Campfires is the moniker for Kalamazoo native, turned Portland, Oregon artist Jeff Walls. Jeff was gracious enough to take time out of his busy schedule to answer a few questions for us here at West Michigan Indie. We talked about music as a career, what is was like to grow up in the West Michigan indie rock music scene, and of course, his music and what it’s like for an artist in the internet age.
Q. Jeff, in my discussions with you previous to this little interview, I found out that you are originally from Kalamazoo. Can you tell us a bit about your background? How you got into music, and specifically memories of bands, venues, etc..from West Michigan that you may have played in or with?
I grew up in Kalamazoo and then lived in Ann Arbor before moving to Chicago in 2007. I was lucky enough to catch the tail end of the Kalamazoo record-store heyday when I was a kid — Boogie’s, Flipside, and a few others were all still around. I got into music by buying tapes at Flipside. I forget when that place closed but it’s too bad because I feel like they narrowly missed the record store and vinyl renaissance of the mid-to-late 2000s after grinding it out in a derelict part of downtown for years.
The best venue when I was growing up was a bar called Kraftbrau. They would book lots of shows with really great garage and punk bands from all over, especially bands on the Goner Records roster from Memphis. You could get in without being 21 and so we saw a lot of shows there. I was too young to catch Club Soda at its peak, so I mostly knew about that scene from reading the Friday Section as a kid which was like a sort of alt-weekly supplement to the paper. Sometimes there would be good shows at the State Theater downtown but that was kind of rare which is too bad because that is such a cool venue. Probably my favorite venue memory of the SW Michigan music scene growing up was this place called Stark Industries in Kalamazoo which was around for a brief period when I was 13 or so. It was a warehouse space but like an actual warehouse — there’d be circular saws and lumber and stuff laying around near the stage. It was very West Michigan and very DIY and has stuck with me.
Q. Things have changed drastically since I have moved from West Michigan, especially in Grand Rapids. There is way more of a downtown scene than say even 10 years ago. This may date me but I’ve always thought that bands from Michigan like Fat Amy, Milkhouse, Botfly, Nineteen Wheels, and Papa Vegas never really got their due. Part of that was because musicians weren’t particularly supported as well as they are now? Do you feel like you had to move from the West Michigan area to make a career in music as you have spent time in Chicago and now reside in Portland?
I definitely don’t think you have to move from West Michigan to pursue music or that I really had to. I think there’s sort of a vicious cycle with a lot of smaller cities where people feel like they have to move to find a scene but if everyone who felt that way stayed there’d be a much better scene going on in all of those places. Its hard to break out of that cycle and build up support locally. Towns like Brattleboro VT or Olympia WA show that it can be done though. It just comes down to the network of like minded people you have. If there’s a good one then theres no reason to move. I think with some cities that have a bigger college crowd it’s just a matter of time before a really good crop of music comes through but sometimes there are droughts too.
Q. When is the last time you have come through Michigan to play? And do you have plans to do so in the future? If so, do you have any favorite venues, either on the east side or west side of the state?
The last time I played in Michigan was with Campfires a year or two ago in Ann Arbor. It was one of my favorite shows ever. It was at a venue there called Arbor Vitae, sort of a loft place, that I had seen a lot of shows at when I lived there so to come back and play and have it be good energy made me really happy. I’d love to come back through this summer. My favorite venue in Kalamazoo used to be the Strutt but it just moved. I’m not really familiar with Grand Rapids venues but I’m sure there are some cool spots there. I think my favorite in Michigan venue is Arbor Vitae though.
Q. Your album “Laurentide” was recorded in the Ann Arbor area, your bandcamp site stating it was done in a barn. What led to your decision to record in a setting like that?
Being back in Michigan is always really nice and I wanted to be somewhere where there wouldn’t be any distractions. The place that we recorded was cheap and worked out perfect for what we wanted. I’ve always had this fantasy of doing a similar thing but renting a house on Lake Michigan to record in. Hopefully one of these days that’ll happen.
Q. I always ask the question about influences, so I will do so with you as well. Who do you consider your major influences musically, and what are some bands that you find interesting currently that you would either like to tour with or go see at a show?
My favorite bands are the Velvet Underground, the Creation, and the Kinks. I think currently my favorite band is White Fence.
Q. Our editor James during his podcasts often talks about the internet age and use of social media with bands. Obviously, anything that helps promote accessibility is probably a good thing, but with stuff getting ripped for free there are obvious concerns. How do you feel this has affected you, and in general do you believe the internet has been a positive for musicians?
For me the internet question basically comes down to this: even when music was mostly in a format where bands made a little bit more money and had longer contracts and everything pretty much no one was actually making enough to get by in any real way. Now it is impossible to make money because you have to release for free to get noticed, but people all over the world can hear your songs. So, if you want to make money you’re in the wrong business but I think in the end the best part is having people actually hear the songs, and that is a lot more accessible now than before.
Q. I suppose I should have opened with this question. Haha, but information was limited to the actual make up of the band. How did you choose the moniker Campfires? Do you play all of the instruments on your recordings, or do you have a full band at this point?
Campfires comes from the general feel that I wanted the music to have: sort of raw and primitive but really human and too. Just simple pleasures I guess. Growing up we had campfires on Lake Michigan and up north constantly so it was just a pleasant association to make and sort of spoke to where I came from. I play all the instruments on the recordings but live I play with two other guys.
Q. I often feel strange asking artists this question, simply because I don’t know if you necessarily set out to sound a certain way, but rather just be who you are at the time of the recording. But, I will ask anyway. How would you describe your sound to our readers?
My favorite kind of music is garage rock from the 60’s, just like little bands that might’ve only ever had a 45 to their name. The recordings are always a little (sometimes a lot) off but its endearing. Professionalism can be really boring and those recordings always felt a lot more alive to me than more produced records. I think this song, from a band from Goshen, IN recorded in 1967, is an almost perfect recording (http://www.spinthegroove.com/
Q. It’s obviously tough to make it in the music business. Labels aren’t what they are used to be, and more and more musicians are putting things out on their own. Or on smaller independent labels. Do you have any advice, or horror stories for younger musicians who are looking to make a career out of music to avoid? Maybe even specific to those in West Michigan with you having a background here. While there is a better music “scene” here, I imagine that Portland is still far more conducive to a career.
It is so important to just make the music that you love to make and not worry about the rest of it. The music industry is a wasteland. “Success” means driving around in a van making no money and sleeping on floors or maybe in motels sometimes and then having other people tell you how your music should sound. Just do whatever you want and if it is honest people will respond to it. I think that applies no matter where you are. Portland has a very supportive music scene in some ways but I think anything resembling a career comes down mostly to luck, so its better to just stick to your guns than to go out looking for that.
Q. Are you currently working a day job? You certainly don’t have to tell us where, but what job have you had along the way that was either awful or interesting in some aspect?
I work a day job as a graphic designer. I’ve worked a 9-5 the whole time I’ve been doing music. For awhile when I moved I washed dishes and bussed tables so I would have more time to record this upcoming album and that was fairly terrible in a lot of ways. I’ve found some people really far up into music work conventional jobs, but some people seem to have the sweet spot of jobs they can take breaks from and return to without it mattering. There’s the Kickstarter route too, in terms of making money on the side, but that has always seemed a little off to me. There are a lot of causes in the world more worthy of a 10 buck donation than helping me record an album.
Q. You have a new album coming out in February called “Tomorrow, Tomorrow”. Can you tell us a little bit about it? I’ve heard a couple of the tracks and am looking forward to the release. Where was it recorded and is it going to be as lo-fi sounding as some of your past recordings?
“Tomorrow, Tomorrow” is the first full length that I’ve done that will be on vinyl and everything. It was recorded in my practice space in Portland but written mostly in Chicago. It’s considerably cleaner sounding than some of the old stuff but still lo-fi. I’m excited about it! It was really fun to make. So far response has been good so I’m excited for the wider release.
Q. “Tomorrow, Tomorrow” looks to be your fourth album, all of which have been done in the past couple of years. Obviously, it seems like you don’t have much trouble with writers block. Haha. What do you like most about the process of recording an album, and what do you like the least?
My least favorite part of recording is that it can get a little tedious recording alone because it involves lots of moving microphones around and all these little details. Sometimes you have days where everything you make just sucks, too. But I still love it. When things go right it’s the most fun thing. It’s really nice capturing something on tape that you can go back to again and again, and its nice when recordings kind of take on a life of their own while you’re doing it.
Q. I want to really thank Jeff for taking the time out to do this interview with us, and definitely check out Campfires’ music. You can find all three of his previous albums on Bandcamp and you can find his first single off his new album out in February on our site as a Single of the Day. It’s really good stuff and worth checking out. Jeff, you are an awesome dude for doing this, and we at West Michigan Indie wish you much success in the future. Anything you would like to say to our readers either about yourself or about music in general?
Michigan is a great rock and roll state and a great music state. People should be proud to be part of that music community and I hope that there are some good bands out there that will draw more attention to all the scenes there. Thanks for giving me a chance to chat about all this stuff!
“Tomorrow, Tomorrow” comes out February 19th on Fire Talk records. I was able to find a review of Campfires album here, http://nanobotrock.com/