I first knew about Don Campau when, diving through that rabbit hole that is the network in search of information about my beloved Minóy and Agog, I ended up in The Living Archive of Underground Music. I felt as if I had found the treasure at the end of the rainbow: trillions of interviews and articles from obscure and incredible artists, cassette labels from around the world, publications, personal memories, etc. Along with the websites of Hal McGee, the best archive about the cassette culture of the 80s and 90s, pure history of electronic music of the 20th century.
Reading about Don, listening to his music and, finally, contacting him a few months ago, I have returned to find another example of artistic integrity and incomparable musical vision. An artisan who has been immersed in a fascinating musical adventure for almost 50 years: lots of references on his own Lonely Whistle label, a radio program called No Pigeonholes, and an invaluable work as an archivist of the subculture he loves and to which he belongs.
While museums and institutions are filled with musical "curators" ignorant of the art they use to make a living, people like Don Campau and Hal McGee, with no means other than their determination and the strength of their own vision, have become the memory of the first wave of the "cassette culture", one of the most radical and amazing musical movements of the end of the last century. Being able to do this little interview has been something truly fascinating for me.
The Living Archive of Underground Music: http://livingarchive.doncampau.com/
Was Roots of Madness your first band? You released a fascinating LP in 1971, The Girl in the Chair, that I think deserves more recognition as an unique example of strange post- psychedelic nondescript music. Can you tell me anything about that project? From historical distance, it seems in the same vibe as people like LAFMS, Smegma, The Residents, etc.
stream The Girl In The Chair via the Internet Archive audio player below or click on the album pic above to visit the page at archive.org
Yes, it was but it wasn’t a band in the usual sense.
My friend Geoff Alexander and I “founded” the group I guess and our first rehearsals were in his parents' Volkswagen bus in his garage.
We were just a bunch of friends (and our brothers) who liked to play “free music”…in other words, just jam and make noise. This was a concept introduced to us by our friends and fellow DJ (and one of my mentors), John Hayden. John had been a friend to some of the Beat poets that ended up traveling through the San Francisco area. He was friends with Neal Cassady and others.
So, The Roots Of Madness (a name derived from the 1967 film by Theodore White about China) would improvise in the front room of Geoff’s house and it would be whoever showed up. We were influenced by free jazz, electronic music, oddball rock with artists like Pharoah Sanders, Albert Ayler, Captain Beefheart, the Fugs and Stockhausen and others.
We used a two track, open reel recorder to document our sessions and were doing this from 1969-1976. We released one LP in 1971 and then later re-issued the rest of the open reel tapes on CDR.
These are all at my website, doncampau.com, where free downloads and hard copies available.
stream Live Happy and Be Stupid via the Internet Archive:
Was Roots of Madness your last collective/band musical project?
I also had a punk trio called The Desmonds from 1978-1980 or so. This was me, Greg Gray and Joe Menichetti. We never gigged but recorded some hard and fast punk style songs. Both of these guys have continued to record with me on my “solo” releases. The Desmonds recordings are also available at my web site, all for free by the way.
How and when did you get involved in the cassette culture network?
In 1984 I was in Seattle visiting and saw a copy of OP magazine in a record store. I was kind of excited that they had a cassette review section. Not long after this magazine folded, it split into two others, Option and Sound Choice, which were both huge influences on the cassette trading scene and culture.They would have names and addresses of the tapes reviewed and many of the artists listed would trade so I wrote them and eventually formatted my radio show
(which I already had) around these trades. Other magazines were also germane to the underground scene like Factsheet Five and later Gajoob, Autoreverse
and Electronic Cottage.
I’ve read that you’ve been recording by yourself since 1969. I guess that was something not very common those days, how did you started home-recording? Have you ever recorded in professional studios?
As I said above, The Roots Of Madness was one of my earliest recording experiences with other people. A bit earlier by myself, I had been fooling around with an open reel tape recorder by taping household sounds and making audio collages.
I also recorded some songs with my high school friend, Bob Ballantyne. He sang and played guitar while I drummed on a box or something and sang a bit. We used one of those “make your own record” machines and cut a few “sides” of very amateurish material on one of a kind vinyl.
I have never really recorded in a professional studio (except once in Berlin) and have never released a commercial CD. Everything I have ever released was recorded, duplicated and handled personally by me, every single tape and CD and there have been over 20,000 approx. Everything I do is hand made as well which now includes my original art work as the CD covers.
Read about Don Campau's recording gear here.
You run the label Lonely Whistle, with an overwhelming amount of releases since 1984. How many releases does the catalog have? You still release music on CD, right?
My gosh, I’m not even sure but a lot. Mainly my stuff but friends, my wife and many others.
Check it all out here: http://lonelywhistle.doncampau.com/
and a whole page of free download links: http://lonelywhistle.doncampau.com/downloads
Yes, still on CDR and digital files because people seem to want those now.
One of the things I love about the US cassette culture of the 80’s is that, unlike the European industrial scene, there was a “normal guy” vibe, no use of shocking imagery and tactics (which I never liked except with Throbbing Gristle), that most of the time seemed almost childish. Did you have contacts with that scene?
The “normal guy” vibe is what really attracted me. When I got tapes from Dino DiMuro, Russ Stedman, Tom Furgas, Amy Denio, Heather Perkins, Al Perry, The Wallmen, Al Margolis, Carl Howard, Jan Bruun, Chris Phinney, Mike Honeycutt, Tim Jones, Lord Litter and many others I felt like I knew them a little bit personally even though I might not ever meet them. I am lucky because I have met many of these people in my travels. And, to me, personal connection is even more important than the music. In fact, that is how I met and married my second wife, Robin O’Brien, through the tape scene and long before the Internet.
I knew about the so called “industrial” scene but to me much of the experimental music I had already heard was better and more inventive. Throbbing Gristle was a never a fave of mine although I acknowledge their influence on others and the scene generally.
The Living Archive of Underground Music is one of the most amazing web archives of subterranean electronic music ever, in my opinion. Full packed of information, I’ve not yet absorbed 10% of the web. What was the principal motivation to do that? Preservation of that culture? Historical revision?
Yes, all of these things and more. Since I had a radio show and also developed personal relationships with people I knew more about them than just the music. Now, some of that information is too personal and private to write about or document but I felt that some connections needed to be made, especially since I knew some of the connections and could draw a line from one home taper to another. There are funny stories, sad and tragic ones, romantic ones and many interesting angles. I wanted to get document this information before I was gone or just forgot much of it as I get older.
I wrote thousands of handwritten letters years before the Internet and I even still have many of them.
Due to my involvement with a local community radio station (KOWS FM) as Program Director (my many other pursuits) I have been too busy to spend much time with The Living Archive. This is unfortunate but I am more preoccupied with the present than the past right now.
The Archive is one of the only internet places where you can read about people like Heather Perkins, Minóy, John Wiggins...It’s a real “who is who” of the US cassette culture. I knew about all this stuff through Agog (Damian Bisciglia), still one of my favorite artists ever. Do you have any favorite artist/musician in the scene?
In fact, I am a big Agog fan and had contact with him many times. His tragic death (and Minóy’s) were a big blow to the scene. He was always a very nice guy to me but I never met him in person (Nor did I ever meet Minoy although had plenty of written contact). The early scene provided me with plenty of faves: Dino DiMuro, John Bartles, Al Perry, Russ Stedman, Robin O’Brien, Lord Litter, Heather Perkins, Thomas Pradel, Kevyn Dymond, The Rudy Schwartz Project, Timothy Gilbert, John Wiggins, Big City Orchestra, Roger Moneymaker and
too many others to list them all.
Your music cannot be classified in one style, something common in the home-tapers world. Could you tell me about your biggest musical influences?
Well, that would also be a huge list since I have been a music collector since 1964 or so. The Beatles (like everyone else of my age group) were a seminal influence, as well as other bands of this era. Then there was punk and The Clash, Sex Pistols, Ramones, etc. But, I was also a big jazz and avant garde music fan since the late 60s too because my friend from The Roots Of Madness, Geoff, introduced me to the jazz scene and also introduced me to the community
radio scene which I still am involved in. Geoff was into some wild stuff and one
of the first jazz LPs I ever heard was “Om” by John Coltrane. That is not the first jazz LP most people hear and it blew my mind. Then there was Pharoah, Ayler, Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra, etc. I ate that up and have been a deep and big collector ever since. In return for turning me onto to jazz, I played my favorite rock albums for him that he knew nothing about and we became life-long friends. Of course electronic music pioneers like Stockhausen and Tod Dockstader were very impressionable as was ethnic music from India, Africa, Asia, etc and other
originals such as Harry Partch, Joan La Barbara, Harry Bertoia, and so on.
Anyone interested in your music can find difficult to know where to begin...is there any of your releases that you have a special affection for?
You aren’t kidding! My discography is kind of overwhelming for sure. I do have my favorites although the ones I love aren't necessarily my best artistic achievements. My pal Dino prefers the very early Campau, the tape releasees from 1984-5. I like things from all eras and I also cringe at many albums from all eras as well. My early albums especially are littered with things that should never have been released. I think I have become better in the last few years of editing myself and actually taking songs off of albums. I think my fairly recent albums “Just Passing Through” and “Gateway Behavior” are among my best.
I imagine you are still involved in trading? Is there any current artist you specially love?
Yes, but many people don't even deal with or want hard copies now. So, I make my material available on bandcamp, archive.org, soundcloud and if people want the actual CD I am happy to send it to them.
Sure, I have tons of favorites…man, where do I start?
I like Rudy Schwartz Project, any of Tim Jones projects, Building Castles Out Of
Matchsticks, PBK, Charles Rice Goff III, Russ Stedman, Mark Ritchie, Robin O’Brien, John Wiggins, Tom Dyer and many, many others.
Thanks a lot, Don! Anything you want to add, here’s the place.
For me, music is not something to make a career out of. I was a vegetable man in a grocery store for over 30 years. I also have no interest in performing. I do love collaborations by file exchange or CD, and I enjoy challenging myself with different projects. I think I am lucky because I am not a “perfectionist”. The mistakes I make can be fun and instructive and by collaborating with others it is less about me and more about “us” which is something I enjoy.
Also, I still solicit and enjoy getting all types of home recorded music from people from all over the world and continue to air it on my radio shows. For my details click on the “submit your music” link at www.doncampau.com
One more thing: In the last couple of years I have been sending much of my tape collection to Frank Maier in Germany who is very active in documenting and preserving this scene. Check out his https://www.tape-mag.com/ site. An incredible archive already.
Plus, Hal McGee is doing amazing work with his revived, digital version of Electronic Cottage.
Afeite Al Perro