Peninsular Place

The Magazine

July 1, 2013

Camera Obscura’s Drive and Desire


Gavin Dunbar admits “…it’s been a long time coming.” The bassist for Glasgow-based indie-pop outfit Camera Obscura sounds as anxious as any fan, sighing with relief regarding their latest album, “Desire Lines” – their first in four years – released earlier this summer.

The musician and co-founding member is comparatively contented to include that they worked with Grammy-nominated engineer Tucker Martine (an Oregon-based audio whiz who has produced some epics for My Morning Jacket and Neko Case). “His space is incredible. He knows our band and he helped us make the record that we wanted,” Dunbar says, strolling around Portland during some fleeting free time before their next gig.

Dunbar spoke with iSPY on a sunny afternoon that found the group (singer Tracyanne Campbell, guitarist Kenny McKeeve, drummer Lee Thompson, keyboardist Carey Lander), having returned to the same city where “Desire Lines” was first drawn. There’s just something in the air out there in Portland, as one of its resident supercool songsmiths, M. Ward, nudged them towards Martine’s studio last year and the band has since found themselves returning to it for four concerts in just over three years. Even if it has been “a long time coming,” album-wise, they’ve continued to tour.

Indeed, there’s still film in the Camera Obscura cartridge. We’re glad to still be writing about a band that broke out amid the buzzy-blog era of modern music, considering how many flashes-in-hipster-pans piqued, played and broke up back all too soon around that verdant indie-music-era (2003-ish).

It’s been 10 years since the band first toured the states (and at least a century since the antiquarian invention for which they’re named was in any regular use). But Camera Obscura goes back further, actually, forming in 1996 from a remarkably energized Scottish scene (Belle & Sebastian, Vaselines, Pastels, Teenage Fanclub… we could go on). “That first tour of the States was the biggest thing I’d ever done since I’d started playing music,” Dunbar said. Before then, Dunbar, Campbell and original/co-founding guitarist/singer John Henderson, played out on modest week-long stints through the late 90s. “It was a pretty grueling schedule – playing every night with not much time off with long drives and way too much equipment packed into a van with too many people and the van sometimes being your bed.”

However, there are sparks of enthusiasm always ready to shine through Camera Obscura’s membership. “It was a bit squashed, sure, but still good fun.” Dunbar said that, over the years, across all the tours, however under-attended or however sleep-deprived their personnel, there was always rejuvenation found in seeing people at your show, listening to your music. They could have turned back at any point – especially after a Detroit show back in 2004. The initial crowds, I’m sure, were modest. This writer counted not much more than 17-18 people at their first Detroit show years ago. “But still ,” Dunbar quickly counters, “we got to play some grew shows.” Fans could have shrugged them off at any point as well. But then again, maybe not? Their brand of chamber-pop packs an imposing charm: whimsical and autumnally melancholic broken-heart diary pages are torn and fluttered atop richly wheezed acoustic elements, indelibly melodic rhythms (particularly from Dunbar’s disarmingly soulful bass) and teased along with warmly-toned breezing guitar phrasings and the deal-sealer – that inimitable wispy brogue of Campbell’s breathed with a dulcet dewiness, like honey in your hot toddy on a brisk, brilliantly sunny morning. It’s that sound, flush with nostalgic rings of early 60s pop, affecting all those syrupy sensibilities for bygone sock-hoppish gym-floor slow-dance ballads, girl-group-strutting snares and buoyantly-rhythmic rainy-day cheer-ups, that sound charmed us all just enough to where an audience, that fickle population oh-so-coveted by contemporary pop bands, started to build around them. And through 2005 and 2006, they grew comfortable and confident in their sound and style and produced their tellingly-titled, seminal minor masterpiece “Let’s Get Out Of This Country” – leading to more tours, eventual festival gigs and then the chance to work with Tucker Martine (and Neko Case, too, who cameos on a “Desire” track).

Curiously, it was the initial “grueling” touring schedule through the mid 00s, Dunbar says, that assured their perseverance. “It made us sound better, playing so much. The next record we made (“Let’s Get Out…”) was totally different than anything we’d done before. It gave us that confidence. I’m proud of those first two records. They were the best that we could do at that time. But now, we sound so much better – just more focused.

It helped us make the record we wanted.”

Consistent touring can break a lot of bands, but it seemed to help this one bloom. Each concert was a reminder for Dunbar – at the end of the night, he says, looking back, people came out to support you, hear your music and have fun. Progression. Keep touring, keep reaching new audiences and it ingrains in you as a band – the impulse to keep progressing your sound. “We all love different types of music and we share a lot of insights into certain genres and new music that we all are receptive to. We’re always working and we always want the sound to do something different. It’d be a shame to just recreate a song.” Some songs just won’t be ever again, it seems. Sadly so, Dunbar admits, you won’t hear very much from CamOb’s catalog pre-2006 on their current set lists. Some of that is because past members have moved on, but, inevitably, it’s because the group just got tired of them after playing them so much during those first formative tours. No need. “Desire Lines,” an album inclined more towards summery rock flares than past leans into a gossamer folk-pop vibe, is their future – the natural progression for a band that happily kept their career, however “maudlin” at times, together. It’s been long enough. Camera Obscura are back again, kicking off this month with a show at Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor with She and Him on July 1.

About the Author

Jeff Milo
Jeff Milo
Jeff is another awesome member of the iSPY team.

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