Callum Easter cuts a conspiratorial figure on Zoom. Whether by accident or design, he’s lit his workspace so that for most of the interview I’m talking to a shadow. He looks less like a musician and more like someone blowing the whistle on his former associates.
We’re talking about his new album, System, the follow up to the bleak and forbidding landscapes of 2019’s Here or Nowhere. Where that LP was a real slow burner, all moody drones and layers of atmosphere, System launches itself at you with a rush of pure soulful energy. Featuring prominent vocal contributions from twin sisters Jackie and Pauline Cuff, a.k.a JnP, the album collars you from the breathlessly rhetorical opening track, ‘What You Think?’, and keeps up a stomping pace.
The familiar, slightly battered drum machines and accordion are still in evidence, but the sound is opened up with the addition of a xylophone and the cheeky call of an ocarina. It’s unexpectedly funny in places, the lines between light and dark blurred with absurdity.
System is out in November on Moshi Moshi in association with Lost Map Records, and we’re very proud to present an exclusive God is in the TV video preview of the song ‘My Love’.
We drag the man himself out of bed one morning to talk Russian billionaires in chinchilla fur coats, ordinary madness, whacking a big thick string with a stick, his self-styled Callum Easter TV Special, and how these days he just wants to dance.
GiitTV: So Callum, just what do you think about the world today?
Callum Easter: See, that’s the thing. It brings up all these questions… I’ve not woken up enough.
I came across the words Callum Easter TV Special somewhere online… what’s that about?
It’s like live performances to accompany the album and then I’ve got like guest dancers and personalities in there. I’ve borrowed a load of black-out and we’ve filmed it all in my friend’s studio last March. We did it over several days so we could do all the distancing and things – not have too many people about. I’m editing it at the moment with my good friend Glenda Rome who I do the filming with. It’s not far off.
Looking at the videos, there seems to be a bit of a theme where you look like you’re being interrogated. Is there a story behind that or do you just have a guilty conscience?
The one for ‘System’ was kind of last minute. We had three ideas and that was the one that I could pull off in time. So I was properly tied up. Filming’s always uncomfortable anyway. I much prefer making tunes to doing videos. The main thing is to make something that’s visually exciting.
And then the song itself, ‘System’. It was probably one of the hardest songs to write in terms of trying to strike a balance. It’s political but you’re trying to make something that people could potentially sing along to. And then, what system are you banging on about, you know? It’s quite broad.
It’s a great chorus. I’m surprised ‘Come on and fuck the System’ is not more widely adopted as a lyric. Maybe it takes too much for most bands to pull it off.
Yeah, I could have had ‘change the system‘, kind of meaning the same thing.
But it’s a thing that people actually say.
Yeah. But the hooky bit for me is Jackie and Pauline’s backing over it, (sings) ‘Hey, what you gonna do?’. That’s what balanced that song out. You can harp on about it, but like, what are you gonna do? And I’m still kind of figuring that out as well.
What are you figuring?
Just like, how do you make money making music without selling your soul? You get these folk, like, ‘thank you Amazon’, like fucking rock-and-roll bands.
I don’t mean that in a bitter way, I mean I am quite fortunate in loads of ways but it’s just that this is what I want to do as a living and I’ve kind of put myself in a situation where I need to support a family, so maybe this isn’t a great chat for an interview, but you know…
But it’s a situation that a lot of musicians find themselves in…
Yeah, it’s common.
… and not just musicians but people in all kinds of walks of life now are struggling with these questions.
Yeah, it’s artists innit, really? Well, it’s fine. I’m gonna sell the tune, ‘Fuck the System’ to a big corporate… what is the word? I haven’t even got any vocabulary this morning. (Pauses, thinks)
When you… yeah. Hypocrisy.
I think when we spoke a couple of years ago you talked about doing more stuff with Jackie and Pauline (note: I only realised later, and with a certain starstruck bemusement, that JnP might be better known to readers of a certain vintage as Johnny Marr sampling indie-dance beatniks Soho). It seems like their vocals are really important throughout the album.
I like the way that a lot of them sound like they’re looped or as if their voices are used rhythmically. What was the process of working on that?
Well, they’ve got writing credits across the album. There’s not really much looping going on. They’re just doing takes. We were working remotely and I was sending them stuff and then Tim London would record them in Birmingham and send them back so it was always like a mad surprise because you’ve no idea what they’re gonna send you back.
I sent them a couple of directions on some, but then I just got to the point where it was more interesting to see what they sent back. Because they sound like school kids on that ‘What You Think?’ track. It cracks me up when I hear it. So basically, that was the process. I would record up here send it back and then work with whatever came the other way.
They sound like they get the wryness of some of the songs.
They make it for me. Without them on those tracks, I’m not as keen.
They sound really integral. How is that for you? Because you’re a multi-instrumentalist and you must have recorded a lot of that by yourself and then let these other people in…
Yeah, all the instruments I’ve done again, yeah. Was there anyone else? I kind of lose track (thinks). No, because it was too awkward asking people to come into your little room. ‘Do you wanna come in this little box and record something?’ ‘Nah’ (laughs).
I’ve been trying to get some people for live shows because there’s a lot of xylophone and that’ll be cool live. Recently, for the last couple of gigs, just for ease, I’ve gone back to the old accordion thing and it’s all right. I tried a few different setups and was like, actually it’s not as good as what I was doing on the accordion. So maybe I’ll get someone on keys that can do a bit of guitar as well. Yeah, that would work. Plus a xylophone or glock.
I loved the xylophone bits on the album, and I read the thing in Product Magazine where you chose five tracks…
That blew my mind. You said that you spent a year putting a xylophone through a guitar amp trying to get a sound like that.
And did you obtain the desired result?
It’s funny when you do that, mixing and recording it. I’ve actually got different versions of these tracks on the album as well that I’m thinking of doing something with.
I think it’s just that… I just love distortion basically (laughs). I love gaining things. It does something. It’s more alive or something. Or more dangerous. And just wood – wooden things sound very good through the amps. The wood is good, Colin! (more laughter)
Have you ever thought, I wonder what that’ll sound like?
Er, it sounds like too much information. It says in the press release you’ve turned a jerry can into a kick drum?
That might make a live appearance as well. Actually, I did a song the other day, yeah, on an instrument called a berimbau. My friends make it using the steel from a tyre. Like, if you cut a tyre open there’s a certain gauge of steel inside and that’s commonly how they get the steel for it. It’s on a wooden bow and there’s a gourd at the bottom and I’ve bought all these microphone capsules, so they’re like half size what they would usually be, and they just bolt onto stuff. So that’s what I’m doing with the xylophone and the jerrycan. You can just bolt the mic on and put a jack cable on it.
So anyway, I was doing that with the berimbau at Hidden Door Festival, which was fun. Through a distortion pedal of course and then some sub-harmonics.
This all sounds very geeky, but there’s something about just whacking a big, thick string with a stick, through an amp, you know what I mean?
It worked a lot better than I thought it might.
There’s something about the physicality of loud noises in a space and that seems like something that you consider. You have a lot going on in each of the tracks but there’s a lot of space around it somehow.
I’m trying to make it more concise. So that if you are playing it on an accordion instead of piano you’re not missing many elements really, you’re just replacing one with the other, whereas before there would maybe be more layers. And I’m trying to be more up-tempo. With ‘What You Think?’ and ‘System’ being in the set, it’s more up-tempo compared to the other songs.
So, Here or Nowhere was a moody and low-key sort of album, while System sort of lurches in another direction. How quickly did you realize you were going to be heading that way?
I had it in my head that I wanted to be less… is it introspective? I wanted to be less melancholy as well. I made quite personal songs on Here or Nowhere, and I didn’t want to go over anything like that, all those kinds of feelings. But then it’s unavoidable, I always go dark. But it feels more outward on System.
Some of them happen quite quickly. Like ‘Find ‘em a Home’ is an awkward one for me. For that, I lifted the words from the Daily Mail and it’s a bit heavy… the whole time I was like, can I get away with that? And now live I’m like, can I get away with that? I’ll find out. I’ve only done it a couple of times on the guitar, but it doesn’t really feel like my words that one.
I was shocked to hear the word ‘chinchilla‘ in that song.
Chinchilla? Well, that’s the thing, it’s supposed to be over the top. Because I’m kind of taking the piss out of the Daily Mail, or making a point, you know? It was about a billionairess and her chinchilla fur coat. There was an article about how she got verbally attacked at a cash point, like told to go back to her own country and she’s like a Russian billionaire you know?
I just thought it was quite funny. To say, ‘you come over here taking our jobs’ and she’s no got a job, mate, she’s a billionaire.
That’s something else that’s fucked – the place of that wealth. That’s the system I’m talking about. That’s the system at the end of the day for me. That imbalance. The one per cent. Like, yeah… rockets.
No one should have their own space programme.
I’m always looking for a balance you know? But then, you just end up feeling a bit hopeless as well. I could have made an album that was a lot less jaggy.
We live in jaggy times though.
Yeah. I can’t help myself.
Is it a good time to talk about the song we’re previewing, ‘My Love’? It sounds like it’s framed as a ballad but it also seems quite political and it made me think of those old soul and blues records…
Yeah, yeah. For me, it’s like an RnB track, and there’s a version of it it’s a bit more like that, beat wise. And then I had this ocarina – a lot of these old instruments were my grandfather’s – and it’s like a kind of clay instrument.
And the lyrics… it’s one of those ones where the words kind of come to you. But I guess it’s about how it’s all so confusing, and how there’s all this information going on around you, and it’s about trying to get back to connecting with the people around you and the people that you love. Like, that’s just the way you see it, you know? You can stress yourself out with all these anxieties but what’s important really? Or what’s actually real and around you?
So I was trying to touch upon that kind of feeling. But then, there’s like all the political stuff in between. It’s been a mad time to write songs. Part of me almost wishes I never bothered (laughs). It’s stressed me fucking out, to be honest.
In ‘My Love‘ there’s a great bit at the end where the female vocal comes in…
That’s Jackie. I’d done something there but then she trumped me, easy (laughs) and I was like, that’s going in instead. So that was that. Like, I’m fire and you’re air. A simple idea really, feeding off each other. I didn’t pull it off myself.
I’m hoping to get Jackie and Pauline live. That’s the dream team. A band and JnP and Tim London dubbing it out from the front of house.
So tell me about Tim (note: Tim London was also in Soho with JnP and the trio currently work together as IKLAN), I mean how long have you known him? I know he’s also connected with Young Fathers, isn’t he?
I done my first two EPs with him on a label called Soul Punk, so that must have been a wee while ago now. Whenever ‘Feelings Gone’ came out? It’s getting on five or six years. I’ve known him since then and he was managing myself and Young Fathers at the time. I learned a lot from him as regards approach and production. And he’s loaned me a lot of gear as well, so he’s been a great supporter over the years and we bounce ideas off each other. He’s involved with the TV special as well, in a creative director kind of role. And on this album, he’s got additional production credit because he recorded JnP and he helped with some of the mixes and stuff. He’s got some solo stuff that I love under the name Yossarian.
The other artist on the record that I wanted to ask about was Law Holt. I like the duet you do with her.
Ay, ‘Lose Sometime’. She used to live in Edinburgh. She’s down in London now. So, Tim and JnP, they’ve got a project called IKLAN at the minute and Tim was down there recording Law for that when I sent him that track, so I was lucky to get her on there.
With ‘Lose Sometime’, you can do quite a good country version of that as well, on the acoustic. I’m looking forward to doing it live. I get a bit mad on the rhythm. It’s a really fast waltz basically, but I think I’m doing a four over it. I don’t really know much about time signatures or anything like that and I don’t read any music either – but I know a waltz is a three and if you speed it up it gets a bit confusing (laughs). But you do whatever works really. Yeah, I’ve been singing that on my own so it would be good to get her for the London gig.
Has it made you think about doing more duets? Could you see a Callum Easter and friends special?
Nah. Maybe write duets for other people. I think that’s the game. Then you can just pretend, you never sold out, did you? (Muses ironically) You wrote the hits and then wrote songs about fuck the system.
There’s a quote attached to the album where you say the album is a descent into ordinary madness. And that’s a that’s the question I often think about – is madness ordinary, and in what kind of way?
Everyone’s talking about their mental health a lot more openly. I wouldn’t like to call that madness but I don’t know.
I’m quite interested in R.D. Laing, who was a Scottish psychiatrist and one of his ideas was that madness is very political. Like, the world is organised in such a horrifying way that to go mad is a logical response, and why are more people not insane and is it not more insane to go along with the system?
I dunno, I felt so isolated and then I stopped, I just switched off from the news and then you’re like making these statements in your songs. A descent into ordinary madness… I could say it always comes back to love for me, which is a bit cheesy…
Not at all.
What was the thing I did? I was playing the other day, right, and I think I said something like, ‘Who wants to see something that could go terribly wrong?’ And everyone went, ‘Yaaaaaay!’ And then you say it again, ‘Who wants to see something that could go TERRIBLY WRONG!’ And it gets a wee bit louder, and maybe that’s just what’s happening all the time.
Like you’re just seeing the same shit again and again… it’s chaos, everything’s fucked. There’s this Cop 26 happening up here soon and it’s like I could be doing a lot more about that. I’ve not really delved into it. It’s like, this is something else to worry about as well, isn’t it? But then maybe that’s the one that’s worth the worry.
People are so hopeful about Cop 26 but there’s every chance it’s just going to be another stitch up for big companies and rich nations, you know?
Yeah, but how do you get away from that? Everything feels much more corporate all the time.
It’s not even transparency. There’s so much information that you just feel like you’re wading through it and it just distracts you from… well, you just don’t know. There’s a wee layer of doubt in everything.
I usually delete all my apps on the weekend, so I don’t have to look at it, but I dip in and out of Twitter and you just get loads of sketchy information, like a little peep at something. Like someone was wearing a Tax the Rich dress at some fancy ball. There’s a level of irony in that as well – ordinary madness, innit? Tax the Rich at some rich ball. I thought it was good though actually. At least it’s something.
So when we spoke a few years ago and we talked about optimism…
Do you still find yourself an optimist or is that a bit harder to maintain now?
Did I say I was optimistic? I mean, for me a cup of tea can change that. (Laughter)
A nice biscuit. Yeah, I feel quite optimistic! Sugar, yeah.
I still am. I’ve had a tricky wee spot for the past few months but everyone’s having stuff, you know I mean? It’s just a funny old time.
Well the fact that everyone’s had it doesn’t make it any easier, does it?
But I felt better once I started talking about it, you know? Starting to see people again. It’s the human contact thing.
Did any of that sense of isolation channel into how you were working? Because there you are, alone in the studio, yeah?
I put a lot of pressure on myself. It’s funny. Every time I finish something like that, I think about how I’ll do it differently next time. But I spent a lot of time by myself and then… it’s hard to compare it to that first album as well because it’s not like I recorded that in your standard way either.
Yeah. I did feel quite mad the whole time.
Because it doesn’t feel like it’s an album concerned with solitude or introspection in the way that Here or Nowhere was.
I was hoping to make people move. Get people dancing. I’ve got some good moves if I get rid of that accordion. I want to do some more dancing basically.
One last question. Seeing as you’re such a virtuoso engineer and producer, would you ever be tempted to produce records for other people? And if so who would you like to work with?
I’ve not really got the set up to record someone else, to be honest. Nah. I mean, you’d get someone coming round and they’d be like, ‘What the fuck is this? I’m not recording in here.’ And it’ll just be awkward. In my wee box.
No, they wouldn’t, they’d be like, we’re working with an eccentric genius like Connie Plank or something.
Right. And they’d be like, ‘And it’s no working, let’s get out of here!’
Thanks for your time Callum. Good luck with System. It’s a fucking smasher of an album and it’s gonna be massive.
I’m gonna do piano ballads next, I think. I’m gonna try that.
‘System’ by Callum Easter is available on 19 November on Moshi Moshi and Lost Map records and is available to preorder here: https://www.lostmap.com/products/callum-easter-system
Callum Easter is playing the following live dates:
October 29th – The Talleyrand, Manchester
October 30th – Bobik’s, Newcastle Upon Tyne