Tinderbox — Princes Square, Glasgow
Text by Gordon Johnstone, photography by Declan Malone.
The most striking thing about Campfires in Winter is how familiar they sound. From the first spin of their Picture of Health EP (2013) it feels like they’ve been living inside your head for months already; the harmonised vocals over clattering guitars etc. But it swiftly becomes apparent that there is much more to the band than the lazy Twilight Sad and Frightened Rabbit comparisons Campfires will surely face. I met singer Robert Canavan (who is an imposing figure, bearing more than a passing resemblance to a Norse king and whose singing voice would not sound out of place in a Viking Grand Hall) in a coffee shop in Glasgow to talk about the band, the EP, and their plans for the future.
“I wish I could remember who called us that”, Canavan tells me over coffee when I ask him about the ‘post-rock-pop’ description on their webpage, “it seems pretty fitting”. He’s not wrong there; Campfires rely as much on the vaguely oppressive atmosphere as their pretty harmonies to create an overall experience that is unlike any of their peers. Each element is meticulously placed and balanced, with each taking centre stage at the appropriate time rather than perpetually shouting over one another.
Their first EP, recorded in 2009, has since fallen out of favour with the band. “We recorded it during a turbulent time…our drummer has just left and we decided to continue as a three-piece”, Canavan says. He also mentions that Campfires went by another name before their final choice, a name which he would not tell me as it is “just…just so bad”. I ask him about their current name and its origins, and mention that when I first heard of them I assumed they were an Icelandic soundscape artist. “We spent a while writing down words and ideas, and the word ‘campfires’ came up, and it seemed suitable because we do the whole sort of soundscape thing, but interjected with searing hot noise”. Aptly, the Picture of Health EP was recorded at Balneden Steading in the village of Tomintoul; the seclusion of the location and natural setting aided the creative process of making something that was “something hot upon something cold and sparse”.
That is exactly what you get with Campfires. The EP’s opener, With a Ragged Diamond (the name taken from Edwin Morgan’s poem Glasgow 5 March 1971) begins with the aforementioned ruckus of guitars over crashing cymbals and drawn out synths. This fades to introduce Scott McArthur’s stately piano staccato; the sublime bathos quickly puts to rest any concerns that Campfires may be ‘just another indie band’ to consigned to the heap of guff left asunder each and every year since the dawn of the plaid shirt. “Scott isn’t happy just playing simple synth lines, we often structure songs around what he’s doing on piano”. Enter Robert Canavan's august vocals. Canavan's commanding baritone sitting confidently atop the tip-toeing piano belies the sinister lyrics; “too many bodies in this house/and who I am to pull them out”, and provides perhaps the most interesting aspect of Campfire’s ensemble; Robert Canavan's lyrics.
“I wanted to write something totally dark, so bleak”, he says of the lyrics on the EP. “They’re not real situations”, he quickly adds (understandably so, given many of the themes explored in the EP) “I like to switch between my own experiences and fictional characters, that way I’m not limited to writing about things I have personally experienced and I won’t get stuck in a particular style”. Talking about his lyrics seems hard for Canavan, as it is for many lyricists and writers. “The lyrics for Stories (the EP’s closing track) is more of a stream of consciousness thing than a narrative, it’s lots of phrases that work together to build the imagery.” He possesses the unique ability to crowbar more imagery into a single verse than most musicians can manage in an album. The EP’s second song, Picture of Health, provides the pinnacle of the release’s lyrical content. “I’ll run to the only ones that I’ve got left/ I’ll draw a curdled breath/ into my blackened lung/ I am the picture of health” followed by “I still equate my happiness with wealth/ but happiness I’ve only seen/ on TV screens and magazines/ this high rise is as high as I will be”.
While the lyrics on the EP are overwhelmingly bleak, they are tempered by the carefully arranged music so as to not become cloying. It takes a special kind of effort and talent from an entire band to make the line “it was not my choice to be here/it was not my choice to be born” sound casually misanthropic and not torn from the Bumper Book of Rejected My Chemical Romance Lyrics. The melodies especially lift the songs from being “post-rock-pop” to being “really catchy post-rock-pop”. I found myself singing the introduction to With a Ragged Diamond at entirely inappropriate times for weeks after I first heard the EP. “We’re all into obscure noisy nonsense” Canavan says, “but we’d just as happily listen to TLC, or even early 90s rave. Even the really bad stuff like Darude”. This eclectic taste is evident in the songs. “We wanted every song to have a hook, something that would be in your head all day”, Canavan said of their songwriting process. The penultimate song, See Us There, Both, is quietly powerful with lush harmonies ushering the song in and out, and Stories closes the EP with an upbeat chorus and jangly guitar riffs. Ewan Denny’s understated drumming and Wullie (“with a ‘u’, always with a ‘u’”) Crainey’s bass sit unobtrusively on the edge of your consciousness until you realise they’re holding the whole ensemble together, giving Campfires the pop tendencies that make them so engaging.
The synergy of downbeat lyricism and uplifting musical accompaniment is by no manner of means new, but rarely is it done in as charming and engaging a way as Campfires in Winter have managed on this EP. They carry an acute self awareness that should keep them from the potential pitfalls of their genre while, hopefully, grounding them in the corporeal. With more room to breathe on an LP it will be interesting to see how the themes they have begun to explore will be expanded upon, and whether the balance between bleak and uplifting will be maintained or fall in favour of one or the other. Either way, Campfires in Winter have created an EP worthy of any of their contemporaries and done so with a great deal of panache.
Campfires in Winter have recently released a new single (available on their website) with an album tentatively planned for early 2015. They are playing at the Call To Mind album launch show in the Glad Cafe in Glasgow on the 12th of April. Get tickets here.
Website: Campfires in Winter