Written by Graham Johnson
Gallery photos by Rebecca Herpin
There are no basements in California.
Alex Calder’s music is sometimes hard to get a grip on. His music can sound like something that would do well paired with grainy footage of sunsoaked Santa Monica on an early July afternoon, but the singer-songwriter is based in Montreal and keeps to a nocturnal sleep cycle. Night is when he works best -- he confided to Dots and Dashes in a recent interview: “I don’t really go to bed at night. I do everything then – all my recording, and stuff – so I guess when I’m in that headspace all is very mellow and quiet.”
His nocturnal lifestyle has come up before in conversations. In November, he ended up having to cancel an interview with one of our writers in Montreal because of it. But now, here he is in New York City - our turf - after a snowed-in Boston forced the venue’s promoter to cancel his gig there. It’ll be the first show of his tour through the Northeast and down to Indianapolis. Everything has been thrown together last minute - Rare Candy has scrambled to book a space to host Calder and his band, and word has been spread across social media as quickly as possible.
When he arrives, someone offers him a spliff, but Calder doesn’t smoke. It makes him too introverted, too inside himself he says. Not conducive for a show. When the spliff-offerer asks him “Does it bother you that all your fans think you smoke a shit-ton of weed?” he seems genuinely surprised. Do people think that? he asks.
And so here he is, a nocturnal non-smoker who makes psychedelic sunshine music, setting up equipment on a makeshift stage in the basement of a brownstone. The venue has been crowded all night - people snake up staircases and squeeze in through the entrance of an adjacent room. Two bands - The Clues and Liberty Styles - have opened the show. One of The Clues’ singers will come up during Calder’s set to join in on vocals later in the night.
In the Northeast, basements have long been built into houses because of the cold. A house’s foundation must go beneath the frostline - the lowest depth that the ground will freeze to in winter - to prevent the building from shifting place. Preventing pipes from freezing and bursting is an added incentive.
In most parts of California however, the temperatures never drop low enough to be a significant issue, and the homes are more modern and recently built. There are, therefore, no basements in California.
Shows like this one, with Calder and Styles and The Clues, don’t happen as much on the West Coast. Basements are naturally soundproofed enough to prevent neighbors from calling noise complaints, and usually don’t have expensive furniture to be ruined by spilt beer, enthusiastic punks, and clumsy audience members. In fact, a lot of the reason why Philadelphia and DC have such infamous punk and DIY scenes is because of their basements. It’s funny how a little thing dreamt up by architects centuries earlier to counteract the cold can end up having massive ramifications for an entire music genre.
Like the punks, Calder is a lover of lo-fi, albeit a very different brand. His “Light Leave Your Eyes” video featured washed-out, distorted footage of the songwriter shirtless against a white wall and drinking a canned domestic. His recent signing to Captured Tracks came with compromises then. Much of the music featured on his newest record, January 20th’s Strange Dreams, had already been released in previous years; an earlier version of the title track itself was released under his alias Mold Boy in 2013. In interviews, he’s repeatedly echoed a sentiment felt by many musicians: “[Rerecording a song] kills it. The first take on anything is so much better.” And he notes that he’s always more excited by new songs and their potential than any of his old material. Re-releasing material then, especially with an expectation (and result) of higher fidelity, must have been hard. Not just that, but Captured Tracks is very much a Brooklyn label, and Calder acknowledges that he feels the strain of the distance though it could be much worse. He told Dots and Dashes that he still feels at least some geographic connection to an East Coast label: “I’m … not that far away – Montréal’s only, like, five hours away from where they are. I think I’d feel weird were I halfway across the country somewhere.”
Regional allegiance and geographic settings are slippery concepts with Calder though. The Beach Boys seem to count as a stronger influence on his music than any Canadian - a humorous disconnect only compounded by Brian Wilson’s own removal from surf culture and the daydreamy Hawaii of their songs.
With the New York City streets still covered in snow and a blizzard in Boston, Calder and his band are a temporary respite of warmth to an audience tired of winter. The photographer assigned to cover it has had to leave to attend some sort of urgent matter, which leaves me holding a DSLR I only vaguely know how to operate. Definitely not in this kind of dim lighting. They play through pieces from both his Time EP and his most recent record. “Strange Dreams” gets a substantial makeover from its studio version, as do most of the songs, which feature fewer slick surf sounds and more raunch, a change especially suitable for this kind of house show. As much as he is grouped in with Mac DeMarco (partly unfairly, due to his being DeMarco’s bandmate in Makeout Videotape; partly fairly, due to some stylistic overlap in their music), Calder’s recent output has earned him consideration as a serious and original musician in his own right. His live approach and sound only make me more sure that such consideration is deserved. This is not Mac DeMarco’s bassist in front of me - this is Alex Calder and his Band, capital B. They play tightly and well, even though they could easily have chosen to instead play sloppily and half-assed given the nature of the show. As the set finishes and the crowd demands an encore, Calder initially protests “We don’t know anymore songs” before kicking off the infamous riff of Pink Floyd’s “Money.” “Someone come sing this for us because none of us know the words,” he says.
The singer from The Clues, unrecognizable to the audience in a massive coat and pair of huge round glasses, separates the crowd and works her way behind the microphone. When she comes in, she belts - like nobody’s business. It isn’t “Money” she’s singing - no one knows exactly what it is. But it’s loud, assured, and beautiful. Calder’s eyes widen in surprised appreciation every fifth note she hits, and the moshcrowd assembled around them are a euphoric mix of excitement, bewilderment, and exhilaration which accompanies successful spontaneity. It’s as if she’s a plant.
I pack up my notebook and jacket after the show. I don’t know what kind of meaningful conclusions to draw from all of Calder’s seeming contradictions. I think it’s admirable that his music can survive and thrive with such an inherent cognitive dissonance to it all, and I think that proclaiming this dissonance as evidence of inauthenticity in Alex’s music would be missing the point. Maybe this kind of identity dissonance is what the 21st Century is all about. Balancing, juggling, sharing, and embodying multiple contradictory identities. Subverting traditional representations. Playing with ideas of Self and Other in an irreverent way. It seems as good a way as any to view sadboys, normcore, PC Music, (Partywave), hipsterdom, and healthgoth, all of the re-combinings and re-purposings, appropriations and re-appropriations, claimings and re-claimings. I remember reading something Calder said in Interview Magazine about being “very into classic rock and hippie culture, very long hair and polyester shirts and cord bellbottoms, and cowboy boots,” how it was just a “big… fashion phase” to be treated lightly, playfully. There’s a willingness among Calder and his generational peers to treat culture this way - as something to be toyed with and explored - rather than viewing it an awe-inducing monolith. It might just be helping to drive innovation and expression. This is all speculation though, and I’ve digressed off the point. What I’m trying to say is this: see Calder’s show live, and see it fast. It’s that good.