Thursday, July 24, 2014

Erica Rivera Interviews Camera Obscura

Q&A: Camera Obscura

For 18 years, Camera Obscura has been known for their heartsick—yet somehow cheerful—love songs set to danceable vintage beats. Since their debut album, 2001’s “Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi,” the Scottish quintet have released four more full-lengths of their trademark indie pop and toured the globe several times over. Following the 2013 release of “Desire Lines,” which NPR called a “career best,” frontwoman Tracyanne Campbell welcomed her firstborn and the band took a break. They’re back on the road this month for a brief tour across the U.S. and guitarist Kenny McKeeve spoke to in anticipation of the band’s return to Minneapolis.

Q: What is the music scene like in your hometown of Glasgow?

A: Some cities are art cities. Some cities are theater cities. Glasgow is a very music-oriented city. There’s a lot of opportunities for bands to play live. There’s a lot of music festivals.

Q: How did you all originally come together to form Camera Obscura?

A: It started when most of us were kids, really, in the mid-1990s. Tracyanne and Gavin [Dunbar, bass], who are the sole surviving band members from 1996, met through a record store and formed a small band. I joined in 1999 and Carey [Lander, keyboard] joined in 2001 or 2002. The band stayed the core five members since that time. It was a coincidence, a happy accident.

Q: To what do you attribute the band’s longevity?

A: We’ve never reached any giddy heights. We never got signed to any massive media labels. We didn’t explode, so we’ve been given a lot of space to grow slowly and steadily. We managed to build up a fan base by touring a lot. We’ve been friends for a long time, so any disagreement we have between us, we respect each other enough and give each other enough space to tolerate that. We have our own lives and normality, so I think that contributes to the band staying together.

Q: What roles do you each play in the band? Is someone the den mother or the task master?

A: Tracyanne brings the skeletons to the band, the central parts of the songs, and we flesh them out. We’ve had a lot of time off because three of us now have kids. In that respect, Carey has kind of appointed herself taskmaster because nobody else has the time or the energy. When we’re together, everyone puts in a lot of effort because the records often have more instrumentation on them than we can present live.

Q: You recorded “Desire Lines” in Portland. How did that affect the finished product?

A: The band likes to record away from home because then it feels like a proper piece of work when you’re dedicated to doing that work only. We wanted to step away from the ‘60s sounds that was awash with reverb and strings and things. We still have a little bit of that, but we wanted to make things simpler and more laid back. M. Ward recommended a producer in Portland, Tucker Martine. Oregon is such a beautiful state and we recorded in the winter, so all those elements combined to make the album a bit more sparse and colder sounding.

Q: You mentioned the ‘60s sound of the band. What kind of music did you all grow up listening to and how did that influence Camera Obscura?

A: We all like girl group stuff of the ‘60s as well as ‘50s country singers. We also like really bad heavy metal and bad punk music as well. Some of the members of the band like electronic things. The common ground is girl groups, soul, and country. Tracyanne is also a fan of Carole King—simple, heartfelt songwriting. That’s what we work with.

Q: What do you anticipate for the future of Camera Obscura? Will this be a lifelong alliance?

A: No one can predict the future. None of us have had any real set plans. One of the things that endears us to people is that we just keep going through everything. The band has had a lot of ups and downs. I’m sure we’ll have our fair share of that in the future. We’re enjoying touring and see what happens after that. Having kids changes everything. It may be that we have to scale things down a bit or change the amount of touring that we do. There’s always a way, there’s always a solution.

Q: Did you ever imagine you’d be living the life of a successful touring musician when you started out? Or did you have a back-up plan?

A: I always had the fantasy of being in a band and becoming a professional musician. We hoped we’d get the chance to do it. For all of us it was a dream come true. At the same time, especially in the early days of the band, we all had jobs and worked part-time. We had all studied at university. We all have a Plan B that generally involves day jobs or studying or doing something else. Nothing lasts forever and we’ve been really lucky that it’s lasted this far. 

Originally published on in July 2014.