Thursday, April 5, 2012

Tales From The Campfire

 – an interview with Campfire OK, Part 1

  • by Dan Coxon
Campfire OK will play Bumbershoot 2011. Photo by Kristen Marie Tourtillotte.
Seattle has long held a reputation for fostering musical talent, and its current crop of new bands is no exception. From Fleet Foxes and The Head and the Heart to Champagne Champagne and Mad Rad, Seattle’s musical pulse is still beating strong – and Campfire OK seems to be one of the next bands set to become a household name.
Campfire OK’s debut album, Strange Like We Are, is an enchanting mix of winsome folk and rousing sentiment, and they’ve been steadily building a reputation across the city over the last couple of years. Our own coverage of their album release party summed them up as an “elegant blend of piano-and-drum syncopated rhythms, rich melodic lines hinting at despair, and dynamic multiple-vocal stylings”.
I caught up with frontman (and songwriter) Mychal Cohen and drummer Brandon Milner in Capitol Hill’s Caffe Vita, to chat with them about the band, the Seattle scene, and Mychal’s love of tattoos.
Dan Coxon: Where did the name Campfire OK come from? When did you settle on it?
Mychal Cohen: I was bartending – this was a while ago – and I was learning how to tattoo… Mind you, every other interview, when I’ve been asked this, I’ve just not told the truth, and said “I don’t know, I just thought of it one day”.
Brandon Milner: I don’t think I even know the truth about this. This might be the moment that I find out.
MC: I never told you this?
BM: Well, we’ll find out!
MC: I was trying to learn how to tattoo, and I had this tattoo machine at my house. And I was starting to collect all these drawings to tattoo – on myself, eventually. And I drew, like, a campfire on a coaster, while I was bartending, and for some reason underneath it I just put ‘OK’. And that was it, it was really just a campfire and it said OK. And I was, like, this is so silly. That’s such a silly phrase. And I kept that little thing for a long time, and I really liked the way it looked. Then I eventually started writing the words, and… I don’t know, I sat on it for a couple of years, actually. And I actually have that campfire tattoo on my leg. That was the first tattoo I ever gave myself. That’s a weird statement to say!
BM: I did not know that.
MC: I know.
DC: It sounds almost too perfect. I’m not sure that could even be true!
MC: If the leg on these pants would come up you’d see it, it’s right here.
BM: Not many bands work from the tattoo backwards.
DC: And now everyone’s going to want that tattoo.
MC: Well, it’s not a pretty tattoo! I mean, the first one I ever did… it’s pretty shabby looking.
DC: There’s a big tattooing culture in Seattle, isn’t there. I’m not sure why.
MC: I think there are a lot of really talented artists, and it’s accessible, and the mindset behind getting a tattoo in a profession is so laidback. Like, I could be a lawyer if I wanted to. Here. In New York, no way.
DC: Going back to the origins of Campfire OK, it started out as your (solo) project, didn’t it. At what point did you decide that you needed a band?
MC: That point came along when shows started to be booked, and I just kind of realized that I actually wanted to pursue it and would really like to play the songs live. It was a very natural progression, it wasn’t like, “I want to form a band”. Once again it’s kind of a backwards thing. I wasn’t thinking “I want to form a band”, I was “I want to make a record”. Then came the band. And it’s sort of morphed into this thing. To me, the record still feels like a project, but our shows, and our practices, and the new stuff we’re working on for the next record, really feels like a band.
BM: I think we went about it differently than some bands. Because some bands, they form, and then when they’ve got their songs solidified that’s when they make a record. They form, they make a record, and then they go about the process of trying to interpret that to play it live. Mychal made this record with mostly himself, and just a couple of people doing some stunning musicianship. And then we totally used that as a basic sketch to form the way the songs are now, which is pretty randomly different to the way they are on the record.
MC: At first it’s like, “These are the parts on the record, try to learn to play them.” But it quickly, for us, became like, “Well, there’s actually some chemistry between all of us. Obviously we can feel it in the room.” And everyone’s desire to play the parts in a little bit of a different way came out, and it started to really move us, and bring us together as musicians and not just people playing a record.
DC: You said you’ve been working on material for a new album. Do you think this will be noticeable? Do you think there’s a different feel to the new stuff because it’s come from the band, rather than just you writing it on your own?
MC: I think that there is always a noticeable difference when moving from one record to the next. With any band there’s always a noticeable growth. Do I think that this will be attributed to us being a band, rather than me writing by myself? I have no clue. The songs are fairly different. [To Brandon] What do you think?
BM: Yeah, I think this record is fairly different, because a couple of things happened. One is, the first album is very, very piano driven. Mychal somewhere along the way learned to play guitar, and Mychal, coming from the piano, plays the guitar in some unconventional ways. So there’s more guitar on the record, and he’s still the principal songwriter. But because there’s more community input from the band I think this record is going to end up being a lot warmer. It reflects our sound now.
MC: Very true. I agree, and in that sense you could possibly tell that it is from a band, but at the same point I’m still writing the songs, as a principal songwriter. So the feeling – like, are we going to go from this band that we are now to a country band? No. I mean, they’re still Campfire OK songs, but they have a different attitude.
DC: Are you playing the new songs live?
MC: We’ve started to play a couple, yeah.
DC: Are you going to play some at Bumbershoot?
MC: I think so. We’ll probably play two.
DC: Have you played Bumbershoot before?
MC: We’ve not played Bumbershoot.
DC: But have you been to to the festival?
BM: I like Bumbershoot. I think it’s changed a lot over the years, but it gives me an excuse not to go to Burning Man. So you don’t just sit around and write bad poetry while half your friends are at Burning Man. But yeah, I think it’s a cool festival. And the great thing about Bumbershoot is not the bands that you know, the great thing about Bumbershoot is the bands you’ve never heard of. The best bands I’ve seen at Bumbershoot have always been the random, Brazilian funk band that I went to see because I couldn’t get in to see Famous Band X. So I’m hoping that we’re gonna be that band for a lot of people. Not too many people know who we are, but they’ll walk by, and hopefully we’ll make an impression.
This interview continues in Part 2. Click here to read the concluding part of the Campfire OK interview.

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