Friday, June 5, 2009
Chillin with Chris Campion: Writer, Playwright, and Singer of Band
WNEW: What's remarkable about this book is that it reads almost like a screenplay, with the author's monologue and the characters' dialogue so vividly intertwined it feels more like you're watching it happen around you, not reading it on the page. Campion has no doubt told and re-told these stories from many a barstool, perfecting the sequence of events but retaining that off-the-cuff delivery that makes them feel so real. Nowhere is this more genuine and hilarious than during the early scenes in the book that deal with his childhood in Huntington. From stories of sneaking out to watch his brothers play rock band in the garage, to the very humbling tale of moving home after dropping out of college, Chris's remembrances reveal the loving family that plays witness to his undoing. Phillster: Speaking with Chris Campion was a real roller coater ride. He is the author of the recent book, Escape from Bellevue and the lead member of the popular indie rock band, Knock Out Drops. We spoke about his humble beginnings, some of his adventures and his influences both musically and literary.
Tell me a bit about your temporary leave from your band.
We were an indie rock band putting out records for years and my life spiraled down a rabbit hole which is the major part of the book so coming back from that…you know I was a drug addict and an alcoholic, the title is when I was in Bellevue from 1998-2000 and our band had a bad history in the music business (during that time)…in the chapter, “Always a Bridesmaid” I illustrate this how we were always on the precipice of something big…we were always the opening for bands like the Violent Femms and Soul Asylum…but couldn’t go beyond that for whatever reason.
How did you go about getting reacquainted with them?
In 2000, I got sober and the band had been derailed by all of this so we got back together and put back together an album in 2003-2004. Around that time I was always in the habit of telling stories during the shows to make it part of the wider experience. We had this record that we were going to do when I came back from one of our tours and I had this idea to do like a rock-in-roll theater show…
That’s taking music in a different direction…
…and we ended up slapping it up, doing it in a hundred seat theater and it just took off beyond our expectations and we ended up extending it to three shows and along the way this thing happened on the radio, we picked up an agent, I wrote a book proposal, and the story (Escape from Bellevue) got picked up by Penguin.
That’s great publicity for your band…
Yeah, we graduated to a 300 seat theater, the Village Theater, when that show wrapped I wrote the book I was commissioned to do and the book came out March 19, 2009.
How inspiring, it’s all so adventurous.
Now it’s about doing performances around the passages; sometimes with the band, other times by myself…next Sunday I’ll be in Long Beach (the Cabana) and next Thursday we’ll be promoting in Riverdale doing a reading, then there’s a Boston Show at the Paradise Rock Club (one of the most famous venues up there, like Irving Plaza), after that at the Steven Talk House in the East Hampton area, I’ve been doing a ton of interviews with The New York Times, Newsday…
You’re keeping busy. Does your band get more groupies the bigger you guys get?
(laughing) The term is just like…it paints an image of giggling young women and I wouldn’t say the people that followed us around were groupies but you know with any band…our followers were primarily outside of New York and then when we moved here we built it up…we played with bigger bands, so the groupies were usually theirs (laughing). We have a lot of fans; you know I don’t know about too many groupies.
You escaped from Bellevue, right? So tell me about that…
Well, it is the climax of the story so I can’t tell you too much about that…there’s a lot of humor in the book, which is the Irish way…
Oh, you’re Irish?
Well, I’m Irish American…I don’t consider myself like Steve McQueen, I’m more like Benny Hill, you’re going to have to read the book to get that answer.
So if I’m not mistaken you got an advance to write this?
Oh, yea, it was really cool, we did that huge show that I mentioned and I wasn’t sure how we were going to do and then you know, the book…the idea of doing that was presented to me and then after I did the deal, there’s a kind of euphoria…at first you’re kind of jumping and then there’s this kind of terror…and then you start freaking.
That must have been serious pressure, you got paid well for a book you hadn’t even written yet…how did you manage it?
You know I had this 17 chapter outline. And I had this really great editor; it was great to have a good editor who can kind of say, “Okay, cut the fat off this…” I think it’s good to always stay within your outline. It definitely was kind of a terrifying thing, there’s this fear that nothing’s going to come out.
I was playing gigs in New York at the time…I actually had to go away and get some work done. I decided to stay at my friend’s house in New Hampshire. It was winter time, very desolate, no internet and I just buckled down and then I came out to the city and I kicked out about 6 or 7 chapters…
That’s a huge accomplishment.
It’s obviously an amazing day when you get a book deal, just like it would be to get a record deal or art deal…with a book, it’s good to get someone to pay you and trust you but it’s also one of those ‘be careful what you wish for scenarios.’
Is your book completely autobiographical?
Yeah, although there is a note to the reader that because I was incredibly high at times…it’s not a social studies book, don’t hold me to any timeline, you know?
(Laughing) That was nice of you to give them a heads up…who are your literary influences?
My influences would be…Hunter Thompson would be one…Frederick Exley.
I’m not familiar with him.
He wrote A Fan’s Notes, a sort of memoir with a wink that he wrote in the 1960s and dialing it back…John Irving, John Steinbeck…
Those are great writers…
Obviously, I’m sort of doing monologues for people in the book, that’s the narrative tone and that was my objective and that’s what I feel like I’ve accomplished.
Are there any movie offers yet?
Well, that’s going on right now…we had an offer to convert it into an HBO series. The book only came out two months ago. In the fall, we might do a college theater show to promote the book. It comes out in paperback next year. It’s doing well in the Tri-State area where I’m from and we’ll be doing the West Coast swing soon.
Can you compare it to promoting albums?
It’s definitely different than promoting my music especially because I am a first time author.
I just love how you’re affiliated with my favorite radio station in the world, 90.7. I love how your already successful band got a big reception on that show.
I love all of what they play on that station. You know you can hear Modest Mouse or The Replacements…I just love that they don’t have to adhere to…I hate commercial cock rock. My taste is coming from an indie background…I feel like it’s the best radio station in town…
I do too….
….and discovering people and playing new stuff…it reminds me of when I was a kid growing up in Long Island…we had WLIR, and at the time they would play XPC and early U2, they played them two years before Bloody Sunday…they played them in 1980, it was an alternative to classic rock, you know elsewhere they played “Born to Be Wild” forty times a day. I mean I did grew up with this…you know Stones, Beatles but 90.7 keeps it current and they also do county, like The Jay Hawks and Steve Earl and to get on there for me at the time…I mean I didn’t even that Julian Welby was there…at my show!
It seems like she really played a big part.
She came down with her husband and they both loved it and then they asked us to come in and it was that fast. We got played during prime time, it was all lickedly-split…people were getting ready in the apartments to go to work and that’s when my soon-to-be agent heard it …
You were on this positive flow.
I did not plan for it and say, “You know if this succeeds, I’ll write a book…” it just ended up being…ever since we started doing that show in 2005, everything’s been new, everything is a dream, you know life gets more and more interesting it seems.
Do you feel curtailing your wild lifestyle had anything to do with it?
I don’t think anything could have been possible without it (sobriety), you know the “getting it” part is all in the book…circumstantially I would never have been able to write a book. But there are a lot of drunk-great writers like the two I mentioned earlier but I don’t think I have that kind of discipline. You know I was always able to write songs and play but I’m an alcoholic so eventually I couldn’t function. When I drink or drug that’s it for me.
What is the odyssey that is part of the book’s title?
You know the realization that I had this story of the band, it is kind of an odyssey in a sense, starting with me as a kid….the singer of Deep Purple lived next door to me so I always had my sights set on becoming a rock star but then there’s always been a quest for faith at the same time. I had a falling out with it (faith) when I was eighteen years old in college. But at the same time I never stopped trying to foster a relationship with god and I really missed the companionship of it and so you know that’s a big part of it too. As I descend further and further into alcoholism, it’s all very colorful, having all these crazy adventures. I’m really just trying to grapple with faith so the story is really how I try to get that…so there were many of these sort of moments…I would say quite a few along the way that were turning points; things like interventions. There was a time that I was ostracized by my family and I’m in a big Irish family…all my extended family was there.
What were some negative pressures holding you back?
I got to a point where I bought into the mythology of writers, look at those I’ve mentioned and then there was also people like Dean Martin or Jim Morrison and I bought into that stuff and didn’t want to get sober. I just thought it was…I was pigheaded about recovery at first…I was very much against that…I think for me when I was in rehab and this was like my second rehab…this guy who was a former drug lord…and we were in this detox together and as we’re both unpacking our gear I asked him where he was from. He took off his shirt and showed me gun shot wounds and said, “That’s where I’m from mother ******” and then he looked at me and I showed him my thirteen stitches from when I fell off my bike…
…and he ended up being one of my best friends in there and I realized that this guy who came from a completely different background…at that moment all the armor came off. I would cite that as probably one of the biggest moments of my life and that was something that put me on a bright and shiny path, not to sound too corny.
You don’t…I wish you and your band and of course, your book continued success. I love the concept of your book and happy to see your positive choices in life have taken you to incredible places…it really affirms the importance of living life to its fullest.