Tim Campbell has dabbled in so many forms of entertainment that it’s becoming hard to classify him as a particular type of entertainer. It’s a general classification that he is content with regardless. Here he chats to Philippe Perez while he is on the road for his High School Disco tour.
There seems to be a lot of nostalgia involved with your performances – with this tour and previous themed performances you’ve done in the past. Why do you incorporate nostalgia to your work?
Well, I think there are a few things. Firstly, (regarding) the (nostalgic) music – I haven’t really let it go to be quite honest. It is still is my current listening playlist too. I’ve been in love with 70s and particularly 80s music, because that’s when I really grew up. That kind of music over the few years got me through the 90s performing with many bands as well when I did pubs and clubs in Sydney.
I always loved performing 70s and 80s songs, and it also additionally worked. I think what it does for a lot of people is that you have these classic songs and in a live environment nothing beats it. There’s a real connection with a song with that first riff. You hear it and it takes you back to a certain time of your life whether it was at school or some other part (of your life) that is awesome for you. Most often than not it’s an innocent fun time that people get reminded about. It’s wonderful what notes of a tune can do.
What were the particular songs that made you remember innocent times for you?
For some stupid reason… but maybe not even for a reason, every time I hear Air Supply it reminds of my time doing athletics. Probably because when I drove to athletic carnivals in the 80s it was there on the radio for whatever reason.
I used to make my own mixtapes as well. That made me familiar with songs back then doing that and spending hours trying to make these cassettes, and it drew me in and have stayed with me to this day. I had a really great time doing that. They always had classic melodies that will never ever die.
Some music today I find really same-y and melodies are quite monotonous but back then, there was just classic songs great albums and from great movies too. It was something I always connected to and always loved. I guess what I wanted to do is also let people know that it is OK in 2014 to love this music. You don’t have to pretend that you only have to listen to certain radio stations or that kind of thing.
I always listen to Gold FM in Melbourne because they always listen to that classic stuff and funnily enough these days a lot of those kind of stations rate really well. It makes me think, “Great, people get that nostalgic thing as well! That’s good.”
I know what you mean in regards to the making of mixtapes too. That whole process of making those things is nostalgic in itself.
Oh yeah! You had to use the lead pencil to take it back slightly to make it all clean and nice with good edits. That was our own iPod DJ thing as well. We did that as our home-DJ thing. If you really wanted to be up yourself you would have a ghetto blaster with a heavy-duty cassette player with high-speed dubbing as well. I loved that.
Were there any specific popular culture or musical event in the 80s or late 70s that you harbor a fondness for?
Definitely around school time, I was into sport rather than performing back at school. In the 80s I played soccer in the winter and represented (my) school in athleticsand swimming. I think back to the people I competed against in sports carnivals and the music that I’d listen to when travelling to all these events. I also did volleyball, baseball and so on so I was busy travelling around. People at those carnivals usually chuck a sickie and take a day off, but they were also just majorly fun days for me in school.
Then if you got into the regional carnivals you got another day off school, it was perfect! I remember those days being excited… God. We could forget this whole phone interview thing and lie on a psychiatrist’s couch and go back and rebirth and we’d be here for weeks remembering those times! Why aren’t interviews done that way in music journalism?
This is your first album. How did you approached recording an album in a studio environment considering that you’re more noted for performing on stage only?
It’s a very different process. I have worked in studios before and done backing vocal sessions and for years I was doing character voices as well. I’m very familiar with the studio but not doing lead vocals, which can be very confronting. It was a different process for me in the sense that I had been asked to record albums in the past, and I thought: “Oh I already know enough” and I was motivated for it because I liked the idea behind it. At the same time, I learned interesting little things.
I also thought recording was for the Kate Cebranos and Anthony Calleas of the world – not me. This particular idea of (the album High School Disco) came from touring with a band over the years doing a lot of private and corporate type of events, and the reations I’d get. People kept asking me if I had an album. So I thought I had to do it. The High School Disco concept was what I took to the record company and they got it and understood it. I told them that there was a lot of people who really loved this music because of the reactions I got after shows.
What I wanted to do was translate the versions that we done live to the studio too. I knew that would not always be easy though, because it was a different process. It was a case of finding songs, not only that I’ve sung in and I’m comfortable with, but for the band as well. What we like to do is freshen them up but also not to digress past a particular sound either.
I approached James Kempster who is a great record producer and who has produced for Anthony Callea as well as other great singers too. Knowing that he has a good pop sensibility, he understands where I am coming from as well. We chatted about all this before we went ahead and chose the songs and got the musicians that we wanted. I was in on every session too. I really wanted to be a part of the whole thing and envelop myself in it.
Because James worked with Anthony’s stuff and I helped on Anthony’s recordings as well, (I came to) essentially co-produce with him. It was just about getting a bunch of good, appropriate sounds. When it came down to recording my vocals, I had to adjust because approaching a song live is very different to singing into a studio mic. Thankfully I have someone like Anthony nearby who is an incredible singer and also an incredible technician too. He understood the difference as well and really knew the technicalities of the voice too. He’s very familiar around the studio so he came in to help out and give me tips as well from his corner. It was great to have him around there.
It’s interesting that Anthony Callea was helping with the technical aspects of the recording too. Once again, I see him as a performer first and foremost. How was it working with him in that capacity?
I think without bias he is one of the best singers in the country. I have never heard him hit a bad note, the arsehole! Even after a few glasses of scotch he’s bloody good [laughs]. But not only live, in the studio he is on top of things and gave me advice, as did James too. I understood it all but there was a difference between knowing it and putting it into practice as well. It was helpful having them both there.
Because we know each other pretty well, Anthony knows what I’m like as a singer as well, so he helps getting the best out of me for that. Much like in the past when he has done musicals, I’ve helped him out with his acting because I’ve been experienced with that. We can use each other and we don’t have invoice either!
You have dabbled in different entertainment mediums like the aforementioned acting. How did you come to having such a diverse career path?
I think performing in general was something that happened naturally for me. I never grew up in entertainment –
I was into sports. It wasn’t until later in high school that I discovered my love for performing. It was also channel that and how to work properly as well. I pretty much learn on the job with everything.
Acting and TV drama was the first thing that I got into and still is a great love of mine. If I had to have a gun at my head and choose one (type of performance, acting) would be the thing I would choose. Even way back when I started acting work, I was working in a theme park in Sydney as a singer there. From there I got a job in theatre restaurants and all these other things, which were like my actor-café waiting job between other bigger actor gigs. It ended up being as much of a career path as acting has been, and still is. I like it that way, and it makes things exciting.
You mentioned that you’ve been in cover bands in the past, so considering that High School Disco is essentially a cover albums, was the process of reinterpreting the songs easy for you? Were there actual challenges?
No, it was pretty easy really. I listen to the songs on the radio obviously, but I haven’t really sat down to study them. It was more that I had them sitting there and I had been performing them for many, many years. They’re kind of embedded in me.
(The band) can put our own stamp on it too, but it’s not about making them jazz versions or a rockabilly version, or whatever else. (We recorded the songs) in their pop-rock-disco state, just with a tinge of difference – I mean, I’m singing them! I also just (put) a modern flavor to the production, and by that I mean I’m recording digitally these days and a different process to how the original artists did it. Maybe we’d add an extra sound or the odd arrangement, but nothing more.
What I think works with these songs is the great synth sounds in the 80s tracks and just having the awesome rhythms. I didn’t want to stray off that too much and change it up for the sake of performance.
Your tour will be incorporating song requests. Does that scare you somewhat?
No. Not at all. I’ve actually taken (the song requests) online. If there is a great song that everyone knows and we tend to know it on the night, we can probably kind of do it a bit. I have confidence in that. It’s not a fully scripted and sculpted show though, which I never do I should point out. Even when I MC show, I tell the organisers to not send me script. It’s so boring. I prefer some dot points. I will go with it and talk as best I can off that. To me, that’s more entertaining and it makes things more in the moment.
I really like making my shows that way. I really enjoy making these shows interactive because that was what the blue-light discos and the high school discos were like if you think about it. You get together with your friends, and if you’re a bunch of girls you put the bags in the middle and dance around them – I’m trying to bring that to this show. I’m also bringing lollies along as well to recreate that kind of thing. I have a bunch of Sherberts and Milkos and all that to share out. I really do want to have that 80s flavor literally when you are listening to music from the time.
I’m also asking people to bring in photos from the 80s. I am trying to get people to not be afraid of the time. It was a cool era! Even though we look at the time and cringe at the stuff that happened there in pop culture sometimes, we should embrace it. There are a couple of video sections of the show where I have got photos and videos from my past. We also have photos from people coming in from the regional areas plus a few from people from within the media and within the band too..
Is there an aim for you to do original stuff for your music career? Have you dabbled in it in the past?
No I haven’t to be honest. I’m not ashamed to say that I’m a singer-entertainer, not a singer-songwriter. There is a definite market for that somehow because I have been doing events for many years. There are those out there who sing originals as well, but they haven’t written them either. I’m not sure if I’ll decide to go down that path as well. I enjoy doing what I’m doing right now.
I do a fair bit music-wise, if you look at my CV, but I wouldn’t want to do (original material) for the sake of doing it. The reason why I do High School Disco and shy away from the original stuff right now is because I enjoy the music of the time – I love revisiting that time. I’m probably repeating myself but I can’t state how much I still enjoy singing these songs after many, many years. People get into it at the gig and I think that’s an awesome thing.
So, coming down to it all – I think I’m a singer-entertainer and proud of that. And it’s a fun thing to do too. Even with the corporate gigs that you get when you are doing the type of work that I do. I have no worries in doing that – if it is a pain-in-the-arse client, then I’ll just cancel the gig. It’s meant to be fun, it’s not hard work and it’s definitely not rocket science, forgive the cliché. It’s totally about being a dag and leaving your stresses behind. That’s what it’s about, nothing else.
High School Disco is out now through ABC Music. Tim Campbell’s High School Disco tour is playing in Launceston, Hobart, Brisbane, The Gold Coast, Sydney and Melbourne until mid-July. Head to www.highschooldisco.com for more details