Ari Vais, originally from Moscow, embarked on a journey from the former Soviet Union as a child, residing in various cities before settling in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His artistic journey began in high school, flourishing during his time at UMass Amherst and a junior year abroad in England, where he opened for notable acts. Vais fronted the '90s group Humbert in Northampton, later forming the Pelicans and then finally for more than a decade now The Campbell Apartment.
"The Campbell Apartment" garnered acclaim, with their album "Insomniac’s Almanac" named the 4th best in 2008 by The Village Voice. Vais's diverse musical career continued in San Francisco, collaborating with Fountains of Wayne's Jody Porter. His previous LP "Curmudgeon," reflects over two decades of power pop prowess, praised by fellow musicians and critics alike. The singer is back with a brand new Power Pop classic titled "Under The Influence Of Love". The band's sound has been described as a blend of influences, from Big Star to the Clash, and their ability to navigate between detachment and vulnerability has left a lasting impact. The Campbell Apartment's unique style, infectious tunes, and clever lyricism have earned them recognition and respect in the indie rock scene.
Q: In your opinion, what are the essential qualities that make a “good songwriter”?
Don’t pander to some invisible, anonymous “other” that you think will make you rich if you write what you think they will like. It’s like trying to open an invisible door. It’s also phony. Write what pleases you, write from the heart, be clever but be honest. Write referencing real places and people, inside jokes, people like that, to be included in something only the writer knows what it is. Write up to the intelligence of the audience, not down to it. There’s plenty of dumb rock music out there, nearly all of it. That’s easy to avoid if you’re intelligent and set a high bar for yourself. As an oil painter, the competition is fierce. As a novelist, there are just countless writers better than I am. But as a songwriter, the competition is more or less weak. I’ve always thought so. Turn on commercial corporate radio sometime - it’s all dogshit. Avoid cliches. Don’t fucking rhyme cry with die and girl with curl. Rhyme girl with squirrel. “Almost-rhymes” are SO much cooler than perfect rhymes. If the song you wrote knocks your socks off, mission accomplished. Then other people you don’t know, when they hear it, will feel stuff. And that’s the goal. Don’t write in such a way where I can predict the next chord change, the next rhyme, where I can predict the next anything. Maybe that’s what the masses like, the familiar, but I think that’s ignorant, talentless writing. Why not garden or golf instead?
Q: What is the basis for writing attention-grabbing music in the year 2023?
Oh, just write from the heart, but with a wink. It’s the same for the year 2003, or 1923, or 1823. If the words are sad, make the music happy. If the music is sad, make the words happy. Surprise the listener, never emotionally manipulate the listener or shove how the song should make you feel down anyone’s throat. It’s unartistic.
Q: What has it been like working with an indie record label as opposed to working on your own?
It’s just nice to have someone admire your music enough to make that commitment, to rate it so highly they’ll associate their brand with your brand, they’ll do things to make your music popular because they want their label to have a higher profile too. The label I am on gives me total creative freedom, and has an incredibly artist friendly contract, so it is much better to have the validation of being signed, than not to be.
Q: Can you pinpoint some specific songs and songwriters that changed the way you write music?
Lou Reed, Leonard Cohen, Kurt Cobain, Kim Deal, Robert Pollard, John Lennon, Julian Casablancas, Rivers Cuomo.
Q: Do you find it hard to be inspired by artists that are younger than you, or are you motivated by their energy? Can you name any new artists you find inspiring?
I prefer newer, younger artists, and really have a distaste for classic rock. It’s not even the energy or the song, it’s the lack of defeat that the music industry can give a person, it’s the lack of jadedness, it’s the honesty and originality. Mac DeMarco, while not being a young kid, is younger than me, and is a true original. But I can’t site too many people because I don’t really listen to music, or play it really. I’ll write a hit song, record it, and basically forget how it goes. I literally have to ask my superfans to teach me how to play my own songs. When I do listen to music, it’s often hip hop or Classical or lately Motown. I do really enjoy The Who Sell Out. Mostly silence helps me write songs.
Q: For your new album, what inspired the lyrical content, album title, and overall vibe?
Our recent LP “Curmudgeon” was written around when Trump first got elected, and isn’t a totally dark record, but it’s pretty jaded and at times downright creepy. Of course, I’d not bore someone with the same vibe over and over, so there are a few funny Replacements-like songs on there, and a tearjerker ballad that even makes me mist over. For this new one, I knew I wanted it to be playful, happy, not angsty or too emotional, not really very personal, I wanted to challenge myself to box my way out of what I typically write. And so it’s a very sunny album, full of love, but not romantic love, more as love being the meaning of life. Since getting sober, I’ve gotten into Eastern mysticism and meditation and enlightenment and yoga, and practicing kindness. I’ve gotten into standup comedy. The title, “Under The Influence Of Love”, and just the overall joyfulness of the album, is me playing against type, which is such a relief. You hate to repeat yourself. It still sounds like me, the songs are still incredibly catchy, brief, unusual. But the angst is completely gone. I decided upon the album title because, when it is released in January 2024, sadly, I’ll be expecting Trump to run the USA again, and the Middle East conflict to become basically a war via proxies between our country and Russia. It’ll be so horrible, that this album has to be a huge dose of love, the world will need it.
Q: Do you find that you ruminate over writing songs and hold on to them for a long time before including them on a record? Or do you prefer to write them, release them, and be done with them? Do you ever re-visit old material to do a re-write or once it’s done it’s done?
I write them, if it’s a piano song, I practice real hard to play them (I’m a guitarist), record them as quickly as possible, relinquishing complete creative control to the producer, and just focusing on singing perfectly (usually first take) and playing sick guitar parts (just countless takes), and then usually I nudge them into the universe, and literally forget how to play them. I mostly swim laps and read novels and raise my 5 year old identical twin girls by myself. But mostly, I’m just not a fan of sitting there on my own playing music. I can’t be arsed. I’m a writer and, if there’s a gig, I’m an entertainer. I’m also proud of what my singing has become. But yeah, I never look back nor listen to my own stuff.
Q: Were there any lessons you learned in the writing and recording process for your current release that you will take with you into your next project?
Yeah, don’t overthink it, make the world a little brighter with my little songs, be better and better with every new recording, build on my four-octave range, and basically become Elton John big. When I drank a lot and took a lot of drugs, I was in my head too much. Now I can look out onto the world, and see so much to be inspired by, and see so much beauty. I want to focus on that moving forward.