Adam Svec wrote the soundtrack to his latest project, Camp Dark, in the break from his Minnesota life while he was living in South Carolina. Svec's expansive and exploratory musical path runs parallel to that of his friend and Camp Dark collaborator Graham O'Brien.
The two have been working on projects together for some time now, including on Camp Dark's debut album, Nightmare in a Day. Their creative partnership began when Svec contributed to O'Brien's first solo record, and continued into Coloring Time, an improvisational group that includes many musical friends.
And now, with Camp Dark, their collective expands to include Robert Mulrennen, Dan Choma, Matt Friesen, deVon Gray, John Keston, Matt Leavitt, Casey O'Brien, and Chris Salter. The latest alliance echoes the bold experimentation of Coloring Time, only in a more structured environment.
"We wanted to give this group some other moniker, because it wasn't just me," Svec elaborates over drinks at the Aster Cafe. The band's publicity photo is an ideal visual representation of the sprawling sonic direction they set out to achieve with Camp Dark, with an amalgamation of all the members' faces blending into one fractured whole.
"I'm contributing the melody and lyrics," Svec explains. "But most of the other musical components are either generated by Graham or one of the other contributors, and arranged and put together by Graham. It didn't make sense to describe it as an Adam Svec record. My contribution was not the majority of what eventually occurred."
Nightmare in a Day is culled from Svec's experiences in his year spent in the South while attending school. The 13 tracks touch on themes of intolerance, such as racism, sexism, and homophobia — topics that weigh particularly heavy on Svec.
The ominous opening track, "Dixieland," is a poignant, straightforward account of Svec's life in South Carolina, a place where he never really felt at home. "I didn't mesh well with any part of the scene there," he says. "My biggest takeaway from my time spent there was the South and the North have different priorities — race, gender, and LGBT issues are different.
"From my Northern perspective, the South was behind in a lot of ways," Svec continues. "People there pointed out to me that places like Milwaukee, Omaha, and Minneapolis are segregated as well — as far as race goes. It's definitely true, but racism is a little less insidious and more overt in South Carolina; it was more heavy-handed. I don't care about sports or the beach, so I had very little in common with the people I came in contact with."[page]
This experience fed the muse that created the music on Nightmare in a Day. The album is more haunting than Svec's previous solo endeavors, which is evident on "Charlie," a solemn epilogue to Tom Waits's "Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis."
"When I was in Charleston, I was suffering from homesickness and trying to figure out what would cure that," Svec says. He took to listening to familiar songs that referenced places that he was missing, and naturally latched on to Waits's story of a desperate woman's lonely holiday in Minneapolis.
In the Waits song, a prostitute writes to a character named Charlie about finding a stable relationship with someone who is going to help raise her unborn baby — though as the number draws to a close, she admits to her deceit, and reveals that none of the narrative was true. She was actually serving time in prison, awaiting parole.
In an effort to find some glimmer of hope in a hopeless situation, Camp Dark's "Charlie" reopens the tale in an effort to make the better life she imagined for herself a reality. "I wanted to see what a continuation of that story would look like," Svec says. "I wanted to contribute to the story."
"What I like about Adam's writing is that his songs are so distinctive; there's always a strong protagonist in his writing," O'Brien adds. "There aren't a lot of vague lyrics, so it's pretty clear and concise what he is trying to say in his pieces." While steeped in the songwriter tradition, in the hands of O'Brien, the album takes on an added texture and even darker feel.
When Svec sings lyrics like "I wrapped myself in a rainbow flag, and I dreamed of the day kids dressed in drag," the layered, pulsating music swelling around his vocals gives the words even more weight and depth. There is a lonesome quality to the character arcs on the album, which is a credit to the creative headspace occupied by both Svec and O'Brien.
Svec gave O'Brien the liberty to strip and remix all of the vocals and guitar tracks, while adding his own aesthetic to the songs via soundscapes and little sonic nuances that worked their way into the final production.
"A lot of the record had an ambient feel to it," O'Brien says. "Instead of trying to match the original chord and guitar, I took that away, changed the chords, and added music to it. I wanted to exaggerate the stories. If there's an idea there, I try and key in on that emotion and go all of the way. I want to beat you over the head with how intense the emotion is. That's sublime — the power of nature. It's terrifying and violent, but also beautiful."
Camp Dark's Nightmare In A Day release show is on Friday, May 15, at Icehouse, with LOTT and the Starfolk; 612-276-6523.
GIMME NOISE'S GREATEST HITS
The 10 Most Underrated Guitarists in the History of Rock
The Best New Minnesota Musicians of 2014
53 things you might not know about Prince
73 things you might not know about Bob Dylan