F. Scott Fitzgerald once declared that there are no second acts in American lives. Had the novelist ever met Will Baumgartner, however, he might not have been so quick to make such an assertion. The Action Figure 8 frontman has successfully battled back from a lengthy crack addiction that caused him to be homeless on the streets of New York.
But Baumgartner was hooked on rock long before he ever smoked it. A native of North Carolina, the singer and multi-instumentalist attended the original Woodstock and remembers being inspired by acts like Santana and the Grateful Dead. By his late teens and early twenties, he was living in New York's East Village. There he experienced firsthand the creative uproar spurred by punk and No Wave and regularly brushed shoulders with folks like Arto Lindsay of DNA and HR and Dr. Know from Brains. After cutting his teeth playing Elvis Costello-inspired rock and jazz, he moved to Los Angeles to pursue his music.
Shortly after arriving in L.A., Baumgartner formed an improv-based rock band called the Action, which was the antithesis of the Guns N' Roses wannabes and hair bands that dominated the scene at the time. When that outfit broke up, he began smoking cocaine and eventually developed a life-stealing drug habit that continued for nearly a decade. In an effort to get clean during the late '80s, he briefly moved to Denver. Unfortunately, he moved into a Capitol Hill apartment building where he was constantly offered rock. Before long, he made his way back to New York City to be with an old girlfriend.
"Because I had not come anywhere near the point where I was going to stop doing that drug," Baumgartner confesses, "I lost her."
Still unable to shake his addiction, he ended up on the streets. While scraping together a bare-bones survival as a street person, living under a highway in the South Bronx, the one thing Baumgartner did every single day was sing. Everywhere. He sang on subway cars for money and even worked up a repertoire of 200 songs in hopes of landing gigs singing at weddings. "It was my one way of staying connected to something vital," he says.
In 1998, Baumgartner cleaned up and left New York, landing in Boulder. There he contributed to a number of bands such as Mother's Favorite, Flex Luthor and Sentimental Hitmen before launching another project called Sub City Six, which morphed into Action Figure 8 late last year. Lifelike Feel, the act's debut long-player, features an eclectic mix of styles that fearlessly, but never gratuitously, blurs discrete musical lines. Furious yet playful jazz improv is woven effortlessly into each of Feel's tracks, making for a collection of songs that are consistently fun and refreshingly free of ties to any musical trend, past or present.
"We are all so all over the place," notes Baumgartner. "We're a rock band, but across the record there are elements of dance rock, funk, psychedelic. We don't want to be defined. I know that's a cliche, but we are a multi-genre band. We are like Ween in that we're all over the map."
Baumgartner, on the other hand, has firmly established his roots. Focused and driven in a way that he's never been in the past, he sounds like a man who has taken his life back. His untrained, urgent vocal style lends Action Figure 8 an unexpected edge.
From the sound of it, you'd think the guy was trying make up for lost time or something.
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