Unsung: Brian Campeau
As part of an occasional series spotlighting unheralded local acts, KATE HENNESSY talks to prolific Sydney musician and studio owner Brian Campeau, solo artist and member of The Rescue Ships, The Green Mohair Suits, The Angry Darts, and more. Rescue Ships photo by PEPPER INGHAM.
Singer, songwriter and guitarist Brian Campeau moved to Sydney from Montreal nine years ago. He plays and/or sings in no less than five bands, runs a recording studio in the inner-west suburb of St Peters, has released two solo albums, composes music for television and film and, more often than not, can be found playing residencies in venues like The Mac and 505, either solo or with his bluegrass band, The Green Mohair Suits.
But just a week after we meet to talk through his many projects, he posts this message on Facebook: “After a lot of thought I've decided to sell my studio and move back to Canada. This may come as a surprise for everyone and it’s difficult to talk about but please let me know if you're interested in any gear.” In a later post he advertises his Fender Twin amp for sale.
It doesn’t make sense. Tonight, Campeau plans to undertake the role of music director for Beck Hansen’s “Song Reader” evening where bands including Dappled Cities, Richard In Your Mind, Jonathan Boulet, Aidan Roberts (Belles Will Ring) and Melodie Nelson will perform arrangements of the songs Beck released only as sheet music. Moreover, during our interview he received an SMS asking if The Green Mohair Suits wanted a support slot for Carole King to which he replied: “Fuck yeah!”
Turns out the Facebook message is a hack. Whoever planted it must have enjoyed the avalanche of regretful howls that followed. That Campeau didn’t right the record indicates he probably enjoyed it too. He is, after all, a performer and they’ve been known to enjoy attention. And while Campeau is politely quiet in person, that tilts into quietly psychopathic on stage where his repartee wanders between weird, mean, dispassionate and plain fucking hilarious.
Campeau isn’t going home. Why would he? The handwringing about Sydney’s music landscape continues apace but as most locals know, the scene’s modest size and not-so-modest challenges also make it tight-knit, approachable and ever-changing. Campeau wouldn’t be the first foreign artist to enjoy the “everyone knows everyone” vibe that sizeable Northern Hemisphere cities could never hope to replicate.
How did you end up in Australia?
It’s the common story of meeting a girl, marrying her, divorcing her, staying. Yeah.
What projects are you working on now?
Well, there’s The Rescue Ships with Elana Stone. We’ve released some singles but the album has no release date yet. Then there’s The Green Mohair Suits that’s somewhere between alt-country, bluegrass and folk. We’re always going to cover people like Hank Williams and Gram Parsons but we’re weeding the covers out a bit. Most of our set is original now.
Then, there’s my solo stuff. I’ve been doing songwriting comps with friends where we write 20 songs in 20 days. I started my fifth round today which brings me to 100 songs in four months. It’s really interesting because the songwriting gets better and better and now that I'm at song 77, I find I actually really like every second song. So, I have a shitload of solo material but I need to sit down and actually work on it. I play guitar in Jimmy Swouse and The Angry Darts which is somewhere between Van Halen and Iron Maiden. It’s got the swagger but there’s lot of tapping. Though Jimmy just joined the Navy, so…
I did some stuff for Serious Beak earlier in the year and I’m in Ngaiire’s band. I have been singing with Tango Saloon and Mango Balloon (the latter is the former minus a few members). There’s also a band called Speck though Zoe Vaughan writes the music and I do recording, production, singing and guitar. Zoe’s into taking a folk-based song and pushing it left of centre. Which I am always into also.
Tell me about your music studio, The Plex?
I rented an empty warehouse shell in St Peters and built a house in it. Downstairs is the recording studio and upstairs are the bedrooms and a lounge room. It’s just a studio. We don’t do gigs there. At the moment I’m working with Katie Wighton, Ivona Anna Budys and on Bellyache Ben’s Christmas album.
You also produce a lot of the bands you play with.
Yes, though for The Green Mohair Suits, no one’s paying me. I mean, we’re making money off gigging but that all goes into a kitty. But if people come into the studio and want me to produce their staff, I get paid, that’s my job. I am a bit lenient with some things because if I have creative input, I’m not going to watch the clock in the same way. I'm going to say, “Let’s keep working on this, let’s make sure it sounds good.”
You’re well-respected as both a metal and folk guitarist. Are you formally trained?
As a kid I lived in France, just outside Paris. I was horrible at all sports but I had visions in my head of being a rock star on stage. I was imagining a stadium, Guns N’ Roses, that kind of thing. Needless to say, the size of the audience in my head then and the size of the audience now are vastly different. Anyway, I said I wanted to play the guitar so my parents bought me a classical guitar and I started doing classical lessons. I was about six years old.
I had a tiny guitar. I’ve still got it at home so when I go back to see my parents, I play it. I have to re-adjust and play everything a lot … smaller. Eat sugary snacks. Watch cartoons. You know.
Anyway, I started playing classical guitar and listening to classical music and Guns n Roses, Iron Maiden and Tears for Fears. My mum was really into the blues and The Beatles and my dad was into Tom Waits, Pink Floyd, Captain Beefheart and Leonard Cohen, so I was listening to all that too. After a while I gave up on guitar. I wasn’t disciplined. I was six!
But you started again?
Yeah. In 1990 I heard Nirvana and I got into guitar again. I went back and learnt all the Megadeth songs too. We’d moved to Canada and by about ‘93 there were all these guitar-based pop bands around, like Weezer. Punk was starting to make a revival, well you know, the kind of “punk” that’s Offspring. I formed my first band called the Smoky Murder Sticks. We wrote power pop. I was about 14 or 15 and that lasted till the end of high school.
After that I started a duo with a guy who introduced me to some really hardcore prog. I got into Phish around then, and music with complex arrangements, long songs and weird harmonies. Radiohead, Beck, Mr Bungle, all that too. I liked that lots of musicians were experimenting with a shitload of different styles and not giving it a thought. Bjork was a really mind-blowing musician for me at the time too. Still is actually.
I started writing music that was a lot more experimental. I studied philosophy in a place called Guelph near Toronto, smoked a lot of drugs, drank a lot, listened to really cool music and considered things I hadn’t considered before. I moved to Montreal with my Australian girlfriend and started recording stuff properly and working on song writing. Then we moved here.
“When I listen to something that really strikes me emotionally, all my hairs come up.”
So the formal training was when you were six?
I also got private lessons for four years in high school. My teacher taught me a lot about improvising and being able to jam with other people and use my ear, rather than worry about notation. I taught myself theory.
Being in just one band can be demanding. You’re in a bunch. How do you manage it?
I couldn’t do any other job. I have worked in law firms, cafes, as a receptionist and in restaurants but I have no interest in doing any of that any more. Being a musician, you do get a lot of downtime. You’ll get two hours in the middle of the day, a whole night off, or your first thing of the day will be at 2pm. So – if you wake up for it! – you’ve got a whole morning to get shit done. That’s if you’re willing to sit down and do it. A lot of people just want to go to the pub. I like going to the pub too but I figure most people work from 8am until 6pm. If every muso worked from eight to six every day they’d get a shitload done too.
But you make money from your studio. Most musicians need a day job to survive financially.
No, if you want to make it work, you can make it work. Even if you just want to be a guitarist. For example, my flatmate plays covers three nights a week. He’s got his own thing too but covers pay the bills. That’s just three nights so it gives him a lot of other time to do whatever else he wants to do.
As long as you adjust your financial expectations I guess.
Yeah. And drink cheap wine.
Does the solo thing mean you don’t crave creative control across the other projects?
The one that’s been hardest is The Rescue Ships. I had free rein for the composition of my part of the songs, which made it quite hard to make decisions. My left of centre approach is countered with Elana’s pop sensible side of things. It’s rewarding but hard because there’s so much ego from both of us in this band.
Whereas with The Green Mohair Suits, we try to write good songs but no one tries to make a ridiculously creative prog song. Same with The Angry Darts. We know it’s supposed to sound like another band. With The Rescue Ships and my solo stuff, I go out of my way to make it sound like nothing, to make it different. In the end, people may say it sounds like other things, which is fine as long as my intention is there. I wish more musicians would do that in their serious projects.
You mean try to be different? Yes. Even if they don’t do it, as long as they try. There are a lot of people who are lazy. I’m not referring to the bluegrass scene or something like that. I mean, if I go see bluegrass I’m not expecting Robert Fripp. But when it comes to solo artists playing what they claim to be original music and wondering why people don’t respect them as musicians, well…
You play folk, metal and classical guitar. Any preference?
I like them all for the same reason. When I listen to something that really strikes me emotionally, all my hairs come up. I have a certain emotion that relates to that sound. There’s a song by Mastodon called ‘Hearts Alive’. It’s a fuckin’ long song but it’s huge, the end of it just repeats this one thing for four minutes, and it’s fuckin cool, even just thinking about it … Oh man. It feels powerful and big and if I was holding something I’d crush it because it’s just so intense.
But I get the same feeling from Beethoven’s ‘The Pastorale’. Some of the chords are amazing and when they lock I don’t want anyone to talk, I just want to turn it up and get that feeling. ‘Hearts Alive’ is minor, ‘The Pastorale’ is all major, the dynamics are completely different but I get the exact same feeling from both. I also get a similar feeling from an M Ward song called ‘Involuntary’. There’s nothing on that song, really, just a guitar and a bit of harmonium that sneaks in and his tiny, whispery, broken voice. I don’t think prefer one to the other. They all do something that’s important for me as an emotional person.
Do you aim to recreate that feeling of connection and intensity in your music?
I aim to be honest with how I write. I aim to enjoy what I write. But in terms of the audience enjoying it, I really hope they do but I’ve just got to do what I do as well as I can. I’m not referring to a perfect vocal take because I like mistakes on records. I’m talking about getting across what I’m trying to get across. If I am going to write an honest song, I’m going to make it sound honest, in the same way as if I am talking to you about how I feel, I’m going to try to express that in a way so you understand it. There’s exceptions of course, like The Angry Darts because they’re kind of a joke band. I like humour too!
You’re an Australian citizen now. That means you can weigh in on how Sydney’s music scene compares to Melbourne’s.
Interest in live music is better in Melbourne. I can go to a bar, anytime, play a gig and randoms will walk in to see who’s playing, sit down and listen. There are exceptions but for the most part they do that. Sydney is a lot tougher. If you play in a bar and nobody knows you, they’re not going to listen to you. Even places like The Vanguard are not known as venues where you can just show up to see something good. It’s the venue where you go to see a certain artist on a certain night. And it’s often really difficult to get things going in warehouses because they’re illegal and can be unreliable.
There are a lot of bands in Sydney I really like and a lot of people working really hard to make it work. I do think the people at the street press and websites like FasterLouder, Mess+Noise and all those great smaller blogs are working their asses off towards that. And the jazz scene is incredible in Sydney. In the end, everyone is trying to make it work. Take The Sando. There’s many reasons it failed but I’m sure [owner] Tony [Townsend] thought he was doing the best thing he could to make it work too. I might disagree with some of his tactics but whatever - he was trying. But there’s a problem because people don’t go to venues.
I think $10 or $15 is usually worth the risk. Especially when we pay so much to see international acts in Australia.
Yeah. Music and live music is a necessity. People need it, people want it. They want to go to bars and they expect music in the bars. If there were no live music or even recorded music, people would lose their minds. There’d be no vibe and people would feel really weird about that. But they don’t want to pay for it! They don’t even want to pay for CDs anymore! They want to listen to music in their car, even though radio costs money too but no-one wants to pay for it.
Your onstage persona is quite different to talking to you.
Yeah. I'm not telling you to suck a dick am I?
I found it quite surprising. For example, at The Rescue Ships single launch at Red Rattler you said some pretty confronting things. Some pretty cutting things. Are you aware of that or is it just you being you?
Just me being me. It took me a long time for me to be able to do that. There are still gigs where I don’t feel comfortable. In the same way as if I’m at the pub sometimes I don’t feel comfortable either. I’m not good in big groups, often I don’t want to talk to anyone. I find if I am alone on stage, it’s easier and I can tell jokes and not worry about it.
You do tell jokes. Sometimes at the expense of others.
That’s not my problem [laughs].
Not your problem?
It’s part of the show! I don’t mean to cause them offense. I would never call someone stupid or fat. I’d never say that shit.
You do seem to like making people feel slightly uncomfortable.
Yes, OK. I’ll agree to that.
You supported Joanna Newson at the Opera House in 2009 … How did that come about?
A friend worked at the Opera House and suggested me. I had a week-and-a-half to organise the band. I hired guns, just the best musicians I could get. I made sure we were being well paid and it was fucking awesome. Great sound in the room, I really enjoyed it.
How did the 505 covers series come about?
Cameron who books 505 asked me to do the last Monday of every month so I thought I’d do something different every time. I did Nirvana’s In Utero and Bjork’s Post – both were really good, as in I really enjoyed them. Then I did Queen’s Night at the Opera which was a disaster.
In what way?
I didn’t prepare enough for it. There’s so many words and chord changes … it was a disaster but I had to battle through the whole thing. I did Beck’s Sea Change last month.
Why did you choose those albums?
I think they're incredible. I hadn’t listened to In Utero for 10 years so when I did, all these memories came flooding back of being some depressed teenager.
Your Sea Change arrangements had a very different feel to Beck’s. What’s your philosophy with covers?
I think the Sydney scene suffers due to all the tribute nights for Jeff Buckley or Rufus Wainwright or Nick Drake. I mean, how many fucking Nick Drake tribute nights have there been? I even did one and said to myself, I can’t do this anymore unless I completely change the song, which I did. But the rest of the covers that night were done exactly the same as the originals with so much earnestness.
“I think the Sydney scene suffers due to all the tribute nights for Jeff Buckley or Rufus Wainwright or Nick Drake.”
Then, there’s the crowd. People paying $40 for what’s essentially a covers night? But when the guy onstage who just pulled off their favourite Nick Drake song plays his own gig, they won’t go see him for $15. This is where I see a problem. I think, “Listen to new music! Go out! That guy you really liked when he played Nick Drake? His original songs are actually really great too!” But there I go covering four albums. But I wanted to present the songs as myself. Otherwise, what’s the point? Just stay at home and listen to the album. This is why I don’t feel like a criminal for covering them like I did.
Tell us about the Beck Hansen Song Reader event?
It was organised by [M+N contributor] Caitlin Welsh and [The Brag editor] Steph Harmon who are both in press. Steph and I have known each other a while and because I’d just done the Sea Change album where I re-arranged the songs, she called and explained and I said, “Shit yeah.” I explained there were a few logistical problems with how it was being approached. A lot of people don’t know how to read notation so rather than send them all sheet music and them see dots on a page I recorded demos of the exact structures as they were written by Beck and sent them to the bands. They’ll do three songs each and I’ll do the rest of the album to my arrangements.
Beck wrote an introduction telling people that if they don’t like a verse, the lyrics, a key, whatever, to change it. To add a solo, whatever. Everyone does their own interpretation. Jonathan Boulet, I am guessing, will do some sort of heavily percussive piece. Awesome! That’s the intention.
Will it tour?
Just Sydney for now.
Are you the only ones doing it in Australia?
Yes. There’s one in London happening. I think there’s a couple in the U.S.
You met Beck after his gig at the State Theatre. How was it?
It was cool … I asked why he didn’t play the new material live and he said he didn't want to influence anyone’s take on the songs. I wanted to ask if the versions he’ll hear will influence his take on it when he records it later. Although maybe he’s already recorded it and it’s in a vault somewhere.
The Beck Hansen “Song Reader” fundraising concert will take place tonight (December 19) at The Standard in Sydney. The gig is sold out.