Coach StrobCam: Of harmony, inspiration, and staying out of your own way

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      The Vancouver Island music scene was always a bit different from Vancouver’s.

      Sure, Victoria spawned some of Vancouver’s best-loved punk bands, who eventually made their way to the mainland, like the Dishrags, Nomeansno, and the Dayglos – three of our most famed transplants – but none were exactly typical of the scene in either city, the first being all female, the second being all proggy and mathy and philosophical, and the third possessed of, shall we say, a more complex sense of humour than your average hardcore act. 

      But while Vancouver, after 1981 and a certain seminal, Polaris-Prize-winning D.O.A. album, tended to embrace a politicized variant of hardcore, there remained a vibrantly poppy and varied scene on the island, which seemed to spawn a lot of bands that were more about fun than they were about smashing the state.

      “Victoria was a government town, with a firmly entrenched suburban middle-class, so I would say that for many of the kids at the time,the energy of punk rock had great appeal but the politics not so much,” Pete Campbell (of Pink Steel, the Wardells, and the eventual Vancouver-transplant band the Sweaters) told me in a past blog interview.

      Pink Steel billed themselves as “Victoria Pop Sensations,” and, as Campbell acknowledges, “we kind of made the first movement towards the sound that you associate with the Victoria scene.”  Their delightful 1981 7-inch, “Won’t Come In Your Hand”, is a Vancouver Island landmark, and still sounds fresh, nearly 40 years later.  

      And Campbell’s later bands had an influence, too. “I think the Wardells”—whose best-known tune is probably “I Want to Duke the Waitress from the Crest”—“gave some local kids the idea that they could make melodic music that still 'rocked', as it were, and as a result, bands of that style began to emerge: probably the best of them being 64 Funnycars,” whom Campbell praises for their “breezy, effortless command of the ‘power pop’ genre.”

      Campbell’s next band, the Vancouver-centred Sweaters, made less of a mark, maybe, though recorded evidence of their somewhat punkier approach is not all that hard to find on CD, and they definitely have brilliant songs, like “Hockey Sucks,” written by Campbell, and appearing on Johnny Hanson’s Puck Rock Vol 1, curated by Nomeansno drummer (and Hanson Brothers vocalist) John Wright; or, say, “Harder,” for which a rock video exists.  

      None of that really prepares you for Campbell’s new project, as the “Cam” in Coach StrobCam.

      By the way, Campbell would lie through his generous teeth about the origins of the band name in that interview, telling me that when his little brother was three years old “he used to have this stuffed baseball player doll,” which he carried everywhere. “Even though we told him the real name of the doll was Mickey Mantle he insisted on calling it by the name that he chose for it: Coach StrobCam. We still tease him about it to this day!” It’s inspired, utter horseshit; if I recall, Campbell doesn’t even have a little brother. “Coach” is Greg “Coach” Kelly; and “Strob” is Rachel Strobl—the two other members of the band’s first, three-piece lineup.

      Coach StrobCam makes pop music that is singularly challenging to describe: at times dulcet, at times wry, with gorgeous vocal harmonies and headphones-worthy sonic detail, thanks to the supremely talented (vocalist/guitarist) Strobl and the rich instrumentation of Kelly (vocals, keyboards, accordion). Their expanding lineup for their new EP also includes former Sweaters’ bassist Shawn “Turk” Turkington, and Fraser Magor on drums (since replaced by RJ Williams). Their music is sometimes so smooth and pleasing and nuanced that it occasionally (say, with “Sensible”) puts you in mind of '60s lounge exotica; but then there’s Campbell, who, on lead vocals, presents as a gently sardonic elementary school teacher, whose apparent kind indulgence and care mask an at-times savage sense of understated irony that no one around him will necessarily get ("The Problem" is practically menacing in its insidiousness, while still being definitely a pop song). It’s kinda like, I dunno, what would have happened if Ray Davies and Burt Bacharach had collaborated; which is to say, it doesn’t actually sound like anything you’ve ever heard. 

      The Straight pressed Campbell with some questions, as Coach StrobCam’s debut CDEP was being pressed, in anticipation of the November 15 CD release.  Note that the band doesn’t have much of a presence online at the moment but there are a few live clips out there, for example here; but it’s a song not on the EP, and the live sound doesn’t really do justice to how lovely some of this music is.

      Does the EP have a name? What formats is it coming out in?

      It’s eponymous. With a band name like Coach StrobCam what else would you expect? It will be both CD and digital download. We’re not hip enough for vinyl.

      And perhaps of note: the piece of art on the CD cover was done by Clancy Dennehy, the leader of Clancy’s Angels [the playful rock choir that first united Coach StrobCam’s members].

      How do you identify the genre of this, and where did you start wanting to make music that is so pleasing and easy to enjoy?

      I’m glad that you think it’s easy to enjoy! I was worried it’s “smooth vibe” might put you off. People ask me who we sound like but like you, I don’t have a clue. I think it’s because our sound is completely organic. We sound like Coach StrobCam...

      The answer to the question of how we got our sound is kind of interesting: about 15 years back I started to have some trouble with my voice. I couldn’t hit pitches I was aiming at; it just wouldn’t do what I wanted it to. Doctors couldn’t find anything wrong with me. I actually stopped writing songs for a few years because I simply didn’t enjoy singing anymore. I was reluctant to even join Clancy’s Angels when invited, but doing so proved to be the right thing to do though because through Clancy I met an amazing singing teacher Judith Rabinovitch who basically re-taught me how to sing from the ground up.

      And from the first time I sang with Rachel I had a new lease on life, musically speaking. She could harmonize with a goat and make it sound good, my rough edge and her sweet smooth sound just fit together right away. Almost immediately I was inspired to start writing songs again, and they came at a furious pace. I was bringing a few new finished songs to rehearsal each week, and they all sounded good to my ears.

      And working with Coach was so easy too: the guy is just effortlessly melodic and organic in his arrangements. He incorporates my vocal melody into his keyboard parts seamlessly. I don’t think he knows what a rare skill that is, but I sure as hell do!

      The other answer to your question is that I am always interested in doing something new musically. The new found limitation that my voice problem imposed upon me, forced me to sing completely differently than I had in the past, so I just wrote songs that suited my voice. I have always done this actually: written songs to suit the players I’m making music with. Every couple years it seems the Sweaters would get a new bass player and I would just write a whole new batch of songs that I could imagine them playing and enjoying.

      Plus I have always had a weakness for melodic music, and harmonies: the Wardells’ sound was built around the harmonies that John Robbins and I loved...he also had a beautiful voice that made my much more crude instrument seem “charming”.

      In my post-Sweaters years before my voice went all fucked I kind of spent a couple years doing the “singer-songwriter” thing, mostly inspired by Dan Bern (his live shows became a revelation to me). His ability to be both poetic and emotionally direct challenged me to do the same, so my approach to lyrics developed and deepened over that period. I found that by using poetic language rather than narrative, there was a space created for the listener to inhabit. I was more interested in the “resonance” of words rather than their meaning as such..

      My first experience of this new approach was in a Sweaters’ song I wrote called “Thalidomide”: the song builds to a place where the vocals just chant the word “thalidomide” over and over. Now if you grew up when I did you saw many people who were born with severe deformities due to their mothers having taken this drug during pregnancy, so just the mention of that word kind of sent chills down my spine. I discovered that just repeating that word did so much of the work that my more “clever” lyrics aspired to achieve…

      So a new approach to vocals and to song lyrics led to the music I am making with my partners in Coach StrobCam.

      Do you begin with lyrics, or music, when writing songs? What’s the usual process?

      To be honest I don’t like talking about the songwriting process much, at least my process anyway; the whole deal is pretty mysterious to me and I like it that way.

      I will say that over the course of my “career” I have written hundreds songs and they have been written using every possible approach: lyrics first, music first, tons of editing and rewriting or none at all. I have found that my best “pop” songs were written with a lyric line or a song title as the starting point. A pop song generally needs that strong focus, in my opinion to make it work.

      Other kinds of songs just kind of write themselves, like the Coach StrobCam stuff, I just try to stay out of the way. The one thing I will say is that I always know when it’s right, it has to be “right” or I simply can’t sing it.

      Much has been made of Rachel’s voice—was it you or David M. (or Tim Chan?) who said she’s the only one among you who can really sing? Her vocals are really beautiful, but she doesn’t have a lead vocal on the EP. I know she’s done leads live, so I’m a bit surprised by that, actually. Does she have songs she’s written? Was there discussion of giving her a lead vocal?

      I believe the quote you are referring to is what I always say when I introduce Rach onstage: she is the best singer in the room...True Dat!

      Rach is a bit of an enigma in some ways. She has a beautiful voice that she worked very hard to develop but she prefers to sing back-up. During the early days of the band, I really pushed her to sing more leads. People would always come up to me after the show and say how amazing her voice was and that she should sing more. I think they thought I was kind of trying to hog the spotlight and not let her sing... couldn’t be farther from the truth!

      But you know we are all very close friends in Coach StrobCam and I want everybody to be happy with their role in the band, so if Rach only wants to sing harmony, well that’s fine with me... more than fine, actually. I have told her many times that she is my Emmylou Harris (she is also my angel as she brought music back into my life, but that’s a whole other story!) She has an amazing ear for harmony, not only the notes to sing but where they belong in the song, structurally speaking. I play a song and she just starts singing whenever and whatever she feels like; it is all so natural and so effortless for her, and I think it shows. It always ends up being damn near perfect to my ears!

      To be fair though, Coach is a really good singer too… I love his voice…

      I always try to make sure they each sing lead in at least one song at every show. We have a few covers that we love to play so they each pick one to sing and we go to town! I’m probably the worst singer in the band, but they make me sound better than I am...

      My songs are so idiosyncratic that up to this point we haven’t even really tried to get Greg or Rach to sing lead on any of them. Future consideration for sure though!

      What does Greg coach, again, exactly? What instruments is he playing on the EP, exactly? How much input does he have on the sound of songs? (Is he or Rachel credited as co-author of any of these?).

      Greg is a physical education teacher at a private school. He was also the musical director of Clancy’s Angels; all the Angels called him Coach Kelly and the name just kinda stuck.

      I can’t over-emphasize how important Coach is to our sound. I recognized right away that he had a great gift for song arrangement. I love what he plays...basically just like with Rachel, I play him my song and he just plays what he likes. Melodies just flow out of the guy like it’s the easiest thing in the world. He plays every lead break too…

      He also plays a wicked accordion which gives some other sonic options for my songs..

      As far as songwriting on the CD: Rach wrote the opening riff for “You Can’t Look Away”, so she gets a co-writing credit.

      Your lyrics are a bit cryptic at times—they feel like there’s some deep human experience underneath them—they’re rooted in something, not just Eno-like wordplay, say—but you have to kind of align yourself correctly to make sense of them. Is that something you try to do—to be real-world and meaningful, but not too obvious? Do you have favourite lyricists? What makes a good song lyric, for you?

      I think I kind of addressed this question in the answer I gave about how we developed our sound, but I want to add that I think the best songs reveal themselves in layers, and that the best songwriters understand this.

      When you first hear a song, maybe a line or two of the lyric will catch your attention. The more you listen to the song, the more of the lyric you should get, in my opinion. Once the entire lyric is known, the song should reveal itself in its can be kind of like a flower opening up, if it’s done right..

      I try to make it so that all the information that the listener needs to connect to the song is present in the song itself.

      Favourite lyricists: I don’t really have any because I don’t think lyrics can or should be separated from the song as a whole. As far as fave songwriters go, I tend to be drawn to the masters: I always say that most songwriters just tend to ignore the work of the great ones because they know their own work will pale by comparison. I have always tried to face the challenge head on even if I can’t meet it. Bob Dylan said in some interview “You just try writing a song like ‘It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding'." Even he found it incomprehensible, the swirling, cascade of imagery and the rhyme scheme that somehow coalesces to produce an unfathomable level of complexity. Better for most songwriters to pretend that song doesn’t exist…!

      I’m not as wordy as Dylan so for my own work I tend to be drawn to Leonard Cohen...There is a care home I play at [Campbell’s dayjob, “Sing Along With Pete,” sees him entertaining seniors with songs they will know], where there is a very interesting resident who has become a good friend. He is a huge Leonard Cohen fan, and he once told me that there is “so much information” in every line of Cohen’s lyrics. I play there every two months and each time I perform, my friend asks me to learn a specific Cohen song, so I ended up with nearly two hours of his songs. Bob Dylan said in an interview that critics always rave about Cohen’s lyrics but ignore his music; upon learning so many of his songs I discovered that in each song there are one or two well-placed out-of-key chords... not ten of them, just one or two. These “interesting” chords allow for subtle melodic invention that seems entirely organic and can easily pass unnoticed, unless of course you learn how to play the song yourself, or pay very close attention.

      Cohen’s lyrics operate in the same poetic space that I try to inhabit, in my own dumbed-down way, of course! He is also interested in deep questions of life and philosophy; the provenance of the mystic as it were. I’m fascinated by the same sort of issues. I may not be able to plumb the depths in those areas that he does, but I do my best. As I mentioned earlier, I don’t think you face the truth as an artist if you don’t come to terms with the geniuses who work in the same field: an artist needs to challenge themselves to exceed their own expectations if they want to create truly great work.

      My other favourite lyricists/songwriters: Dan Bern (though not all his stuff is amazing, the song “Jerusalem” is one of those songs that must be reckoned with!)... Jonathan Richman, who is so original and avant-garde in his own nonchalant way... I love me some Ben Folds too, especially his pop songs...and of course the great David M [with whom Pete can be seen rocking out to Bruce Springsteen, here]. His catalogue of truly original, high-calibre songs is overwhelming and undeniable. The fact that he is as overlooked as he is in the local scene is both a mystery and a travesty, and yet it doesn’t bother him. He just does what he does because that is what he does, so who am I to bitch about it?

      I was wondering who “The Problem” [with a chorus of “the problem is you”] actually was written about, then decided to try to apply it to myself: what if the problem really is ME, and not some safe third party? (I also considered the possibility that David M. was the problem). But I am not sure if that’s what you intend listeners to do. What is that song about? Was there a “you” it was written around?

      You’re right, “The Problem” is definitely David M!... I kind of like the listener to make up their own mind about what my songs are “about”, but I will tell you that the video we have planned makes extensive use of mirrors.

      Is “You Can’t Look Away” influenced by Cajun music at all?

      We are simply not self-conscious enough to impose stylistic parameters around our songs; that being said, with Coach playing the squeeze box, I can see how it might sound a little Cajun-y.

      I am not sure what “dedication to an object” means. Not an objective, but an object, like a thing?

      I think the “object” referenced in the lyric to “Under the Stairs” is likely “money” given the full lyrical context of the song, but make up your own mind. I believe that we all mostly “hide the good stuff under the stairs,” too... but again, make up your own mind.

      Why do you hate someone being sensible? What was the inspiration of that lyric?

      When writing that song I pictured a specific person: not someone I knew necessarily but a real person nevertheless. The world requires certain compromises from us to function effectively in it; maybe being “sensible” is one of those necessary compromises. I believe the lyric when taken in its entirety answers that question better than I ever could...

      In the song “The Question,” the line, “we both know what question remains” sets me up to expect something large and existentialist, then – I think this is my favourite lyrical “surprise” on the album—the question turns out to be “are we gonna do it anyway?” It’s funny at first, but by the second verse, it’s kind of depressing and uncomfortably recognizable (“so are we gonna fuck or what?”—with all the middle aged lack of romance that it implies). Kind of the song on the album I most understand, I’m sad to say.

      It’s interesting that you think the “it” in the lyric refers to sexual congress; I don’t know if it’s really that explicit. Isn’t the choice of what actions to take in any situation really “The Question”? Or is the real question something like “what is the real question?” I kind of like your take on it though, so maybe it is about middle-aged people making the beast with two backs...

      Scattered throughout the album, there are a few mentions of things—sin, confession—that make me wonder if you had a religious upbringing?

      I actually grew up in a third generation secular household. Not the faintest whiff of religion for miles and miles, so I have none of the baggage that comes with a religious upbringing, but none of the accompanying resentment either. I have to say though that some of the most compelling thinkers that have deeply influenced my life have some of that stuff as a background: Jean Vanier, Ivan Illitch and Henry Nouwen to name a few. I think that the search for meaning infuses most of our actions, particularly as we get older, whether we acknowledge it or not. I also agree with Jordan Peterson that the “New Atheist” movement of Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and their ilk choose only to engage the most simple and indeed reductionist aspects of religion and the quest for meaning and all that entails...

      Do you have a favourite tune on the album? Why?

      I think I feel about my songs the same way Jay Leno feels about the 300 or so cars he owns: which one is my favourite all depends on where I need to get to on any particular day...

      Any particular plans or surprises for the gig?

      We hope people show up...that would be a surprise!

      Purchase Coach StrobCam’s CD at CDBaby. More information about Friday’s gig, also featuring David M. and Stab’Em in the Abdomen, here.