(Photo credit: Andras Fekete)
DC finger-picking guitarist and composer Jon Camp is part of a great lineage of American Primitive Guitar players that specialize in transforming small moments into something grander.
Like his musical hero John Fahey, Camp makes music that is both intricate and subtle, with his finger-playing guitar serving as a springboard to weave in disparate sounds and influences — from drone and psychedelia to country and beyond.
Listening to the repeating circular guitar pattern on “Headwinds and Tailwinds,” the title track of Camp’s new album, I am reminded of a scene from Martin Scorsese’s film “Taxi Driver” where Robert DeNiro’s character Travis Bickle drops an alka-seltzer into a cup of water. While the camera initially “notices” the cup of water, it’s focus becomes more sustained as Bickel’s gaze at the fizzing mixture becomes all consuming. The effect is that the audience refocuses its attention on the cup and sees new things in it. Similarly, Camp uses sustained repetition to refocus the listener’s ear on a motif, adding new textures that gradually alter the original effect, while drawing the listener in closer.
Camp’s music is filled with small moments that gradually reveal a hidden power as you continue to listen.
With Jon Camp and his band set to perform a special live set on Friday, Nov. 1st at WE FOUGHT THE BIG ONE at Marx Cafe in Mt. Pleasant, I took the opportunity to ask him five questions via e-mail. As you can see below, Jon has some interesting things to say about playing solo versus a full band, and the virtues of making music that requires more than passive listening…
1) There is a great tradition of finger picking guitar players in the States from John Fahey to Jack Rose to name just two legendary performers. When did you discover you had an affinity for American Primitive Guitar and wanted to offer your own unique take on it?
Jon: One night, about 25 years ago, in Lindenhurst, IL (near where I grew up), I was hanging out with a couple high school friends, and one of them, Mark Davidson, was selecting the tunes. That evening, he not only introduced me to John Fahey but to Leo Kottke, Nick Drake, and Tortoise as well. A big night for me! Mark is currently the Archives Director at the Bob Dylan Archive in Tulsa, so the guy knows his stuff.
I was drawn to the depth of feeling I heard in Fahey’s music, the diversity from one composition to the next, and the wide range of influences that he channeled, from Charley Patton to Bartok to Indian classical music.
My guitar teacher at the time, Doug Anderson, was a fan of this style, so he taught me a Kottke song, and I got the basic mechanics of the syncopated fingerstyle guitar approach of Kottke and Fahey and started experimenting with it from there.
I certainly have a lot of influences beyond Fahey, and I don’t explicitly say, “I’m going to play American Primitive Guitar.” But by virtue of being so heavily influenced by Fahey and choosing a fingerstyle approach to guitar, the influence is easily heard.
Being such a fan of this style of music, it certainly is a joy to feel that I’m adding my small part to this lineage, especially in the region where Fahey grew up.
2) You’ve established yourself both as a solo performer and someone who enjoys the interplay with other musicians in a full band. How do you see these different approaches to making and performing music? Do you gravitate toward one more than the other?
Jon: They both have their merits, and I need both in my life. Most of my songs can be played solo, though not all of them can be played in a band setting. So playing solo allows me to have a wider choice of tunes to play on any given night, and there’s also an uncluttered simplicity and directness that comes through when playing solo.
That said, having others add their unique voices to some of these pieces allows them to bloom far beyond what would have been possible if just left for solo guitar. And it’s also fun playing with others. Logistically, there are pros and cons to each approach.
3) One of the things I enjoy most about “Headwinds and Tailwinds” is its unhurried, patient approach. This is music that celebrates the beauty and majesty of small moments, with its full splendor revealed gradually. Is it fair to say you’re a musician who eschews obvious bombast in favor of the slow boil?
Jon: I appreciate you saying that. There’s more than enough bombast and inflated sense of self in the world, and it’s responsible for a lot of our problems. And I don’t find musical chest-beating to be interesting or inspiring.
I like music that reveals something new with each listen, and I hope that my music does that for others. I do care about the hook, but the subtle stuff is also gold I mine for.
(Photo credit: Michael Rogers)
4) What can you tell us about making Headwinds & Tailwinds? How long did it take to write, record and mix? Are you pleased with the end result? I think it sounds fantastic.
Thanks for the kind words. I’ve got a decent backlog of songs I’ve written, and for each new album, I select tunes that would fit into some coherent whole. For Headwinds & Tailwinds, I chose pieces that would be a good fit for electric fingerstyle guitar accompanied by a band. I envisioned this album being a bit more country-tinged than normal, too.
We recorded sporadically over the course of a few months with Kevin Bernsten at Developing Nations in Baltimore. All of the pieces were originally recorded live as a trio (Nick Arrivo on bass, Ryan Peterson on drums, and me on guitar). And then others added color to it (Jamie LInder on pedal steel, Kaitlin Grady on cello, Stephen Ruotsi on keys, Harvey Droke on accordion). I also overdubbed a few guitar parts and then went to DC musician Greg Svitil’s studio to overdub some hand percussion, organ, and glockenspiel.
After this, it was sent to Brad Boatright of Audioseige in Portland for mastering. Both Kevin and Brad have produced a lot of metal albums, so it’s been interesting filtering my quite non-metal music through them. It definitely works, though. Both are super-skilled, easy to work with, and have an attention to sonic detail that works well for what I do.
As a whole, I’m proud of this album. The songs have grown live since putting the album out, and there are a few tracks that I’d assemble differently if I were to do this again. But I feel I brought a solid batch of tunes to the studio, and I love what my talented musician friends brought to the sound.
5) Let’s talk about the Jon Camp live show. Do you have a certain philosophy of what you want to achieve as a live performer that’s different than say…recording in the studio?
Jon: Producer David Briggs told Neil Young when recording, “You think, you stink.” I keep that in mind especially for live shows — I do what I can to stay out of my head and to be in the moment, to really feel it.
After a recent show, Dave Jones (the other guitarist in my band) said that we as a band were both “disciplined and free.” That perfectly summed up what I’m going for with the live stuff. There are clear compositions that we play, but there’s subtle improvisation going on within them so that they feel alive within the context they’re played and evolve from show to show.
For albums, I put a bit more polish on it in an attempt to make a proper studio album. Though for future albums, I want to find more of a happy medium between the immediacy of the live show and the polish of the albums.
Listen to and purchase Jon Camp’s music on Bandcamp, follow him on Twitter and “Like” him on Facebook.
And don’t miss Jon Camp performing with Jamie Linder at the Nov. 1, 2019 edition of WE FOUGHT THE BIG ONE at the Marx Cafe!