by Jo Higgs
Callum Easter’s System is a wonderfully chaotic entry-point to a fascinating and frenetic artist
Callum Easter is quite something. The Dunbar-raised, Edinburgh-residing singer is truly an enigma: the sort of frenetic character you read about, but brush off as fictional. Any live show or chance encounter will attest to this – the often accordion-wielding troubadour is a fascinating everyman just wanting to get through life making his music and having as much fun as possible with it. His debut album, HERE OR NOWHERE, is an engaging listen full of unconventional sounds and provocative lyrics, but System demonstrates an artistic development that grows from the rich earth of prior projects.
The diverse sounds sprawled across System are often just about recognisable, but never wholly identifiable to the innocent listener. Easter’s production stylings lend themselves to the weird and wacky. As we chat, out of nowhere, he holds up a strange looking vestibule and explains, ‘this is actually on the album a lot – it’s a 15L diesel tub – it’s like all my kick drums.’ Furthering his odd-ball instrumentation fanaticism, he proceeds to pick up an object, visually akin to a smooth conch with a stumpy limb spidering out of its body. He proceeds to play an abrupt and airy melody for half a minute before breaking into a short spurt of laughter leading into an explanation: ‘it’s an ocarina, but I’ve got to figure out how to mic it up cos it might be a vibe live – but I dunno if I’d get away with it.’ As he returns to melodic tooting, it occurs that for the vast majority of the population ‘ocarina’ means little beyond its belonging in the Legend of Zelda video games. This passionate niche encapsulates a lot of Easter’s energy – experimentation and weirdness wrapped up in endless fun.
That said, it’s not necessarily a desire to procure the odd, but for Easter more that ‘it’s all about taking risks for me cos if you’re no doing that, then it’s like no worth doing. Gotta make yourself uncomfortable.’ While a lot of Easter’s music is rooted in a sort of lo-fi semi-industrial rock n roll, each track has its own variation, expansion or subversion of that: this is where risk comes in, as, for Easter, it seems that if you’ve done something particular on one track, doing a similar thing on another is safe and pointless. He links these ideas to System’s title track, citing the lyrical ambiguity and even unsettled instrumentation (he says ‘there’s an acoustic version that you could get a singalong around a fire’). For this track, he tried to hone in on producing ‘a pop tune, like one that you can dance tom but also getting that message across.’ He continues, ‘but I dunno if I’m the right person for that message, I get stuck on The System but I guess we all do.’ If Easter can successfully tackle what he calls the ‘trickiest track’ on the album, perhaps there’s hope for tackling the very thing the track represents.
‘I came to music quite late,’ he divulges. ‘I mean, as a teen, I was always a music fan, but I don’t think I would’ve ever jumped out as an obvious natural talent. I’ve always considered myself an artist, but like more interested in that than the musicianship side of things.’ Easter’s bashful and humble musical beginnings lead him to explain what it transpires is a fascinating song-writing process: ‘I used to always hear things and then just try to find that sound. I love just finding the sound. That’s probably my favourite bit – just making tunes. I’ve got another song to write before the end of the year. It’s like I’ve figured out what it sounds like before I’ve written it; that happens sometimes. The idea’s there for the feeling of it and then I just need to find the words to go with those feelings. You see, you get the rhythm and the feeling and you put it through a certain amp with a certain tremolo and there’s a vibe there, and that’s maybe the chorus. There’s a lot of voice memos on my phone of this stuff, but there’s always more of an arrangement in my head for it. And it’s just like an eight-bar chorus, it’s a pop tune. You know, verse – chorus – verse – chorus – middle, there’s gonna be a key change in this one.’ It sounds like a fruitful chaos, but if it’s baring the results of System and HERE OR NOWHERE, it’s a process that should be adhered to. Easter follows his explanation with a humorous caveat: ‘I probably shouldn’t be talking about this anyway cos I’ve not even written it, but that’s a risk. You’ve just got to throw yourself at it.’
On this slightly scattered process, he comments, ‘I like to keep the innocence in what I’m doing, and not let it get too sophisticated. I don’t like it when you need a dictionary to listen to a song.’ He may stretch considerably beyond the conventional, but as the above demonstrates, this should never be taken to involve branching into pretension. Easter’s music might not all be bubblegum accessible, but it’s certainly not putting up any barriers between itself and the listener – it’s a dose of oddness that everyone can enjoy.
A songwriting process as wacky as this likely results in other affronts to convention. One such affront being The Callum Easter TV Special – a 20 minute programme to be screened at Edinburgh’s The Biscuit Factory on the night of the album launch (19th of November). It’ll be a strange feature, full of absurdity and that classic Easter wryness. He describes it (either reading from a pre-existing piece of promo or just another example of a quite incredible creative mind improvising – or both) as: ‘It’s a Saturday night. In a white suit, up a ladder, greeting his bemused guests. What is this exactly? It’s The Callum Easter TV Special. It’s a Saturday night variety show filmed in the depths of the gothic city of Edinburgh and broadcast on cable. See how music TV could be: powered by absinthe and love and self-disgust instead of ego and career.’
No doubt, it’ll be a weird and wonderful affair – as seems characteristic of Easter output. System is a sort of hear it to believe it album, and so… make sure you hear it.
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