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Camera Obscura

Camera Obscura

Monday 9th August, 2010 12:02PM

If only more bands were like Camera Obscura. Full of gorgeous melodies, stirring arrangements, and pointed lyrics, the Glaswegian band have been winning hearts with their four near faultless albums. However it was their third and fourth albums which have given the band their biggest boost – 2006’s Lets Get Out of This Country and 2009’s My Maudlin Career. With a richer sound, and more assured song-writing, singer/song-writer Tracyanne Campbell’s cynical and jaded observations sound even fiercer and are finally getting critics and audiences dropping the erroneous ‘twee’ associations which have plagued the band since starting in the late 1990s. Returning to New Zealand for the first time since 2007 to play a double-billed show with The Books, I catch up with guitarist Kenny McKeeve.

How did you get involved in Camera Obscura?

I joined around 1999/2000 just before we made the first album. I had worked with Tracyanne and a few others in the band. We worked in the same place, and their previous guitar player had left, and they didn’t have anyone else to fit the bill. I had been playing in other bands in Glasgow, and Tracyanne asked if I could help out for a bit and I kept got stuck with it. I’ve been pretty much there since 1999.

You guys have been around for a while, but you had to work in other jobs while making the music?

2009 is the first year we’ve all been full-time. Most of us gave up our jobs in March, and not long after we signed to 4AD, the new label that we’re on, and we thought to go for it and go full-time.

Have you noticed much of a change in terms of how you operate as a band now that you are full-time?

We’re now ‘working’, so we have to go out and tour, we have keep on the road quite a bit more than we were. Which is great. It’s also no longer coupled with the stress of having to work when we get back. In that respect, it’s freed everybody up to enjoy the music a lot more. It was getting to the point over the last two years or so where it was getting really stressful for everybody. Having the time and space to come up with something we love is just amazing.

Where did the name come from originally? The Nico album, or the moving picture machine or something like that?

It was something to do with my predecessor, a guy called David Skirving. In the very very early days, he came up with the name. I think he may have got the idea from a camera obscura in Edinburgh. They’re really beautiful. But beyond that, we just stuck with the name. There was no aesthetic brand, or particular purpose for choosing the name. Someone else in the band chose it and we’re just kinda stuck with it.

You guys have always done pretty well in the United States, has that been surprising for you guys?

We’ve been really lucky. It was initially really surprising. We’re obviously really happy with that, but it’s a combination of things. We were on a Spanish label [Elefant] for a couple of years, and they licensed our earlier records to the US label Merge, and they’re really influential people in the States and really respected. The combination of that and great radio – radio in the States is a different kettle of fish from the UK. There’s a whole subgenre of college radio, and national public radio and because there is a lot of space for bands who won’t necessarily get on the mainstream radio, there are more opportunities to be played. Plus, we’ve been back every year and toured really extensively. We’ve played in all sorts of venues, and built it up from scratch. It’s been luck and hard-work.

Being signed to 4AD and releasing stuff through Merge – you’ve been tied to two of the most influential indie labels…

Yeah, it’s great. We feel really privileged to have been involved with both labels. Obviously both labels have such a great pedigree, and we’ve been really lucky to find a great home with both of those labels. We still see a couple of people from Merge when we’re in the States, and we just caught up with 4AD last night. Most of the band are pretty hungover.

How did you end up with 4AD?

At the point, we were out of contract anyway, and we put feelers out with a number of labels. Because we were all licensed to Merge in the States, and we were with Elefant we thought we might put out another record with them. But we wanted to go full time and move forward a bit. It took a while to get everything in place, but once we were there, I think they realised that we all had really good relationships with labels, and just wanted to reassure us that they’d be supportive. It was quite a big deal to sign, and do things differently from before.

How much of a lift was Let’s Get Out of This Country, it certainly helped give you guys more publicity?

That’s the record most of the band would agree, was although it was our third album, it was the first one that we really felt was an accomplished album. We worked with our producer for the first time, and I reckon there was a bit more of a map. The new album is a bit of a continuation of that. Certainly Let’s Get Out of This Country was a huge change for all of us. It was the first time working like that, and it was a big change in Tracyanne’s songwriting. The band became a lot more solid about things. When we play live, people go crazy at songs from that record. If we hadn’t made that record, we wouldn’t have got so far as to sign for 4AD.

Does that also explain why you carried on with some of the key personnel with My Maudlin Career [such as producer Jari Haapalainen]?

Yeah. We kept the producer Jari, and we figured that although he was with us at the start, and knew what we do, he’s a person who gets bored very quickly. He used up a lot of tricks in the last album, and he wanted to something a little bit more organic. He relied a bit less on tricks. He’s just someone we have complete faith in. He’s kind of a crazy person, but crazy in all the right ways.

It sounded bigger – it had a Phil Spector wall of sound feel to it?

We have a bit of a liking for those old records, and it felt natural to do it that way.

Was there a specific plan to writing the new album?

I don’t think so, we tried things in the rehearsal room and we just tried a few variations of a couple of songs. If we got stuck, we would come back to it later. A couple of times, the producer would come into the rehearsals, and we’d play him a couple of versions of songs. For example, for ‘French Navy’ we had a very different version, we weren’t sure what to do with it. Jari suggested making it a little bit more up-tempo. This is the first time we had this input from a producer in the early stages, and I think we were a bit grateful because you can get stuck in a rut and it’s great to have an expert voice pointing you in the right direction here and there.

I guess ‘French Navy’ became your biggest single from the album too…

Yeah, we’re really happy with the way it worked out. I think it started off as a strange little country jazz ditty, and we weren’t really getting anywhere with it. Part of the joys with working with a producer, is that they can see things you can’t see that are right in front of your face. He could see the song being upped a notch in terms of energy and a lot more up-tempo, and that can influence the vocals, and the lyrics get adjusted and so on.

The strings are much more upfront in the album too…

I think that again was quite a conscious thing. I think a couple of the songs lend themselves. ‘Careless Love’ – we wanted to give a real sense of romance and loss, and we managed to pull that off. We worked with Bjorn Yttling, from Peter, Bjorn and John. He came and joined us, got us to sing melodies and he would score them. He would make little changes here and there. We’ve managed to do the strings live a couple of times, we can’t do it all the time, or else we’d be bankrupt. It’d be great to do a few shows with some strings.

Is it hard replicating this big sound live?

There are elements of that which can be a bit tricky. As long as we know the basic arrangements that we can get away with. There are other things we can do, we occasionally use a sampler or some technological trickery here or there. Occasionally we would do slightly different arrangements of the songs. To make it even more simple we just turn the volume up. Usually it just works. We find ways to handle just having five or six of us on stage.

You obviously don’t write the lyrics, but the lyrics seem even more sarcastic in the new album…

She’s a very sarcastic lady Tracyanne. That album is partly a chronicle of a fairly intense relationship. There are other things there as well. I think she had a few ups and downs with friendships. Generally, rather than go crazy with it, I think she finds the best thing to do is to write it down on a piece of paper and try to find a humorous way of dealing with it. I’m of the opinion she has come up with some of the best lyrics she’s ever written in her life. Sometimes it takes a bit of misery to get some of the results she comes up with.

She is a very underrated lyricist…

I would agree. I think that’s starting to change. Certainly, with the press response we’ve had with this record, there have been a lot more comments about her lyrics. I think more and more people are picking up on it. There are a lot fewer people saying the lyrical content is twee and wishy-washy. I think people are starting pay attention and read some of the words. There is quite a lot of harshness in the lyrics, and there’s some gentleness in there as well, but they can be quite severe in places. A lot of people wouldn’t have picked up on that in the past but that’s beginning to change as well.

I guess also because it’s such a contrast between the joyous pop melodies you guys have…

It’s nice that people can point that out. It’s at the heart of what we do. That’s whatwe’re about. The music might appear to be quite upbeat and frothy, and quite chirpy but combined with the lyrical content which is quite dark – to me that works really well. It’s kinda keeping with a lot of traditional love songs which are quite upbeat but at their core are quite depressing.

I guess with the new album, reviewers seemed to have dropped the ‘twee’ label, and all those other annoying associations you guys have been plagued with throughout your career…

I think that’s started to take shape now. I think people have assumed we sit at home and play with teddy bears and that kind of nonsense. I think for people to think that we’re twee, they’re clearly not paying attention to the lyrical content and a lot of what is going on in the music. It’s nice to move on a little bit from that. If you want to describe it in a certain way, I guess that’s ok as well. It’s just how people see it.

Brannavan Gnanalingam

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