Other side of the camera

Published

Photo: Claire Maxwell

Photo: Claire Maxwell

Oisín Kealy

Walking to the Barrowlands in the daytime is somehow harder for me than at night. I don’t recognise these streets when the sun is, if not out, at least buried behind a mountain of rain clouds, and as such am slightly derailed on my way to this interview on an absolutely miserable day.

Rain is soaking through my hood and I’m pretty tired after walking from the West End, but it’s all okay because I’ve got my headphones, simultaneously functioning as ear muffs and pumping the strains of Camera Obscura’s Honey in the Sun into my head. Tracyanne Campbell’s pop choruses are so utterly steeped in dejected elation that, no matter how wet your socks are, it is impossible for the corners of your mouth to turn any way but up, and it makes this detour fly by.

As keyboardist Carey Lander suits up in the restroom adjoining on to this dressing room, Campbell is quiet, arranging chairs and exchanging a couple of shy smiles, halted by a tightening of her features. Two minutes of near silence and awkward small talk as we wait, and I’m starting to feel like I’ve pulled her out of class.

This atmosphere does, thankfully, melt away when Lander joins us, and Campbell becomes visibly more comfortable in conversation. As this year has seen them go from strength to strength with the release of My Maudlin Career, I’m interested to hear the highlights of the last eight months.

“We went back to Mexico again which was pretty cool”, Campbell begins, Lander agreeing: “That was probably our most enjoyable gig of the year because the Mexican crowds are just amazing. Playing here last time was pretty special.” Here, of course, being the venerable Barrowland Ballroom, a venue which Campbell recently listed as her favourite to play. “It’s a legendary venue, I’ve been here many times to see bands and I’ve had a great time. It is about aspiring to play in the venue that everybody says is the best in the city, it’s still a little bit surreal.” Lander adds to this: “It’s the place you think you’ll never play.” They have no ambitions to occupy the SECC, however, wryly figuring “I don’t think we’re anthemic enough to carry off a stadium,” and I have to agree, the breed of intimate anthem they play would be lost in that cave.

Like any high-profile band of the moment, an album leak was inevitable when they were preparing it for release in February. Guitarist Kenny pointed out on the band’s Twitter feed an interesting hypocrisy shortly afterwards, stating that the people who deride Iggy Pop for lending his image to sell car insurance are most likely the same people who will be downloading his music illegally. Discussing some of the implications of this, I ask Campbell what she thinks of the justification file-sharers who consider themselves musically-conscious give, questioning how much money gets through to the band after the label have claimed all the profit. On this topic Campbell is suddenly animated.

“Even less money gets through to the band if you download the record illegally. I think people should think about it before they actually say it, they should do some research. I think a lot of people justify themselves and say ‘oh well, Iggy Pop did this so I’m just going to steal his records’, or ‘they don’t get much anyway, what does it matter to them?’ It’s not even so much about the money, it’s the arrogance of people to dismiss the group and the effort that the group have made, and the record label, and the people that work with the band, and the people who design the cover — all of it. It’s a lot of hard work from a lot of people, and it’s a special thing.”

Lander considers more the premature availability: “I think it was more painful because it leaked before it came out, it takes away from your big release date. Generally I can understand that there is certain amount of music sharing and streaming…” Campbell interjects: “Yeah, before it comes out, and people have the cheek to…” Here Lander finishes her thought with a weary laugh, “…moan about the quality of the stolen downloads.” Campbell is, it seems, thoroughly unimpressed, and rightly too. “I mean honestly…” she pauses, eyes darting to find the words, “the cheek!”

With the release of My Maudlin Career, one piece of information that came up time and time again in their press releases and interviews was the fact that they were now, finally, a full-time band, having supplemented their careers thus far through more traditional realms of employment. What is peculiar about this is that many bands as big as Camera Obscura, and a couple bigger, have yet to achieve the luxury of quitting their day jobs.

Tracyanne accepts that their situation is not half as exemplary as the public might be led to believe: “I don’t think there are a lot of people very tuned in to the reality of the situation.” Launder, meanwhile, suggests that: “It’s because you’re fed the main record label bands, who are obviously thrown a lot of money straight away and get to quit their jobs and be big pop stars, but there are so many bands struggling on the periphery.”

Campbell gives a very considered proposal that, to be honest, I had been far too cynical to consider up until this point. ”Nobody wants to burst any young music lover’s bubble. You don’t want to be the one telling them, ‘actually it’s hard, maybe you make more money than me.’ I don’t want to do that because there does have to be some kind of perception that it’s all great and magical”.

What is remarkable about Campbell’s song writing is that it marries what can often be quite bleak, confessional lyrics to such infectiously sing-a-long melodies, that results, predictably enough, in crowds joining in at gigs. I ask if Campbell finds it a little surreal to have people singing along to her heartache, as such.

“I don’t really think about that when people are singing it, I think it’s just people having a good time and singing a pop song. I don’t take it for granted, I think it’s really special when people sing along, but I don’t think this is about me and my lyrics.” Is this technique of combining lyrical sadness with musical beauty a kind of therapy, a reclaiming of hope? “I think that’s just the way they come out, but that makes sense, that you turn something that’s a negative into a positive. As much as some people may disagree, I think I’m very much into that.” Lander affirms this — “cashing in your maudlin career” — with a laugh. I’m curious as to whether this title was a joke, as I would never consider them a miserable band.

“It is to a certain extent, we’re having a bit of a laugh with it. You have to take everything with a pinch of salt, and it’s not that we’re not serious about what we do, we are, but it’s not all doom and gloom, we don’t want people to get sad listening to the songs.”

As one of Glasgow’s most successful exports, I found it strange that in past interviews, Campbell has been painted as having a reticence to talk about the city’s music scene. A sharp intake of breath, and I wonder if I’ve finally stepped on that egg shell with my last question.

“Well I don’t actually think that’s true but anyway…I think the thing is we’re not really reluctant to talk about the Glasgow music scene, but back in the day when we were starting to get interviews about the band, why did people not ask us about us? Why did they assume we are influenced or only ever listen to certain bands from Glasgow? I mean, we are influenced in that there are a lot of decent bands from Glasgow, and it’s something of a breeding ground for groups, and we’re part of that. At one point it was inspiring to think we could do the same as bands like Teenage Fan club or The Belles.”

Lander is eager to point out that they do feel pride for their role as a Glasgow band.  “I think we are really proud to be part of it, but the idea that all Scottish bands are only interested in Teenage Fan club and The Pastels and stuff … that would be really awful, no good new bands would come out if they only ever listened to other Glasgow bands. It would just be a bit too crazy and scary.” Campbell nods: “That’s the kind of thing I object to.” “Inbreeding?” Lander offers. Campbell concurs “Yes! Incest,” laughing as she continues.

“I think for a long time we felt that we were some fake band that nobody could take seriously, so we felt like it was an honour. We are part of that, and we accept it, and we’ve proved to ourselves, to a certain extent, that a lot of them are our contemporaries now.”

As this evening’s homecoming gig attests, they haven’t merely proved it to themselves, they’ve effortlessly convinced us all.