PROFILE: Unique Take
When Baxter Clement walks into the China Garden Buffet, people recognize him.
That's not a surprise, considering that Clement was once the lead guitar player and one of the singers in a band that had a song at No. 4 on the New York City charts, right behind Johnny Cash.
"We had our five seconds of fame," Clement says.
But that's not the reason people in this area recognize him. They recognize him because more and more often he's the one teaching their children a love for music. He says he likes teaching so much he would almost do it for free.
"I can't believe I get paid to do what I do," he says.
Clement owns the Sandhills School of Performing Arts, tucked away in the back of a green two-story building near the corner of Southeast Broad Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. To get to the school, you have to walk through an alley between a high-fashion shop and a pottery store.
The school consists of a white hallway with uneven flooring and several doors that lead to rooms with pianos or other instruments. At the end of the hallway is the place where the 31-year-old Clement spends most of his time: his recording studio.
You wouldn't guess it, considering his age, but Clement owns the building. He rents out the front to the fashion shop, and the top floor is where he lays his head -- when he does actually sleep.
Speaking of fashion, Clement is the kind of guy who wears black pinstripe pants with buckle boots and tight black cashmere sweaters. He's thin and tall, like a hipster version of Ichabod Crane.
Clement describes his style as a unique take, sort of a modern twist on Dean Martin. He admits to toning it down for Southern Pines. He says he doesn't break out his hats unless he's in New York.
"You should see my hat collection," Clement says. "I have a huge collection of fedoras."
Clement was born somewhere in California -- Sacramento, he thinks. He can never remember.
His father, Bill, was a "corporate dad," Clement says, and had to move a lot. His mother, a homemaker, is named Ruffles.
Before young Baxter took his first step or said his first word, his family was living in Baltimore. By the time one of his teachers noticed that he could hear a song and pick out the notes on a piano, they were living in Chicago.
"They took me out of school for having music ability," he says.
His teachers put him into a class where he was one of three students. The other two were girls. It didn't do him any favors socially. When his family moved to Southern Pines in the early '80s, he had to rejoin a regular classroom atmosphere. Clement says his unique attitude and style made him a magnet for bullies.
"I used to get beat up every day," he says.
He got even one day, teaming up with some friends to take down a particularly vicious kid.
"You probably shouldn't put that in the paper," he says.
Clement's musical talents eventually landed him at the North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem.
He says he was lucky to be one of the final pupils of Aaron Shearer, author of several books about playing guitar, who was in turn one of the final pupils of Spanish guitarist Andres Segovia, who is considered the father of the modern classical guitar movement.
When it came time for college, Clement went to the Blair School of Music at Vanderbilt University on a guitar scholarship -- "because my SATs were below 1,000."
He made money playing gigs at frat house parties. Eventually, he got to study at the Mozarteum in Salzburg, Austria.
"I stayed at the house that was in 'The Sound of Music,'" he says.
The outside may have looked good, but the inside was a dump, Clement says. There was no air conditioning, and the place swarmed with giant mosquitos.
Many 'Terrible Jobs'
After college, Clement moved to New York City. But just living in New York didn't equate to success. He had to scrape together a living by doing odd jobs while trying to make it as a musician.
"I worked thousands of terrible jobs," he says.
In one of them, on Staten Island, he had to read stories to kids while dressed as the Cat in the Hat. He managed an Irish punk nightclub. And he says he was the all-time worst journalist to work in the VH1 news department, joking that he may have inadvertently convinced the channel to abandon music in favor of such programming as "Flavor of Love" and "The Surreal World."
Meanwhile, Clement and a friend from Vanderbilt placed ads in free publications looking for band members. They interviewed hundreds of people in a cafe before settling on a bass player from Peru and a drummer from Paris.
"It was an eclectic mix," Clement says.
They all wore black and liked to act moody, so they decided to have a little joke and call themselves Blondes Inc.
Clement was living on a friend's couch when he and his bandmates got their big break. They were in the studio rehearsing when Richard Lloyd walked by. Lloyd played guitar in the legendary New York punk-scene band Television. He liked what he heard from Blondes Inc. and offered on the spot to produce their album for free.
"I didn't even know who Television was," Clement says.
These days, though, Clement holds Lloyd in high regard.
"He's like my guru," he says.
The recording led to a modest hit -- Clement doesn't even remember the name of the song -- in New York. This was during the time when The Strokes were really popular and the city was into a modern-type rock 'n' roll.
That led to shows with Blondie and the Talking Heads, and opening up for The Strokes. He and the band lived the rock lifestyle, touring mostly through the Northeast. He says they never made it down to North Carolina, since nobody had heard of them below New York.
The band soon found out that the industry is just as seedy as people say it is.
"So many people tried to rip us off," he says. "Everything they say about the music business is true."
Maybe there was too much pressure. Or maybe the lifestyle got to be too much. But Clement says Blondes Inc. soon decided to call it quits. They were all ready to try new stuff.
Clement got jobs as a studio musician and played guitar in the orchestra pit for Broadway shows, which Clement says was "super-awesome."
The studio work paid off. He was on the "Blue's Clues" album for Nickelodeon, for which he was paid handsomely.
"That was probably the most highly paid job of my life," he says.
He also began to teach and found he had great enthusiasm for it.
"I like working with young people," he says, "and seeing that spark in their eye."
He eventually decided that his eight years of living in New York were enough and that it was time to get back to the slower pace of the South. He moved back to Southern Pines last year and opened the performing arts school. He enjoys being able to walk everywhere.
"It's a totally different pace," he says. "I love teaching. I really just get off on it."
'Pretty Much a Nerd'
A typical day for Clement now begins with waking up midmorning and preparing for the day's lessons. He teaches until about 9 p.m. Then, he'll often devote his time to recording or one of his many other projects. He does that until the middle of the night.
"I'm pretty much a nerd," he says. "I usually stop working around 3 in the morning."
Clement also writes tunes for commercials. He's done work for Sony, Avon and Oscar Meyer. He says Oscar Meyer wanted to modernize its catchy jingle.
"They wanted to juice it up," he says.
A firm in San Francisco is selling his work to various companies.
"It's all through knowing people," he says.
When Clement gets commercial work, it often needs to be done immediately. He stays awake until it's finished.
"I'm pretty much an insomniac," he says.
Clement also uses the time after teaching to rehearse and work on playing new instruments. He tries to learn one a year, he says. Last year, it was the banjo. This year it's the harmonica, which he says he is terrible at so far.
Clement tries to give himself the weekend off, but it's looking more and more like he'll need it to take on more students. When he does have time off, he golfs every once in a while and plays video games.
"I'm an Xbox 360 junkie," he says. "People laugh, but all my students who play video games are a little bit faster at picking up the guitar."
'Lots of Talent Here'
Kids who grow up in Moore County often lack exposure to diversity of music, Clement says. That's why he likes to bring down guest teachers from New York.
But he's not after any other teacher's students, he says. By working together, he says, he and other teachers in the area can benefit the entire community.
"I want to create a very helping-out atmosphere," he says. "I hate that competition that breeds among some small businesses."
There is enough business to go around anyway, he says.
"I'm surprised at the amount of talent found here," Clement says. "The parents here are very supportive of their kids. They know that their minds are like a sponge."
He brought from New York the idea of a rock class, where young kids actually get to play rock 'n' roll, as in the movie "School of Rock." He is working with some high school kids who want to try out for Fox's "American Idol."
He says he hates the business aspect of what he does, which is why he tries to get it taken care of as soon as he can.
"I don't even feel like a businessman," he says. "I'm super-lucky that I get to hang out with and teach these kids. They pump me up."
'Keeps Getting Better'
Clement has now come to the part of his life where he wants to give back. He likes to go to the public schools and give free lessons, and he plans on joining Kiwanis.
"It's a chance to show them (the students) how much fun music can be," he says.
He doesn't miss the rock lifestyle. He doesn't want to chase fame anymore, he says, and has had his time of acting irresponsible and trashing hotel rooms.
"That was a different part of my life," he says. "Fame is fleeting."
However, Clement's touring days aren't completely over. He'll be going on tour mostly through the Northeast and Canada this year, with Lloyd as his rhythm guitarist.
Clement is looking forward to probable shows in Los Angeles and Tokyo. But he also wants to play a show at the Cat's Cradle in Carrboro.
"I just want to play in my home state," he says. "I never played in Carolina."
When he was touring before, he had to sleep on floors. For this tour, Clement giddily reveals, he won't even have to bring his own amplifier.
He'll be playing to a lot more people, but he says that doesn't bother him.
"I get nervous every time I go on," he says. "But I tell my students you have to use that energy. I am never worried I'll mess up. I'm confident in what I do."
When he gets back, he plans to keep expanding the school. He dreams of having students who one day come back as instructors. He's already pushing a couple to go to the School of the Arts, but says he is honest with their parents about the challenges they will face there.
"I've done a lot of things in my life," Clement says, "and it keeps getting better."
He has big plans beyond just holding court in the local Chinese buffet.
"I want to become the mayor of Southern Pines," he says. "I think the town will be ready for me in a couple of years."
Matthew Moriarty may be reached at 693-2479 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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