Heart of a Wrestler: BC Camplight Interviewed
Depressed and losing a battle against drugs and alcohol, BC Camplight left Philadelphia to die in the North. But now he's never felt so alive
Micky Rourke’s ‘Ram Jam’ Robinson was many things in 2008 film The Wrestler, but as he lurched from mounting debts, to painkiller addiction and heart problems, one thing he never lost was an ultimate belief in his ability to perform. Even in its final scene, with Ram Jam’s heart heaving, he grits his teeth, ignores his opponent’s pleas to finish the match, and clambers the turnbuckle to execute his trademark move that the crowd had paid to see.
Happily for BC Camplight, his story is heading towards a more positive coda, but within the New Jersey-born songwriter lies a similarly unshakeable belief in his craft. Take a clip from an early 2013 session shot by Manchester Scenewipe as an example. Sitting in a freezing gallery space, he sits bleary-eyed, with matted hair jutting out at odds and ends around his face from under a woollen hat. With his thick winter jacket on, he looks like he’s staggered in from the abandoned church in Philadelphia he'd spent time squatting at just two years previously, when a record deal and critical acclaim had given way to depression, alcohol and drug dependency as well as his retirement from music. And yet all that changes in an instant, as he softly but surely mutters “I think music needs me again.” Oscar Wilde would be proud.
And yet, BC Camplight – real name Brian Christinzio – is brilliant. His first two albums, 2005’s Hide, Run Away and 2007 follow-up Blink of a Nihilist possessed the sort of eat-away-at-your-brain melodic hookery to prompt an instant skip back after every song. His new one’s even better – How To Die In The North is in parts a long-lost cousin to the pioneering skewed pop of the Beach Boys or Harry Nilsson, but for the most it's a wholly singular piece of work, captured within a heady, swirling atmosphere that fluctuates between tickling warmth and doleful melancholy. “It’s the only record that's come out exactly as it was in my head,” he tells The Skinny emphatically as we meet up at Soup Kitchen, nearly two years on since the Scenewipe session – nearly four since first moving to Manchester – looking smarter and undeniably happier. “So at least it's the best I can do, so if people don't get it, they don't get it.”
“It was either make a go of it one more time or give up” – Brian Christinzio
It wasn’t necessarily that people didn’t ‘get’ his first two records, it’s just that few got a chance to even listen to them. “I was really naïve back then,” he recalls of his three year relationship with previous label One Little Indian (home at various times to the likes of Sigur Rós and Björk). “I assumed that because I had a record deal I'd be handed this gift of being famous and that was it. But the campaign for those albums was so disorganised that neither ever came out in America, then after my last tour I wasn't doing so great mentally; I became disenchanted. I felt like I’d blown it and that music owed it to me to make things right.”
Shows dwindled to the odd couple a month in Philadelphia just to pay the rent, before he simply stopped playing completely. Two of his band members left to join the ascendant War On Drugs, while he himself grappled what it was to even be a musician. “It became surreal to me,” he says. “Like, you did something and then had to wait for someone to say whether it was good or bad... and then playing live, singing these words over and over and just feeling really flat.”
The depression Christinzio had suffered since he was a child had returned, allied by the one-two combo of heavy alcohol and drug abuse. Eventually he ran out of money and found himself squatting in an abandoned church, with only a publicist convinced of his talent and a long-time fan thousands of miles away in Manchester to convince him to pull back from the brink. “It was either make a go of it one more time or give up,” he says. “All my best shows had been in Manchester when I’d toured my first couple of records, and this one fan from here promised to find me a place to stay if I showed up. So I did it, and somehow…”
He’s still here, with a new set of songs to put out and a career to re-boot, having flown to England with just a suitcase in 2011. “The title How To Die In The North is quite literal,” he smiles ruefully. “Originally I had this semi-stupid romantic idea that I was doing the whole Nick Cage thing in Leaving Las Vegas: 'I'm going to go to this place, show these motherfuckers what I can do and I'm going to destroy myself while I'm there.' And to be honest, the three years of making the record was like a master class in how not to treat your body.”
Introduced to producer Martin King, down near Stockport (“a huge old vicarage with old tape recorders and analogue synths,”) the pair recorded a blossoming string-touched surf pop track called Thieves of Antigua which garnered some attention. Subsequently striking a series of deals effectively amounting to a bundle of IOUs, Christinzio then set about forming a band drawn from the Northern Quarter’s drinking dens that he’d quickly established himself as a regular at. “It feels like Philly here. I want to say it’s unpretentious, but…” he gestures at the surroundings. “But it's sort of working class, blue collar. In fact some of the bleakness of the city has perhaps crept into the record subconsciously – I don't remember one fucking nice day of weather during recording,” he laughs.
Despite not writing for three years, the creative fire was soon lit. “I'm not one of these guys with a four track who’s always out in the woods going 'this could be my new song, man!'” he says. “I only write when I’ve records coming out, it’s not some sort of catharsis, or purging of feelings. Between 2008 and 2011 when I wrote nothing, there was no reason to. Writing doesn't make me feel good, in many senses it makes me feel terrible… because it usually means there's something big in my life coming up and having that stress on me doesn't do good things. Life becomes ‘real' again when I’m putting out something. Let's see if I can handle it this time.”
On an album that he states is “nine songs that try nine different styles and attempt to do each better than anyone has before,” How To Die In The North’s overriding sense is of anti-love, songs like the twinkling balladry of Love Isn’t Anybody’s Fault and Just Because I Love You’s sepia murmurs acting as denouncements of its importance and those blindly pursuing it. “My whole love life up until recently has been a fucking Titanic,” he sighs. “One song – Grim Cinema – is about the time I managed to date a lesbian who'd never dated a guy before. I fell madly in love with her and convinced myself for two years that she'd somehow not be a lesbian anymore. Someone else I dated ended up being in my band until we went on tour and that was a disaster, and it's just followed that pattern. I did get to that point where I was like 'is love a helpful thing?' And then even when it works out one of you dies... I guess [final track] Why Doesn’t Anybody Fall In Love Anymore? talks about it. And so I tried other things to get the same things out of them that I would have if I’d been in a loving relationship.”
However, his confidence in his own songwriting ability remains. “I really don’t get 98% of the shit that comes out on the bigger indie labels these days,” he says. “The general lack of individualism is so worrying; but I think that's what I've got going for me, because every now and then I’ll come out with something that'll be completely different and people’ll be like 'Oh yeah! That's good.'” Bella Union head honcho Simon Raymonde certainly did, writing a six-page email detailing everything great about the copy of How to Die in the North he’d been sent. “But even then,” Christinzio grins with self-awareness, “when he didn’t reply to me that same night I was like 'That fucking asshole, this is why this dude doesn't get it... then he sent me an offer two days later to release it… and any other album I wished to release in my life.” Even he looks disbelieving, momentarily lost for words as he recounts the final piece in his resurrection jigsaw. “So I was like, ‘Oh. OK then.’”