Photo: Anna Blumenthal
It’s 2pm on a summery Wednesday in September, and Australian native Cameron Avery seems to have adapted quite well to life in Bushwick, Brooklyn. He’s hiding behind Ray Bans, sipping cans of Modelo, complaining about the high pollen count, and expressing his love for the Yankees in a way-too-crowded-for-a-weekday-afternoon Roberta’s. After talking in nightclub-volume voices for a couple minutes about how much he loves his White Lights (yes, that’s Lights with an ‘s’ – he has three), we retired to the half-hidden backyard to talk somewhere we could actually hear each other.
Anna Blumenthal: How was your tour?
Cameron Avery: Great. It was San Fran, then I played Dana Point, and I did a show in LA. Dana Point was a really funny festival to be at because it was very chill 70s vibes, and my friend who was there was like, “You look like a vampire.” It was a bunch of surfy-type bands, and then I walk in in this black suit with flares on and everyone’s like, “Who’s that guy?” I was sort of out of place, but the crowd was so sweet. Then I played in LA and Chicago, Toronto, New York, and then I’m on hold for a bit. I’m going down to Houston to help out with the [Hurricane Harvey] clean-up, and then I’m putting together a benefit show in Austin. Then I’m going to Copenhagen, Paris, London, Amsterdam, a European leg in late October, but I have a couple weeks off. I’m taking a road trip to Yellowstone.
AB: How many years have you been in the US?
CA: Four. But I’ve been touring here for ages. Before I lived here I was the drummer for Pond and for five or six years we’d been coming to the states. I have some friends who I go to ball games with, and they’re like 4th generation New Yorkers, and I’m a big Yankees fan, so they love me.
AB: Alright, now that I have this rolling, do you want to tell me about the White Light, what you were talking about before?
CA: Yeah, I used it the first time that the guys from EarthQuaker came down [to Tame Impala’s show] in Cleveland. Kevin [Parker] and Jay [Watson] are such psych dudes, they want the chorus or they want the delays and all the crazy stuff. Kevin makes fun of me. He’s like, “How many boost pedals and tremolo pedals do you need?” I wanted this White Light cause it gave me this vibe when I first played it, like Marc Ribot. When you put the compression on, it sounded like when you use the back pickup, like this compressed Ribot thing, like Mick Fleetwood, this trashy sounding thing. So now I have three of them. Cause I found out they were discontinued. Whenever I see one – like I saw one in Portland and I was buying something else. I was like, “Also you know what, I’ll take that White Light too”.
AB: You’re stockpiling them for the apocalypse!
CA: Yeah. Exactly. And I’ve been using the Hummingbird. And the Dispatch Master. I was trying to condense my pedalboard before this trip, because I’m playing solo, and I had a delay pedal and a reverb pedal, and it didn’t make any sense to me. I was trying to make this pedalboard as small as possible so I could tour it. I love that thing. It’s better than reverb on my amp. It doesn’t feedback, which is the coolest thing about it, but I use it for a slap. I have a pretty basic setup. Recording-wise, I really love the Night Wire. The attack is the coolest, and I love tremolo. That thing is so good. And it’s amazing. How do you make something that reacts to velocity? The Hummingbird is my favorite cause it sounds like the repeater from Suicide records. I love that pedal. All your stuff is so innovative. I don’t really care about [old gear]. Kevin paid some exorbitant amount of money for an original Fuzz Face. I was like, “Yeah, cool, but I don’t care!” The amps I use are just reissue Deluxe Reverbs. And Austen Hooks built me a projector amp.
Do you know Benji Lysaght? He used to play with Father John Misty. He played on a bunch of my albums. He’s the best guitarist I’ve ever seen in my life. He’s actually the only person I ever co-wrote with, ever. He played the opening track [‘Dance With Me’], the nylon string. It was an instrumental thing he had and I turned it into a tune. Benji doesn’t drink. We were out one night, I was trashed, and he was chaperoning me, I had like 400 martinis, and I had the idea for “Dance With Me”, and I woke up really hungover and he wouldn’t let me leave the house until I’d finished. He’s like, “You have a lot of dumb ideas when you’re drunk, but this was a good one. Sing it. I saw you on the street making a voice memo.” I’ve still got the demo actually. Benji played the guitar solo and the main lead part on “Dance With Me”. He’s one of my favorite guitar players. He’s always got really wacky gear. When I recorded with him, he used a full reel-to-reel tape machine as his delay. He puts his sock onto this spool to slow it down and speed it up, so he’s got a sock on these two spinning tapes, the sock just slows the tape down just that little bit…
AB: Wow, that’s really analog style!
CA: Yeah. But anyway, what I was getting to was the amp. Benji got me into this guy Austen Hooks who makes these amazing amps. Blake Mills uses them and Benji uses them. They’re old projectors. When they started putting sound into films they had these projectors with speakers in them, so the circuit was basically the same as a guitar amp. Austen retrofits them with all new old-stock components, and makes these custom-built amps. There’s only a few people who got ‘em. He makes ‘em to order. It’s all point-to-point. It’s one of the most amazing amps I’ve ever used.
AB: So you just use that for recording? Is it too nice to bring on the road?
CA: I took it on the road for a little bit. It literally looks like a projector, it’s in the projector case. When you’re walking in an airport with it, people are like, “Is that a projector?” (laughs)
AB: That’s really cool! Does Benji have a studio in LA?
CA: No, he records at home. He does a lot of film scores. He played in my band last week at Dana Point. Every now and then I can wrangle him into something. I used to go around to his house and listen to him play. He once injured his arm from practicing too much. But he’s my favorite guitar player. He played in my band last week in Dana Point and it was really fun.
AB: Does your live band change?
CA: Yeah. I kinda like it. It’s fun. If you ever see [Tom] Waits play, he uses whoever is around. I’ve never seen him live, but I have a proverbial ‘go bag’ in my bank account, that’s for if he ever plays. I’m signed to the same label as him now. When I was negotiating deals, that was a clincher. ‘Anti offered you a deal.’ ‘Like Tom Waits’ Anti?? Yep, where do I sign?’ (laughs)
AB: Who are the musicians on your album?
CA: I played most of the guitar, drums and bass, and piano on it. The fact that Benji is on it is amazing. You know Dan Horne? He plays in Jonathan Wilson’s band. Dan has this studio in Silverlake. When I first lived here, I had this crappy apartment in Echo Park above a tattoo studio, and he had one around the corner, and he would record people in the daytime, and he would let me go use the studio from 10pm to 6am and I’d sling him a couple hundred bucks. That’s where most of the album was [recorded], cause Benji and I both are night owls.
If it’s two drummers it’s usually me and another guy. Jay Bellerose played on my album. He plays old cow skin drums. And all the sounds on True Detective, all the drum stuff, is Jay. He’s T-Bone Burnett’s guy and he’s played on Robert Plant and Allison Krauss’s album, Raising Sand. He was just hanging around the studio one night and came by. We were recording at Electro-Vox, and he likes going in there because they have all these old cow skin giant marching drums and kick drums and all this crazy percussion. They have the best gear collection in America. So Jay was there, and I played for him that opening track, and he said, ‘Can I play on this?’
After that, I showed him ‘Dance With Me,’ and he came up with these snare flutters in the second part, the really good playing. He had this bag of shakers on his forearm, and he had this tambourine on his foot and he’s playing with one hand, and doing these rolls - it blew my mind. It was so fun. He played on ‘Watch Me Take It Away’, that was amazing. James Ireland, from my band The Growl, and Marc Earley, from Australia, who’s a double bass player, played a bit on the album, one or two songs. James played on one song on piano. On ‘C’est Toi’, it’s just me and Jonathan Wilson. Jonathan played the drums and the guitar and I played the piano and the bass. And Owen Pallett did all the string arrangements, he does all The [Last] Shadow Puppets stuff and did the Her soundtrack. He’s in the Arcade Fire. Amazing string arranger. This other drummer who plays in my live band, Henry Kwapis, is my favorite drummer ever. He plays in the band Harriet. He played on ‘Do You Know Me By Heart’, and the second-to-last tune [‘Whoever Said Gambling’s For Suckers’]. The breakdown in ‘Watch Me Take It Away’, that’s me, Jay Bellerose and Henry, but the main bit of that was me and Henry with this giant drum kit. That was one of the funnest bits to do on the album, the congas.
AB: Is a solo album something you’ve been thinking about doing for a while?
CA: No, it was going to be a Growl album because my old band was called the Growl. It was a bass player and me singing and two drummers. It wasn’t singing, it was screaming. I thought I was Nick Cave in The Birthday Party. It was my first proper band. I had another band before that but I was a kid. But that was meant to be called Cameron Avery but I was too much of a pussy to call it my name, so I called it The Growl.
AB: Not a pussy, maybe, just not an egomaniac.
CA: Yeah (laughs). So this album was meant to be a second Growl album. I started recording it, and then as I moved to LA and I didn’t have my band that played with me in Australia anymore I was sort of coming out of my shell. It was the first adult thing I’ve ever done. As it was taking shape, Anti came in right at the end, when I pretty much finished tracking the album, and they said, ‘It’s a massive sonic departure from the Growl stuff. Did you make it yourself?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘So it’s a solo album.’ ‘Yeah.’ And they convinced me. So that’s how it came about. It was never meant to be like, ‘I’m going solo!’ I just had all these songs and it was going to be a Growl album right to the very end, and then I was like, ‘Let’s call it Cameron Avery.’ My bandmates were like, ‘Egomaniac!’ (laughs) I caught some flack for it, but whatever.
AB: So in theory you’re still doing The Growl?
CA: Kind of. I’d love to do it. It was crazy, it wasn’t refined, it was raw. We used to cover ‘John The Revelator’. It was like a really loud blues band with the fuzziest bass you ever heard in your life. People still ask for that. Before I played with Tame Impala, The Growl used to open for Tame.
AB: Is Tame Impala taking a break? I see you’re still doing some shows, but are you all working on different projects now?
CA: I’m probably not at liberty to say, but Kevin is working on new stuff. Kevin is never not working on anything. He lives on his computer and he makes music on his computer. He has his studio and he tracks there but he makes his music in Ableton so he’s always working. I haven’t seen him in a few months. For all I know he’s done like 10 tunes since I’ve seen him and he’ll just pop something out. But Jay’s been touring his solo thing and Pond put out an album, so Pond are touring.
AB: Are you still in Pond?
CA: No, I just played drums for those two albums. And Pond is doing that album The Weather which is a really cool album. They recorded it in Perth, that was the first ever recording in Kevin’s new studio, and Kevin produced and mixed it. Pond was always three guys with their eyes closed with a hand on the steering wheel. One of the funnest times in my whole life was playing drums with Pond. It’s the best, funnest band in the world. They’re the biggest bunch of bozos you ever met and I am one of those. But anyway, I don’t know what Kevin is working on. He’s doing DJ gigs in Miami. It’s so funny, he and [Mark] Ronson have taken over the superstar DJ world. I’m like, ‘You guys just get paid to get drunk and press play?’ They’re like, ‘Yup!’ (laughs).
AB: He still lives in Australia?
CA: Yeah, but he’s always out here. I think he’s been producing some stuff for a few people I’m probably not allowed to mention, so he’s out in LA at the moment working on that.
AB: Did you decide to work on an album because you were doing less stuff with Tame Impala?
CA: I was always in The Growl whether I was in Tame or not. I just started recording songs, and I wasn’t signed. I moved to LA and LA vastly changed the sonic landscape of that album. I couldn’t have made that sounding album anywhere else in the world. It sounds like Hollywood.
AB: I was going to ask how living in the states has influenced you musically.
CA: Oh, huge, humongously. I was going to move to New York - we were touring and Jonathan Wilson was opening up for us, with Tame, and me and Jonathan and his guitar player, Omar Velasco, became really chummy during that tour. At the end of that tour I was like, ‘I might move to New York after this tour’, and he was like, ‘Dude, I lived in New York, you don’t want to live there. Come stay with me in LA for a couple of weeks between these two tours you’re doing and see if you like it.’ Jonathan lives in a tree house recording studio. It was the coolest thing. He was my first friend. And him and Omar encouraged me, Omar particularly. So I stayed in LA. I went back to pack and make sure my visa was working and that was it. I think I went home for a few months. Then I came back and I was living in LA. I lived around the corner from Jonathan in this shitty apartment. That was totally formative. They’re like, ‘You should make an album, you can really sing; why don’t you make something where we can hear that?’ That inspired me to stop trying to think about what I was doing too much and just do it.
My favorite albums are old big band jazz albums, but you can’t make old big band jazz-sounding albums when you’re 18 years old. You want to be loud and aggressive. Whereas this is like the most self-indulgent thing I’ve ever done. The sonic landscape is definitely LA. Hanging out with Jonathan and working in studios like Electro-Vox and hanging out with Benji and Zach Dawes and my best pal Al Turner, and we were both single and running around, it was fun. And it formed a lot of the lyrics, and a lot of the sounds on that album just came from living in LA. It’s a very LA sounding album (laughs). LA was the sonic landscape of that album. I couldn’t have made that album anywhere else in the world. It would have sounded completely different if I recorded it here [in New York] or in Australia.
AB: Who were your musical influences when you were making this album?
CA: I try to not listen to the obvious ones. I love Lee Hazelwood. I’d die for Lee and Nancy. I love Patsy Cline and Sarah Vaughan. Tom Waits is my messiah. When I’m making an album I try not to listen to music, I try to draw from another art form. The first album I ever made I was really into Salvador Dali.
Kevin Parker’s the biggest influence on me, and our music’s so vastly different, but his attention to detail and his conviction and ferocity in how he makes things is what I get a kick out of. The opening scene in Inglorious Basterds is - without sounding crazy - what I want my album to sound like. That is so cool, it’s got a style, it’s got emotion, it sounds really arty farty but that’s what I get a kick out of. These different art forms really get me. Particularly film and some visual art. Mostly film. I want to make a love song that’s like when Arnold Schwarzenegger has to kill himself at the end of Terminator. Imagine if you could have a song that can make you cry (laughs). That’s what gets me going.
AB: I like that you have influences that aren’t musical, that are movies and art.
CA: Yeah, that’s probably my biggest one. But obviously the music I love, like Tom Waits and Lee Hazelwood and all that stuff, it’s all in my brain. And Patsy Cline. A lot of big band music. That’s all in there, so I try not to listen to it because it’s going to come out anyway. If I try and do something, that’s what going to happen, so I try to like not listen to it. My whole philosophy of making music is not forcing anything and just seeing what happens.
AB: Cause then people will say, “It sounds just like this.”
CA: Yeah, yeah. That’s what I mean. Some kid was like, ‘Dude, your album sounds just like The Last Shadow Puppets.’ I was like, ‘Duh. You think that’s offensive?’ I hang out with those guys every day. Something’s gonna sound like that! (laughs).
AB: Everything’s gonna sound like something.
CA: Yeah, no one’s reinventing the wheel here. (laughs)
AB: So I didn’t realize that The Growl is like another solo project of yours, basically.
CA: Yeah, it’s basically a solo project.
AB: I was going to ask you how touring and recording as a solo act is different, but I guess you’ve sort of done that before with The Growl.
CA: Yeah. I mean, I miss the guys in The Growl. Marc Earley is the funniest person in the world. I miss the guys, I miss the hang. Those guys have known me for a long time. Clint was in every band I was ever in, he’s the guitar player in The Growl, and he came out with me this year on my solo tour. I flew out the guys from Australia for the first tour, which was fun. So we had the Growl with my band. And the butt of every joke was like, it’s the same band but I just changed the title of it. Marc cracks my shit up every day. I like having that guy on tour. We’re all getting older, everyone’s got girlfriends and wives…we can’t just tour. When you’re 21, you’re like, I’m going on tour! And no one gets paid, who gives a fuck, but now it’s like, ‘I got a mortgage, bro. Can you pay me, please?’ I’m like, ‘Ohhhh, shit, yeah. No, I can’t, sorry! (laughs) I’m gonna go solo!’
AB: So on stage, now, is it just you?
CA: It’s just me and piano. And I play three or four songs on guitar. With the EarthQuaker Devices!
AB: Is that scary?
CA: No, I like it. It’s more of a barroom set now. A Billy Joel vibe (laughs). I don’t play with a set list. I ask people in the front row if there’s anything in particular they want to hear. I was playing in Chicago once, and you can hear everything cause it’s pin-drop silent, and there was a break in one of the bits, and this guy goes, ‘I’m so sick of this guy!’ So I stopped the song, and I was like, ‘I beg your pardon?’ And he goes, ‘Oh no no no, I meant you’re doing so great, my girlfriend’s got a crush on you.’ But that’s what the shows are like now, it’s very much interactive. Half my set is attempted standup comedy. You have to make jokes, cause my songs are so fucking morbid sometimes that I have to try and lighten it up.
AB: Are you just doing songs from your album or are you doing other material too?
CA: I’m playing one or two songs that haven’t been recorded yet, from around the same time. I was going to try to put out an EP with a couple B-sides on it. And then I play a couple of covers. I know it’s blasphemy but I’ve been doing a Tom Waits cover, ‘Kiss Me’. It’s off his last album. You never play the old stuff, that stuff is untouchable. (laughs). I play that, or I play Lee Hazelwood’s ‘My Autumn’s Done Come’. It’s like my mantra. I’ve been covering this girl Alexandra Savior. She’s a good friend of mine. We recorded a duet last year. She’s my favorite singer, she’s one of the most amazing female singers I’ve ever heard. She’s got this song on her album called ‘Girlie’, it’s about Hollywood, and I’m just obsessed with it. I’ve been covering that as well.
AB: What role do effects play in your solo music, versus other bands that you’ve been in?
CA: With my solo stuff, it’s more in the studio. Live, I’m obsessed with tremolo and big wet reverbs so my set is useless without a Hummingbird (laughs). That’s pretty much it. I used to play in a lot more psych bands when I played in Pond. Allbrook/Avery was another band I was in with Nick Allbrook, it was like a garage band, and Tame obviously use a lot of effects.
AB: Do you use a lot of effects on bass?
CA: Yeah, kind of. It’s usually when I’m recording. Whereas live, I try to simplify everything, it comes across better. If I try and reproduce what’s happening on the album it’s never gonna be as good as it is on the album. Live I’m very meat and potatoes, whereas on the album it’s always like me trying to chase some sound that doesn’t exist.
AB: Are you a real gear nerd?
CA: I used to be. I have so many pedals and guitars at my family home in Australia. I try to get one-offs, or if it’s a White Light I have three of them (laughs). I have a hand built one-off Fuzz Factory made by the guy who invented the Fuzz Factory. I have a Fuzz Burglar which is this other weird fuzz pedal. I have a Nick Nitro and this thing called a Hot Cat by Roland, a lot of weird things that for some reason I only like. I used to be a massive gear nerd. I have hand-built Ulbrick cabs in Australia. And I got them to custom make it with two 25-watt Greenback speakers. I have a point-to-point 30-watt Marshall head, I have two limited edition Pro Juniors. One got run over by a car and it got rebuilt. All my stuff is weird - I like weird. You’ll never see me with a goldtop Les Paul. I have Reverend guitars. I have a Tele with twin blade pickups in it because Marc Ribot used one of those. I never sell anything, ever. I’ll just chuck it in a closet, ‘cause I think it’s cool and I bought it for a reason so I keep it.
AB: What are you playing on tour?
CA: I have this Silvertone guitar, a 1446, it’s an original 1961. It’s a war-era guitar - they were making Silvertone guitars in the Gibson factory, cause of wartime, so it’s got an actual Bigsby and Gibson mini-humbuckers.
The reason I bought it (laughs) is it’s the guitar from ‘Wicked Game’. It’s the same year. My guitar tech bought one, Matthew Handley. He’s been Tame’s on-stage tech since day one. He’s got the most amazing guitar collection. He bought a Silvertone 1446 and then I saw another one and I made him come and look at it at the shop, and he said it’s a good nick. I always get him to inspect something before I buy it. I was on the fence about it, and he’s like, ‘You know this is the guitar from Wicked Game’. I was like, ‘I’ll take it!’ (laughs) So that’s my main touring guitar. Reuben from Old Style Guitar Shop customized a couple of my guitars. He put a Teisco pickup in the back of my Gibson EB2 ‘61 hollowbody bass. It’s the fucking coolest sounding bass. But that’s the thing - I don’t buy stuff to collect, I buy stuff to play, so none of my stuff is original, and I ruin things.
My friend is like, ‘You put a Teisco pickup in your Gibson bass? You just bolted it on there? Are you high?’ He built me one of those Parlor guitars, he puts Teisco electric guitar pickups in these Parlor guitars. He resets the neck and fixes the intonation. I like weird old funky gear. I have one really nice guitar, it’s a Martin acoustic from the 70s, it was a gift from a friend of mine. I don’t buy myself expensive guitars. All my guitars are sort of weird. I would never buy an ES-335. I think they’re cheesy (laughs). You know who’s fun to talk to about guitars is Jay Watson, the keyboard player in Tame Impala. He has the craziest guitar collection. Every city we go to, he says he’s never buying another guitar, and then we go to a new city and he walks back into the dressing room and is like, ‘Check this thing out!’
AB: Is it hard to find cool guitars in Australia?
CA: Yeah. I got a couple buddies, I’m not gonna say who they are, in Australian touring bands, and whenever they come to America they buy like three guitars and resell them for twice the price. You can’t get anything cheap in Australia. So you just take it back and sell it. That’s what they do, anyway.
AB: So you have a show coming up in Austin, and some more dates in Europe. Do you know what’s next after that?
CA: I’ve been writing a new album, and we have a recording studio in my building. Loren, the drummer from The Last Shadow Puppets, lives above me and has a full Ampex tape machine. He’s building a real Quad Eight console. He got the components from an original Quad Eight console. He sleeps on top of his drum isolation booth in his apartment, it’s like a madhouse in there, but it’s so cool. He’s such a great engineer, so I’m probably going to try and make the next album with him and my friend who plays bass. The first album was so shiny I think, I’d like to do something a bit more like Springsteen’s Nebraska, live sounding, and I have a grand piano. I bought a grand piano cause I’m an impulsive buyer.
AB: Where is it?
CA: In my apartment! I have a grand piano in the middle of my apartment (laughs).
AB: You fit it up the stairs?
CA: No, luckily I have a freight elevator and it’s a 6’9” conservatory grand piano, and my freight elevator is 7’ high. It just fit in. I’ve been playing lots of jazz and gospel. I’m trying to get a really live sounding gospel vibe. I’m trying to make something a little more organic sounding. But like I said, it’s always going to end up sounding like Tom Waits and Lee Hazelwood. I think you should try and go for something you can’t do. Cause you learn from that. I never made a gospel album before, but I’m gonna make one. I think (laughs).
AB: That’s awesome. Are you gonna do any impromptu gigs in New York to work it out?
CA: I do sneaky ones all the time. My friend owns a bar – it’s not sneaky now. This place St. Mazie. I got pissed and played there two weeks ago. I was like, ‘I should play here one day’, and then a few of my friends came down, and he was like, ‘Do you wanna play a few tunes?’ Cause they have a mic’ed up piano. I was fucking trashed, and I was like, ‘Alright, here we go! Hey ladies and gentlemen, welcome to St. Mazie!’ I was just drunk playing songs. It was fun. I took requests (laughs). Every now and then I do shows, usually in bars where there’s a piano and I don’t have to bring anything. They’ll be like, what do you need for the show? I’m like, a rider! (laughs)
Cameron Avery's Ripe Dreams, Pipe Dreams is available now.
Anna Blumenthal handles Sales and Artist Relations for EarthQuaker Devices. She lives in Brooklyn, NY, plays bass in Sit N Spin, DJs 60s soul and R&B at various Brooklyn bars, and has seen Cheap Trick over 30 times.