Interview: The Campbell Apartment – New Horizons with ‘Curmudgeon’

Easy going power-poppers and slick San Francisco scenesters The Campbell Apartment are guitarist and vocalists Ari Vais and Kevin Frank, and drummer Jon Hand. The project has been around for quite a while and they but they released a solid new record this fall called Curmudgeon, out now on Mint 400 Records. It’s that warbly, kind of soul-warming indie rock that Big Star adherents like The Posies, The Figgs, The Replacements, and to some degree, Califone do so well.

Check out The Campbell Apartment song “V.P. of Snails” below followed by an interview with frontman Ari on his band’s latest release.

The following conversation was conducted with The Campbell Apartment via email. It has been slightly edited for the sake of clarity.

How has COVID impacted the band and the reception of the new record? 
The impact was brutal, though like all things COVID it is hard to complain because literally no one was spared.  It’s not like the new Metallica release that came out on the same day as our record, it’s not like they were able to go on tour and we weren’t. That hurt everybody because if you cannot tour behind a new album, it’s hard for it to make ripples. 

But then a strange thing happened, according to our publicist: this fall saw the release of scores of “secret” albums by most artists, things that must have been in the vault and were to be released throughout 2020 but weren’t due to Covid, ALL those albums have just dropped, from all the artists that didn’t have a new record due out as far as anyone knew, as well as all those who did.  Heck, we were ready with ours prior to its fall release date, everyone was just sitting on their hands waiting to see what would happen.  This obviously created the kind of competition that indie rock press simply could not cover all new releases, and so the more well-known bands got the ink and lesser-known bands did not.

There is evidently an agreement within the music industry for no releases at all to come out next year, until at least the fall – at least.  No new releases.  Something all popular music labels apparently agreed to quietly amongst themselves.  Thus the massive “content dump” of this fall. So thank you for the coverage!! 

Our radio campaign has gone better than ever though, as the album is charting on many stations, not all of them college stations, around the country.  In a word, I’d say the COVID impact on Curmudgeon was such that we satisfied the hunger of our fans, and then some, but perhaps did not make a ton of new ones.  But that’s probably the case with bigger bands like Yo La Tengo or perhaps even Guided by Voices (perhaps especially them due to the massive output), their new records are geared towards their core fans, not a huge expansion of that base.  In other words, as with all things COVID, no one person can exactly complain.  It’s hurt everyone in one way or another.

What are some of the lyrical themes on the album? 
It’s really all over the map.  This is because Curmudgeon was initially recording song by song, and meant to be released as singles.  Our first two albums were definitely thematic, though I did not plan them that way, it’s just where my life was at the time was reflected in the albums (our third album the EP Sungdogs, was more like this one, with each song completely its own animal). 

Having said that, some of the themes are being stuck in a rut (“Frustration Station”), not being able to conceive but being in love anyway (“Since November”), the imagined assassination of a heinous presidential candidate with ominous fascist overtones to his campaign (“I Know What I’ve Done”), which really shows you how long this album was in the works.  The ennui of a corporate life, if you want to call it “life”, let’s say career, but that takes up, along with sleeping, a massive portion of this life (VP of Snails). 

Oftentimes I’ll use lyrics just because the word play amuses me (the final line of VP of Snails, which doesn’t even have its own stanza, is “I’m the CEO who floated out to sea”.  I guess it doesn’t make sense but it’s a delicious Dadaist image but also CEO and sea kinda rhyme, kinda don’t, I’m all about that gray area, can’t be obvious when writing lyrics (or chord changes for that matter).  Burning Bridges, which is written and sung by our bass player Kevin Frank, is about spitting in the wind and how little sense it makes.  Again to answer your question without being long-winded, like the album title, the album is a dark little thing.  Within the darkness there is some humor, there’s gotta be, we’re not “Hurt” by NIN, and some tenderness, but it’s the darkest TCA release to date.

What was the writing and recording process like for this album?
Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on whose side you’re on), we’re not very prolific.  I’ve been doing this – let’s see – 30 years now – and have about 10 releases total.  And so my track record (just because this is not my main career, financially, unfortunately, I had to get one that is full-time and for the sake of having money to live) is a new album every 3 years. 

The recording took place at a friend’s home studio for some of the demos, because he’s a known noise-meister in the electronic music world and I wanted to “weird up” our sound.  I think what I had in mind was more Billie Eilish but did not/could not articulate it at the time.  Still working with Dave Dayneko gave the sound a weirdness that I wanted.  We then decamped to our usual recording studio in San Francisco, The Complex, and our usual producer George S. Rosenthal took over.  Finally, when the album was done and being “shopped around” by some of our biggest music journo advocates, the label Mint400 offered to sign us to a two album deal, provided they could totally remix the album.  They removed a lot of compression and effects (ones I fought for initially), to make the band sound live and raw, like a rock album.  They removed any chance of anyone saying “this was overproduced”, and it is the album you have before you.  All that took place in New Jersey (coincidentally where the band was born many years ago).

Is there anything special you all want to announce, future tour plans or a digital release party or show?
If you liiiiiiiiiiiike us (sorry, Borat influence, the new movie is so great), and follow us on Facebook, you’ll see that with some regularity, we’ll record our hits of today, yesteryear, tomorrow (and even an Eels cover) where we’re playing in our homes and shooting the vid with our phones, and then our extraordinarily talented bassist splices all the little individual recordings into a fully baked music video, where it almost looks like a concert (and certainly sounds like one since we are not pantomiming).  The reason, besides sheer boredom and almost a physical pain from not being able to play live, is to stay connected with our fans and feed them great content on a regular basis using social media, the only medium that’s left.  If you know The Campbell Apartment, you’ll know that our primary “thing” is a super fun, who-knows-what-will-happen, The Replacements style live shows.  The Beatles chose to stop touring to just focus on making great records.  We’re not “grounding ourselves” by choice, so please follow the group on Facebook because fresh new live rock n roll music content – why, to me, it’s what booze must have been like for folks during the prohibition.

What can we expect next from the band? More music?
Absolutely new music.  We’re under contract and it’s a two album deal.  Neil at Mint 400 is being a darling and taking the pressure off, offering a “Best Of” album next year if that’s what we need to do, because the body of work at this stage is pretty vast, but of course writing new hit songs, far better ones than the ones before, is always the goal. 

This year has presented some personal challenges with the dissolution of my marriage (now I am a single dad with twin toddler girls and a full-time job) but the problem as far as new creative output/self-expression wasn’t that so much as a lack of stimuli.  I’m here in the Bay Area and I just don’t know many people here.  The few people I do know do not want to hang, people are scared, no new people are meeting, people aren’t dating, sometimes I’ll just ride my bike to see people walk their dogs.  If a writer isn’t living the kind of life where you get ideas for songs from real things you see, I guess you have to read loads of novels, or just make stuff up out of thin air.  Write songs title first (though I already did that trick a lot on this album), use funny tunings or a capo, use a piano. 

But in a word, you can expect a regular stream of these little “live from our homes” music videos we are perpetually recording, with Kevin editing them together very expertly and creatively, so that we are not forgotten. 

Where do you want the band to be five years from now?
I am for the kind of success for The Campbell Apartment where five years from now we are on the road at least some of the time, and not in a self-funded manner, and where as a result, and as a result of another couple new albums, our audience does grow.  Ours is an international audience since my being made over on “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” way back in the day, and milking every single shot of that episode to promote my music, but it’s not a very big audience.  I’d like to be as “big” as Death Cab for Cutie, but never aimed at greater fame than that. 

It’s very easy for a talented writer to be prolific if there’s actual real honest to goodness demand.  So in five years I’m hoping there is that demand where, let’s say, a music librarian calls and says “look there’s this new pilot and it needs a closing theme song, the one we were using had a problem with licensing, we need it by the end of the day!!!!” I know I would rise to the occasion and write something truly stellar.  In five years I’m not gonna say I hope none of us three still need to work our day jobs (even my rock star friends between albums and tours quietly all work day jobs), that’s like wishing for a pony.  But like most, I’d love a growth in our fanbase.

Is there anything else you’d like to add? 
The mission statement for The Campbell Apartment, if we have one, is to write intelligent and catchy songs, extremely catchy songs, while still injecting weirdness and unpredictable chord changes and lyrical turns of phrase that surprise and delight us, and so we assume will do so for our fans.  It’s also to keep them short, to almost never exceed 4 minutes and to try not to exceed 3, people are busy, and we are the antithesis of a jam band. 

But it’s also to break our own rules.  For example, political songs, like country songs, were always a big no-no with me.  That’s not what we’re here for.  I like guys like Bowie or Lou Reed who did not touch either.  But those rules were broken on this record – although the one country-flavored song has such dark words about the horror of drug addiction and alcoholism, masked with wordplay and a hella jaunty melody, that it’s really an original, not really a country and western tune. 

The assassination fantasy song, well that kinda wrote itself, but it’s not my plan to do more protest songs and hopefully there won’t be a need, though I’d not sitting here kidding myself.  I guess, again, to answer your question briefly, we plan to continue to surprise ourselves and surprise you, and our main focus is to write up to the listener’s intelligence, never down, nor even horizontally.  That’s the best compliment that I, as a writer, can pay to the listener.

Photo by The Campbell Apartment.

Purchase The Campbell Apartment’s Curmudgeon here.

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