When we call to interview Andy Baxter, it's early morning, and he's reading a book.
"Delilah Dawson wrote this book called Phasma, which is sort of the book leading up to Stars Wars," he says. "I found out about her because, randomly, she listens to our music. So I was stoked to find out about her."
When you dive into Baxter's music, it is clear why the musician would be drawn to Phasma. In the band Penny & Sparrow, which will play at the Boulder Theater on Thursday, October 19, Baxter and guitarist/vocalist Kyle Jahnke slice in literary themes from things they read and experience, using them to personify fears and anxieties.
The duo's latest, Wendigo, is no exception. The title is a nod to a cannibal monster from Algonquian folklore, and there are several songs in which Baxter sings from the Grim Reaper's perspective.
We talked with Baxter about the band's literary connections and more.
Westword: Three of the songs on this record, “Visiting,” “Smitten” and “Moniker,” humanize the Grim Reaper. Tell us more about that.
Baxter: Kyle and I were going to write a musical in the perspective of the Grim Reaper. We wrote five or six songs in that vein and fell in love, and decided to keep three of them. Of all the other things that we have written, it didn't make sense to go the route of the musical, but all the themes we were writing about and the melody choices seemed to fit together.
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Wendigo is a creature and a story that parents told their kids to scare them straight, so we loved the idea of writing a record about fear and asking whether these were things that really needed to frighten us. If you shine a flashlight on some of these things, you see they're actually very tame.
This is a bit of immersion therapy for Kyle and I, since we wrote a lot about death and the fears that come up after you're married.
It seems like you empathize with the Grim Reaper. Is that accurate?
The more clear way to look at it is that I was terrified of death, and to be honest, I still am, but I wanted to write about "him," for lack of a better pronoun, and explore him. I wanted to write from his perspective. I wanted to write about my own fear and worry, and it seemed like such a daunting thing.
If you’re scared of spiders, you need to be around a lot of them and see if you can't get over it. So I did write songs and empathize with death, but more than anything, it gave me a sounding board from which to really talk about it.
Other writers have taken this approach as well. Terry Pratchett, for one, made death quite likable.
Yeah, I remember watching this movie called On Borrowed Time, with Lionel Barrymore, when I was a kid. He plays Mr. Brink, which is like a version of death as a man in a suit. This farmer and grandson trap death up a tree using a coon dog, and the whole time he’s up there, they see what happens to the world while he can’t do his job. I remember that really scaring me when I was a kid.
You recorded the initial tracks for this album in your home in Florence, Alabama. That area has a ton of musical history. How special is it to create music there?
My wife and I still live in the Shoals. Since this record, Kyle and Rebecca have moved back to Austin. Being in the area is crazy, because there’s not that many options of places to eat or places to drink, so you see people like Spooner Oldham or David Hood or Jonny Fritz — all these complete monsters in the world of music — just floating in and out of these stores. John Paul White is getting barbecue at the same place as you, and that’s unavoidable.
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It’s neat to be able to see so many people who have carved a life out for themselves but have years of music experience. It's such a young, vibrant music scene, and for a place that has so few eating options, there are so many music options. That’s an inspiring thing, to be constantly around folks just creating things. That’s what drew us here in the first place.
Does that hold you accountable to try and constantly create music?
The pace of life here is too slow for me to get competitive with it. Every time I’ve created things out of fear or competitiveness, inevitably it doesn't sound like me. It sounds like the bullshit, flip-side of the coin version of me, which is evil. When I create out of joy or honesty, that feels really good.