Camera Obscura - From Curiosity To Necessity
by Justin Pearsall
Glasgow’s Camera Obscura undoubtedly created one of the most heart warming records of 2006. But Let’s Get Out of This Country was not simply successful as a one-off, it confirmed the promise of the band’s two prior LPs, changing the anticipation for future releases from ‘curiosity’ to ‘necessity’. On the back end of what has been 18 months of touring this album WB catches up with Gavin Dunbar, the band’s bass player, to discuss Camera Obscura’s growing profile, Glasgow and future plans.
For those not in the know, what’s the story behind the name of the band?
The name was suggested by our then guitarist David. I think we just liked the sound of it at the time, and the fact it was the prototype camera that inverted the image it sees onto a screen. There are a few Camera Obscura installations around Scotland, and we just thought it was right for us.
While Underachievers Please Try Harder gained the band some attention, Let’s Get Out Of This Country has taken you to new heights. How much of this attention, if at all, do you notice?
To be honest we often don't even see much of the press. It’s always nice to read a good review or critique, but you have to be balanced about it, because if you allow the good reviews to gee you up, then you end up being upset by bad reviews, and there’s nothing you can do about it. So, whilst it’s nice, you can't pay too much attention to it all.
What about fan reactions? On an internet shoutbox somewhere you were described as ‘life summed up by a band’? Does a reaction like that affect you?
It’s nice for us that we mean something to people who listen to us. We make the music we make, and obviously some of the subjects of the songs are things that affect us day-to-day so it’s understandable that there are other people that feel the same way we do generally and relate to what our songs are about.
Recent performances, including a stand at Australia’s Laneway Festival, have focused on Let’s Get Out Of This Country. Is this more than just a need to perform the more recent material?
Yeah, I think so. At the moment the live set is pretty much made up from the new album, with a few older tracks thrown in for good measure. I think the process we went through when we recorded the album has helped us to be better players live too, we got a big push from Jari [Haapalainen] the producer, and we really improved our playing both individually and as a group.
We’ve been touring for pretty much a year and a half non-stop, so it does get on top of you at times, but we do enjoy playing live, a lot more now than we ever did before. For me, I think that when we play ‘Lloyd, I’m Ready to be Heartbroken’ followed by ‘If Looks Could Kill’, that’s my favourite part of the show – watching the crowd going nuts when the intro to those songs kick in is a real pleasure.
What do you look forward to most while touring, apart from the shows themselves?
Getting to see different places, although often we don’t really have time to actually see much of the cities we play in. It is a bit like the Hard Day’s Night joke about all you see is a car and a room, and a train and a room, and a room and a room.
The Non-UK Europe scene is exploding internationally. Does Glasgow affect Camera Obscura?
I think it informs who we are as people and as a band to an extent. We alcamera_obscura_300l live here, and most of the band has lived here all our lives. So yeah, I think it’s a big part of who we are – inevitably what goes on around us has an affect on us. It’s changed a lot over the past few years. A lot of urban regeneration has taken place since the late ‘80s and it’s nice to see our home city being improved and getting cleaned up. Traditionally it’s always had a reputation as quite a hard industrial city, but I think that’s changing for the better. There is a really good arts and cultural infrastructure here these days.
Are you very recognisable at home and abroad?
It does happen occasionally, more so when we’re on tour. I think Glasgow is quite good at stopping you getting carried away with yourself, which is a good thing.
Are there any local bands that you believe should be getting more attention than they do?
There’s a lot of new bands in Glasgow at the moment, a band called The Royal We have just signed to Domino and should be worth looking out for; Bricolage, Dot to Dot, and the spectacularly named Dananananackroyd.
What about your relationship with your label, Merge? Do you have a favourite Merge cohort?
We really enjoy being on Merge for North America. The people who run the label have a real love of music and seem to have a real interest in the bands that they have on their roster. It is quite the family. Our band are all big fans of M.Ward, Arcade Fire and Lambchop; I don't think we could elect a favourite.
How do you approach writing an album? Do you have a concept in mind that binds the songs together or a collection of experiences?
Tracy [Tracyanne Campbell – singer/songwriter] will come in with basic songs, we all listen and work on arrangement ideas and keep working through songs until we're happy that they are finished. Previously we took a long time to record an album; we'd go in over several months and record over weekends building up a collection of songs that would make the record. Last time it changed and we had worked on a larger collection of finished songs and went in and recorded them all in one session. The end result was that when we had finished all the recording and mixing, we were able to select the best tracks that worked together for the album, and other songs, that weren't quite fitting into the album concept were used as b-sides.
Listening to Let’s Get Out of This Country, the album feels very picaresque and idyllic, like a bus ride in the country. Do images provide inspiration for songs?
The sound of any album tends to be more derived from how the band is feeling when working on new songs, rehearsing them up and into the recording session. Obviously some songs have a theme that lends itself to how the song will end up sounding, but sometimes the songs can change quite dramatically from the first time we rehearse them to how they sound on record. There have been a few songs that have gone through a few different styles before ending up as they are.
Is it a fine line between melding these styles and sounding too retro?
Everyone has influences, and we all have records that we love the sound on, but we know that whilst we all love classic records, when we make an album it’s important to us that it should still sound contemporary even if it has retro influences. I’m sure there are a few nods to songs we love over the three albums, but we do try to keep influences subtle and not just steal sounds.
Do you have any plans for a new album in the near future?
Working on the next record is our priority after next week. Six more live shows and then we have finished all the touring we’re doing for Let’s Get Out of This Country. We’re really looking forward to getting to work on the new songs. We’re off to lock ourselves in a studio, and we won’t come out till we’ve got a new record in our mitts.
In all your press photographs you always look terribly serious. Is this a conscious image decision?
Not really, we’re just a bunch of dour Scots. We always look like muggers in photographs.
Do you compare yourselves to any other bands, or think "In 10 years we want to be as big as Joy Division"?
We tend to just work away at our own pace in our own wee world. I don’t think we’ve ever been particularly ambitious about being massive, we just like making music and the fact that it has become our job is great. I do love Joy Division though.
How do you think the way people are listening to music is changing, not in terms of technology, but in terms of the premonitions and notions in their minds?
I think people have always taken music they listen to into their hearts and take something personally from the lyrics and connect it to events and people in their lives.
Camera Obscura [Wireless Bollinger]
picture: Wireless Bollinger
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