Leith-based multi-instrumentalist Callum Easter talks to Fiona Shepherd about his debut album, Here or Nowhere
Like many working musicians today, Callum Easter doesn’t have the cash to splash on flashy equipment. But that hasn’t stopped him amassing a mini-orchestra of instruments using a shrewd and environmentally friendly mix of charity shopping and sweeping in to borrow neglected bits of kit from other musicians. To date, this lo-fi one-man-band has written on piano, synthesizer, guitar, organ, autoharp and, most recently, accordion, and souped up his recordings further with clever miking, detuning and distortion through a ragbag of analogue detritus.
“You get good at making noise,” says Easter. “I’m not very sophisticated on anything but if you’ve got an idea of what you want to do, it works out. The mic I’m using for the button side of the accordion is actually for a drum. It still sounds like an accordion but it’s got a whole other level which rattles you.”
Easter keeps much of this audio armoury heaped up in his small subterranean studio space in Leith just along the cluttered corridor from Young Fathers’ similarly bijou grotto of sound. Easter has been a friend and associate of Edinburgh’s most esteemed racket-makers for some years now; they are such kindred spirits there that he is now part of their live band, playing keyboards and lap steel guitar (now he’s just showing off…).
Yet Easter came late to playing and writing music. Until his late teens, football was the main attraction, which finally led to a soccer scholarship in South Carolina where, in the off-season lull, he began to teach himself piano. “I love pianos, the work that goes into them. They fill a room – that’s also why I like the accordion.”
Seduced by the sound, he decided to quit football and return home to his native Dunbar where he joined indie band The Stagger Rats alongside friends from primary school.
“When I look back on that decision it was crazy – I basically threw away a scholarship that was worth quite a lot of money,” says Easter. “But I’ve always been into music and the sounds of growing up by the sea. I’ve got this memory as a boy when it was a stormy night of just challenging the waves. That’s kind of how it feels when I perform.”
Even before The Stagger Rats split up – thanks to good old economic hardship – Easter was making the transition from indie band keyboard player to solo multi-instrumentalist, writing his own songs on guitar and practising on an old electric organ in his preferred local hostelry, the Dolphin.
“A pint and a practise,” he says. “The barman would tell you what he thought. I reckon he was my toughest audience.
“But I don’t like to make things easy. There’s been a couple of gigs I’ve not enjoyed because I was too comfortable and chatty, and there’s points where I’ve made it too difficult and messed it up, but I’ve got a bit better at that balance. I can only manage half a beer and still play the accordion – I learned that in one practise. It’s taught me loads because it’s upped my game with the multi-tasking. I’ve started performing with a drum machine, accordion, guitar and a few other bits of kit, foot switches. It’s all really primitive. I like the challenge of using what you’ve got.”
To date, Easter has self-recorded two EPs, Get Don’t Want and Delete Forever, both intriguing introductions to his mercurial mix of lo-fi electronica and blues-infused crooning, which comes to fruition on his debut full-length album. The excellent, eclectic and slightly unearthly Here or Nowhere was recorded in late night bursts after Easter had completed long shifts as a theatre stagehand. “You get to the point where you wake up in the morning and you’re hearing showtunes – that makes me so nauseous,” he says.
Far more harmonious to his finely-tuned ears were the soulful strains of Jacqui and Pauline Cuff, who now sing with Leith Congregational Choir but will be better known to 90s pop-pickers as the Smiths-sampling Hippychick hitmakers Soho. The sisters sing backing vocals on one of Easter’s favourite album tracks, Fall Down. “It’s a spiritual kind of song talking about how people are connected, how we have a lot in common, a belief that most folk are on the same level but maybe don’t realise it because you get put into boxes.”
Tell ’em Boy falls at the rawer end of the scale. “I’m the boy,” says Easter. “I was going through a rough spell and it’s just about moving on. Sometimes you can just hold on and go over and over things, so the song is circular, the chorus and verse are not drastically different. I’ve had that song for a while. Sometimes, I’ll write a sore one and then not do anything with it, just leave it for a bit and you’re past it so you can sing it. And some just come quick and I don’t really know what I’m on about, and it takes on new meanings as you perform it.”
Despite his determinedly DIY approach to his own music-making, Easter does, in his own words, “a lot of other work that involves my ears,” including technical operations and sound design. He studied sound production at Edinburgh College and was invited back as a featured producer, meaning he could add to his freelance workload by using their facilities to master his own album.
“Writing the songs is the easiest bit and recording is fun,” he says. “I’m always tinkering, figuring out ways, wondering what it will sound like if I do it that way. I think I’ve got better at limiting myself. But mastering, no one really does that themselves. You drive yourself a bit nuts listening to your recordings a lot, but I’m happy with the results.”
Here or Nowhere is out now on Lost Map Records and launched tonight at Leith Cricket Club. Callum Easter is live in session on Marc Riley’s 6Music radio show on 8 April, and plays La Belle Angele, Edinburgh on 13 April as part of Wide Days Festival Takeover