Photo by Ryan Walter Wagner
Babe Rainbow, aka Cameron Reed, the man behind one of our favourite EPs of the year in the form of “Endless Path“, has been drip-feeding us with mind-bending music over the last few summers. We caught up with the Vancouver native and Warp artist when he was in Dublin playing with Battles recently to have a chat about the pitfalls and perils of genre, the rappers that got away and the state of the nation in present-day Canada. He was also kind enough to contribute the latest in our ever-growing series of Truancy Volumes. Think a whirlwind collage of 80bpm rap bangers, R Kelly hoedowns and Art of Noise-sampling emo jams that’ll have you crying on your commute. No tracklist, cause he wants to keep you guessing.
Your sound is very hard to pin down genre-wise – is that something you do deliberately, or is it just a happy accident? “I would say a happy accident. I mean I definitely make an effort to do something different, so I guess it’s both. Sometimes I get very inspired by something that I hear and then, like most musicians, I’ll feel like “Hey I’m going to try to write a song in this style” or something. But whether it’s my own naivety or whatever, I just can never seem to actually do what I’m trying to do. What comes out is this weird amalgamation of a bit of what I was trying to do and my own sound, just what naturally comes to me. So in that sense it’s definitely often times a happy accident, but at the same time I do make an effort to try to do something different. It’s definitely conscious, I’m trying to be weird.”
A friend described your work as Night Bus. “I think that’s a “joke” genre my friend Mike Silver, CFCF, came up with.”
It’s kind of a catch-all term but it really reflects the sombre mood threaded through your work. Is this a tag you’re comfortable with? “Well yeah, genres are funny in general. There are already way too many but as music obviously progresses as quick as it has been, sometimes it’s necessary to group a bunch of artists together to give context to people. Chillwave is a perfect example of that: a bunch of people that have a similar sound. I think the only problem with genres is when it doesn’t allow for movement. If Washed Out tries to do something different and their new sound isn’t chillwave, are they then boxed in as far as the way that people are going to react to it? I had a bit of the witch house tag on the stuff that I did, but I also had people calling my early stuff dubstep. You could say in whatever way that they both kind of fit, but I feel fortunate that none of them ever stuck so much that it didn’t allow me to explore more. I feel like that’s one of the things with genres, if it’s too strong and if it becomes too much a part of the myth or the idea of your music, it can take on a life of its own. I guess it’s necessary for journalists to tag, I don’t really mind.”
You don’t put out that much under the name Babe Rainbow – is that a quality control issue or is it more that you don’t have time because you do so much? “Before I would say it was not enough time. Pretty much the week that I got picked up on Warp I also got a full-time job. I didn’t want to put a line in the sand for myself as far as saying “You either go all the way in music or you do your career”, I wanted to do both, so I upped my own promo, paid for my own videos, and worked on remixes, and tried to do as much that I could to keep my stuff out there, while at the same working a 9-5 desk job. Shortly before my last EP came out this summer I was laid off from my job, after two years, so now, hence why I’m on tour, I’m definitely making more of an effort to throw myself into music a bit more, I’m just recalibrating what my next approach is going to be. I like doing EPs, I don’t feel like I am comfortable with a single sound yet, to create a cohesive body, a full album, as if it’s like a statement, and I like the freedom that EPs allow you, while I think the EPs I have done have been pretty cohesive sonically, the songs are all quite different, and I wouldn’t want to be stuck in a situation where I just have to put 10 or 12 songs on a record just because, well this has to be a full-length. I’m going back home after this tour with the intention of just writing for a couple of months, I’ve been freelancing in the meantime outside of music, and I’m making the point of not bogging myself down with any work and just focusing on music, getting another live set together, like I said, making an effort to go tour more and get out there – definitely after doing these couple dates, especially with Battles, it’s made me want to up my live game a bit more, definitely going to be going home and working on that.”
Can you tell us anything about the “Greed” remix EP? “Mishka, the culture label, we were talking about working on an EP where I produce a bunch of a tracks for a bunch of rappers, and pretty much (laughs) half of the people that were working on tracks, blew up during the time – so it kind of fell by the wayside cause they had to focus on their other work. I had a track in the works with Kreayshawn, and Odd Future, all these people, and a couple of months after we started working on the track they blew up. So I reached out to Mishka again and said I want to do this remix EP with a bunch of remixes of “Greed”, and they agreed to it. It should be coming out first week of December [no sign of it yet!]. LOL Boys, CFCF, D’eon, Sanctums, who else . . . I think that’s it. I’m hoping for a Blood Diamonds remix, it should be coming, but he’s just being really slow about it.”
Speaking of “Greed”, I found that track really interesting because with a lot of people, if they have a rapper or guest artist, that will become the focal point of the track, whereas, I wouldn’t quite say it’s an afterthought, it’s just another part of the track rather than than overwhelming what the track is itself. “The way that that song was going I felt like it had to go through another movement or something, the way that it builds up and gets to this point, I didn’t feel like it could keep doing that, I feel like it would have gotten boring, but it was just a solid basic hip-hop beat as its base, so I just worked with my buddy who worked for that blog Southern Hospitality, Davey Boy Smith, and he linked me up with G-Side. I’m a huge fan of Slow Motion Soundz, their production team, and a big fan of G-Side, and Young Clova did a verse, and when we mixed it all together it just made sense that instead of doing a 90-degree turn on the track as it was, we just ride it out and let it be this kind of really dark, dark hip-hop song essentially.”
Do you have any other collaborations in the works, or is there anyone you’d like to work with? “I have a song that I have to work on a bit more with The Jealous Guys from San Fransisco, which is fantastic, I’m a big fan of The Jealous Guys. I’m looking forward to that coming out, I would call it a banger if you will, as close as I think I can possibly come to making a banger. It’s a Babe Rainbow banger. So that’s on the way, the Jokers of The Scene remix is on the way [Babe Rainbow has remixed “Killing Jokes” from the fortcoming Jokers release], nothing really else. I just did a Porcelain Raft and Grimes remix, I have a couple of tracks that I’ve worked with Grimes on, but they’re just like little demo versions. My slate is kind of clean and I’m hoping to get back to just starting square one again. I’d love to do something else with Main Attrakionz, I’d love to do something with G-Side again. Lil B, the track “Set Loose” that’s on the new record, it was initially supposed to be a beat for him, and he really liked it, and he was planning on [rapping on it], I don’t know if he ever did, he was tweeting about the track, but he never got around to it, but that’s another rapper that I almost had a track with.
I don’t know, I just kind of take stuff as it comes, I make acquaintances with people, and if we work on a track we work on a track. I’m not really out there grinding trying to get my name big in the hip-hop world. It’s very casual. I’m a big fan so any time I get to work with rappers that I like I’m stoked.”
You’ve done a lot of mixes – some specifically for blogs, some of them seem to just be for yourself, but they’re all completely different. What informs what direction you take with each one? “Mood I guess, what I’m listening to, the season (laughs). Similar to the way that I sit down and produce, for better or worse I’m not one thing. I know, as you started this interview, I don’t really fit into one genre, and I don’t feel like I need to. I like the freedom of being able to go from side to side. I’m working on a bunch of new songs with two female vocalists, and doing something maybe a little bit more similar to the track I made for the [adult swim] compilation. That was the first time I worked directly with a singer, a collaborative writing, and I loved the way that it came out, and I might try doing something with that. So as far as the mixes go, it’s just the freedom, I mean we all have our own collections of music, and I’m not trying to be a party DJ so I don’t need to get my name out there just doing party mixes, and I’m not trying to be a rap guy so I don’t need to just do rap mixes, I’m just doing what’s fun.”
You played with Oneman the other night, tonight you’re supporting Battles, what’s it like playing these different shows with different people? “I’ve been doing my live stuff for a bit, it’s kind of difficult, again, my music is all over the place and I’m aware of that, especially in my live show, it’s kind of its own thing. I’ve played with Clams (Casino), there’s definitely a similar vibe. I’ve played with a bunch of the bands on Tri Angle, I did a handful of shows with oOoOO and Butterclock up the west coast, and that definitely fit, but I also don’t want to pigeonhole my music. I feel like the people that are into Oneman and the stuff that he does could be into it, similarly I feel like anyone with an open mind, I feel will dig, could dig my stuff. So again for better or worse I’m just trying it all out. I kind of don’t want to find a place. So, this live set that I’m working on right now, it’s pretty dynamic, i think that it can fit into a bunch of different settings. Also it works well with Battles cause they have the most insane live setup in the world, and I cannot imagine what it’s like when they have to perform with other bands. While at the same time I’m watching them every night thinking “Oh my god, this is the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen” and I need to step my live game up a bit more, but I you know, probably wouldn’t have had the opportunity if I didn’t. So it’s a lot of fun, I’m fans of both the club world and live performances so I relish the opportunity to be able to go between both of them.”
How did you end up with Warp? “They reached out to me, I’d just been putting my tracks up online for free as soon as I started getting comfortable with the sound I was creating. Stephen Christian from the label got in touch and we just chatted. After a couple of months of chatting back and forth and sending YouYube videos and just creating a personal rapport, they said “Hey, why don’t we put out these songs,” and then I just said “Can we take this one out and put this one in”, and then it happened. Then shortly after the first EP was out for a bit, I kept sending them tracks all the time, as I will, and they eventually said “How about these tracks” It’s not like I signed for a handful of records or anything, it was very much just keeping in touch, and sending them stuff that I’m working on, and then “Let’s talk about the second EP” and obviously I was like “Yes, let’s please talk about that”.”
When it comes to labels you could do an awful lot worse. “Yes, absolutely. And my relationship and my dealings with Warp has been fantastic, they’re friends at this point – friends who also release my music. It’s a great relationship, they’re very easy to work with, and they’re very nurturing.”
I want to ask about Shit Harper Did (a site set up by Cameron with some friends that summed up all the reasons not to vote for Canada’s then incumbent Prime Minister) – it’s a really cool but also terrifying project. Obviously it is something that should be out there, but at the same time have you got into any trouble with it, have you had any opposition? “Um, no. Well, yeah. The elections board, the legislative body or whatever you wanna call it that deals with election regulations, they put out a release saying that they wanted to change the election rules for third-party political advertisers, because they claim that with new media you can just say that you only spent under a certain limit. So in Canada if you spend under $300 you don’t have to register, and you don’t have to go through all the legal stuff involved with political advertising, and we didn’t spend $300, we rented cameras and had a bunch of stuff donated, and it cost only like $150, server space was donated to us. So they are considering changing the laws now, and they named us specifically in a newspaper article, saying “Sites like Shit Harper Did can just claim that they didn’t spend $300 but there’s no way of telling”. So they essentially said we were lying, which is absurd. So the government is trying to prevent us from doing that, which obviously prevents Canadian voices from being amplified, and utilising tools like social media and new media to get the word out.
That’s really been the biggest backlash, other than conservative voters just not liking it. But me personally, I’m not having any trouble at the borders or anything so it’s all right. And I still think despite the fact that our prime minister was voted in with a majority it was a success as far as engaging the community of new voters that may not have otherwise cared. And using comedy as an entry point I think, it’s what I do back at home now, we work on creative campaigns for social change, so anything from more left-leaning political work to working for groups like Greenpeace and Canadian Union of Public Employees, which is the largest Canadian union, so we’ve been doing similar stuff to Shit Harper Did since. It was a collective of people that worked on it, but three of us, myself and two friends, Sean Devlin, Cam Dales, we really corralled/project managed the whole thing, and we’ve then gone out and have been given more work because of that.
Sean, he had been doing work like that before, and Shit Harper Did was his brainchild, and approached us with it, and so then essentially he has been able to amplify what he had already been doing, but then has brought us on, myself with a bit more traditional advertising experience and especially working in digital strategy and new media, and our other partner who’s an art director. Sean comes from more of a comedy and activist background. So we all come together and it works really well, and I believe for our generation people are pretty apathetic and cynical – hell I’m pretty apathetic and cynical – but I feel like there’s too much that needs to be addressed, and so if we need to use comedy and satire, and i wouldn’t say dumb it down, but make it approachable, then i think that that is the best way of dealing with these kind of issues.
The UK has a great history of political satire, but it’s just something that, in Canada at least, it’s not that it’s not done well, it’s just that it’s not really grabbing the youth, like new voters, even kids that are just about to start voting. Canadian political satire or parody, whatever you want to call it, is really directed at baby boomers. So I feel like we entered into this and we’re doing the work that we’re doing at an appropriate time when the world is fucking shitty – in large because of the boomers, and someone’s got to address it, and if this is the way that we have to get people interested in it then you know. Right after Shit Harper Did we were approached by CTV which is one of the major Canadian broadcasters and they asked us to produce something for their election coverage, they saw the success of Shit Harper Did and the use of comedy and the videos and all that, the high production value. So we ended up in two weeks, the people behind Shit Harper Did and a bunch of other friends – comedians, improvisers, writers, actors – we all ended up writing, producing, acting and editing, putting together this whole thing, a short mini-series that was then aired during the election coverage, which was definitely one of the coolest experiences I’ve ever been involved with. Not just because I got to be on TV, but working with my friends on a fun, creative project that had a bit of value behind it.”
You’re quite political in your work, but your music I would say is apolitical – obviously it’s very hard to be political with instrumental music, which is largely what you do – do you find it difficult to separate the two, or is it just keeping different parts of your life distinct? “I definitely approach everything kind of in the same . . . as an individual if I’m political then I’m political, it’s just part of my personality. I don’t feel like my art needs to be political. What I do for work in politics or social-change issues, I definitely try to approach it in the same way that I do music, in that I want to something different, I want to communicate something in a different way, I want to make people think about what they’re experiencing. I would definitely say there are similarities there. When we do these videos, when we do websites like Shit Harper Did, or we did a website for a group in Ontario for their provincial election called The Best Ontario Election Website, we tried to do it with an approach of “This hasn’t been done yet”. And I’m not saying I’m reinventing the wheel by any means, but with my art and with my work, everything I do I definitely try to make an effort to make it different, to make it engaging in some way or another. It’s more about approach. The music, the sound that I’m drawn to and what comes naturally, is a bit more bleak, and kind of sad – Night Bus! – and that’s just what I want to get out. If i was doing that in the creative work that I do politically, that would not engage people at all. So on that side the best approach is using comedy and using clever, engaging digital themes or what have you, but with music it’s more just what comes naturally.”