EDITOR’S NOTE: Chris Madl, who records under the name Chet Delcampo, asked me to write him a bio for the release of his new 7-inch (see cover, above). Turns out his story is so interesting I thought I’d share it with you good people. Plus, I really like the music and chances are you will, too.
BY JONATHAN VALANIA First things first: Just like there’s no Santa Claus or Easter Bunny, Virginia, there is no Chet Delcampo. It’s the name of the band or, more accurately, the name under which Chris Madl writes, records, releases, and occasionally performs his minimalist but richly idiosyncratic brand of whispery indie-pop. Originally, he just called the project ‘Chet’ — named after Steve Buscemi‘s cadaverous bellhop in the Coen Brothers‘ 1991 masterpiece, Barton Fink.
Later, thinking the name needed a few more syllables, he added the Delcampo, which he appropriated from Rocco Delcampo, a friend of Pablo Neruda, the Chilean poet-diplomat-politician. Buscemi, Neruda, Coen Brothers, Santa Claus, Easter Bunny. If you think this first paragraph is name-droppy, watch your feet, because we are going to be dropping names left and right for the next few paragraphs. You see, Madl is something like the Zelig of 90s/early aughts indie-rock.
Born exactly 53 years ago on a midnight clear in a manger in Mt. Carmel — located midway between Shamokin and Frackville, in upper central Pennsyltucky — Madl started working in the business that is show right after high school. He ran sound for a band called Hybrid Ice that worked the backwater rock circuit back in the day, opening for the likes of Todd Rundgren, Joan Jett and Hall & Oates. He had no formal training in engineering concert sound, pretty much making it up as he went along, fortunately he was almost always right. “I don’t know, I was always good at mixing, I guess, just naturally,” he says. “I just kind of got behind the board and figured it out, yeah.”
After a few years he grew tired of amplifying other people’s noise and decided to starting making some noise of his own. So, naturally, he bought a drum kit and spent three months in his parent’s basement teaching himself the rudiments of beat-keeping, before going west, where, if all went according to plan, he would find untold riches and fame. Upon arriving in La La Land, he soon made the acquaintance of one Steve Jones, formerly guitar player for the Sex Pistols. Jones-y told him that his pal Billy Idol was looking for a drummer and Madl asked for an audition. He didn’t get the job, but he did become friends with Billy Idol, who is apparently a nicer guy than he plays in that “Dancing With Myself” video. “Don’t let the sneer fool you,” says Madl.
He also made the acquaintance of Motown legend Smokey Robinson who was immediately taken with the songs Madl had started writing and promptly took him down to Motown for an audition and…well, nothing much came of this, besides bragging rights. He also became fast friends with Larry Blackman from Cameo. I only mention this because it’s kinda funny and it gets funnier when you meet Madl and try to picture him as Cameo’s wingman. But I digress.
Eventually, Madl lands a drummer gig with Maurice & The Cliches, a Vancouver nouveau new wave band that had just moved to LA on the strength of on left field radio hit (“Softcore”) and were destined to disband in a year or two. The upshot is that Kelly Curtis was Maurice & The Cliche’s tour manager. Curtis would go on to manage a little band called Pearl Jam, but back then he was tour manager for Heart. Curtis passes the Cliche’s demo along to Nancy Wilson and the next thing you know they’re in the studio with the lead singer of Heart producing. As per usual, not much came out of it beyond bragging rights the sheer surrealism of the moment.
Sensing it was time for a change, Madl heads north to Seattle and in no time at all he’s scored himself a record deal with a little record label called Sub Pop. Long story short, he didn’t end up making a record for Sub Pop, but he did, not entirely coincidentally, make the acquaintance of a certain opiate that would, on and off, dog his days for the next decade or so. It probably didn’t help that he’d invited his friend Kid Congo Powers (The Cramps, Gun Club, The Bad Seeds, Congo-Norvell) to come up to Seattle and assist with the recording. You see, back then Kid was a well-known opiate enthusiast. Things got messy fast and Sub Pop balked.
Deciding he needed to clean up his act and get the fuck out of Seattle, Delcampo moves to London at the behest of Kid Congo, who was friends with a Londoner named Trevor who managed Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds. That’s right, to get away from heroin he moves to London to hang out with Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, which is a little like moving to Liberia to get away from Ebola. But I digress.
Not much came of the London trip beyond a few gigs, and so he moved back to the states, taking up residence on Kid Congo’s couch in New York. Predictably, Madl finds himself reverting to his old ways, so he moves back to LA where he gets a job doing sound for some kid named Rufus Wainright. Around this time he becomes the sound guy for acclaimed producer/songwriter Jon Brion’s residency at Largo, which featured an endless string of cameos from the famous and the soon to be. It was there that he made the acquaintance of one Elliott Smith.
“He was just, like, all the rage at that moment in time — it was his moment,” says Madl. “Elliott kind of changed my life insofar as it was the first thing that I had heard in a long time that I thought was significant. He had a big impact on me thinking ‘Fucking hell, you can still do something of worth’.”
Soon after he decides to move to Philadelphia, for no good reason other than it was cheap and a two hour train ride from New York. But he soon fell in love with the City Of Brotherly Love and decided to finally put down some roots and enters into a very prolific and productive period. He buckles down and finally records his first full length Chet Delcampo LP, The Fountain (Record Cellar), with special guests Joel RL Phelps and Pixies drummer Dave Lovering, who was then in his magician phase. A second LP, Apartment Songs (K-9), soon follows. Inspired by the fact that the philosopher Spinoza was a lens grinder by day and philosophical titan at night, Madl decides to go to school to become an X-ray technician. More specifically, a mobile X-ray technician, meaning he drove around the city all night going wherever an emergency X-ray was needed — mostly prisons and nursing homes, as it turns out. Some nights it was less a job than an adventure. He wrote all about it in “He Drives Around The City,” the A-side of the 7-inch you are currently holding in your hand. The B-side, “Leading Her To Believe,” is even better — high plains drifting and haunted by the same offhand, ramshackle beauty Howe Gelb carved out of thin air with Chore Of Enchantment, his circa 2000 masterpiece.
He also got married at the ripe old age of 45 and it turns out that the great love of his life knows/cares little about music, and Madl likes it that way. “She grew up in Indonesia, so she knows little about American indie-rock — she likes Bryan Adams, not Ryan Adams,” he says with more than a little glee. “But despite all that, the ineffable significance and saving grace of my wife can’t be overstated. She co-wrote some lyrics for ‘Leading Her To Believe’ that were based on a dream of hers.”
ME: So you’re happy now?
HIM: That’s a stretch.
ME: Ok, so you’re the least unhappy you’ve ever been.
HIM: I’ll take that.
He also built himself a little recording studio in a carriage house on the edge of the city and filled it with all things warm and analog. It was there that Heyward Howkins recorded his magnificent Hale & Hearty album with Madl engineering, producing, co-arranging and laying down various instrumental tracks. “I think that I’m pretty decent at putting music together as a producer and I’d like to do that for some other people,” he says with typical understatement. “I’d like to do some of my own stuff, but I’m getting a little older, and honestly, It’s just about doing things. Things lead to things. That’s all I care about is doing things for other people because I was so isolated before doing my own thing.”
Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans, according to John Lennon and everyone who’s ever lived, and so, too, is the accidental career of Chet Delcampo. “Look, I’m not going to bullshit you, it would be nice to get an ounce of recognition after all these years that you’ve done something halfway work a fuck,” he says. “But I’m not even sure how much I’ve done worth a fuck.” The record you are holding in your hand says otherwise, both sides now.