Describing a Bruce Thomas project isn’t easy. I know my editor struggled when he profiled the local artist a few years ago. Now it’s my turn to take a shot after going to see his new band CAMP at the Monashee Mandala last week.
What is CAMP? The Facebok invite described the show as a “rhythm and movement event” and people were asked to bring drums and dancing moves. I feared it could be a hippy drum circle but knowing Thomas, I knew it would be much more than that. A few days before the show he compared it to the pyschedelic electro band Animal Collective. I’ve also enjoyed his other bands, Carbon & Wire, and The Gears, so he’s got good a pedagree.
I entered the Monashee Mandala to a pulsating gathering of adults and children dancing to a swirling, pounding rhythm.
Thomas was shirtless, pounding on a drum and shouting into a microphone. Next to him, Rob Martin was hunched over a laptop. To the left, Douglas Sproule was in front of a sprawling electronic drum kit. On the right, Marie-Isabelle Fournier was laying down, playing a drum while also working on a laptop.
The music combined electronic and acoustic rhythms with samples and improv guitar and lyrics. It was a loosely structured jam session.
“There are no rules, there are no team leaders, there are no songs,” Thomas told me the following day. “There are rough outlines that we can focus on and try to get something. We are attempting to do something but how it ends up coming out will be different every time.”
CAMP was born last summer as a solo electronic project where Thomas created a series of electronic recordings and set it some experimental videos he had created years ago. It debut at shows in Montreal and Toronto. “It was a live mix of different samples that I had created in my library over the years of producing music,” he told me.
When he came back to Revelstoke, Thomas wondered what to do with the music. He decided to recruit his friend Rob Martin, who had no music experience, and teach him how to use an online program called Audio Tools to create the beats. What they wound up doing was taking two different drum machine sequences and running them together.
“If you put those two sequences and put them together and press play it will mathematically start to create different patterns,” he said. “I found it interesting the different patterns it would create over time.”
Fournier, Martin’s girlfriend, asked if she could take part, so she began to play a synthesizer on her lap top. Later, Sproule, who played with Thomas in Carbon & Wire, was brought in to play drums and provide a more consistent beat to balance the chaos of the drum-machine laptop.
Thomas was singing and playing guitar and drums when I saw CAMP, but he said they’ve had shows where he’s just created music on his laptop.
The main thing with CAMP is that the music is all improvised over the bass drum sequences, making it a different experience each time they would play.
“Every time we’d try to repeat it it would come out so absurdly different we would frustrate ourselves because we couldn’t get it right,” Thomas said. “The more in the moment we got, the more nuanced the sound started getting. There was something about trying to get in the moment, trying to get influence by the moment around us, and not worrying about getting the parts right, actually started to create more of a fun atmosphere and we started to create more of a new Columbia sound.”
The catch with CAMP is that sometimes it doesn’t quite work. At last week’s show, the first set went for 90 minutes with barely any pauses and everything flowed together. The second set was only about 45 minutes and featured several occasions where the music broke down as the electronic beats became more mixed up.
“Is that wrong? No. Is it hard for the listener? Yes. Is it hard to play to? Yes. Is it difficult? Yes,” said Thomas. “But when it works, in art, you have to go through some uncharted waters to find new spaces.”