Oakland’s indie-pop sensation Dingbat Superminx is many things — part traveling circus act, part rock band, part improv theater and confessional love songs. Most certainly, Dingbat Superminx is not just the sole creation of chief composer, lyricist, and general stage manager Aaron Baker. Modest and self-deprecating, Baker is an anti-auteur who relishes in ceding artistic direction to a revolving cast of performers, dancers, and musicians. With an upcoming and heretofore untitled album, he’s recruited a new creative visionary: you.
From a single composition, Baker plans to record seven separate performances for each part of a seven-piece band. Listeners can then access the song on a website, where each part will be randomly drawn by an algorithm to create a unique combination. That means there will be 823,543 versions of one song, but no one will hear the same song twice.
"No bassist will know which drums they'll be paired up with," Baker explained. "I wanted to get the Internet experience of everybody talking and everybody listening" — the concept of our modern media landscape condensed into a song.
Baker's approach as Dingbat Superminx has always been participatory to some extent, not unlike social media itself. In part, there seems to be a sense that he doesn't have much to offer on his own, yet he eludes the pejorative valence of those shortcomings. "There's a long tradition of male lead singers that are just really bad," he noted, "and I can't avoid playing into that."
On the other hand, it's a genuine effort to provide a priceless artifact that can't be monetized, a sacred exchange within the audience. "I feel like there's a really specific need for performance art because we're so out of the moment online most of the time," Baker said. "I love recording, but it feels almost obsolete — we have a huge oversaturation of human artifacts available, and a huge need for live performance, communal catharsis, and just community spaces overall. Generally, we try to do something just for the people there."
The you-had-to-be-there aspect is integral to the Dingbat ethos, and its pathos as well.
"I did some theater as a kid, but my young adult years were lost in the canonical 'I'm in an indie rock band' identity," Baker recalled. It wasn't until a few years ago that he felt the impulse to "be provocative, but not in a way that alienates people."
Baker had grown restless and bored with the milieu of musicians qua musicians, and found performance artists to be more flexible. Dingbat Superminx may be the only band with a composer who rejects the role of band leader.
"What's fun for me is that it's mostly the performers coming up with the stuff. Most of our practices are just like, 'okay, what do you want to do?'"
What performers have wanted to do, in one example from an art gallery show filmed on an audience member's phone camera, includes a mimed tug of war fight with a pool noodle while Baker croons and dances the limbo beneath them. As the song ends, the mimes split the pool noodle as Baker wails, "you know what they say/to thine own self be true." Subsequently, over the romantic disco ballad "Hurt for the Hits," the mimes dance and swordfight with their split pool noodle, one eventually whacking the other on the ground while Baker intones over and over: "No pain/no love song..."
The crowd cheers as though the presence of a full band had filled the room, but Baker usually sings over a pre-recorded backing track. It's loungey, funky, and unpretentious rock & roll, as if Elvis were trying his hand at Frank Zappa's sketch comedy experiments. And the performers at any given night consist of whomever Baker texted that day and happened to be available.
Baker runs the performances like an improv class. "I'm always telling the performers that it's more about feeling out who you want to be as a character, than what you're going to do onstage," he explains. "There is specific choreography, but for most of the stuff, it's more about, 'who are you?' And you don't worry so much about what you're going to do, because you'll do whatever who you are would do. Once the confidence gets rolling, you can't really go wrong onstage."
The live improv performances, the energy of the stage antics, and the intimate experience with the audience all comprise a positive feedback loop that impel the Dingbat Superminx creative engine forward, without Baker necessarily steering the ship. "Because we play so much in Oakland, there's always pressure to make new shows, so people aren't seeing the same performances every time," he said. "The new shows outpace the music at this point. I've started imagining the songs while I'm writing them, which has influenced the writing process. That's been really cool."
Dingbat's European Tour was a meticulously choreographed cabaret show about time, with backup dancers dressed as clocks. But that was all scrapped for its recent August 13 performance at the Oakland Secret Gallery. For that night, Baker disclosed that there would be an "angel and devil theme," which he immediately shrugged off as a cliché. The value of the performance was squarely placed on the live moment, while the ideas behind it aren't taken very seriously. Art critics may draw parallels to the French Situationist movement; audience members will simply have fun.
At this point, Dingbat's boldest experiment may be the most ordinary: a proper album. All previous Dingbat albums, including last December's Public Luxury, were self-recorded on his laptop and released on cassette or just digitally. While he works on the algorithmic online production, Baker is also shopping around a professionally recorded studio album recorded with a live band, which at this point, ironically seems far outside his comfort zone.
"We recorded it with really good musicians in a nice studio, so it would be the only one that would make sense to press on vinyl," he explained. But even when the focus is solely on the music, Baker still leads the band like an improv troupe — which is to say, not much at all. "I wrote demos of the songs, brought them to the studio, and let the players interpret it however they wanted," he added. "And I didn't play any instruments — I just sang. I was mostly with the engineer in the recording booth, like backseat driving. It's kind of like pure concept without any technique."
Even with all the labor he's poured into crafting a meticulously polished pop album, and an interactive online musical experience coming out roughly around the same time, Baker seems content with merely tossing his output into the world like any other stage prop flung toward the audience. The possibility of a financial return crossed his mind, at least briefly, but was just as quickly disregarded.
"I'd be happy to self-release this album just like all the others, if it comes down to it," he said. "Either way, there's not going to be a lot of money involved."
Baker sat in a patch of sunlight in his backyard in Oakland, discussing future performance plans, while a housemate behind him mixed paints and brushed colors onto shreds of paper. All around him, an inexplicable whirlwind of tattered rainbow-splattered paper was scattered across the dirt, and he declined an offer to have a path cleared. This mess, he indicated with a shrug, was probably intentional. Someone else's, in any case — just not his own.