Camera Obscura strips away the string sections
From an outsider’s perspective, it makes no sense. The usual line of thinking is that the more time there is to labour over a recording, the more grand and elaborate the end results will be. There’s a reason Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” sounds like it took six months to come together, while everything by the Ramones was seemingly done in an afternoon.
Things evidently don’t work that way for Glasgow’s Camera Obscura. The veteran indie group’s last couple of releases were ornately rendered marvels, the retro-tinted Wall of Sound songs flooded with string arrangements that were almost orchestral. Those outings found the band, somewhat ironically, toiling under the gun in Sweden with producer Jari Haapalainen.
For the new Desire Lines, the members of Camera Obscura decamped to Portland, Oregon, to work with respected DIY producer Tucker Martine, who came highly recommended by singer-songwriter and fan M. Ward. There, it was presumably hard to do anything in the studio without getting the urge to put a bird on it. What wasn’t difficult, however, was making a record that strips things down considerably from both 2006’s Let’s Get Out of This Country and 2009’s My Maudlin Career. Camera Obscura bassist Gavin Dunbar reports that there was zero pressure in the land of free public transit and miles of food trucks.
“He [Martine] is very calm, and obviously has a plan,” the soft-spoken Scot says from Los Angeles, where the band is launching its latest North American tour. “He takes his time, and we had more time to work on this record than past ones, which was nice. It gave us the opportunity to do the best we could, and not be pressured. There was more time to track, to overdub, and to mix.”
That Camera Obscura had a defined plan going in didn’t hurt either. Along with singer-guitarist and band cofounder Tracyanne Campbell, Dunbar and the rest of the group knew exactly what kind of sound they were after. As a result, Desire Lines—which features backing vocals on several songs from Ward and Neko Case, also a self-proclaimed fan—isn’t completely without its moments of grandeur. “Cri Du Coeur”, for instance, rolls out the CinemaScope strings to wonderful effect. For the most part, though, the symphonic flourishes are nonexistent. Camera Obscura is more interested in trying its hand at styles ranging from classic indie rock (“Do It Again”) to psychedelic pop (“New Year’s Resolution”) to DIY Tropicália (“Every Weekday”).
“We always try and go into a new record attempting to make it different,” Dunbar explains. “There’s no point making the same record over and over. I’m sure it’s not of interest to people to hear the same record again, and it’s not much fun to be playing something you’ve done before. It’s not like we’re going to reinvent the wheel and create a techno record. But you sort of do what you can to make it different—a progression rather than a repetition.”
From what Dunbar reveals, Martine deserves plenty of credit for facilitating that goal. The best part of making Desire Lines was, presumably, that Camera Obscura was able to talk the producer out of putting a bird on it, a battle it might not have won with Haapalainen.
“Jari would get in a bad mood a lot, and he could be quite grumpy,” Dunbar says with a laugh. “He liked to get his own way, and he would do whatever it took to get it, and was pretty good at it. That was perfect at the time—we needed someone who would kick our asses and make us do better. We learned a lot and improved as a band. At the same time, it’s nice now to have a record that has some space and breathes a bit more. You can actually hear the playing on this one.”