Blood Meridian's Matt Camirand also plays in the mighty Black Mountain, who shocked me in early 2005 (too early to qualify for the Polaris, much to Wolf Parade's chagrin) by releasing a 70s inspired sludge-punk/art-rock boogie record that redeemed all the retrogressive descriptors attached to it. Blood Meridian is equally retro, though Camirand draws from more rootsier traditions, with country rhythms, slide guitars and gospel vocals backing up his slacker drawl (which bears an uncanny resemblance to Steve McBean, his Black Mountain boss).
Most importantly, Camirand is a much more realised songwriter than anyone else in the Black Mountain camp. I find that these days McBean spends more time sketching--especially in Pink Mountaintops, which I've never taken to--and his success relies entirely on how well his bandmates round out the material. Much of the Black Mountain album would sound repetitive and paper thin without the force of that band behind it; Blood Meridian, on the other hand, can easily succeed as a solo act. Mind you, this is a recent realisation, in my view; the first Blood Meridian album left no impression on me whatsoever. Either this is a crazy fluke or the flowering of a great new songwriter.
Now that it's list-making season, I can honestly say that Kick Up the Dust is high on my year-end round-ups; I put it at #1 on my list for Exclaim's "Wood, Wires and Whiskey" (roots music) section, the results of which will be announced in their December issue.
My conversation with Camirand starts out slow, mostly filling out gaps in my own knowledge of his history. If you're bored--and unless you're a Canadian music historian, you likely will be--skip right to the part in the middle when we start talking about songwriting.
October 19, 2006
Setting: phone. He was at home in Vancouver during a week off from touring, just back from Europe.
How does Blood Meridian do in Europe? Because to me there’s a long tradition of Europeans going nuts for North American bands who draw heavily from roots music with gothic elements to it. I always think of Nick Cave and Wim Wenders movies.
I agree. The UK is pretty into it, but the Netherlands are huge into it. We did a whole week there this time, and every club you’d go to, there would be Gun Club posters and Green on Red posters. Really obscure L.A. paisley underground-era stuff that was everywhere, and you never see it anywhere else. I think Green on Red were even playing there a couple of week after us.
Yeah! I think it’s one of those places where they can go and play and make a bunch of money and then come home and not play for a year or something. It’s really weird.
I remember those reissues coming out a few years ago, but I didn’t think they were still active.
No, me neither. I was really surprised to see the poster.
I was hoping to get a quick chronology to get my history straight. What years were you in Ottawa exactly?
Somewhere between 1990 to 1995 or 1996.
Was Okara your main band there?
Definitely. That was my first real working band, and then briefly after that broke up there was a band called 30 Second Motion Picture. That was a couple of Okara people and a couple of Shotmaker people. That only lasted six months, and then I moved out here.
So both those bands did the all-ages, community centre hardcore scene?
I’ve never heard Okara, but while researching this I’ve heard it referred to alternately as a rootsy band and a math rock band. Was it somewhere in between those things?
Yeah, we were heavy into bands like Toronto’s Phleg Camp. We fucking loved that band to death. And the Jesus Lizard. It was heavy and it had a rootsy rhythm end to it, but it was pretty discordant as well. It was weird.
Were some of the influences that come into play for Blood Meridian evident back then? Or did those surface much later?
Maybe, in terms of what we were all listening to. We were always listening to Hank Williams and [Springsteen’s] Nebraska, and there were a couple of bands back then doing the country thing, like Rex from New York. Bands like that—I don’t know if Okara showed it too much in the music, but we were listening to all that music.
Did you encounter Minnow in your travels?
Yeah, I know those guys. I haven’t talked to them in ages. We played with them a bunch.
When you said that, I remember seeing Minnow shows in Guelph—I went to university there and stayed many years. But in between sets at these hardcore shows, they’d always be playing Hank Williams and Woody Guthrie.
Yeah, I know. I used to do shows at Guelph at the university.
Later, of coures, [Minnow's] Aaron [Riches] would go on to play solo and form Royal City, so he explored those kinds of sounds there. But back to the chronology: when you moved to Vancouver in 1996 did you join the Black Halos right away?
Pretty much. I started this band called The Measure, with some people around here who are now in bands like Radio Berlin and Destroyer and Black Mountain. The Measure was even more Jesus Lizard-y. That was for six months, and then I joined the Black Halos right after that.
That went until 2001?
I think so. My time frames are all skewed. Everything seems like either ten years ago or a week ago.
When exactly was Black Mountain born? I’m unclear as to when it morphed out of Jerk With a Bomb. When did you sign on?
It started in the end of the summer two or three years ago. They changed the name and played one or two shows as Black Mountain, even though it was billed as Jerk With a Bomb. It was Steve and Josh and this guy Kristoff, and then Amber joined and Kristoff left, and I joined just as we were going to record the first album. Basically, the first day I joined they started recording. Everything I played on the record was fresh to me. I probably learned it an hour before.
I know that Blood Meridian material started when you were still in the Halos and that you wrote a lot of it in hotel rooms when you were on the road. When did you start performing it?
As soon as the Black Halos broke up, like the next week. I got my friend Jeff to come over and it was a two-guitar, quiet bedroom thing for a couple of months. Then I got my friend Kevin to play upright bass, which we never ended up doing except on the record. Then I started hearing drums and my friend Dave sat in on drums for a while before Josh joined. Then we wanted an organ player so Shira joined. It took a good year before it was up and running as it was now. We did one tour across Canada with Black Rice a couple of years ago.
A lot of these songs can obviously translate to playing solo. I know you did a tour with Chad Ross and Wooly Leaves.
I did that on that tour, and I did that on the east coast with the Constantines for ten days. It’s not hard for me, but it’s hard for me to do well. I have to try much harder than when I’m with the band, to win over the audience at a rock show. It can be tough, but when it works, it’s really cool.
Thematically, I find a lot of songs here work in couples; two songs often share a same theme. Both “Work Hard” and “McDonald’s Blues” make me wonder: what was your last shitty job?
Working at a Grand and Toy stationary store in the shipping and receiving. It wasn’t even that shitty, but it was a job I hated doing. I worked at Wal-Mart too, when I was in high school, which was a fucking nightmare. That was when Wal-Mart marched into Canada, I was right in the middle of that.
I used to work at Woolco, so I remember that era well.
Yeah, I worked at Woolco too. Dollar-forty-nine days!
I worked in the camera and records department and I didn’t know anything about cameras. I still don’t. But this all sounds like a long time ago for you; I’m assuming you have vivid memories of shitty jobs.
It doesn’t even have to be a shitty job. I used a shitty job in the song because it’s the lowest common denominator that everyone can relate to. It’s basically any job that you don’t enjoy doing. I’m a mental health care worker, and I don’t want to do it. I want to do music. It’s not a bad job, but it’s not what I want to do. It’s more the idea that your time is occupied by so much of that, and you could be using it to do something you really love. That’s what really frustrates me: that you have to work 80% of your life away, just to enjoy 20%. It seems so fucking wrong!
Did you go to school for social work?
I just fell into it. I had some friends that were doing it down here. They needed some help. Originally I was volunteering, but I got hired right away because they needed more hands. The project they were working on was growing so fast. Next thing you know, it’s ten years later and I’m still doing it.
Vancouver is very much a character in these songs. It’s always struck me as a place with a shiny façade, and also very decaying urban parts, with this wealth of natural splendour on the horizon. There are hellish parts of the city where you can see heaven close by. How much would you say these songs are influenced by Vancouver?
A lot, I guess. All my family is in Ontario: my sister, my parents.
Around. North Bay, Ottawa, Sault Ste. Marie. I don’t get to see them ever, so that’s one thing I always think about. And working in the downtown eastside, I get to see all the drug problems. It’s hard to keep you chin above water sometimes after you do that for too long. And watching the Olympics come closer, I’m watching Vancouver get uglier and uglier with more and more stupid condos. There’s a lot to write about here. Beautiful things, too. We like to go sailing sometimes for a few days on a friend’s boat, to get away. That’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before, and the west coast is so beautiful.
Vancouver is really informed by a strong dichotomy that I witness every time I’m there: the very rich, and the very destitute. You can see it on every street.
There are a lot of extremes here, I guess.
It’s a city of new wealth, as opposed to old money, and new wealth tends to spend it in more gaudy ways. And then being a warm west coast town, it gets a lot of vagrants from all over. In the liner notes you talk about recording this—on Vancouver Island, right? Near Victoria?
It’s closer to Nanaimo, actually, about a half hour out.
In the liner notes, you say, “This is where we escaped the horror of city living.” Why do you still live in Vancouver? Wouldn’t you prefer to live in the woods?
I would, but I don’t have a driver’s license. I don’t like driving, so I never got one. So I’d be stuck out there.
You could sail, couldn’t you?
Yeah (laughs). If I bought my own personal money pit of a sailboat.
The central song—and I think it’s the single, because there’s a video for it—is the title track, and to me it’s a godless gospel song. There’s a strong atheist anthem element to it. Yet it also seems like something written by someone who was raised with religion, examined it thoroughly, and then discarded it. Is that right?
I was raised not too heavy on the religion, but we did go to church and I tried to go to Sunday school. I couldn’t deal with it, so I cried until my mom stopped making me do it. It bothered me.
What bothered you about it?
It was scary to me. It seemed terrifying. It wasn’t the lessons so much as it was the environment of strangers and creepy church people. I was terrified of them.
So it wasn’t a philosophical difference, or a brimstone experience.
No, it was more of a social thing. And it’s hard to imagine brimstone in surburbia.
Oh, you’d be surprised!
But that song for me, the thing I love about it is that is has a lot of pessimism and ‘you’re at the end of your rope, so fuck it, who cares.’ The end, when we had all our friends sing on it, it has this unifying, hopeful feeling to it, with everyone arm in arm and singing together. But they’re singing about such a write-off of whatever. I love the way they clash. I think we do that a bit too much in our songs.
The choral effect?
The clash of sea shanty-style choral, good-feeling vocals with a downtrodden, bummer of a song idea.
With that song, you say, “We’re God’s little jokes, so let’s show him how little we care.” A lot of people would argue that a belief in the afterlife chains people in their existence. They limit what they do on earth, deny themselves pleasure, in order to achieve something later.
Yeah, have you seen that movie Das Boot?
You know the beginning scene of the German party when they’re just fucking loaded, shooting their guns off in the ceiling?
I haven’t seen it in about ten years.
It’s the night before they ship out, and they throw everything to the wind because they might die the next day. It reminds me of that kind of stuff.
On the song “Good Lover,” there does seem to be some idea of heaven present there. Not rooted in God per se, but more Gaia: the sea, the sky.
When I was writing that song, I remember looking at the Zuma album cover by Neil Young. I think I wrote that song just looking at that cover. There’s something about it that I really like.
So you weren’t grappling with issues of the afterlife when you wrote that?
No, no. Probably grappling with issues of breaking up with a girlfriend.
Urban alienation and the loneliness of the big city plays into several songs as well. Which for me, the sound of both Blood Meridian and Black Mountain combine desolate lyrics with a joyous, strength-in-numbers approach.
I don’t have any family out here, so when I need to turn to somebody, it’s always my friends. And my dog, I guess. They’re the only ones I have. After a few years of moping around being sad about whatever and writing songs about it, I thought: you have all these friends you love you and will do anything for you. Stop complaining so much! It’s hard to write a positive, happy song, but at the very least I was trying to remind you that there are people out there who can help you if you need it. That’s where a lot of the gang vocals come in. Whenever I hear them on the record, it always makes me feel better.
“Most Days” is a suicidal song, and “Don’t Believe” is a nihilistic song, but I’m curious about the hidden track. After everything that comes before it, suddenly you’re talking about love and laughter.
That song is separated from the rest because it’s different. I wrote that song for my sister when she was getting married a couple of years ago. I was supposed to go to this wedding, and I don’t see my family very often, so I wanted to do something special for her. I went to the studio and Josh and Amber helped me out, playing and singing on it. I took the CD to their wedding and played it for them at the end of their vows, and then gave her the CD. It was my way of apologizing to my sister because I wasn’t always there for her. I left home kind of early and came out hear and haven’t seen her a lot. And she’s my little sister, so—this fella she married, Jonathan, he’s been with her since they were in grade nine. This was my way of saying sorry to her and also saying thank you to him for taking care of her. I really wanted the song on the record, but it didn’t fit with the rest of the songs. If you buy the vinyl copy of the record, it’s on a separate seven-inch with the record.
Did you have any reservations at all about including something so personal on the record?
My only reservation was whether my sister would want it on the record, but she was really excited. She loves it. I had so much good feedback about the song at the wedding. It had my parents bawling. And that’s why I put music out, is to…
Make people weep?
Well, to try to make people feel like I’ve written something that can put you in a position of understanding. That’s the whole thing. When that song did that in a certain context, I knew it had to be on the record. I’m very proud of that song.
That sounds like mental health work in a larger capacity.
Totally. On a much larger scale.
I have to ask you about the name, and I’m wondering what it was about the story and the moral universe of the Cormac McCarthy novel that appealed to you so much.
That book hit my so crazy hard. I grabbed it from a roommate on a whim because I needed something to read in the van while on tour. I read it twice through in a row in three days. Before that, my favourite book was Moby Dick. I’ve read that a bunch too. I like the epic Biblical nature of it, and Blood Meridian has that same theme. I love the idea of this simple good vs. evil story can be turned into this epic tale. The take on it, too, it reminds me of reading Paradise Lost, where it’s a good vs. evil tale told one-sidedly from the evil side. The whole book is this poor band of miscreants who are being led to their ultimate doom by this one guy who is obviously the devil, and he’s just enjoying it the whole way. And he’s an incredible writer, with a massive grasp of vocabulary.
That book came out 20 years ago, and now there seems to be large debates about morality in every corner of the world, and how often it takes a back seat to security or expedience.
Yeah, and it’s fascinating to see if you want to compare today to that book, how easily the judge character sways the opinions of these outcasts and killers that he’s leading around. Then you look at the war that’s going on now in America, and it seems so insane that the entire country has been swayed by Bush when he’s such an obvious fucking moron. It’s so surprising how it seems so easily done even in this day and age.
These themes pop up more and more in fiction, in film, and even on TV, on a show like 24 where there’s all these very ambiguous moral debates going on.
I haven’t seen that, but I want to.
It’s really, really good in the same kind of way: a big epic good vs. evil battle. It’s a great story, and I kept going back to the video store to rent more of them.
Do you get a lot of questions about the name? Do most people know the book?
Most people do actually, and a lot of journalists seem to have read it. I get asked about it almost every single time. I was pretty surprised, because I didn’t think that many people knew it. It had escaped me for years. It’s something I would have loved reading about when I was getting out of high school, but I didn’t hear about it until four or five years ago.