Los Angeles-based indie rock band Campfire Cassettes comes across as a bit of an enigma. On the one hand, front man/songwriter Jonathan Buchanan writes short stories and poetry in his off-time, lending his lyricism an almost dreamy story-like quality akin to a titan like Jeff Mangum (of Neutral Milk Hotel). On the other hand, the upbeat and poppy folk-ish instrumentation mixed with Buchanan’s penchant for humor leans more toward the sultry sounds of AJJ (or Andrew Jackson Jihad if you’re nasty) or even the self-deprecating sad-sackery of The Magnetic Fields. This could potentially present issues of cognitive dissonance for fans of more serious indie fare, but for those who can pay close enough attention to the band, there’s a lot under the surface worth noting.
"I think it's a fun, light Trojan horse with some darker ideas underneath," Buchanan says. "But we present it with this really sincere voice. There are cute harmonies and we sell this nice, light sound, but then the fun is in that juxtaposition."
Campfire Cassettes is a mere five years old, but in that time, Buchanan says, they've recorded an album a year and written somewhere in the neighborhood of 70 songs.
"I've just always written," he says. "The songs just show up and they show up all the time, so all I have to do is sit down and write the words that come into my head—I'm not trying to get anything off my chest, and I don't sit down with a purpose—I just get to express myself and reveal myself in the songwriting." Most compositions are Buchanan's (he started off as a solo project) but the more he's grown comfortable with writing and performing with backup, the more the sound has evolved. "I basically show up with the songs, and they make them sound better," he says of his bandmates. "I think the next album we write, we'll try to write a little different, more collaborative."
If recently released single "Lemonade Stand" from forthcoming album Screecher can be used as a roadmap, the collaboration is already paying off. Like a folk-punk paen to less-than-serious bands like The Vandals or Nerf Herder, Buchanan and crew mull over the possibilities of opening an actual lemonade stand. "We can open up a lemonade stand/and post our shits on Instagram," he sings, simultaneously drawing a laugh or two while almost inadvertently recapturing the youthful exuberance of such a project.
Furthermore, you can practically track Campfire Cassettes' evolution by listening to different releases (try visiting campfirecassettes.bandcamp.com for a primer). Whatever "it" is, they've got it. This is quirky and fun music, but far more worthwhile when truly listened to. Buchanan is a clever lyricist, not afraid to crack jokes without resorting to novelty and, similarly, not afraid to be open. This is a testament not only to the power of good songwriting, but to the shifting landscape of the music industry and self-made bands.
"It's sustainable and we have the power to do it all," Buchanan says. "Write songs, it's easy; record at home, it's cost-effective; putting out CDs is cheap, putting things online is cheaper; records are expensive, but fun and still plausible, even as a smaller band. … It's fun to be out there on tour, tooling around the country and meeting bands who are doing the same thing as us and just trying to get the music in front of as many ears as we possibly can."
You can be those very ears at Campfire Cassettes' upcoming show in Madrid, and we'd highly recommend you go. Hidden gems like these don't stay hidden for long, and you'll definitely want to say you knew them when.
5 pm Monday May 15. Free.
Mine Shaft Tavern,
2846 Hwy. 14, Madrid,
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We spoke with Michael Delheim from the Santa Fe Bandstand about what this year's lineup might look like, and he says the exciting news is that 55 percent of the artists slated to perform are 100 percent new to the series. Delheim even has four nights planned for the Southside's SWAN Park—90 acres of awesome in one new-ish location! Events run Wednesday July 5 through Friday Aug. 25, and we've gathered some of the highlights from this year.