Ben Campbell is making the best local music you've never heard
Vermont boasts an inordinate number of talented musical hermits. There’s no actual data to back up that claim, of course. After all, we’re talking about hermits, and they usually don’t want to be found. But, with our isolated creators ranging from Ryan Power to Dean Wells (The Capstan Shafts), from Michael Chorney to Forrest Mulerath, not to mention others who may have yet to reveal themselves, there’s no question that, in Vermont, the hills are alive with … surprises.
Even so, tracking down these elusive creatures can be akin to seeking a unicorn. So I discovered in trying to unearth the enigma that is “Saint Albums.”
Here’s what we know about Saint Albums.
First, that’s the pseudonym of Ben Campbell, a Middlebury College graduate who starred as Orpheus in the original stage production of Anaïs Mitchell’s folk opera Hadestown, subject of a Seven Days cover story in November 2007. You’d think playing the male lead in Mitchell’s soon-to-be-renowned production might have thrust Campbell into the spotlight. After all, audiences were floored by his show-stopping rendition of the opera’s centerpiece, “Wait for Me.” Yet somehow Campbell eluded reporters, including this one.
As Saint Albums, Campbell has released eight full-length albums since 2006, including three this year alone. I reviewed two of them in this paper and found him a stunningly gifted musician and songwriter.
The second of his 2009 efforts, MetalDream, is a shape-shifting masterpiece featuring more twists and turns than the yellow brick road. Campbell’s follow-up, The Machine in the Man, released in November, is similarly unpredictable. Perhaps more so, given that it barely resembles its predecessor. MetalDream features sly takes on heavy metal tempered with a distinctive pop bent. Machine proves a swirling, almost orchestral, synth-y opus, with robotic studio chicanery ranging from phasers to Auto-Tune. Campbell’s voluminous back catalog exposes a far-reaching array of influences, from bluegrass to blues, Haydn to hip-hop.
According to his musical colleague and former college pal, Anaïs Mitchell, Campbell has long been a hermit. “He rarely left his dorm,” she writes in an email. “If you wanted to hang out with him, you had to go to his room, where he was secretly writing and recording albums and releasing them on the Internet.”
On those tracks, at least when recording as Saint Albums, multi-instrumentalist Campbell plays everything himself. On The Machine in the Man, for example, he handles guitar, bass, drums, keyboards, banjo and several other instruments — all totaled, he estimates he can play “around 20.” He is also the engineer and the producer.
Campbell was ambitious long before he assumed his latest moniker. Again according to Mitchell, while the two were at Middlebury, he wrote, recorded and produced his own rock opera, Phaeton. She cites that work as an inspiration for Hadestown.
And this is just the tip of the iceberg.
In addition to his eight brilliant Saint Albums recordings in three years, Campbell has released — under his real name or with collaborators — an astonishing 28 albums since 2000 on his own label, Lonely Hiway Records. Granted, not all were strictly solo projects, and some are very experimental. Still … 28! Somewhere, Ryan Adams — considered the modern paragon of songwriting profligacy with 11 albums, also in the last nine years — may have just gone fetal.
After a couple weeks of Internet sleuthing and finally making a tenuous connection with Campbell — we’re now Facebook friends! — I head south to meet him at the Champlain Orchards in West Shoreham, where he works.
It is a pleasant enough drive, following the first real snowfall of the year. Morning light glints off the snowcapped Adirondacks across the lake. As I merge onto 22A in Vergennes, however, one trailing blow of the storm slows my trusty Mazda 3 to a crawl.
In fact, it’s dumping. Like, near whiteout conditions. Oddly, there is no mention of foul weather on the radio. It’s as if this squall materialized from nowhere. Or, maybe, just for me.
For the next 30 or so miles I experience intermittent, similarly treacherous snow bursts. By the time I reach the hamlet of Shoreham, it’s still snowing steadily, and a dense fog has rolled in off the lake.
As I descend into what I believe to be Campbell’s “apple country,” the pavement turns to dirt, which then turns to ruts. I’ve gone too far. None of the landmarks I was supposed to have passed — a church, a fork, a graveyard — appeared, and the “road” is precariously close to the murky, icy water. Barely visible across the lake, large smokestacks loom through the sepia-toned haze.
With the theme from “The Twilight Zone” running through my head, I check my map and find this road doesn’t actually exist. Backtracking toward Shoreham, I locate the right road and make my way to Campbell’s orchard at last. I park the car and step into the bracing morning air.
There are few signs of life. Is my quarry going to remain elusive? But then I hear a rustling in the underbrush, which grows louder and louder until a shimmering late-model Subaru Outback bursts into view. Behind the wheel is my unicorn — er, Ben Campbell.
“Dan!” he exclaims, dangling his rolled cigarette out the window. “Nice to finally meet you!” Grinning, he adds, “Nice day, huh?”
We exchange pleasantries outside his car. Though it has actually turned gloriously sunny, the air is still very cold. We retreat to the shelter — and heated seats — of Campbell’s Subaru.
Curious about the man for nearly a year, I have a thousand questions burning in my head. But for the next few minutes, we merely sit listening to Weezer’s latest record, Raditude, playing on the car stereo.
“This album has restored my faith in Weezer,” says Campbell.
I’ve avoided every Weezer effort since Maladroit, but, listening closely, I see what he means. It’s really good. So, either Rivers Cuomo has made another gem, or Campbell is wielding powerful dark magic to make me believe Weezer have made their only worthwhile record since Pinkerton. Either way, I’m hypnotized.
Shaking the trance off, I dive into the task at hand: finding out everything one can know about Saint Albums and, by extension, Ben Campbell.
Campbell, 28, was born in Kingston, N.Y. After a stint living in Germany as a young child, he spent his formative years in Saugerties, N.Y. He played with a series of bands in high school, most notably a punk band called The Niners — Campbell sheepishly admits that he and his friends had a borderline unhealthy obsession with the number 69. Beyond learning clarinet in middle school and performing in a high school chamber choir, he had no formal musical training.
As a freshman at Middlebury College in 2000, Campbell began teaching himself to record. That year, he released six albums under his given name. To call those first recordings rough would be charitable. Still, they offer an intriguing glimpse into his evolution as both a songwriter and an engineer.
From 2002 to 2004, Campbell belonged to a rowdy bluegrass outfit called The Route Seven Ramblers, along with noted local fiddler Caleb Elder, now of The Mad Mountain Scramblers. The Ramblers enjoyed a two-year run as the traveling house band for Circus Smirkus, touring with the troupe in a converted school bus. Says Campbell, “That was the closest I have ever been to being a rock star.”
After his graduation in 2004, he wrote and recorded two albums with a quirky electro-acoustic band called Seachild; both were released in 2005. Currently, Campbell splits his time between living and working at the Addison County apple orchard and residing with his girlfriend in Jamaica, Vt. There, as the mysteriously named Saint Albums, Campbell records in a basement studio he describes as “a dungeon.”
And what about “Saint Albums”? Turns out the nickname derives from, um, Saint Albans. Glad we cleared that up.
“I know it’s probably grandiose to refer to myself as ‘Saint’ anything,” Campbell says. He adds, “I do have a cool name for a band I’d like to start one day, The Sympathetic Vibrations. But that’s probably already been done.”
True: An all-male a cappella group from Georgia Tech beat him to that one. But why doesn’t Campbell have a band now? And why doesn’t he perform live?
“I don’t know why I don’t have a band right now, actually,” he muses. “If I did, I’d probably play out more often.” And, Campbell notes, given the often-unwieldy nature of his recent music, playing solo is not an option.
“It wouldn’t really translate,” he says. “I’m not really a ‘singer-songwriter.’”
Asked about his mind-boggling output, Campbell states matter-of-factly, “I want to be prolific.”
Fair enough. But it’s one thing to put out a great quantity of music; it’s quite another to produce that much music of consistently high quality. Which poses another question: With so much material, how much does he filter?
Campbell estimates that he had three times the material that appears on The Machine in the Man. He notes that cutting songs is a relatively new experience for him.
“Previously, I would have just taken everything I had and released it, just to have it out there,” Campbell says. “But this time around, I really tried to pare it down.” He’s taking a similar approach to song composition on his next effort, he says — yes, of course there’s a next effort.
Machine is at times ostentatiously dense, laden with swirling sounds. Campbell’s production technique sounds almost sculptural: He starts each track with a monstrous chunk of noise, he says, and then whittles away until it resembles what he hears in his head. But with his forthcoming, as yet untitled album, he’s taking the reverse approach. He wants to make as sparse a recording as possible.
Campbell describes the process of writing and recording as “expunging” material, as if he needs to purge himself before he can move on to the next idea. Now that he’s explored the outer limits of mechanical sounds, he’s turning inward, planning to take a more organic tack.
“No Auto-Tune. No double voicing. No textured reverb. No tricks,” he says. “It will be just me, warts and all. It’s frightening, really,” he adds with a grin.
The conversation moves to his influences. Campbell recalls being blown away early on by They Might Be Giants, The Magnetic Fields and Elliott Smith. Though traces of each, and countless others, can be found in his voluminous canon, Smith’s imprint is most obvious. Ironically, this is most evident on the conceptually un-Smith-like MetalDream, which features the late songwriter’s distinctively jagged approach to melody.
Campbell makes no apologies for his influences, even admitting he sometimes intentionally tries to write like his heroes, perhaps just to see if he can.
“Everybody steals from each other anyway,” he says candidly. “I’ve definitely gone through that, too.”
I ask him about Hadestown. Campbell responds with glowing praise for his old friend Mitchell and her frequent collaborator Michael Chorney.
“He is the ultimate Vermont musician,” says Campbell. “If I were to go in any one specific direction, it would be what Chorn-dog is doing.”
Was he upset that Mitchell replaced the original cast with big-name talent — Ani DiFranco, Greg Brown, et al. — for the forthcoming studio recording?
“I was heartbroken,” he concedes, chuckling.
It must be at least a little flattering that, to replace him, Mitchell nabbed Justin Vernon of Bon Iver?
“That’s true, actually,” agrees Campbell. “That’s a good point. That dude’s a really amazing musician.”
Campbell says Hadestown boosted his confidence about performing live. So, again: Why doesn’t he put a band together?
Campbell pauses, seeming to contemplate the question as if for the first time.
“I guess it’s that, if I do it, I really want to do it, you know? To take it really seriously and really go for it,” he says. I tell him I hope he does just that.
We shake hands, and I exit his car. I get into mine and wave goodbye. And then, just as quickly as he appeared, Saint Albums is gone. Pulling onto the road, I notice clouds on the horizon and a few fresh snowflakes melting on the windshield.
Driving home, listening to MetalDream for probably the hundredth time in the last year, I recall Mitchell’s comment: “Ben is a dark horse. He might not even know how powerful he is. But if he ever comes out of that basement, watch out.”
My sentiments exactly.