my time between that and building. But that being said, we still get tons of repairs, and I still have that repair distraction constantly. So I didn't really avoid that, I just don't have it quite as much.

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What ever happened with the film Do It For Johnny?

Do It For Johnny, I think was Haylar's [Garcia] platform to get into the film writing business. I was hoping it was going to be my platform to get into the film scoring business, and I did get to score some other stuff after Do It For Johnny, but it just really more or less kind of got faded into the background. We did the festival circuit and we won best documentary at festival out in Sonoma, California.

Shortly after that, Haylar was able to secure a representative deal from ICM, which reps writers and directors. So he was able to get a contract and an agent to work with him. I don't know why Haylar shelved it after we'd put all that effort into it. I was a little disappointed that it didn't have further play. I'd still like to see it come out on Netflix or something. I was really disappointed it didn't at least come out on Netflix.

But I think -- and this is only my speculation, and I don't really have any evidence to prove it, and this is just my feeling -- after Haylar got his agent deal, I don't think he wanted all those big shots that we were trying to get to through the documentary gonzo door -- he was now having meetings with those same people as a repped writer with an agency -- I don't think he wanted them to see him in that light. He might have sensed that would have given a negative impression. And I can understand that really because he kind of comes off a little pycho at the end of the movie. It almost seems like we're stalking Johnny toward the end.

Once we got the screenplay to Johnny Depp, I thought we should have ended the film as a success and have there be big congratulations and not try to worry about the fact that we had to do all this other stuff after that. It's sort of anti-climactic there. It was a great experience, and we learned a lot about making movies, and we made a movie, which is a lot more than other people can say they did.

I thought we did a really good job on it, and it was really funny. I still mail out copies of it to my friends, and they all love it, so I wish it would have gotten out on Netflix. You'd think that anything that had to do with Johnny Depp could at least have a life on Netflix.

Did you ever hear from Depp after you got him the guitar and screenplay?

Well, we finally heard from his sister and somebody from his office afterwards. But once they saw a rough cut of the documentary, they just kind of basically ignored us. They spoke to us when we gave them -- it wasn't the final cut -- but it was close to the final cut, and we got a copy of it to them when we were out there. That's all in the movie at the end of it. But beyond that and beyond the movie being done, Johnny Depp's never bothered to call to say, "Hey, thanks for the guitar" or anything.

Looking back on it, I think where we miscalculated was when we started Do It For Johnny, we didn't think Johnny Depp was getting to ready to, any second, to become the biggest Hollywood box office star on the planet. We started it with the idea that he was still this indie guy who did indie films for causes and artistic value, when in reality, by the time we started Do It For Johnny, he was already a $20 million dollar man. It was like you couldn't even approach him with something unless you were going to pay him $20 million.

We learned a lot of stuff, so in that regard it was a positive experience. The other thing was that ended up signing this rep deal, which I didn't necessarily fully agree with doing, where we signed with a producer's rep, and, of course, we're new and green in the film business and the producer's rep sounds like a good deal.

It's like their job is they go to Cannes, and they go to film conventions. They have booths set up and they have these markets come from overseas and they license the movie for Czechoslovakia or Mexico or China or something. So their job is to represent us and to make a deal happen for distribution. It turned out that their job was to take our money up front and to put us in a bag with a bunch of movies that they're willing to offer out for nothing.

So Do It For Johnny is getting play in some places like Eastern Europe and stuff like that, but we never saw a penny of it. What I realized afterward it's like an okie-doke booking agent for a band where the booking agent goes to the bar and goes: "Hey man, I can keep your calendar full. I can give you the best bands, and I can promise you this price; they're going to be cheap."

Then he goes to the band and goes, "Dude, I can book you into this club and all you have to do is go in there for this initial price, and once you prove yourself, then they're going to give you a raise." And he gets a cut from both sides of the fence, and basically it's his job to sell you cheap but to make you think he's going to continually up your price. That's exactly what this producer's rep did to us.

It was a total rip-off. We should have known better, I think. I wasn't totally on board with it all. In fact, when all this contract signing went down, I was on the road with the Drive-By Truckers as their guitar tech. So I was sort of out of the loop, and I'd FedEx these papers that I had to sign. It wasn't exactly how I hoped it would turn out. I was kind of hoping somebody would just bootleg it up on YouTube, so it could be out there. Hopefully that will happen.