Cheer up, Brian Christinzio – it’s already happened, and, as BC Camplight, you’ve likely written a song about it. In this extract from MOJO’s exclusive interview with Christinzio he discusses some of the death, drugs and disease that have fuelled his remarkable music.
Picture: Elyssa Iona
How warty does MOJO like to go?” asks Brian Christinzio. “Because my story is pretty warty.”
For instance, there’s the state he was in in 2012. The New Jersey-born singer and songwriter (“don’t say ‘singer-songwriter’, that makes me think of James Taylor on a stool and I’m not that guy”) was squatting an abandoned church in Philadelphia, siphoning electricity from neighbours and selling equipment that he’d borrowed off friends. “I was an absolute scumbag,” he says, staring down at his coffee. “I was drinking, doing way too many drugs, losing friends and feeling angry and bitter.”
On two albums as BC Camplight, Christinzio’s elegant and eloquent piano-based pop – equal parts Brian Wilson, Harry Nilsson and Lou Christie – had been met by critical bouquets but demoralising sales. Beset by an anxiety disorder, he reckoned he’d already “blown it”. Adding insult to perceived injury, he’d played piano on Sharon Van Etten’s album Epic and seen members of his live band, Dave Hartley (bass) and Robbie Bennett (keys), join The War On Drugs, both local favourites blowing up with the success he’d anticipated for himself.
“I was seething!” he says. “And mad at myself, like, What are you doing? Do something, or you’re going to drop to the bottom of the ocean. And if you stay in Philly, you die, or go to jail.”
Christinzio roused himself to ask his Facebook followers if anyone knew of a flat in London he could escape to. “I’d fucked up so much, I was running away,” he sighs. A journalist friend stepped in to offer refuge in Manchester instead, and four days later Christinzio was outside the Castle Hotel pub-cum-venue in the city’s Northern Quarter to pick up keys. Eleven years later, he’s still here. “Manchester represented a life,” he adds. “A place that meant that the old Brian was dead.”
The ‘old Brian may be gone, but the ‘new’ Brian remains feisty and opinionated. Christinzio, now 43, meets MOJO at Manchester Piccadilly station, and walking through the concourse he spies a piano for members of the public to play. “There’s something so immediate and romantic about the piano,” he starts. “So, when I see people pounding on it, it makes me ill. It’s an instrument. You wouldn’t leave a dentist’s drill lying around in the middle of a train station. Playing bad music in front of people is just as dangerous.”
What first drew me to Manchester was the shit weather. It brings everyone down to my level.
Settling down to a full English fry-up at the Koffee Pot on Oldham Street – where he once washed dishes to make ends meet – Christinzio visibly relaxes, and begins to wax lyrical about his adopted home city.
“What first drew me to Manchester was the shit weather,” he says, “because it brings everyone down to my level. I remember walking down this street; I didn’t have five pounds in my pocket but I had the energy of new friends in a new city, and writing all this new music, which hadn’t happened in ages. What a relief that was. Anyway, I consider myself Mancunian now. I never felt American anyway, but more like an alien.”
Christinzio looks more like a bear than an alien, dressed in black except for a rust-coloured beanie with tufts of black hair escaping out the back. He’s jovial and garrulous, but it masks a history of unease. Young Brian would look at photos of family members and fret about when they would die. At the same time, he was obsessed with Jerry Lee Lewis, discovered in his mother’s record collection and encouraging him to stick with piano lessons (Frankie Valli and other high voices were a similar influence on his own).
Christinzio’s anxieties abated in high school – “I was captain of the football team, and my girlfriend was prom queen” – but exploded right after, “like a switch had been flipped.” Suffering overwhelming bouts of hypochondria and neurological disorders, he was hospitalised several times. A thyroid-related auto-immune condition has been diagnosed, but medication hasn’t worked. “It’s all just a big, muddy ball,” he sighs.
Lucky, then, that Christinizio turned out to be a master at turning adversity into art…
READ THE FEATURE IN FULL to hear about more of the mishaps and tragedies that have inspired BC Camplight’s music, including the heartbreak behind his forthcoming masterpiece, The Last Rotation Of Earth, out 12 May via Bella Union.