Callum Easter on his new album System
One of Scotland's most beguiling artists, Callum Easter is back with a politically-charged, stylistically challenging new album
“I had some time on my hands, and that drove me crazy.”
In Callum Easter’s world, time to ruminate could lead to all manner of musical possibilities. The Leith-based multi-instrumentalist is impossible to pigeonhole; one part future-blues singer, one part one-man band, he’s a relentless experimentalist, and after the events of the past 18 months meant that his work schedule was suddenly empty, he set about following up his searing debut, 2019’s Here or Nowhere.
The result is System, an exhilarating odyssey into Easter’s mind that’s by turns fiercely political and deeply personal. Like most of his work, the record came together piece by piece in his Edinburgh studio, lending it a kaleidoscopic air. “It’s quite a rigorous process,” he says over the phone from that same room. “I was aiming for fewer layers this time. I felt like it would be good to set myself some parameters – it’d be easier to write that way, but then I look around the studio and see all these instruments I’ve got… somebody loaned me a Nightshade synthesizer, so that had to go on there, and you throw all of these bizarre instruments on there and before you know it, you’ve got all these crazy songs, and you have no idea how you’re going to make them work live!”
Easter’s stylistic wanderlust is scored through System, which takes his long-established love of rock'n'roll and augments it by exploring a spectrum of different sounds. Like his fellow Leith men and occasional collaborators Young Fathers, Easter’s work feels maximalist sonically, and like that band, too, he has zeroed in on political themes on System, even if the world around him still feels like a little bit of an enigma.
“It’s funny, because I’ve probably been trying to avoid the news and stay away from social media,” he says, with a grim laugh. “I feel like I’m just using the songs to interpret what’s going on around me, and try not to shy away from making a statement. I was up and down on singing 'fuck the system' [on the title track] – I wondered, can I get away with that kind of thing? But whether it’s a melancholy love song or something more jagged about what’s happening in the world, I think there’s always some darkness in there.”
He cites, for instance, some of the love songs on the album, “which are about the peaks and troughs of relationships, and I’ve certainly been having a few of those recently. I probably should have just written a whole bunch of love songs, but then I’ll think about the fact that the Saudis are bombing Yemen with arms we sold them, and I can’t help myself but put it into the music.”
Despite that, Easter says he’s eager to “have a bit more of a party on stage.” You never quite know which version of him you’re going to get when he performs live, other than that he’s likely to have a set-up that presents him as some kind of musical mad professor. When he launched his Green Door Sessions EP last year – which included reworks of his past songs, in a manner not dissimilar to the way they constantly evolve live – he played under a Leith bridge, using portable radios instead of speakers and powering a cornucopia of musical curios, including an FM transmitter, from a 12-volt battery.
“I like the idea of what FM radio used to be,” he says, explaining the unusual choice. “In that you’d be tuning it and tuning it until you found something, and that might be how you discovered Little Richard, or something. Those gigs gave me a lot of thoughts about what I could do next, but I think I’ll have to get my foot off my own neck to get them to work. It’s easy to dig a bit of a hole for yourself when you go down the rabbit holes of these weird ideas.”
With a highly ambitious television special in the works, featuring dancers and a range of guest performers, Easter has been keeping himself busy in the build-up to the album’s release in multidisciplinary fashion, with a full tour planned behind it for 2022. What form that’ll take is yet to be determined, though. “It’s not a bad problem to have!” he says of myriad possibilities. “I feel like I could put together a really poppy set, at this point. I’d like to get a room bouncing, if I can. I just really enjoy singing and squeezing the accordion! But I’m always tweaking and rejigging things. It’ll be a case of finding my feet again.”
System is released via Moshi Moshi and Lost Map Records on 19 Nov
Callum Easter plays The Great Western, Glasgow, 13 Nov; Lost Map's Christmas Humbug, Summerhall, Edinburgh, 3 Dec