An interview with Craig Ketchum, Burnaby, BC
After opening in Burnaby, BC for talented Vancouver outfit In Contra this summer, Brocken Spectre’s Colin Ablitt, Nic Campbell and Colin Campbell purveyed a local pizza shop with me to talk beginnings, middles and ends.
How did the band meet?
“These two (N. and C. Campbell) are brothers, obviously,” Colin Ablitt jocosely informs me. “They met when they were born, covered in slimy goodness. But the three of us met at college. Nic was doing a pastoral program and Colin and I were in the music program. Nic smartened up and switched into music. We saw each other’s talent and agreed we should start a band together.”
Nic Campbell responds, “Being in some of the same classes, we realized that our philosophies of music would easily intertwine. We’d hear each other’s answers to questions and totally resonate with them. I got thinking about being in a band.”
“When we are on stage”, Colin Campbell adds, “we are quite similar. There must be a common strand in why we play music, as well as what we are passionate about and the way we express it. There has to be a common striving for something; the passion you have behind music and what drives it over time will make or break a band.”
Where do you want to be in the future?
Brocken Spectre has set their sights on Vancouver’s Peak Performance Project, a survivor-style project that picks the city’s best unsigned talent, connects them with concerts and training sessions on image, business, and performance, uses audience selection to choose winners, and awards them prize money to record and get a start making larger waves in the music business.
The band tells me they’ve been tracking some of the bands who were in the project this year and seeing what they can learn from them. “It would be such a honour to be granted shows in front of big audiences, and to attend the training sessions they put on. We are new and inexperienced and we crave mentorship”, Colin Campbell remarks.
“It’s a long shot, but we would most love to play with We Are The City. They are talented and super creative and we just blossom when we hear the creativity of others. They would teach us a lot. We would love to be mentored by them. I suppose it’s possible. We do have mutual friends”, adds Nic.
“I’m excited to see what potential that could have for our band”, muses Ablitt. “We would also love to play with In Medias Res.”
What’s taking place in your songwriting right now?
“I feel that we’re getting to a place where we’re not settling” Colin Campbell states. “We hear boring rock and challenge each other to switch it up.”
(We’ve been so engrossed in conversation that we haven’t even looked at the menu, so as the server reappears to take our order, the band quickly defaults to pizza-shop standards: Italian, Meat Lovers, Hawaiian).
What does the writing process look like for Brocken Spectre?
“Colin or Nic will write a song, but the original is always far different from the final product, the band says. “Parallel dances, for example, was performed months ago on acoustic shortly after Colin wrote it, and he said it was the most quiet, melodic Sufjan-Stevens-folk tune he had ever written. After bringing it to the band it totally metamorphosed several times and took a totally different shape. The songs come form our personal challenges, the lyrics come from literature, from movies, from life experiences. The song Parallel Dances is a string of vignettes that illustrate how constantly, all around the world, there’s such a flurry of different, even conflicting actions. Somewhere in the world, there’s a girl being filmed at the beach while someone is being hit by a car somewhere else.”
Though the songwriter may write something subdued, the band finds when they bring it to Colin (drummer) clarification takes place. He brings the skeleton, providing the backbone. “Our songs go through many reincarnations, many lives. Are we Buddhist?” muses Campbell out loud. “The new song is called ‘Steamhands’, written months ago but not fully arranged until June.”
When and where are you inspired to play?
CA: When I write I take it from literature and movies and snippets of conversations. I usually practice in my bedroom and that’s where a lot of the music is born.
NC: I mostly find I’m inspired at live shows. I get amped up halfway through the show and I’m dying inside because I want to go and do something about it. For two months I was so dry and then fifteen minutes into the Bon Iver show last month I was just brimming with artistic drive.
CC: Drumming is the place where I feel close to God. When I do it for him, I can’t get any closer. When I’m dried up, nothing else will suffice. I know God will meet me there. It’s a way he speaks to me.
Who are your influences?
CA: “Kanye West? Just joking. Man, i grew up with all the poppy CCM bands, you know the ones, who still had some substance to them, like Switchfoot, Relient K, and Thousand Foot Crutch.”
NC: I’m too ashamed to say who I grew up listening to. Recently I’ve been so caught off guard and impressed by Local Natives. I’ve been listening to Ceremonials (Florence and the Machine) and I love the fresh percussive elements. I notice when I’m writing with Colin, it’s great and we can create stuff, but it can ends up being so wishy-washy and I yearn for the percussion to come in so we can make some sense of it all and have something solid to work with. Until then it’s floppy, you can’t even hold it in your hands. It’s like a slinky. A slinky covered in silly putty.”
Do you have any nicknames for each other?
Colin Campbell laughs and exclaims, “Oh man, not appropriate for recording purposes!”
NC: “It’s mostly on the spot, like, this is exactly how I am feeling about you and so that is what I am going to call you, and they stick for just about that day.
CA: If you’ve seen I Love You Man, I call Nic “Broseph Wiggles” every so often and he calls me…”
NC: “…Tico Brohun.”
CC: “Sometimes we call Colin Campbell ‘James’ to differentiate from me. Or CJ, but he hates that because it sounds like a Backstreet Boys name.”
CA: My favourite was Cottage Bistro, this little bar on Main Street. We played there with a group of friends and it was a real warm, inviting night, not too serious. We even played without a bassist. We played without a bassist for quite a while before we found Scott. Once we involved bass, the foundations of the songs were solidified and hit you harder, they had weight to them.
CC: When you hear the music, you can cringe because of the volume, but that’s where you feel it, in your chest and in your stomach. When you go to clubs, you sense all the emotion is in the bass.
Have you had any bad moments performing?
CC: Oh man, tonight I totally forgot one of my parts – and it’s an old song too – and I was supposed to start the song and that was very embarrassing. I was trying to sing the song in my head because my part syncs up with the vocals and I couldn’t even do that!
NC: At our first Roxy show we stepped out of our style and did a cover of Jamie Woon’s “Lady Luck” and did something R&B and random. We had fun and surprised the fans. It was a good moment.
What’s your motive for making music?
CA: It’s a passion. We all love music and we love each other and we can’t not do this. Who knows what life will hold, so we’re gonna play.
NC: I could never not do music, even if I use horrible grammar. I love the band dynamic. If I write a song a certain way and I take it to these two, it doesn’t have to be that way. They can adjust it and make it mean something to so many people.
CC: It seems so prideful to think your music can change people’s lives, but I guess that’s what we, and anyone, want.
FYI: Brocken Spectre [brock-un spec-ter] gets their name from a haunting natural phenomenon observed on Mt. Brocken in Germany. It’s not a misspelling.