With their fourth album released last year, My Maudlin Career, Glasgow’s Camera Obscura expanded upon on their previous efforts, shifting further away from their indie pop origins and untold comparisons to another Glaswegian act, to create their own identity drawing from Bacharachian orchestral pop and ’60s soul contrasted with sparse country melancholy. Keyboardist and backing vocalist Carey Lander jogged into the Static studios before a recent Sydney show to speak to Chris Berkley so she could shed a light on the obscured ones.
Did it take Camera Obscura a while to come together as a live band? You came late to the band yourself anyway, were they a mess before you came along?
Well I think in the last three or four years we’ve done a lot more touring than we did in the previous four years and that’s really paid off and we’re a lot better live band now than when we started out. Tracy used to be quite nervous in the beginning and hated playing live, now she actually enjoys it.
Were you a fan of the band before you came in?
Yeah I was. I’d been to see them in London a few times, they were a band I liked. It was kind of odd to be on board suddenly.
Lot’s of awkward fumbling in the early days?
Yeah a bit.
Is it the adage true that the more you play the better you get?
Yes definitely. It’s just practicing every day I guess.
Also back in the early days of Camera Obscura there was probably a lot learning to do with songmanship and such. Has it been a band that’s learnt as it’s gone?
Yeah definitely. We’ve been going for over ten years and that’s been a good thing for us to take it slowly in the beginning. You find yourself in a band and you don’t really know how to do it, you just find your way. How do you record a song? How do you play live? It’s all sort of finding out as you go along and hoping you don’t humiliate yourself too much on the way.
Camera Obscura also seem to be a band that have really grown into its own identity. I guess at the start there was a lot of wearing your influences on your sleeves, be it Stuart from Belle & Sebastian producing the first record or even the Lloyd Cole homage. Does it feel like the band is more than the sum of its influences now than back then?
I think so. I think we’ve managed to find our own sound and our own identity definitely. It may have taken a little while to get there.
Have you heard other bands described as Camera Obsura-esque now? That will be the tipping point.
Yeah we have, that’s quite funny. I guess obviously Glasgow bands more than other people but yeah that’s always funny when you’re mentioned in passing in the press. It’s like “Wow, we’re actually a real band now.”
And have other bands done Camera Obscura covers? That’s the other yardstick.
Yeah… a little bit. I remember we did a festival a couple of years ago and a band, Tapes N’ Tapes I think started playing the Lloyd Cole riff in the middle of their set. It was quite marvelous.
Did Lloyd Cole ever write back about that song?
Oh yeah, we’ve met him a few times. We played with him last year as well. He likes the song and we think he’s quite chuffed we did it.
That also went down in the great history of answer songs as well. It’s almost a genre. The latest album, My Maudlin Career, sounds, I don’t know if it’s a dirty word, but it sounds a lot more sophisticated than the band have ever been before.
Good! I think we’ve made a lot of progress with each album. Let’s Get Out of This Country, especially, was a big step up. With My Maudlin Career we had a bit more confidence going into it and we had to try to make it better if possible.
Because the studio is as much as tool and process as the live show. Do you guys still need a lot of help with arrangements and stuff like that?
Yes, we do a lot of it ourselves and we record live. So the base of it is the band playing the song live together. But we’ve worked with a brilliant producer for the last two albums and he’s helped bring it all together and make it sound how we wanted it to sound in the end.
Is it almost that ‘50s ethos of playing live with the orchestra or do they come along later on?
They get recorded later because I think that it would get a little bit tricky otherwise. But it feels organic — I hate when people say it out of context – but it does feel like that when we’re recording.
What happen if Camera Obscura go in on your own and overdub, does it not sound like a band?
We’ve never really tried it, the slow recording way. I think it would be quite boring really, spending a day playing your keyboard parts on your own listening to headphones, it’s not quite the same buzz.
When you hit the fifteenth record and none of you are talking that’ll be the only way you may record.
I’m sure at some point we’ll give it a try (laughs).
Is there a desire to do something with the strings live, like a ‘50s thing? Have you ever done that for a show?
We’ve had a string quartet play with us a couple of times in Glasgow for a few of the older shows. It’s something we love to do it’s just too expensive to be obtainable most of the time. But it’s a real thrill when you’ve got other people on stage. We had brass players as well — it was cool.
It seems like something the bigger a band gets the more within your reach it might be.
To some extent but still being able to tour with them would be pretty impossible.
I mentioned this to someone just last week, I have seen Burt Bacharach here with the Sydney Symphony orchestra so…
Yeah, he might’ve clocked up a few more record sales over the years I think.
It also seems like it’s not all sweeping pop with Camera Obscura you guys seem equals parts Patsy Cline as Bacharach or Motown. There are songs on the new record, like “You Told a Lie” that really hint a bit more at a country angle. Is that something you think about much?
We do really love country music. Tracy loves Tammy Wynette and Patsy Cline and all that. You don’t want to end up making corny country records but we really love the simplicity of those albums, there’s hardly anything on them just a voice or guitar and bit of other bits and pieces. That’s nice. We have to do that sometimes as well.
It’s almost the flip-side of dealing with the strings and orchestra.
I think a whole album full of orchestra can be a bit tiring to listen, when bands get a bit too excited with the production and layer everything too much.
Is it hard to check yourself sometimes? The songs on My Maudlin Career, the arrangements seem to be more in synch with the songs. A lot of bands go “now here’s where the strings come in”.
I think the strings on the album are great. Bjorn from Peter Bjorn and John arranged those again. He does it at the last minute, he comes in and plays you a little riff on the piano and goes “it’ll be like this” and you’re like “hmmm, okay” and then you hear it recorded and it sounds amazing.
It’s a black art, Carey. What is he doing?
I don’t know he’s some kind of weird wizard.
Do you guys have to fake how to read music or are you all reasonably adept?
I can read music, I used to play the violin, so I can pretend to know what he’s talking about but on the whole we’re probably a bit more amateurish.
Camera Obscura have dipped into the American songbook a bit lately with a Bruce Springsteen cover, “Tougher Than the Rest”, was this a tour bus favourite. How did you embark on that cover?
We just really liked that song. His version is a good song hidden in a slightly weird arrangement. It’s a great song, and we thought we could make it a little bit different to his version.
Again have you heard back from him yet?
Not yet, here’s hoping.
Just that ever enter into it — “I know who’d I’d like to meet, let’s cover…”
There’s always a little fantasy that they might hear about it and get in touch, but it’s probably a fantasy.
A lot of your favourite artists would probably have to come back from the grave to thank you for your cover as well.
Yes that’s true.
Thanks for running down tonight, Carey.
First broadcast on Static on 23/01/10. Static can be heard on Sydney’s 2SER (107.3 FM) and via the Internet (www.2ser.com) every Thursday evening (AEST).