In Conversation: BC Camplight
Brian Christinzio, the man behind BC Camplight, could be forgiven for thinking that he is living under a curse. This March, with the release of his new album 'Shortly After Takeoff' just weeks away, the song that had been chosen as the album’s second single, ‘Cemetery Lifestyle’, suddenly found its subject matter uncomfortably close to home for a world coming to terms with the reality of Covid-19.
It was pulled from radio playlists, promotional work was dialled back, a carefully strategized album roll-out now thrown into disarray. Unfortunate but not uncommon, you might think, given the lengths to which so many artists have had to reorder their lives in recent weeks, but for Christinzio it’s becoming a familiar tale: Shortly After Takeoff is now his third straight album to see its release significantly undermined by circumstances beyond his control.
“My history is rife with not exactly the greatest of fortunes,” he tells me over the phone ahead of the album’s release. “It’s probably a good idea that I don’t release music. I’m going to get somebody fucking killed.”
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It is a typically deadpan and self-deprecatory attitude, but if the frustration is real then it would be justifiable. A spring tour, including the biggest headline dates of his career, has had to be postponed until the autumn and the celebrations around the album’s release are now happening within the confines of self-isolation.
“It’s been crazy, but we just keep going with it,” he continues. He is sanguine about ‘Cemetery Lifestyle’ being pulled from the radio, too. “I think they did the right thing, to be honest. Nobody wants to be reminded of that kind of shit when you’re trying to bop along to your favourite tune. I mean the lyrics literally are, ‘Holding my breath, checking my pulse/Feeling like death is following me around.’”
To hear Christinzio recount it is equal parts tragic and comic (he later jokes that he hopes the album’s first single, ‘Back to Work’, becomes a national anthem in a few months), but the truth is the story of the last fifteen years of his life is an extraordinary one. He refers to Shortly After Takeoff as the final part of his Manchester trilogy, an epic tale that takes us back to his hometown of Philadelphia in the mid-2000s, where he released his first records on One Little Indian Records.
“They did pretty well critically but that was about as far as it went,” he reflects. Around the time, he would play live regularly with fellow Philadelphians The War on Drugs, as well as appearing on records by Sharon Van Etten, but they were not necessarily happy times.
“I was an entitled prick. I got dropped by my label, and for years I was like, ‘well I’m so talented, why isn’t a label coming to get me?’ I wasn’t working hard, I was starting to do way too many drugs, I was drinking, and I became homeless. I was squatting in an abandoned church. I just woke up one day and I thought, I got to get out of here.”
By now it was 2012, and a change was in order. “I knew one guy, a writer named Mark Powell, and he said, ‘hey man, please don’t give up on music, just come to Manchester’. I don’t even remember how I scraped up the money to come, but I showed up and I had no plan whatsoever.”
That great leap into the unknown changed everything and Christinzio now calls Manchester home. “It’s not as brave as it may sound because I didn’t have an option. In a way, it was like jumping out of a burning building, I just had to do it. After a while I found my footing, I found my band and the city just kind of rallied around me, which is amazing.”
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He was soon signed to Bella Union and released the first of the Manchester trilogy, the brilliant 'How To Die In The North', an album bristling with the juxtaposition of bright, jumping melodies and sharp, sardonic lyrics. “If my career had ended then, I would have thought, ‘ok, that was a minor win for me’. I never thought I would get back even that far, given where I was coming from.” The record gained traction around Manchester and beyond, but within hours of its release, the plot had moved on dramatically.
“The day after its release, I was deported from the UK and banned from ever returning. So, again, songs that were on the radio disappeared. The next day – gone,” he remembers. It took him around eighteen months to pick up the pieces, before he eventually, via a grandparent, was able to successfully apply to become an Italian citizen. “I showed up again at the airport [in the UK] as if to say, ‘you’re not through with me yet, motherfuckers!”
Upon his return, he set about work on the second album of the trilogy, 2018’s 'Deportation Blues', a wry account of the whole affair, with some particular barbs saved for Theresa May, the Home Secretary that he held personally responsible for his expulsion (“She looks a bit rusty/Dresses like a bus seat, doesn’t she?”). Release day came, but once again, the real world had other ideas.
“The day before it came out, my dad died. I’m really open with my mental illness and things, and I had a really bad six to eight months. I was out of my mind, basically.” During the height of his grief, he crafted the songs that now populate the third of the trilogy, Shortly After Takeoff. “I didn’t intend from the beginning for this to be a Manchester trilogy, but I had started to see that what was happening to me was a story in real time that I should be documenting. When I got done with the new record, I thought it really appears to me to be three chapters of a story now.”
If it sounds like a movie in waiting, then it might be encouraging to hear that Christinzio has already started work on writing a book about his life. He is, however, resistant to the idea that the making of the new album offered some ideal opportunity to heal: “I don’t really buy into catharsis when it comes to writing music. If anything, it works as a mirror, a window for people to see what’s inside me. It doesn’t help me. I made the record, I’m still crazy, my dad’s still dead. I don’t feel much better, but there is a comfort knowing that now the people can see the real you.”
The record was made during a two to three week period of what Christinzio describes as “white hot intensity”, and it is perhaps his most complete and self-assured music to date, something he owes to the fact that he has learned to write with a newfound directness.
“That’s the big breakthrough for me on this album. I’ve stopped worrying about rules as it pertains to lyrics. I’ve never worried about rules as pertain to music, and that’s why my music is maybe frustrating for some people to listen to, sometimes it jumps all over the place from frightening to lovely. But on this record, I focused on doing that lyrically too, and also on being less opaque with my lyrics. If I want to sing about my dad dying, now I’m just going to sing about that and not about some crumbling leaf or whatever bullshit. If I want to talk about how terrible Tame Impala is, I just sing it.”
The same caustic humour that animates his lyrics is present throughout our conversation, as it is in all of his live shows too, which at times can feel like a music and stand-up hybrid. “I think it’s just an extension of my personality. I’m a bit of a dark humourist in my life so by extension it just comes out naturally in my songs,” he tells me. “I don’t consider myself a comedian by any stretch, but I let my guard down a long time ago about being a cool music guy, that’s not who I am, and I think people enjoy watching somebody that doesn’t have a front up.”
ing into the fold to witness the madness.”
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It is perhaps this attitude that made Manchester such a natural fit for Christinzio. You won’t find many people involved in music in the city that aren’t an avowed BC Camplight fan, which as he explains has allowed him the freedom to be himself. But as his standout performance to a packed field at End of the Road 2019 proves, the outside world is waking up too.
“This is the key to my minimal success, I will never be mistaken for being a flash in the pan, because I’ve always been the weird thing just stuck to the side of the pan that doesn’t go away. I’ve gotten incrementally more successful over a long period of time, which has let me do whatever the fuck I want to do musically, because I’m not trying to impress anybody or fit into any scene. But in the last year and a half it’s certainly felt like, ok, this is a thing now. I won’t use the word outgrow, because you can’t outgrow the greatest city in the world, but for the last year and a half now it’s certainly felt like my name has trickled outside of Manchester, and there more people com
With the third of the Manchester trilogy now out of his system, it does seem to suggest that a substantial change could be incoming. He is coy about that for now, although he does reveal that he has also recently begun writing songs for other artists (“stuff I would’ve thought I was above five years ago”). Then again, given Christinzio’s track record, perhaps it’s not a bad idea to leave his future options open.
“I stopped planning stuff a long time ago, we know how that always works out. I don’t want to say I’m going to do some Paul Simon Graceland-type shit because then I’ll immediately get squashed by a bus and I’ll have to make the 'Neckbrace Blues' album or something. I remember doing the press for 'Deportation Blues' and saying ‘I’m just really looking forward to doing the next album that doesn’t coincide with some sort of tragedy’. So now I’m saying nothing.”
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'Shortly After Takeoff' is out via Bella Union on April 24th.
Words: Max Pilley
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