The Strange Dreams of Alex Calder
ABOVE: ALEX CALDER IN NEW YORK, JANUARY 2015. PHOTOS BY ERIC MOONEY. STYLING BY JESSI JACQ. GROOMING: JESSI BUTTERFIELD FOR EXCLUSIVE ARTISTS MANAGEMENT USING CHANEL AND ALTERNA. STYLING ASSISTANT: DANIEL JOSEPH.
Although he might have made an early name for himself as Mac DeMarco’s frequent collaborator (see: Makeout Videotape), experimental musician Alex Calder has now stepped out on his own. With lo-fi production, psych-pop instrumentals, and drowned out vocals, his debut album Strange Dreams (out today, January 20, via Captured Tracks) defies any opportunity for comparisons to DeMarco. The 11-song album brings together Calder’s disparate influences—from The Beach Boys and The Beatles to Hall and Oates and Prince—in a resounding collage of pop, rock, and humor.
Originally from Edmonton, Alberta and now based in Montreal, some of Calder’s former and current endeavors include creating music under monikers like Fatal Relay and Mold Boy, and posting entertaining YouTube videos. His social media presence follows suit, boasting bios on various platforms like “former musician turned chef du cuisine” and “former musician, culinary student, pinball twink, mother.”
In early January, the 25-year-old played in front of a head-bobbing audience for his record release party at Cameo Gallery in Brooklyn. Before Calder, both Donovan Blanc and Laced (featuring Dustin Payseur, also of Beach Fossils) took the stage. The next morning, after settling in next to each other on a memory foam mattress, Calder and Payseur spoke about all things sleep related and of course, a bit of music, over a communal mug of coffee. —Emily McDermott
DUSTIN PAYSEUR: So, Alex Calder, I’m a big fan of your mobiles.
ALEX CALDER: Thanks, man. [both laugh]
PAYSEUR: When I listen to your music, I hear a lot of inspiration from songwriters from the past and a classic songwriting style. I was wondering if you think that contemporary songwriters can still have that classic songwriting style or if you think the immediacy of the internet is killing that?
CALDER: It is weird that when you put a song out it’s going to be forgotten in two weeks or something, whereas in the ’60s, I don’t know how long a hit song would last—maybe a month or two? Or years?
PAYSEUR: I assume people also spent a lot more time perfecting their craft and working on their songs.
CALDER: I definitely don’t think people now are nearly as good as playing music as in the past.
PAYSEUR: I feel like indie music in general, or independent records, are almost like demos. It’s like the first version of the songs or a really raw version of the song is the record, but I think that’s what makes it better because you hear little nuances.
CALDER: I always think songwriters are way more vulnerable. It’s way more personal when you hear older demos of songwriters that you love. You’re like, “Fuck! I wish this was the album instead,” you know?
PAYSEUR: I know. Anytime I’ve ever made a song, I’m like, “I don’t want to re-record this.” I know it’s just going to sound so wimpy.
CALDER: It kills it. The first take on anything is so much better.
PAYSEUR: So…what’s your favorite sleeping position?
CALDER: I was actually thinking about this the other day. I never ever sleep on my back like this [lays down] or like this [flips to stomach]. I’m always fetal. I don’t know if it’s my favorite, but I always wakeup fetal.
PAYSEUR: Same. If I lay on my back I get crazy sleep paralysis and nightmares.
CALDER: Man, I get sleep paralysis so, so badly.
PAYSEUR: Really? I get it like two or three times a week.
CALDER: It’s a problem. It’s so shitty. You feel like someone’s on your chest and then you’re trying to scream…I always think that I’m yelling really loud.
PAYSEUR: And sometimes I feel like there are demons in the room. I feel like someone is coming into the room to murder me and I can’t move.
CALDER: We have a closet that’s facing our bed and whenever it happens it’s always like someone’s coming out of the closet trying to kill me.
PAYSEUR: Does that have an effect on Strange Dreams as the album?
CALDER: Dude, that’s what that song’s about. [laughs] It’s a concept album about sleep paralysis. [laughs]
PAYSEUR: What did you dream last night? Do you remember?
CALDER: I don’t remember at all, actually. I usually have pretty vivid dreams, but last night I slept for like two hours.
PAYSEUR: Do you have a normal sleep schedule?
CALDER: No, not at all. I do this thing called two sleeps, though, like going to bed at four in the morning every night and then wake up at eight, watch two movies, then go back to bed until three.
PAYSEUR: That’s awesome.
CALDER: It’s really crappy. I hate it.
PAYSEUR: It’s kinda nice because there’s a real freedom with that schedule. Do you work?
PAYSEUR: Yeah, see that’s tight. Do you find Montreal—the music scene or community there—do you feel like it’s isolating or inspiring?
CALDER: Montreal is weird, weird music now. It’s like really, really electronic. When I moved there it was all these really sweet guitar bands, really sweet stuff going on. It’s still going on but that’s really isolated.
PAYSEUR: The rock stuff?
CALDER: Yeah, that was a big thing there for a while and now it’s fading away.
PAYSEUR: I think that’s everywhere. Rock music, I feel like, is dead, or it’s having a second death. It kind of died after punk and then revived in popular music, like with grunge, and it’s dying again now…
CALDER: Yeah, I’m noticing I have friends who played the sweetest guitar stuff and now they’re like, “Yeah I’m DJing at this after-hours club…” I’m like, “What! What happened!” [laughs] Whatever. That’s cool. I’m just not into that stuff.
PAYSEUR: Do you feel like you’ve grown as a songwriter or as a person from [your EP] Time to Strange Dreams?
CALDER: A lot of that stuff off Strange Dreams I made right after Time. Half I made immediately after and then half I did more recently.
PAYSEUR: Do you have a different vision or persona when you’re working on Mold Boy?
CALDER: That’s what I was trying to do at first, but not anymore. It’s all blended together. At first I was like, “Yeah, I want to have this secret project and do all this experimental music,” and then I just didn’t do that. I just kept making the same songs. I don’t even know why both exist.
PAYSEUR: I feel like there’s a slightly different sound.
CALDER: I feel like I don’t get as self-conscious about doing things because I’m like, “Oh it’s hidden behind a name.”
PAYSEUR: That’s true. I think if you’re not thinking that anyone is going to hear what you’re making, that’s when you’re at your most powerful. You don’t have to worry about anyone ever hearing it. You’re like, “This is just for me.” I feel like all your music sounds like that. It doesn’t ever sound contrived or like you’re trying to write to anyone but yourself.
CALDER: Thanks, dude.
PAYSEUR: Did you collaborate on Strange Dreams?
CALDER: I did one song with that girl, Caitlin [Loney], who plays in the band Freelove Fenner. They’re the sweetest band in Montreal.
PAYSEUR: They’re fucking awesome. They have a bunch of new songs written. I can’t wait to hear them. Do they live near you?
CALDER: Everyone in Montreal lives on the same, like, three blocks. They’re probably five blocks away, which is really far in Montreal.
PAYSEUR: Do you have a feeling that you’ll want to make a more collaborative project or do you not wanna be on that vibe right now?
CALDER: I’d really like to, but it’s really hard. It’s super tricky to do that with people, especially if there’s two creative inputs, or more. I find it always clashes.
PAYSEUR: I always thought of it like a painter, for example. Like you have this vision and are working through it and if you’re working with someone else they can’t see what you’re seeing. A lot of the time, if they don’t have the same vision, it would be so fucked up. It would look so bad. You really have to be with someone who is on a similar level but comes from a different inspiration, I think, to have the collaboration work.
CALDER: Yeah, you definitely have to be able to let go of anything you feel passionately about putting into it. You just throw it out there and then they can work on it. Speaking of that song that Caitlin did, I really like girl singers on top of…almost gloomy music. I find I’m not a confident singer, so I feel like I make some music where I’m like, “Fuck. I can’t sing over this.”
PAYSEUR: There are really different qualities with a male voice and female voice. It’s completely different instruments and adds a whole new element to a song. I’ve always thought about working on music, [where] the idea would be I worked on instrumental stuff and gave it to someone to sing on, or if someone wrote a bunch of songs and gave them to me to sing on. A lot of ’60s pop songs were written by one person and then they would just have somebody else [sing]. I guess music is still like that today in pop music.
CALDER: It is. Somebody else sings it.
PAYSEUR: So I feel like I’m always seeing new videos you’re posting or you’re working with different creative friends. You have your bathing career, your acting career, your cooking career…I was wondering, in between all that work, if you ever hit extreme droughts with writer’s block? Or if you just continue to work through that?
CALDER: I find you have to really push through with that stuff. If you’re making a bathing profile, you just gotta keep pumping it out there no matter what, no matter how un-funny it is.
PAYSEUR: You gotta keep giving it no matter how many times Instagram deletes your account. [both laugh]
CALDER: There wasn’t even nudity on there! I was so mad.
PAYSEUR: What are your favorite comments you’ve had on Instagram? I saw an amazing one yesterday about your acoustic session.
CALDER: [laughs] That one was really good. That was a rant, like, “Why did you do this?!” People get angry. They don’t see the comedy in it. It’s really hard. A lot of people don’t understand humor. It’s fine. They just don’t know how funny I am…but no. It’s like, “This video would be really good if it wasn’t so annoying.” My favorite comment ever is when I did this thing with my friend Jordan. It’s a rip-off of one of those take away show things and it progressively gets nosier and nosier. There’s this comment that’s so honest. It’s just like, “Why do they have to do all this comedic bullshit? I just wanted to hear the song.” I was like, “Totally right. I feel really bad now.” That’s actually so true.
PAYSEUR: No way, man.
PAYSEUR: What’s it like not working with Angelina Jolie?
CALDER: [laughs] Oh man, I don’t want to talk about that. That’s really sensitive right now.
PAYSEUR: What’s your least favorite question I’ve asked you so far?
CALDER: Probably that one, for sure. [both laugh]
PAYSEUR: Well if that’s your least favorite then how about what I’ve got here from Mac [DeMarco]? Mac sent me a bunch of questions. I’m not even going to ask them. I’m just going to read the whole thing, in its entirety.
CALDER: He said last night that this is going to be the most riveting.
PAYSEUR: Mac says, “Ask about the staffs and bouncy balls. Ask about the suitcase him and Jared used to take around. Ask about his Franz Ferdinand phase. Ask about uber tech. Ask him about what happened in Sarah’s bed while she was camping with her mom. And then Kiera [McNally] says to ask about Justice and leather jackets.”
CALDER: [laughs] Oh my god. Those are all such horrible things to think about. What’s the one about Sarah’s bed? Who is Sarah? What was the first one again?
PAYSEUR: It was about bouncy balls and staffs, oh, and trench coats!
CALDER: [laughs] All this stuff is from when I was much younger, when I met Mac. I had a friend named Jared. We were very, very into classic rock and hippie culture, very long hair and polyester shirts and cord bellbottoms, and cowboy boots. It was a big phase. Most of these are fashion phases I went through.
PAYSEUR: Is the suitcase fashion-related?
CALDER: Jared would always carry around a suitcase. I remember we saw Blow with Johnny Depp and we were really obsessed with it. Jared thought it would be so cool to put everything in a suitcase and take it everywhere. But there would be nothing in it. [both laugh] That was when I was 16 or 17. I was a very isolated teenager and Jared was my only friend.
PAYSEUR: Were you making music back then?
CALDER: No. This was long before that. Well, I guess I started making music and then I started making electronic music—it was really cool in 2006 or 2005. I had all these little projects.
PAYSEUR: So when did you first starting making music in general? Or recording and writing songs?
CALDER: I guess that would be the first real recording stuff. I would make this dance music. Then I got outta that and I think it was when I moved to Vancouver that I started making music. Right around the time that me and Mac started doing Makeout Videotape stuff.
PAYSEUR: Was that the first band you were playing live shows with?
CALDER: Yeah. We had a band before that called The Meat Cleavers and it was a joke Alberta rock band.
PAYSEUR: Was all that collaborative or was it one main songwriter?
CALDER: That Meat Cleavers stuff was all collaborative and really stupid, like all joke songs. So I was recording stuff on the side when I was doing that. I guess I started doing that when I moved to Vancouver in 2008 or 2009? It’s all a blur.
PAYSEUR: So what hot spots are you trying to check out while you’re here in Chicago? [both laugh] I actually had a Brooklyn visitor’s guide that Kiera told me to give you. When I was leaving my apartment I had it rolled up in my pocket in my jacket and I put my hand in my pocket and it fucking ripped my finger apart. I was bleeding everywhere.
CALDER: Oh shit. So you just threw it out.
PAYSEUR: I was angry at it. I didn’t want to give it to you. [Calder laughs] I can be your Brooklyn guide.
CALDER: Are you gonna take me around all day?
PAYSEUR: Yeah, I’ll take you to anything you wanna see.
CALDER: Okay, let’s do it.
STRANGE DREAMS IS OUT NOW. FOR MORE INFORMATION, VISIT CALDER’S FACEBOOK.