by / April 22nd, 2009 /

Camera Obscura interview

The title of Camera Obscura’s third album My Maudlin Career hints at the lyrical themes and melancholic subject matter that have helped this Scottish band garner fans in their native Scotland and abroad. Ahead of their Dublin gig in Andrew’s Lane Theatre on the 30th of April and the Stiff Kitten in Belfast the night before, State had a wee chinwag with Carey about honest lyrics, laughing at yourself and John Peel.

Lyrically, is there a key song-writer and are your songs autobiographical? If so, how do you deal with putting your feelings out there in such an honest and open way? Does it ever freak you out?
The main songwriter in the group is Tracyanne. She comes up with the lyrics and basic melodies which we then develop as a band. The songs are generally pretty personal as she tends to jot things down in notebooks when things aren’t going well and later works these into lyrics. A lot of the lyrics to this album were written whilst we were touring for Let’s Get Out of This Country. I don’t think it worries her too much to be exposing herself through her songs but it can be hard for her to have to explain them afterwards. As her friend, I’m often shocked by how brutally honest she can be but I think it’s a great thing to be able to pour something personal and real into a song and hopefully make something beautiful out of it.

Part of your album’s charm is that it’s an exceptionally sad album sandwiched in between three really chirpy tunes. The first two tracks are upbeat and although not particularly positive lyrically, then it all gets very maudlin indeed. Was this an intentional cover up? As in, did you realise that you had a fairly downbeat album and then pushed yourselves to write some deceptively sonically happy tunes?
I think this is an element that we’ve always had but seems to be becoming more pronounced on each album. I guess the title My Maudlin Career is partly having a wee laugh at ourselves for that, and the lyrics to that song are quite key to the album too. We’re not into heartache for its own sake and do actually strive to be happy someday. I guess most good albums achieve some kind of balance or emotional journey throughout the songs and it would be dull if every song had the same mood. We don’t have a quota of how many miserable or cheerful songs should be on each record or anything though. I guess at the moment, I’m thinking of the album as being quite pop because we’ve been playing the livelier songs at gigs but I’m perfectly content for it to be seen as a sad album.

The first single from your last album was an answer to Lloyd Cole’s 1980s song of a similar name with the 2006 single ‘Lloyd, I’m Ready To Be Heartbroken.’ Are you answering anybody in the songs from My Maudlin Career that we just haven’t picked up on yet?
Not in such a direct way. It probably wouldn’t be very charming to try that more than once. But there is a reference to Paul Simon’s ’50 Ways To Leave Your Lover’, a song that popped up into our consciousness a few times whilst we were touring and making the record.

You’ve been a band for nearly fifteen years now. You had John Peel championing your work from an early stage. How do you feel the music industry has changed since you were starting out? Do you think it’s easier or more difficult to be an independent band? Has there been anyone in the UK to replace John Peel’s influence in British radio since he passed away?
I think everyone misses John Peel for his exemplary open mind about music. Most people admit that he played a lot of stuff they didn’t like and I don’t think there are many other radio DJs I would stick with through such a challenging soundtrack. We definitely miss waiting to hear him play our latest musical offering and I know a lot of up and coming bands feel the loss of not having him to send demos to, it was something of a rite of passage. I guess everything’s built around the internet these days which is great in a number of ways, if somewhat lacking in romance. I the UK we’re also lucky to have BBC 6 Music. I don’t listen to music on the radio that much but whenever I dip into that I hear new stuff I love. They’re great for giving a lot of new independent bands some airtime.

The video for ‘French Navy’ has been picking up new fans on the web. How on earth did you manage to make the vomit-inducing concept of two beautiful people swanning around Europe for a summer constantly smooching seem – not sickening at all? How much influence do you have on the artwork of your albums and your music videos?
We always take an interest in our artwork and videos; it’s still part of the creative process. We chose the artist who did the artwork for the album and single and gave her suggestions about the kind of image and colours we might like and the rest came as a result of her talent and ideas. Similarly with the video, we reviewed various proposals and ended up choosing the guy who has made nearly all of our videos to date, he’s really excellent and totally understands the band’s aesthetic. I love the video because it carries the energy of the song and reflects the words of the songs as it is both a celebration of romance and conveys a sense that it is forever slipping away. I would never stand for a video that was purely a saccharine vision of people in love, I’m far too bitter for that.

You recently played a few slots at SXSW. Can you tell us about that? Was it everything you expected and more? For a band from Scotland, how valuable is it to travel all the way to Texas to play a few gigs? Do you feel it was worth your while and would you recommend it to a young band as a good thing to do, career-wise?
SXSW is a pretty unique experience, I don’t think I would choose to go as a fan because it’s a just a bit too manic, noisy and tiring for me; music overkill. We had a good time and it was good practice for us having to cope with no sound checks, dubious equipment and not being able to hear well on stage but still striving to deliver a show. It’s hard to get a perspective on how worthwhile it all is although I’m sure it was positive for us to be reminding people who we are before the new album come out and give them a glimpse of the new songs. I think it can be tough for a lot of bands who are just starting out and don’t have proper shows to play. I’ve heard a lot of stories of people coming from half way round the world to play a 15 minute slot in a pizza joint so I’d guess I’d only advise people to play it if have actual shows confirmed.

After playing together for 15 years, you’ve probably gotten quite used to playing together live. What can we expect at the Irish shows?
We haven’t all been in the band for a hundred years, you know, I think Tracyanne and Gav started it in 1996 but I’m only 27 and was a little busy in the schooling system back then. Thankfully we have become a much better live band in recent years after some timid beginnings. We’re not very good at showing off on stage but we have learnt to enjoy ourselves and are now working on how to convey this pleasure to the audience.