BJ Seidel on the rebirth of Camden, and the birth of something entirely different in Nuisance
These days when you talk to BJ Seidel about his band, you need to be a lot more specific. Seidel still fronts Dramatic Lovers, the Milwaukee indie-rock supergroup launched after the dissolution of his long-running outfit Decibully. But during the early days of the pandemic, he also reunited with his ’90s group Camden, teaming with original members Ryan Weber (also of Decibully), Eric Osterman and Biju Zimmerman for “ Skeleton Wedding, Wedding Music,” a richly textured indie-pop album that splits the difference between the anthemic and the intimate, litigating the heightened emotions of adolescence through the measured perspective of adulthood. Quietly dropped in late November, it’s a warm, twisty record, less interested in picking up where the band left off than accounting for the 20 years that have passed since Camden’s first (and until now lone) album “Real Time Canvas.”
That’s not Seidel’s only new record, though. This week he released an album called “ Kuchisabishii” from a new side project with Ryan Weber called Nuisance. Where “Skeleton Wedding, Wedding Music” is comforting in its familiarity, all new twists on foundational sounds, “Kuchisabishii” is decidedly less charted. Written and composed by Weber in just two days, with vocal contributions from Seidel tracked on the spot over another two days, it’s an unabashedly experimental creative exercise, yet the music is so bright, lush and inviting that it works as pop music, too. Think of it, perhaps, as a neo-classical electronic pop album, without the planning either of those tags might suggest.
Seidel spoke to Radio Milwaukee about Camden’s very belated reunion, the secrets behind Nuisance’s unusual sound, and the logistics of writing for so many different projects while giving each its own identity.
Before we talk about your new album with Nuisance, let’s talk about Camden. How did the group get back together?
It started like when we were in lockdown. We started a group chat like a Zoom video chat with a bunch of our high school buddies, and three of the four of us from Camden all went to high school and grew up together. Eric was always a pretty close associate with us once we hit college age, so he was always lumped in with those Zoom calls. They started as a big group, then eventually we kind of just went offline on our own and started chatting just about, “Hey, why don't we work on some music together?” It just kind of snowballed from there.
At first we were a little reluctant, you know, but we pretty much had as much time as we needed because there was nothing else going on. It was pretty easy for us just to kind of start with a song and see what happened. Then next thing you know we had more than more than a record's worth of material.
To me there was always something appealing about the finality of Camden: The band made one album, then everybody moved on to other projects. Was it hard to reanimate the band after it had existed as a closed chapter for so long?
You know, maybe in theory it is. I think the finality of the band really did seem final to us, because it was final at that point in our life. We’d gone from a touring band that was just beginning to get a little bit of attention, and then ending right before that attention got us anywhere. So I think it really did end abruptly, and maybe in a heartbreaking way for us at that age. But I just think that given time and our continued love for each other, it was a pretty natural progression for us to play music together again. We’d been talking about it for years and it just happened. It just took a global pandemic to kind of make us fall back in love again.
What was it that made the band originally break up?
Honestly, it's just the age old story of one of the guys fell in love and wanted to move away and that was that. He made a new direction for his life and to him that was the most important thing at that time, which is great. Of course, his adulthood came maybe a little bit sooner than the rest of ours did, but it was pretty much just a tried-and-true story of love tearing the boys apart.
What defines Camden to you guys? Did you have to have any conversations about what parameters you have on the group’s sound and what distinguishes it from your other projects?
That's a really good question because when we did start recording again we were trying to keep it really authentic to who and where we were at that point in our history. We were going as far as, like Eric bought the same amp that he used and played the same guitar that he recorded with, while Biju still played the same drums and Ryan still had the same bass. You know, we were trying to mimic the sound of what we would have done. But of course we have such a varied and deep history beyond that time period, so a lot of other influences crept up. But it was nice to have a starting point there. Ultimately what was different about that group from my other groups is just the time in our lives that it stemmed from, a time when close personal relationships matter a lot. Also I think we always kind of saw ourselves as this kind of epic pop band. I don't think a lot of my other groups did this in the same vein.
I imagine it could be hard for you to balance these different bands, because your voice is so distinctive that it creates a throughline between all your projects. Did you have to put yourself in a different mindset when you were writing these songs versus when you’re writing for Dramatic Lovers?
I did. I think actually when we started Dramatic Lovers that it was kind of me remembering how to be in a big rock band, which I felt like Camden had done in its own way earlier. But the way that we wrote I thought Camden’s stuff was a little more abstract lyrically, and a little more vocally eccentric. So I tried to be aware of that and use my voice in different ways, and phrase myself a little bit differently. But ultimately I think my relationship with the members of this band overshadows even my voice and lyrics, because at the end of the day that’s what shines through, the same way that Dramatic Lovers is a very distinct group of dudes doing a very distinct style of music.
So it never felt like you were cheating on Dramatic Lovers?
No, not at all not. I mean, there was nothing else going on in the world. We couldn't get together and write anyways. Dramatic Lovers have been working on some new music in tandem, which hopefully will come out soon, and it sounds completely different than the Camden stuff, which I’m thankful for. The only thing I worry about is, you know, trying to get people to listen to me sing songs in multiple projects.
It seems like you were one of those people whose first response to the pandemic was “how can I be as productive as possible right now?”
Yes, in a lot of ways. It's like how many movies and how many books and how many records and how many things can I consume without putting anything else out there? You know, I own a bar, but the bar was shut down, so outside of making sure my kids were fed and mentally stable, keeping myself mentally stable was my next priority. And playing music was my release.
Let’s talk about Nuisance, which is a project that I don’t think anybody could confuse with Camden or Dramatic Lovers. The new album really feels like its own world. How did the project come about?
That project is really Ryan Weber's brainchild. He has really developed his own creative side of music by diving deeper into actual programming of software and building virtual instruments. So he spent some time building these instruments just from stuff around his house with things that he borrowed from friends or that friends recorded for him, and he built a whole interface – you know, a software interface and a whole array of virtual instruments. And then after learning how to do all the coding and building the instruments library, he kind of gave himself a little challenge. He was like, “Well, I'm gonna write a record and I'm gonna spend two days using only the stuff that I built.”
So he did that, and he approached me like, “I’d be cool like if you wanted to try to singing on these songs.” So he sent me all the files and he sent me a list of themes and rules that I had to follow.
What kind of rules?
I wish I remembered them all, but it was stuff like, “listen to a song on the radio and plagiarize as much of the lyrics as you want but make it your own.” So he had all these really cool funny ideas, and the whole theme of the record is it’s about a painting of fruit, so all the songs became about the lifespan of a piece of fruit, from the seed dropping from the tree until it became something edible or fermented into a bottle of wine. It was nothing but a pure creative exercise. I was really grateful that he asked me to do that because it actually kind of broke me out of my headspace of writing the same kind of songs. You know you need to shake it up every once in a while.
It’s interesting he made all those rules, because I imagine handing over finished music to a singer requires a great degree of trust. Typically when you give a song to a singer, it becomes the singer’s, because vocals are what most people latch on to. It feels like the rules were a way of him still claiming ownership over the exercise.
Right? I think it was just his way of getting me to not overthink it and just being free. He gave me 48 hours to write every single song and the rules were he wanted me to open up a track and start recording to it without listening to any of the other tracks. So I basically had two days. And I gave myself about an hour to an hour and a half per song to write the melody, the lyrics and record it, and it just became more of a stream of consciousness. The idea for the name is we had a pop band when Camden ended called New Sense, and it was very labored over. We were very precise in the production and we spent a lot of time recording and editing and overthinking ourselves. And we wrote some really great pop songs. But at the end of the day, we wanted to do the complete opposite of that style of recording and just make it as immediate as possible. It was just a really fun exercise.
It’s amazing to me that’s how you recorded it, because it doesn’t sound that way at all. The production still sounds very elaborate and meticulous to me. When I listen to the record it doesn't sound like two dudes rushing out something arbitrarily.
That’s to the credit to Ryan's genius. He spent two years building this library so he knew what he was working with when he sat down to write the songs. I think he already had most of it in his head. He had it all very dialed in before he even started. It's actually really cool because right now we're in the process of working on a follow-up and he's getting me more involved, so I'm actually starting to help him track some of the instruments to build the next library.
I think it's kind of a multifaceted project because not only can you listen to the record that we made from these sounds that he built, but there's also a way that you can download all those songs and use them for yourself in your own virtual instrument library if you're working with any kind of MIDI programming. You can have all the exact same sounds that we used from that record that he built himself, so there's a lot of different little avenues to this whole project that just makes it a really fun creative expression, not the stereotypical two rock dudes just doing our rock songs. It really helps us branch out and kind of maybe touch on things that were never imagined when we were younger growing up. You know, we started playing together at 15, we would have never imagined that we'd be doing stuff like this. You know we thought we were gonna be ’90s rock stars or whatever and here we are, nearly 30 years into our collaborative relationship and still pushing our own boundaries, which keeps it interesting. It’s an exciting collaboration to this day.
You can stream "Kuchisabishii" by Nuisance below.