Interview Cameron Cook
Photography Dan Wilton
I remember reading recently that after the Vietnam War, American social morays regarding adolescence were drastically overhauled. So many young lives were senselessly destroyed that the nation collectively coddled its youth, swore it would never happen again, and basically let kids do whatever the fuck they wanted and never grow up. What followed was this sort of prolonged teenagehood, this youth culture where it was rightfully admissible for adults to relate to adolescence, and where the trials of said adolescence were prolonged into their twenties, and beyond. It is, when you think about it, the ultimate privilege. And no band alive today does a better job at representing and enjoying that privilege than Summer Camp, the woozy pop project of boyfriend/girlfriend Jeremy Warmsley and Elizabeth Sankey.
They wear their references proudly on their sleeve: they have songs called “Jake Ryan” (the hunky love interest from John Hughes’ teen angst masterpiece, Sixteen Candles (1984)), “Veronica Sawyer” (Winona Ryder’s heroine in Heathers (1989), and a song in which a boy dressed as Teen Wolf goads a girl into drinking beer until she pukes) and “Brian Krakow” (Angela Chase’s nerdy best pal on My So-Called Life (1994-95)). Their first EP is called Youth (Moshi Moshi, 2010), and their debut album, Welcome to Condale (Moshi Moshi, 2011), is a concept album based around a fictional town in California, much like the mythical setting for all of John Hughes’ teen dramas, Shermer, Illinois.
And I could go on. Pages and pages could be devoted to Summer Camp’s grasp on the secret life of the American teenager (never mind that they were born and bred in the UK–but more on that later), but luckily, they have the songs to back up their obsession. Both Youth and Welcome to Condale are, like a lot of good pop nowadays, reminiscent of ’60s and ’80s pop, pulling their sound from both the Ronettes and the Psychedelic Furs. Elizabeth’s voice is constantly buoyed by Jeremy’s ultra-fuzzy guitars and synths. “Ghost Train” for example, bounces along on one of the catchier choruses in recent memory, in total contrast with Elizabeth desperately “trying to get through” to her man, aimlessly. Live, Summer Camp perform while a stream of found family photographs rotates on a screen behind them, creating scenarios full of holes and nameless extras in imaginary movies. The bands songs have a singing-into-your-hairbrush quality to them, but far from being as grating as that sounds, it adds a dimension of reality to the records. Perhaps the most engaging thing about Summer Camp is that they manage to pull this off without much, if any, irony–it’s not just nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake. In a way, you feel that Summer Camp truly do relate to the Jakes, Veronicas and Brians of the world.
I met up with Jeremy and Elizabeth in Williamsburg, the night after their first show in America as Summer Camp. (It should be noted that Jeremy is a solo musician in his own right, having released two albums on Transgressive Records and toured extensively.) I had no idea they were both super into Disneyland, but looking back on it, I totally should have known.
What exactly is your relationship with the films of John Hughes? In ‘SUP MAGAZINE 23 you guys did the letter to Ducky from Pretty in Pink (1986), so are you just lifelong fans or was it more a concept around the EP?
Elizabeth: Well, I will speak for myself and say that I am an intensely huge fan. (To Jeremy) I dunno, are you an intensely huge fan?
Jeremy: I’m not an intensely huge fan, but I’ve really enjoyed all the films of his that I’ve watched, and I think crucially, we were watching those films at a time when we were recording and writing the songs for the EP. That’s probably why so much of it leaked into the EP specifically.
Elizabeth: Yeah, but it wasn’t like, a concept thing.
Jeremy: I kind of think of it as like, a ‘context thing’, with the samples, and the pictures on the blog, and the artwork.
Elizabeth: When we were doing the EP, we were really into the idea of this American teenage experience. Both of us grew up as teenagers in England, so it’s something we’ve never experienced, but at the same time we’ve seen it in so many films. It seems to be this universe, this timeless experience that has been reproduced in every teen movie. It’s just really compelling, I think, from an outsider’s perspective.
Jeremy: It’s a fantasy. It’s as unrealistic as The Lord of the Rings or something. We’re perfectly aware that our experience through films bears no resemblance to what it’s actually like, and for us that makes it all the richer. We’re able to draw on stuff like John Hughes, Heathers and stuff like that. It just kind of makes it more real, in this sort of unrealistic sort of way. Wow, that makes no sense! (laughs)
I see what you mean. It’s like playing Dungeons and Dragons or something, only with teenagers and not mountain trolls.
Elizabeth: Yeah! And I think John Hughes has done the best job at representing those kind of teenage experiences, in this fictional world he cerated himself. Like how Sherman, IL isn’t a real place – I love that. The fact that it’s this place that all of these characters can intermingle was something we were really interested in, with the album as well as the EP.
You used a lot of film for your early videos as well, blond teens running around vacant lots and such. Where did you find it?
Jeremy: We actually didn’t make those videos, so we can look at them and say with complete objectivity that they’re the most amazing videos ever. It was really interesting, because looking back on it now, it seems really obvious, given the rest of what we do, to sort of cut up an amazing movie from the ’70s and set it to our music, but it wasn’t out idea. It was a good friend of ours named Paddy Power, who is a filmmaker in the UK. He just did it without even asking us, and send over the video for “Ghost Train”, and it was the perfect video for us. Then he did the same for “Round the Moon”, so those aren’t ones we can really take any credit for, but it did kind of just fit with our aesthetic perfectly.
Elizabeth: Yeah, and it was nice having someone who wasn’t us making the video, because I’m sure that if we tried to make it we would have done something really awful, like try and have us lip-synching to the camera, and like a train—
Jeremy: Wearing panda costumes.
In general, is film a medium that really inspires you? So much of what you guys do is heavily visual.
Elizabeth: Oh, yeah.
Jeremy: We both love film.
Elizabeth: Films are my life. I wanted to be an actress, so it’s something I’ve always been drawn to, and I wanted to be an actress mainly because I wanted to live in a film world (laughs). It kills me that when you see these things, they don’t actually exist, just constructs of people’s imaginations. My family’s obsessed with Disneyland and Disneyworld, and when I was a kid my parents would save up and we would all go. I’ve been to Disneyworld about 17 times. I loved the idea that you could have this world that you could go into and touch it, and you can see it and feel it, but it’s completely false. But it did kind of ruin things for me, like when I went to Africa, I got off the plane I was like “This is great, but it’s not the same at the Safari ride at Disneyworld!” There aren’t any lions coming to get you in the bushes. You can’t get a Mickey Mouse ice-cream.
You should just bring them with you, and be an ice-cream missionary. What was your favorite attraction at Disneyland?
Elizabeth: Well, the last time I went was when I was about 15, so I haven’t been for a while, but we’re going again next week, because Jeremy has never been—
Jeremy: Well, I’ve been to Disneyworld, not Disneyland.
Elizabeth: —with someone who is obsessed, like me. So I’m hoping to be like (makes childish, excited face), but it might not be the best.
Jeremy (in a slightly reprimanding tone): It’ll be amazing!
Elizabeth: I really love the Haunted House, and at Universal Studios they have this thing that’s based on The Twilight Zone, and it’s this whole hotel that’s done up like a 1930s mansion, and it has a lift that drops.
So the American teenage experience is something you’re attracted to. This is your first time coming to America as a band, right?
Did you have any expectations for how an American public would react to your interpretation of their culture?
Jeremy: We had very low expectations, which were surpassed to the utmost degree. We would have been really pleased had there been 30 people at the show. It’s our first time here, we haven’t earned anything yet. It was incredible that there was such a great turnout last night. People seemed really warm, people came up to us afterwards. It was absolutely amazing. Elizabeth: There were things I hadn’t thought about, though. Because American culture was such a big influence, especially on the EP, I suddenly felt really self-conscious. In soundcheck when were were looking at all the slides, I was like, ‘This is really American. We are really representing our vision of what America is,’ and I suddenly got very, like, ‘Is that bad? Is this going to come across as a bit – not patronizing, but a bit condescending?’
Jeremy: Which we would never mean it to be, obviously.
Elizabeth: Also, I said… (trails off)
Jeremy: Ugh, it doesn’t matter.
Elizabeth: Yeah, it doesn’t matter (laughs).
Jeremy: No, actually, say it. Say it! This is how lame we are, that we obsessed over this.
Elizabeth: I said that I was wearing trainers like all the women from Jersey, but in Working Girl (1988), she’s from Staten Island, not New Jersey.
Someone heckled that after, actually. They were like, ‘STATEN ISLAND!’
Jeremy: Someone blogged about it last night. It was probably the same guy (laughs).
Elizabeth (groaning): Uuugghhhhh. But women from Jersey do it as well, right?
We have a phenomenon out here called Bridge and Tunnel, which basically means people from New Jersey, Long Island, Connecticut, et cetera who travel to Manhattan on the weekends. Since we were all on the Lower East Side, which has become prime Bridge and Tunnel stomping grounds over the last decade or so, I think everyone understood what you meant.
Elizabeth: Ok, so I didn’t really embarrass myself. (Mock seriously) It’s fine, I’m fine about it. It’s fine. It’s not a big deal.
When you first started talking about Jersey, I thought you were going to go off about Jersey Shore.
Elizabeth: My friends absolutely adore it. I watched one episode and I didn’t really get it.
It’s kind of something that needs to sit with you for a while. It’s really an experiment in anthropology. They’re an entire, fully-formed subset of people that exist outside of any other facet of society.
Elizabeth: We have this thing in England called My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, which I haven’t seen, but I imagine is a similar kind of thing. It’s the Irish Gypsy community throw these really elaborate weddings, where the bride has this amazing dress that like, lights up and has mechanical butterflies that move on them and stuff.
Jeremy: It’s pretty amazing.
Elizabeth: But I did see these Irish Gypsies on This Morning talking about how awful it was, how they were taking this small faction of their culture and saying that that was how everyone was like.
Jeremy: If you’re trying to make entertainment out of a small racial community, and you focus on the people with the biggest personalities who are the most outrageous, the other people in that community are not going to like it. It sucks! I totally agree with them.
Elizabeth: Same! So I resolved never to watch it.
How moral of you!
Elizabeth: That’ll make them really think.
Jeremy: You’re really making a difference. You should tweet about it as well.
Anyway, back to last night’s show. How do you choose the perfect slideshow photo?
Jeremy: It’s kind of a bit of a trade secret, actually.
Elizabeth: No, not really. He’s just trying to make it sound exciting.
Jeremy: The truth of it is probably far more boring.
Elizabeth: We basically have a huge collection, and it’s just like anything, the ones that you like, you keep. We just have hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of them. But I was thinking about this as well, all of them are families, and I suddenly was like, ‘What if there’s someone in the crowd whose parents are on the screen?’ There’s no way of checking who the subjects are when we get a photo.
Near where I live there’s this thrift store called The Thing, and they have boxes and boxes of old pictures. but I always get really weirded out by those photos.
Elizabeth: It’s emotional.
I always try to judge if that person in the photo is still alive or not. You’re like, ‘This looks like it’s from the ’70s, but she looks 50…’
Elizabeth: Once I found a whole photo album of this woman in various poses. Some of them were quite risqué, but not in a bad way, just showing her stockings and posing on a car bonnet. But it was just a bit weird because I thought, if that’s someone’s grandma, and they saw those [on stage or in our artwork] they’d be like, ‘Granny Mae, what are you doing?’
Jeremy: We’re hoping eventually to ask people to send in their own family photos, and we could make a slideshow out of it for the tour. Although, my personal experience of asking people to send stuff in is that it might also be quite disturbing, and/or quite disappointing, so we’ll see.
Are you very nostalgic people?
Jeremy: I think that’s really true of the EP. All of the songs for the EP were written in the first month of our existence as a band, some were even written before we had officially decided to become a band. It’s quite naïve, it’s quite concerned with teenage manners, and we’re not teenagers anymore, so looking back at being a teenager is always going to involve a certain amount of nostalgia. And I don’t want to say that on the album that has completely dropped out, but some of the songs take a slightly different direction, and there’s definitely darker material on Welcome to Condale. We’re not particularly nostalgic people, but everyone likes a bit of nostalgia.
Elizabeth: I think we are, actually. Say that we had a great day, we’d be like, ‘Oh, let’s go back and do the things that we did on that great day,’ and then you get back there and you’re like, “Eh, it’s just not the same.’ When you find something new, then it’s really special. I think we’re nostalgic is a kind of, ‘you-can-never-go-home-again’ way. The stuff that we’re nostalgic for isn’t real, so when we’re being nostalgic, it’s not real. If that makes any sense.
Jeremy: Nostalgia is weird, because it’s very self-defeating. You’re saying, ‘Ah, wasn’t that great! Oh, I don’t have it anymore.’ Ultimately, it makes you feel quite sad, and that’s why it’s such a special emotion.