Being idealistic is stupid. You apply an ideal to anything that you do and you’re gonna struggle to make that ideal. Just live your life and experience it for what it is.
A few years back, CONVICTS caught up with Cam Avery of Tame Impala fame. We visited him at his monastic Bushwick loft, where the only furniture is a piano and a bed. But don’t let that austerity fool you: we caught Cam at the tail end of a big night out, yet he managed to give some of the wisest answers CONVICTS has found. We got Cam’s good word on selling out, the importance of avoiding sure things, and the strange Zen of golf.
What’s going on Cam? To start, tell us about New York City.
It’s mental. You walk out of your door and there’s stuff going on. It’s like these veins moving around. I used to live in a cabin in the woods in LA. That was my life, but I think the immediacy of New York City is why I like it.
You think that New York and LA have different effects on you, musically speaking?
Yeah, yeah. Every time I go back, LA has a really good influence on me. It sheens stuff up, 'cause I have these grimy ideas. I’ve never made a whole record here – I’ve only recorded in LA but, in my opinion, LA has the best studios on the planet. The whole sonic landscape of my last record is totally indicative of hanging out in LA. It’s a city that facilitates ambition. I can gestate ideas better in New York but I can articulate them better when I go back to LA.
What would New York be, then? If LA is productivity…
New York’s about people. It’s about weird people you meet in restaurants who come and talk to you, buy you glasses of wine. The random people who wanna talk to you cause you’re wearing a New York Yankees hat. They wanna talk to you about the Yankees and say like, “You don’t know anything about ’em.” I’m like “Mate, I’ve been a Yankees fan for twenty years.” I’ve got eleven Yankees hats.
Do you find that navigating this sea of people challenges you as a person?
Yeah. Whether it’s romantically, or just finding someone who’s got your back. It’s hard to find people who aren’t trying to maneuver you in some way. That’s the only downfall, but it doesn’t take you long if you’ve got half a brain to figure out who’s doing it.
When you write songs, are you generally writing from a character’s perspective or your own?
It’s just me. Which is sometimes a pain in the ass, but also funny. If journalists say “Oh yeah, that was shit,” I’m like "what are you talking about? That’s exactly how I felt when I wrote it down. Are you saying my feelings are shit? Or the music is shit?"
What are you listening to these days?
I don’t like actively listen to a lot of pop music. The newest thing on my iPod is like Leonard Cohen. I don’t really listen to a lot of new music. I like hanging out with Jay and Kevin because they’ll give me the hits of what’s going on. Like trap or whatever. I don’t do it on purpose. I just try to keep my thing in my head, you know? Plus playing in Tame is the best thing in the world.
What are your thoughts on selling out?
At the end of the day I’m the one who has to live with it, you know? If I sold out one day and made pop stuff just to make money, then I’m the one on my death bed going “I wish I didn’t do that.” I look up to Nick Cave and Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen, they’re my three favorite musicians who have just stuck to their guns their whole career.
CONVICTS Switching gears, did you have music in your life growing up? Were your mom or dad musicians?
My mom. She’s a brilliant singer. The only reason she didn’t have a music career is because she had me at like 21. So music was always in the house, I was always encouraged to sing, and then as I got older and my parents separated my mom would pretty much exclusively play like Aretha, Presley, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, in the car. Mum encouraged me into it, but not as a career. Mum was like “Never be a musician.” Her uncle is a pretty good musician. Same with my family back in the UK, but none of them really did anything with it, so she was just like “don’t do it.”
Did you have a ‘fuck it’ moment when you decided to chase music instead of sport?
Yeah, there was that ‘fuck it’ moment. To be a professional sportsman, you have to have a side of your brain that wants to – even if I’m playing my best friend and they’re down in the dumps and losing – you have to wanna put your foot on their jugular and just stomp. I don’t have that. It literally came to that moment where I didn’t want to win anything anymore. I just wanted to make stuff. Cause winning consumed my brain. You look at Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong, any good swimmer, anyone who’s ever been like a brilliant sportsman has that point where they cheat. Every coach I’ve had in my life has said, “If you’re not trying to cheat, then you don’t really wanna win.” I’m very process over product.
Why was it music in the end that was like that thing you had to do?
I feel it the most. No one’s ever asked me that. ‘Cause sometimes I’m like “what am I fucking doing?” but – this is such a cliche – when I’m playing music it’s just the best feeling I’ve ever had. My brother said to me, “You’re always like a hundred miles ahead of what you’re trying to do, verbally and emotionally. But the only time I see you living in the present moment is when you’re playing music.” The only time I’m completely calm is when I’m doing this. It’s me and this. There is only one way to do it. This way.
Can you talk a bit about your creative process?
I don’t try to write songs – it could be a good thing or a bad thing for me – I wait until they come. I hate trying to grind out songs, I fucking hate it. That’s why most of my songs exist in voice memos of me on the train pretending I’m on the phone. I’d rather wait. You need to feel something when you’re writing a song, ‘cause then it means something to you and you’ll remember what it is. I see songs or art as milestones in your life. You should be able to remember why you made that. That’s what I wanna do. Like I don’t have any fiscal goals, you know? Sure, if it works out that I can get paid to do it, great. But like, I’m happy to just work. If in 10 years I’m pulling beers, I’m cool with that. I don’t really care.
On your track “Wasted on Infidelity,” you sing about drowning yourself in the sure things. Why is avoiding the sure thing important?
Being idealistic is stupid. You apply an ideal to anything that you do and you’re gonna struggle to make that ideal. Just live your life and experience it for what it is. Sure things, are the things that you pay for. You buy a beer, you get to drink the beer. You buy the french fries, you get to eat the french fries. You buy a lap dance, you get the lap dance. That’s what that whole song is about. I’d given up on that idea of seeking self fulfillment from work or human relationships. I wasn’t inspired by anything at the time. So that’s why I wrote that song. The sure things are things you can buy. It’s the sad reality of trying to buy your own happiness. Outsourcing your happiness is the dumbest thing you can do, and that song is about me trying to do that.
Talk a little bit about the relationship amongst the band members in Tame Impala?
The good friendship all of us have is very much like family. Like brothers. Brothers who met when we were sixteen to eighteen and sort of moved around in this cloud of smoke. Like bong trooper idiots, you know? We all care about each other’s opinion over anybody’s in the world. I care about Kevin, Jay, and Nick’s opinion more than anyone. I think they have the same thing. That’s why I think that everyone’s so prolific cause we all inspire each other. Kevin lit a fire under our ass when were 18 cause all of the sudden Tame Impala got psyched. Kevin’s a genius, he was just like “make something, do something.” He’s my biggest influence.
Lastly, what’s the weirdest thing you’ve seen on New York’s streets lately?
I saw a guy the other day roller-blading down my street with a small sofa on his head. Nowhere else in the world….This guy had a mid century chair on his head. I was like “I want that furniture mover.”