14 September 2010

(More than) 10 Questions with...David Campbell of The Rebel Wheel

I first found out about the band The Rebel Wheel on the Mike Portnoy forum.

Then bassist Gary Lauzon was a regular poster there, I was just starting to get back into music writing again, and he was looking for people to review the band’s debut album, the self released Diagramma. I was excited about the opportunity, and quickly received a copy. I enjoyed the album greatly, and said as much in concluding that review:

“The Rebel Wheel offers a diverse selection of sounds and styles on the 43-minute Diagramma. Far from presenting a disjointed idea of what the band has to offer, it instead shows a group unafraid to mix things up. Strong songs and stronger playing mark this as an album well worth checking out.”

Not long after the album was released, 10T Records picked the band up. This was pretty exciting…it’s one thing for a band to release an album, but another to see them picked up so soon by a label that has become a bit of a force in modern progressive music. Diagramma was reissued with two additional tracks, and of course, I reviewed that version as well. Sadly, I can’t find that old review anywhere, but I can assure it was positive.

Much has changed for The Rebel Wheel since the release of their debut album. Basissts have come and gone, sax players have joined and gone on maternity leave, and the entire line-up has taken on a bit of fluidity. Through it all, one thing has been constant; guitarist/vocalist/sometimes bassist/sometimes keyboardist/mastermind/cook and bottle washer David Campbell. And honestly, if The Rebel Wheel was the only feather in his musical cap, it’d be impressive. Add in work with Bob Drake, Nathan Mahl, his jazz and electronica work, his full time work creating library music for TV, his multiple symphonies and chamber words…Campbell is a bit of a musical renaissance man in more ways than one.

With the release this year of The Rebel Wheel’s sophomore album We Are in the Time of Evil Clocks, I felt it was a good time to check back in with someone from the band. So much has changed, and it’s high time we got an update from the inside. David was excited about getting the chance to go over some details with me, and I hope you pick up as much out of his answers as I did!

Recommended soundtrack to listen to while reading: ‘The Discovery of Witchcraft,’ the 30-minute epic from WAITTOEC.

Read on!

1. Let’s start at the beginning…how did you first discover an interest in music?

DC: I can't really remember a time when I wasn't interested in music actually. I have kids myself and my youngest reminds me of me in that she is always singing a song or playing an instrument and at five, already has clear cut musical loves (Max Webster, Hot Hot Heat and Chumbawumba for example). Last week she said that there was a song she had heard that she had actually written and that was exactly the same thing I had said when I was her age. In my case I thought I had written "Roll Out Those Hazy Crazy Days of Summer" and "V-I-E-N-N-A, that's old Vienna, the happy lazy lager beer". I guess we had so internalised the songs that we had forgotten where we had heard them in the first place.

2. Who or what were your earliest influences?

DC: The Beatles ("Daytripper" and "Eight Days A Week" were my favorite songs in kindergarden), Antonio Carlos Jobim ("Girl from Ipanema" was an album my jazz musician uncle listened to a lot) and Prokofiev (we had a record of Peter and the Wolf I adored). Those three styles still have a major affect on my musical life.

3. How did the first Rebel Wheel lineup come together?

DC: I was at Humber College studying music and I jammed regularly with a bunch of guys. Eventually we all started fronting various projects and typically culled players from our jamming sessions. In my case I was heavily into midi technology and I loved the fact I could trigger synths etc from my guitars.

I had a GR-303 system and a GR-707 so I could basically play into a board and avoid amps entirely making rehearsals a head-phone affair. The other players had similar rigs and although it was never an official rule, we ended up as a midi ensemble. We all loved jazz and fusion so that was the loose format, although we had the same line-up with other band names (depending on the leader/writer) so we were pretty comfortable going from a Steely Dan type song in one incarnation to a free-form jazz piece in another.

4. Diagramma, the band’s first studio album, was originally released privately. How did 10T records come into the scene?

DC: I wanted to get on a label as I figured it would serve the then current band's interest more. I was interested in 10T right up front because I was a fan of Frogg Cafe and Man on Fire so I sent them the 5-song version of Diagramma. They got back in touch and offered a deal but they wanted a seven-song release that clocked in closer to an hour, instead of the one I had already done which was only 45 minutes.

5. There have been a number of lineup changes between the release of Diagramma and We Are in the Time of Evil Clocks. How would you say those changes have affected the band’s sound?

DC: Well Diagramma was a weird beast. The original 5 song version was pretty well all me. I used midi drums on some tunes, real drums on others and edited other's drum performances from the old Toronto version of the band and built tunes from there. The 10T release had two additional songs that featured the whole band in its then current line-up, so that even on that album there were two different forms of the band and different approaches.

For Evil Clocks, I wanted an album that featured the current band mostly live in the studio. I have found over the years that it is better to have the live line-up the same as the studio line-up as much as possible. At that point the lineup was pretty stable and although we changed bassists early on in the recording and replaced long-time member Gary Lauzon with ex-Nathan Mahl bassist Claude Prince we kept the same line-up for the rest of the album. Unlike Diagramma, I wrote with that line-up in mind and the arrangements were done with a definite eye on how we would ultimately play the songs live.

6. What was the inspiration behind ‘The Discovery of Witchcraft,’ the epic that all but closes out the new album?

DC: The author Robertson Davies. He has a story called 'Mixture of Frailties' and in it, a Canadian singer performs a British composer's new work called "The Discoverie of Witchcraft". I think the composer in the story is modelled after Benjamin Britten as he is described as being modern (with-out having "wrong-note chromaticism") and as one of the most lyrical, voice-friendly composers England had produced in decades. In any event, I loved the story and didn't really pay more attention to the fictional composition, until one day I came across Ben Jonson's Masque of Queens and I recognized some of the words the Davies character had been singing in the book ("I have been gathering Wolve's hairs" etc.).

It was then I realized the lyrics were actually real and not the construct of Davies (it is even mentioned in the book that if the composer had one fault it was that he used too many literary references, so I suppose I should have tumbled on to it sooner). I then did some research and found out the title itself came from Reginold Scot's book by the same name (again a fact mentioned in the book). So like Davies' fictional character, I took the Scot's title and Jonson's words and made my own piece (decidedly less lyrical and chock full of wrong-note chromaticism). Unlike the book I don't use any of Scot's passages as recitatives, but cover artsist Francis Dupuis did take the graphics from the original manuscript and use them on the CD clock faces.

7. Where do you think The Rebel Wheel is heading next, musically speaking?

DC: We are now a three-piece band as Ange has just had a baby girl (Amy) and we all decided she should take an extended leave of absence. As such we are looking at a creating a somewhat sparser, more aggressive sound. The music I have been writing is harder-edged than before and as the lyrical themes are examining substance abuse (something I am far too familiar with) there is a gritty Charles Bukowski-ish tinge to the outing. We will still use keyboards and electronics, but they will approach a noise-like ambience instead of being mysterious and lush. The arrangements so far are leaning towards a more "power-trio" core sound.

8. Does the band get much opportunity to play live?

DC: Yes it does and lately we have all agreed to take any and all gigs we can. In fact we are doing our first gig with the new line-up tomorrow at a local bar in my hometown (Editor's note: this show has passed since the interview was finished). We have a new bassist (again!) and in the last few months have been rehearsing new stuff and re-arranging existing material for live performance. Guy Dagenais is our new bassist and was actually the player on the title track of the CD so has been in the wings for awhile before he joined proper.

9. How much do you think downloading has affected the band, either positively or negatively?

DC: That is a tricky question, and a subject that tends to get volatile. Generally I think that illegal downloading has a dramatic affect on all music and ultimately the attitude the general music user has toward intellectual property. Truthfully, ours is not the kind of music that flies off the shelves in any type of scheme, but given the sheer amount of torrent sites that gladly offer high quality illegal mp3 versions of the album, it is naive to think it has helped sales in any way.

10. What would you say the future holds for the (mostly) independent progressive rock band?

DC: I think that despite the down side of illegal file sharing, the internet is perhaps the single greatest distribution tool in the history of music. I think the future is bright for bands right now, not necessarily as big money-making outfits, but for dedicated artists who can have an international appeal to people whose tastes are similar. I think that with the plethora of musical styles and the bringing to light of musics that once were totally underground, we are quickly entering a world where musical boundaries are becoming less firm. The distinction among bands doesn't seem to be stylistic so much as "how good are they live?"

11. When you’re not working with The Rebel Wheel, what musical projects are you involved with?

DC: Tons! I play jazz guitar in various ensembles, I play keyboards in a cover tune band, I have two original quirky pop bands I write for and/or play guitar/bass and sing in, I have a twisted electronica band I write for and play bass in, I write a ton of electro-acoustic music that does pretty well in the somewhat rarefied and academic circles that like that kind of thing. I write concert music and arrange big band stuff for other people, I write and produce a ton of production library music and background stuff for TV and corporate clients, I play local sessions on guitar, bass and keyboards, I am the bassist in Bob Drake's Cabinet of Curiosities as well as the latest guitarist in Nathan Mahl.

12. Is music your ‘day job,’ or something you do to escape from the stresses of a non-music job?

DC: It's my day job and Prog bands are my escape from the pressures of THAT.

13. You’ve written a number of chamber and orchestral pieces; how did these come about?

DC: I love that kind of thing and in a perfect world would write pretty well mostly orchestral stuff. I consider guitar and bass playing something different so that doesn't in any way mean I wouldn't do prog or jazz gigs as a musician, but as a composer I would certainly write less TV stuff. Unfortunately it is almost impossible to earn a living writing for modern orchestra and even those who are successful at it, usually have to teach music as well.

I started doing that kind of thing from day 1 and in fact, the only reason I went to music school in the first place was to learn orchestration and have players available to play the stuff I was already writing. By the time I graduated I was earning a living arranging, orchestrating and copying other people's stuff when I really only wanted to do mine. In 1991 I took the plunge and went totally into my own symphonic music. I was pretty successful at getting it played, but even then was barely able to pay my rent.

14. How did you first connect with Bob Drake (Thinking Plague, et cetera), and how did you come to perform with him?

DC: Through Progressive Ears actually. When I first discovered PE back in 2003 I was elated to find that there were people who liked the same kind of stuff I did, and that while I had been immersed in modern classical music, there had been a lot going on in Prog I knew nothing about. As a result I discovered a lot of stuff I hadn't heard before like Thinking Plague, 5uus and Bob's solo stuff (among a ton of others). When I heard he needed a bassist/guitarist I emailed him and we hit it off. It helped that, by then, I was pretty familiar with his material.

15. What do you listen to for fun or relaxation?

DC: Pretty well anything. I have an abiding love for bands like Incubus, I Mother Earth, Screaming Headless Torsos etc. but with three kids I listen and enjoy a lot of stuff I might otherwise avoid (like Chumbawumba for instance). I love star-watching and am fortunate to live in area where the skies are free from light pollution. When I am out looking at stars I mostly listen to modern classical. Regardless of how atonal and angular it might be, I find it very relaxing.

16. Are there any newer bands or artists you find particularly inspiring?

DC: Right now I am on a 5uus kick and especially enjoying the Mike Johnson live version of the band I see on You-tube. As for newer stuff, I am really liking Zevious, Mirthkon, Belew's trio, Tyondai Braxton, and the latest offerings from Frogg Cafe, Mars Hollow and Helmet Of Gnats. All great stuff.

17. Do you have any final words for our readers today?

DC: I'd say it is important to keep your mind open and avoid the "it was all better when I was younger" mentality. Lately I have been seeing a lot of people acting like my grand-parents used to when I was young, asserting that everything was better back when. I find that attitude stifling for art and more indicative of closed mindedness than having any real intrinsic truth.

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(Photo above: David Campbell performing live with Bob Drake at NEARfest 2007 by Bill Knispel)


Assaf Vestin said...

Great interview, really interesting to read and it's great how he elaborates in his answers. Also I'm now intrigued to find out Dave's other musical endeavors. And I see I share his enthusiasm for the same current progressive bands as well.

Kerry Chicoine said...

David is really quite amazing to me -- all those disparate projects and his academic background -- but the bottom line is the MUSIC and with The Rebel Wheel he really nails a sweet spot I find peculiarly beguiling. Great work, Bill and David!!!