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Interview: Camera Obscura
Interview by Brian Howe | Photo by Catherine Lewis, © 2006 |

Camera Obscura's Tracyanne Campbell isn't a big drinker, but when she does drink, she likes whiskey, straight. It turns out this is the reason for her ghost of a black eye-- not, as Pitchfork suggested, that she'd been out brawling with critics who compare her band to Belle & Sebastian (although she did seem immensely pleased with the idea). The story is simple: Got drunk, played show, fell down in bathroom.

There was a time when this sort of rock‘n'roll debauchery would have been impossible for Campbell: The Glaswegian singer who elevates endearing awkwardness to an art form used to be way too nervous in front of crowds to even consider drinking before a show. But by now, after the release of Camera Obscura's excellent third LP, Let's Get Out of This Country, Campbell's unease with crowds has begun to crystallize into the confidence of a performer who knows she has something worthwhile to offer. Where taking a drink before a show once might have paralyzed her, now it performs its more commonplace function-- it loosens her up.

Pitchfork sat down to talk with Campbell before a recent North Carolina show to learn about the person behind all those sad, sly songs-- her newfound confidence, her thoughts on the U.S., and her aversion to bugs that bite (an aversion she would restate from the stage that night as she violently scratched her arm, inducing a pang of guilt in your correspondent, who thought it would be a good idea to conduct the interview outside). Sorry, Tracyanne.

Pitchfork: Has Glasgow been a supportive musical environment?

Tracyanne Campbell: I guess in a way it must be, because we were able to play in venues; we never had any trouble getting a gig. People like [Belle & Sebastian’s] Stuart Murdoch have always supported us and been at our shows.

Pitchfork: Are there any other bands similar to you in Glasgow?

TC: We've always been asked in the past about the Glasgow music scene and denied all knowledge of it. I think we've been a bit stupid about doing that, because of course, there is to a certain extent a Glasgow music scene. We don't necessarily see ourselves as being a part of it, because we've never been that cool or that "in," but when I do think about it we have always had support from certain people, and these people to an extent were part of it.

Pitchfork: Can you think of any relatively unknown Scottish bands people should look out for?

TC: There's a band called the 1990s that I've heard a few songs by that I really like. It's one of the guys from the Yummy Fur, and V-Twin-- they've been around for ages, but never really made it. It's quite quirky and cheeky stuff. But I don't really spend much time going to see new groups, which is quite bad.

Pitchfork: You're probably not around Glasgow enough, with all your touring.

TC: Usually, no. Mainly the people I've wanted to see have been North American groups, and I keep missing them. Tilly and the Wall; I missed them. Final Fantasy; I missed him.

Pitchfork: This isn't the case in the U.S., but I know a lot of countries' governments will subsidize bands' tours abroad. Is that the case in Scotland?

TC: No, not really. When we did SXSW a couple months ago, we got some money from the Scottish Arts Council. But it's not the same as other places. In Sweden, you can get money from the government if you can prove you're a songwriter and need to support yourself, but I don't think that goes on too much in Scotland. Maybe we just don't know about it.

Pitchfork: Do you all still have to work day jobs to support yourselves?

TC: Yeah, we do, but it's getting crazy at the moment. People are giving up their jobs and hoping for the best. Carey [Lander] is a student; she just graduated, and basically at this moment she's jobless and homeless. And Gavin [Dunbar]'s probably going to lose his job. In fact, I think he's lost it.

Pitchfork: For taking so much time off?

TC: Yeah. And Kenny's going to have to go part time. I'm going to have to go part time or quit it.

Pitchfork: What do you do?

TC: I just work for an arts distribution company; nothing very interesting.

Pitchfork: Is it true that you met John Henderson when you were both studying music production?

TC: Sound and video recording, yeah. In '93, I think.

Pitchfork: How did you transition from that to making your own music?

TC: I went to college because that's what you did. Your parents want you to go to college because you don't know what to do with yourself, so I did that to keep them quiet.

Pitchfork: Did you finish, or did Camera Obscura take over?

TC: It was a course where I could do it for a year, or do it for two years and get a better qualification. But after the first year I got ill and left, so I only did one year.

Pitchfork: Did you find those studies useful in recording your music?

TC: Well, I didn't fiddle with any knobs. I said, "I like the sound of that; I don't like the sound of that." But I wouldn't say we produced anything. I don't think it was that useful at all, maybe because I was more interested in other stuff while I was there. It was good fun, a laugh; getting to see studios and stuff like that that I'd never done before, so I guess it was a bit of an experience. You got to work in a television studio and a music studio, so I guess to a certain extent it was helpful, but not that much.

Pitchfork: When you started Camera Obscura, did you have any inkling you'd still be doing it a decade later?

TC: I guess I had a feeling that something was going to happen that could possibly be good. I'd go as far as to say that.

Pitchfork: John left the band after Underachievers, Please Try Harder. Can you talk about why he did?

TC: No.

Pitchfork: Okay. Besides the obvious things like losing a member, how has his departure affected the band?

TC: He wrote his own songs and he's a good songwriter, a very capable person, [but] the choice was to either see it as a problem or get on with it, and we got on with it.

Pitchfork: How important was John Peel in raising your band's profile?

TC: I think he was paramount in terms of people in Britain hearing about us, since he was pretty much the only guy who played our records for years. We always sent him stuff and did several Peel sessions. He was a fantastic person.

Pitchfork: You played at his birthday party once, right?

TC: We played at his birthday party roughly three months before he died, which is kind of strange.

Pitchfork: He was such an iconic figure; what was he like?

TC: Just a nice guy. People say that and it's like, "right," but he really was. You could tell he and his wife had no airs and graces, no pretensions at all. What you saw was what you got. He was quite shy actually, and I think that's one of the reasons why I liked him, because we were also quite shy and awkward. We were sitting at his house watching a bit of TV waiting for him to come home from work, and he came in, and everybody just sat there, because we were all too shy and repressed to say, "Hello, John Peel!"

Pitchfork: You have a good deal of experience touring the States by now. Have you noticed any differences between being a band in Scotland and in the U.S., in terms of audiences and stuff?

TC: Yeah, it seems to feel more professional to be in a band here [in the U.S.]. You play to bigger crowds; you've got a tour manager, and everything's organized. We've only done two proper tours in the UK and one in Spain, and one in America before. It's great turning up and having big crowds-- not massive crowds, but good crowds for a band like ours.

Pitchfork: You draw bigger crowds in the U.S. than in Scotland?

TC: Absolutely. We played in Glasgow recently and I guess there were about 800 people there, which is probably the biggest crowd we've played to in Scotland. The crowds here in the U.S. have been bigger than previous times, so something here is working.

Pitchfork: Are there any places in the U.S. that you particularly like or dislike that you've discovered on tour?

TC: We pretty much like it all; I don't think we've been to a place that we haven't liked. The first time we came we were blown away by seeing places like Montana. Driving through America for the first time is a completely amazing experience; it's like nothing else, and you can't really explain it to people. But seeing the country before your eyes, driving into little places, towns-- it's fascinating. I've been thinking about this time and wondering if it's less exciting because we've seen it before. I'm looking at other people in the van, seeing if they're reading a book or looking out the window. I'm looking out the window, of course, because I still want to see it again.

Pitchfork: It's funny that you say Montana; I figured you'd say New York or something.

TC: New York is amazing; San Francisco's fantastic; the big places are great. But I don't know; there's something about the sights you see [in the smaller places]. It's really pretty around here; we're all quite into the way it looks here. We had a barbeque last night with the Merge people.

Pitchfork: That's a very North Carolina thing to do!

TC: It was wonderful, sitting around and watching the fireflies. The only thing I don't like is the bugs; I've been bitten quite a lot.

Pitchfork: Has Merge done well by you here in the States?

TC: I think they've done fantastically. They seem to be really reputable and people seem to know who they are, and the records are in the right places. We really like some of the other bands they have; it's nice to be label mates with people like M. Ward.

Pitchfork: Do you still enjoy going on tour or is it starting to feel more like work?

TC: It is work, but you won't find me complaining about it, because it's what I want to do. I've been pretty tired; we've been here for a week now, and last night was the first real proper sleep I feel like I've had. It's pretty intense, but I'm not going to complain.

Pitchfork: Are you the primary songwriter for the band, or is it more of a committee effort?

TC: I guess at this point I'm the primary songwriter. It depends. I don't make demos of every part and say, "You must play this." If I did, then I'd be a solo artist, I guess. I write the songs and have the basic structure and lyrics and vocal melodies, maybe some ideas for parts, but when I take it to the band it's very much everybody throwing in what they want to throw in. We all decide together when the song is finished. I'm not out to tell people how to play their instruments; I can't play them as well as they can.

Pitchfork: It's usually imprudent to assume that songs are veiled autobiography, but I have to ask if you're a generally heartbroken and melancholy kind of person.

TC: Yeah, I think I am.

Pitchfork: You think so? [surprised]

TC: Yeah.

Pitchfork: So that naturally expresses itself in your lyrics. But they're also a little bit sarcastic and funny, and even a little mean sometimes.

TC: Apparently so. So I'm told. [smiles]

Pitchfork: Do you think that's an accurate reflection of who you are? You write personally, not about characters?

TC: Some of it's about characters and some's personal. I wouldn't say it's half and half; it's not as simple as that. It just depends on how much I have to say at the time and how much I have to fill in the blanks.

Pitchfork: Do your ex-boyfriends have to worry about showing up in your songs?

TC: No, I'm sure they know when they are, but nobody's said "I can't believe you said that in a song." I'm the person who says that to them. "How could you?"

Pitchfork: Your songs tend to be colored with very specific emotions; it's not just like, "I'm heartbroken." There's complexity and empathy. Do you think that's something you inherited from music that's been important to you, or is that kind of empathy just the most natural function of a song?

TC: I think it's just the basic function of a song, really. I always feel like I sound unintelligent, but I don't worry about it too much. When I was younger and wrote songs, I used to find it very difficult to write lyrics, because I'd sit there and think, "I have to come up with an idea, a character, or something interesting to write about," but they weren't really that interesting. As I've gotten older and maybe better at writing songs, it comes quite naturally and I don't have to force it. If I feel like I have something that I need to write down to help me, I write it down, and if I think it's not complete crap then I'll put it in a song.

Pitchfork: So you think being honest has made you a better songwriter, instead of trying to think up an idea and write a song around it.

TC: Yeah. I'm not telling anybody else what to write about or how to do it, but for me, it would be far harder to sit there thinking up some story to tell. It's easier to have a bit of an idea naturally and then fill in the gaps. Then it's quite enjoyable.

Pitchfork: Do you ever encounter that phenomenon where you'll meet fans who feel like they know you on a personal level because the songs are so intimate?

TC: Yeah.

Pitchfork: Is that strange for you?

TC: No, I've probably felt that in the past, too. Of course I have; I love music and songwriters and obsess about people's lyrics. I have done in the past, where I'll go, "Oh, he understands me so well." It's only natural to do that and I think it's one of the things that people get from music. That's why they love it and why they need it. They feel like people can identify.

Pitchfork: Do you think that goes too far sometimes now, with things like MySpace that create artificial senses of community?

TC: I'm pretty crap with technology, with forums and stuff. I don't think there's anything wrong with it. I used to be very cynical about it, about people who'd sat in front of a computer for too long when they should be out there bloody well living their lives. But these days I don't really like to judge people who are a part of all of that, and I don't know enough about it. I don't spend enough time with it to judge what kind of people are there and why they are.

Now we check e-mails everyday, and check the forum. Obviously, we're getting more fans, and we're wondering if the fan base is changing. There are a lot of people annoyed about what we did or didn't do, and I wonder what that's about. People moaning about us going onstage too late, which has nothing to do with us. And some people want to keep you; I don't understand that, where people want to keep you for themselves and then when you get bigger it's like you've sold out or something. We're more ambitious than being some small town indie band that 50 people know about.

Pitchfork: But you seem to have a good relationship with your fans overall, giving out fruit and asking the audience to sing along and stuff. Is that aspect of performing music important to you, the communal aspect?

TC: I think these days, to be honest, we're just so much more comfortable in front of an audience than before. I used to have real trouble playing live; my nerves would just take over and I never saw the audience as .... I never understood what they were. It was like playing for some people you had to impress or something. Now I understand that's not the case-- they're already your friend.

Pitchfork: Right, they're there to see you!

TC: And I never really thought about that. So these days we're comfortable with the crowds, and it depends what they give you. It's a give and take. We don't really go onstage thinking, "Tonight I'm going to give out some fruit." It just happens sometimes. That night [at the Local 506 earlier this year] we just happened to have a lot of fruit.

Pitchfork: How literally should we interpret "Let's get out of this country?" Are you burned out on Scotland at this point?

TC: I was just kind of burned out in general, with lots of things, just generally quite miserable and unhappy. I needed to give myself a kick up the backside and change some things and stop living my life so safely.

Pitchfork: Have you been successful on that score?

TC: I think so.

Pitchfork: What's the significance of Lloyd Cole to you?

TC: I've always been into Lloyd Cole's music. I think he's a great songwriter, and he's a bit of a god in indie circles in the UK, certainly in Glasgow. I think people who write songs have woken up to him a bit; I know Stuart [Murdoch] and I used to obsess about Lloyd Cole and the Commotions. If you get into indie music in your late teens or early 20s, it's something you're going to get into.

Pitchfork: I don't think he's as well known in the States.

TC: No, I wouldn't think so. And also they were formed in Glasgow, so that's a big thing. I think he was born in England but we like to think of him as one of us in Glasgow, because he came to Glasgow University and formed the band.

Pitchfork: Do you know what he thinks of the song ["Lloyd, I'm Ready to be Heartbroken"]?

TC: Yeah, he likes it. His wife and kids came to see us in Boston, but they couldn't get in because the kids were underage. We sent some e-mails back and forth, gave them some t-shirts and stuff.

Pitchfork: Is Dory Previn simply another musician who's important to you, or does she represent something more than that?

TC: I guess she represents something more-- I really got into her in the past few years and really love listening to her records. She seems so different and quirky and mental, and also, I started listening to her at the time when I was writing new songs for the album. So her songs meant a lot to me; when we came to America to do the first tour I listened to her a lot, so she's part of that couple of years for me.

Pitchfork: Are you aware of the other band called Camera Obscura, the one from San Diego? I discovered your band when I thought I was buying their new record. I thought the cover was really odd-- they were like this noisy, electronic thing-- and when I put it on I was like, "Yeah. That's not Camera Obscura."

TC: I think a lot of people have had a few surprises.

Pitchfork: Did you ever consider litigating against them unless they changed their name to Camera Obscura 1979 or something?

TC: No, but I think they tried to do it us, sent us an e-mail threatening to beat us up or something.

Pitchfork: But I think you were first! They're done now anyway.

TC: Yeah, they're finished.

Pitchfork: It seems like a lot of bands dabble in different styles of music, but Camera Obscura seems more intent on perfecting this one mode. Is that accurate?

TC: I don't really want to turn into some band that tries to do something too off the wall. We're just doing what we can do, what touches us, and what seems right at the time.

Camera Obscura [Pitchfork]
foto: Archivo Elefant










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