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Cameron Boucher on music becoming a job and the difficulty of promoting his work

Cameron Boucher (Photo: Dieter Unrath)
Cameron Boucher (Photo: Dieter Unrath)

Listening to Sorority Noise’s third album, You’re Not As _____ As You Think, is a sobering experience. For his band’s latest release, vocalist-guitarist Cameron Boucher did what he always has: written music about his life and put together an album. But this time around, things were a whole lot darker. You’re Not As _____ As You Think focuses on the deaths of people in Boucher’s life and what followed. It’s a record that sees Boucher openly grieving the people he lost and trying to find something resembling hope on the other side.

Boucher has long been open about his own struggles with mental health, and recent interviews have seen him talking frankly about the subjects informing his band’s new record. The A.V. Club spoke to Boucher less about his new album and more about how he’s been put in a position to relive these experiences over and over again, through interviews, playing the songs live, and having to promote a record that isn’t that much fun to talk about.

The A.V. Club: Your interviews with Stereogum and The Fader both focused heavily on the death of your friends, which, admittedly, fully informs the new album. Your work is very personal, so did you expect to have to talk about these painful experiences over and over again in interviews?

Cameron Boucher: I write music as therapy. I don’t even necessarily think that any song… there’s no intention for it to get past me. It’s really heavy trying to dig back into those things because it was hard for me to even say in the first place. I don’t want to talk about it again because it makes sense to me as it is.

It’s just weird. Not to knock any interviewers, but in general, the job is to create a narrative and give people a reason to want to listen to the music I’ve written—which I greatly appreciate. But maybe I’m more than what I write about. A lot of songs on the record, and a lot of the songs I’ve written in my life, have been written in 20 minutes because that’s how I’m feeling in that exact moment. So maybe it’s just a snapshot of my brain in those 20 minutes. It’s not a complete overview of my entire thought process and my entire life.

It’s difficult to convey this without seeming like I don’t give a shit, because it’s truly not that, but it’s weird having people even care. Like, the fact that even one person comes to see me play live music is crazy. There are so many things going on. There are so many things that could stop them from going to see a musical performance—and that’s justified. I skip concerts so often because it’s like, “This came up. Not going tonight.” Or I’m just not feeling like it. The fact that anyone gives a shit about the music I write in terms of listening to it or attending performances, it’s baffling to me. On top of all the conversations I’ve been having about writing the music, it’s kind of baffling to think that anyone even cares in the first place.

AVC: But Sorority Noise is your job now. Does this feel like it comes with the territory?

CB: This is the first four or five months I’ve been able to live off just playing music and recording music. But I’d be doing this whether or not I was working 60 hours a week, just so I could play a show on a Friday night. I talk to Julien Baker about this a lot—I would work 100 hours a week at a job that I hated just to be able to play music still. It doesn’t matter.

And I’m grateful to constantly have people, in both small and grand scales, come see my bands play. We’ve never had a show where no one came. We’ve played some shows where two people came. But still, two people came. It’s like, “Who gives a shit? It’s awesome that these two people came to this show.” Some people get big heads about themselves and think they’re greater than two people attending their concert. But, at the end of the day, it’s the most humbling thing. To realize you do it because you love it, not because you want to make money or have cool pictures to post on your Instagram.

AVC: But is it a little weird that your job is this closely tied to your personal life and your experiences? Did you ever think those things would be this intertwined?

CB: Sometimes it’s weird. I did PR for a year or two, so I know the other side of the press coin. I know that, in some cases, people are interviewing me because they need to make money. They are doing an interview because they are getting paid for a piece.

One time we were doing an interview in Nashville, and I was just like, point blank, “You wouldn’t be here unless I was paying someone to pay you to be here.” They were like, “What?” And I said, “My band’s paying for a press person to hit you up to ask you to do an interview with me. You are here working, and I am also here working.” As much as I’d love for it to be a real, organic conversation, with both of us pouring our hearts out, at the end of the day, it’s a job. Everything is a job. And that part sucks. It’s like knowing how movies are made. I don’t have that carefree approach to thinking that everyone is actually interested in me. I appreciate it if they are, but I know that this may not necessarily be the highlight of their day. And not that I’m asking for that, but I do know that it’s a job—the whole industry is a job.

I grew up in a house where music was a hobby. My parents weren’t like, “Cameron’s gonna play rock ’n’ roll music for his life.” We never talked about that. I was going to go to school to get a degree in music engineering or music production or business and then work a job. But now I’ve fallen into this lifestyle—again, that I’m truly appreciative for—but I’ve had to treat it like a job. I get up at 6:30 every day, and I try to work from 8 to 4 and then call that my day, because otherwise I would just go wild. Even if I have nothing to do, I make sure I am doing something by 8 in the morning. Even if it’s watching Last Week Tonight on YouTube, I want to be engaged with my brain at eight in the morning. And then I’ll stop looking at my email at 5 p.m. Which we both know is not true. We both secretly look at our email at 11 p.m. and just hit “Mark As Unread” and deal with it the next day. But I try to treat what I do like a job so there is an element of normalcy to my day-to-day.

AVC: You keep saying you don’t want to be seen as ungrateful, which speaks to a bigger issue. You have your dream job, but the dream job is still a job.

CB: Totally. I seriously try to never complain about it because I am so grateful. I would drive 12 hours to Detroit tomorrow if you told me we had a show to play in Detroit. I’d get in the car and go. I try not to complain, but again, dealing with anxiety and the shit I deal with on tour makes it a little more complicated. And sometimes it’s just… cold. Literally. I was on tour this weekend, and it was cold all the time. In the van it was cold. The venue wasn’t warm. And what, am I going to complain that I was cold this weekend? I got to play music, and I got to pay rent with the money I was paid to play that music. But I was cold the whole time. Where does that complaint fit in? [Laughs.] It doesn’t make sense to even bring it up because I still got to do what I love to do, and I would do it in 4-degree weather and I would do it in 400-degree weather.

I try not to complain because it could also go away at any second. Something could happen tomorrow, and I could never play live music again. Who knows? We just had this tour with Modern Baseball get canceled. Obviously, I want them to do what’s best for them and take care of themselves, that’s absolutely of the utmost importance, but it does put me in a spot where that tour was my livelihood. Anything can happen at any moment, and you have to be vigilant and aware of that, and take each thing as it comes, especially with being a freelance person. Maybe I have a record to mix for $600 and maybe the band just ends up not sending it to me. I had planned on that $600 because that’s what I thought was going to happen. That’s not the band’s fault. Maybe they didn’t have the money to do it, or maybe something happened, but being in a freelance world is difficult because you have to be available for any and every opportunity to try to make your life livable.

AVC: You mentioned Modern Baseball, which canceled its upcoming tour with you and went on hiatus. That band was always incredibly transparent and open, so do you worry that being that way with Sorority Noise might burn you out?

CB: I can’t see myself in that position, so I guess I don’t think about it. It’s not something I aspire to. And I know bands like Modern Baseball haven’t aspired to it either. I’ve seen so many of my friends’ bands get popular, and I mean really popular, like Foxing or Pinegrove or Modern Baseball or Julien Baker. But I’ve never been in a band that, so to speak, exploded. I can’t even imagine. Those bands went, in a year, from playing 200 people to playing to 1,000 people. And that’s cool as fuck. I feel like a proud relative. Some people make it competitive, and that’s just fucking stupid. You should support those people who are doing well because those are the people who will probably help you later on. To make it anything competitive, or to worry about other bands’ position in the scene, I think that’s just whack as hell, and you’re going to self-destruct if you do that.

I don’t have any expectations anymore. If the music I make gets more popular, we’ll cross that road when we get to it. I guess we’ll figure it out if that ever happens, but I don’t see it happening. I don’t know if that sounds sad, or weird, but I’d just love to do what I do now—always. Does that sound strange?

AVC: It seems pretty clear there wasn’t a plan for this. You just put out records, and people responded to it. Similarly, has it been striking to put out these songs that are so specifically about your life and experiences and have people relate to it?

CB: To begin this answer anecdotally, I was on tour with a band this weekend, and everyone in the van wanted to hear the new Sorority Noise record. I hadn’t listened to it since probably, like, October. I finish a record, and I start the next one—that’s just what I do. I didn’t even have it on my computer. I had to download the music into my iTunes and put it on my iPhone so I could show people. I was listening to it and I was like… When I finished writing it, I was like, “I hope this makes people uncomfortable. I hope it’s so personal that it’s hard for people to relate to it.” And then people related to it. It’s hard to understand. It’s like, “How? These are such specific events to me.” It sets you back a little bit, because every experience you think you’re going through alone, other people have also been through that. I listened back to it and was like, “Oh shit. I’m talking about exactly what’s on my mind.”

There are certain lyrics—like, there’s a song called “Disappeared,” and one of the lyrics in that song I had been off-and-on about. I had to talk to Mike Sapone, who produced the record with us, about it at length. “The noose that took my friend Sean’s life” is the lyric. And it’s like, “Who else is going to have a friend named Sean that took his life? Maybe even by that method?” It’s hard to think about. But, as I have done my whole life, we take music and we use it to give us perspective, maybe in words we couldn’t even say. So it’s like, maybe it’s not specifically that person and that thing, but maybe it’s something else that makes sense and they can take something away from. But it’s nothing I intended to do in the first place. I find it difficult to realize that people can take it in a positive, constructive manner and use it as a way to make sense of things that happened in their lives. It’s a weird thing to grapple with.

AVC: As you said, your songs are capturing these very small moments in your life. Do you worry that you’re going to be touring in support of the new record and just not wanting to play these songs night after night?

CB: Totally. We don’t use a set list. I run the set when we play it. There will be songs I don’t want to play, so we won’t play them. I’m not looking at the crowd and dreading three songs from now when I have to play a song that might evoke an emotional response I’m not prepared for, or I’m not in the headspace to do. We’ll play five songs in a row, and then I’ll call out another three and we’ll just keep going.

I had a conversation two or three years ago with Sam Cook-Parrott from Radiator Hospital about people coming to your show to hear a specific song versus coming to support you as an artist. It’s like, “Do I want to play the song that people want to hear?” But if I’m not feeling it, I shouldn’t have to play it. We’ll have whole shows where we won’t play songs because I’m not in the headspace to play them. We have a song on the last record called “When I See You (Timberwolf),” and we play it one out of 30 shows. It’s not that we don’t know how to do it, it’s just a song that I can’t play. And that’s what’s kind of terrifying about this record. We haven’t played the songs live yet. I don’t know how I’m going to feel. Are we going to play nine old songs and one new one because I couldn’t find the emotional capacity to play a new one that’s more fresh and real? It’s hard to understand and make sense of.

AVC: Do you ever worry that, since you’re so vulnerable in your music, that you might close off your life as a response to people feeling like they should get to know everything about it?

CB: Possibly. It’s hard to predict your emotional availability in a year, or who you are going to be in two years, because I am so different from the person I was a year ago. With [Boucher’s screamo band] Old Gray, I never even used to do interviews. It was like, “Here’s the song. You can’t hear what I’m saying. Try to read some lyrics.” I think that also helped with being honest, as I could say exactly what was on my mind, and I didn’t have to worry about people saying it again out loud because I didn’t think they’d understand me. But now that I have to say words that are intelligible, it’s so much heavier. I think about [Pedro The Lion frontman] David Bazan, and I feel like I know him because what comes across in the music gives so much more than any interview ever could. I hope to be in that place, that maybe people won’t want to ask me questions about it because it’s all there. But it’s too early to tell. Ask me in a year, and maybe I’ll give you a different answer.