Calvin LeCompte’s a charmer. In conversation, as in his songwriting, the New York-based musician is understated, at once deadpan and warm, his straight-faced delivery offset with a wink. LeCompte’s most recent album, the self-recorded, solo-performed Zagat Rated, is his strongest to date: a six-track set of hazy homemade pop, with warbled guitars, Casio accents and spare drum loops aswim beneath head-sung vocals, all rendered smooth by willfully (and, he would say, necessarily) lo-fi production. Calvin’s songs drift by quickly, calmly, but always with hooks that rise above the hiss.
You’re originally from Western Massachusetts, and you also spent time in San Francisco before moving to NYC. Isn’t there a Florida connection as well?
Well, my mom was living down there for a little bit – if you’ve seen the video for “Elmira Property Tax,” that’s the area she was living in. I never lived there personally, but I get the appeal. I don’t think it’s unusual for East Coasters to have this picture of Florida in their mind as being this sort of paradise, this oasis you can escape to. I definitely identify with that. I think Florida’s the most inspiring place in America.
Yeah! It’s beautiful, but it can also be strange. There’s the criminal element, the tropical element, the drinking culture, the working class culture, the land’s really flat and everything’s named like a casino. It’s just like everything’s there, and anything could happen. I don’t know if I could actually live there, but I really like the vibe.
Love Is Something We Give Away For Free (Official Video),
Directed by Guy Kozak, 2018
I’ve read that prior to focusing on music, you were more into visual art.
Well, that’s true to some extent. There was a time where I was making more visual stuff – mainly the first two years I was in New York – but I never really got a thorough practice going. It’s interesting, though, because most of my friends are visual artists. I’m not really sure why that is; I just seem to identify with them more, even though the craft of making art really doesn’t have much to do with how I make music. So I relate to visual artists, but somehow this image has developed of me being actively into visual art.
You did have that show in 2011 at Jericho Ditch…
Right, that’s true. That was a space in Virginia run by Daniel Turner and Colin Snapp. For that show, I did a sort of installation, where I basically just ran the local classic rock radio station: 106.9 FM, The Fox.
There’s also the video for “Reel Ten,” where you’re strolling through the Met.
That was shot by Colin and Dan, actually. At the time, they were doing Jules Marquis, which was their collaborative art moniker; the footage we shot was originally meant more as an art piece, rather than just a video for the song. The decision to shoot at the Met was totally spontaneous. My girlfriend at the time lived in the East Village, and we’d party there a lot. One morning, we just decided to go make a video, and this idea just clicked, so we went to the Met and snuck our way through the museum.
The Elmira Property Tax Video (Official Video), Directed by Cait McDonough, 2017
So what’s your musical background in terms of training?
Definitely nothing formal. What happened was I was visiting a friend in Philly, and for some reason, it occurred to me that I might be good at making music. I don’t know why – I hadn’t played before, was never in bands when I was younger or anything like that – but it made some weird sense to me. So from there, I just taught myself, at least enough to get started. I mean, it’s been something like ten years now, and I still don’t really know how to play the guitar that well. I can do some chords, and I’ve taught myself some fingerpicking techniques, but I’m still figuring it out, really.
You picked up keyboards at some point as well. Was your learning process similar there?
Yeah, same thing – Googling how to make a C chord, going down the line. With playing and writing, I basically just work with what I know. At a certain point, it’ll all start to sound the same, and I’ll say, “OK, I should probably learn something new about this instrument.” [laughs] So from there it’s a period of trial and error, working until the cycle starts again. That’s really what pushes me to keep learning.
Do you prefer writing on one or the other?
Writing with the guitar is easier, in a way, because it creates the rhythm. Like if you were to look up how to play “Sweet Jane” by the Velvet Underground, you’d see the rhythm laid out above the chords and lyrics. The guitar really sets up the parameters of the song, in a way, where you can go back and fill it all in. The piano doesn’t do that as much for me, although I’d like to work with it more as a dominant instrument in the future.
Dedicated To Ladder 108 (Official Video), 2017 Directed by Cait McDonough
Do you feel like you work out your ideas differently on each instrument?
Not exactly. The music tends to be whatever hell it wants to be. I wish I could demonstrate more control over the process, and sort of decide how I want something to turn out, but the songs always end up going where they want. If it seems like something I’m interested in, I’ll go with it.
So how do the songs come together? Does the music precede the lyrics, or vice versa?
It depends. If I have all the music first, complete with accents and everything, I find it intimidating to go in and write lyrics over it. It just fucks me up. So with lyrics being maybe the hardest part of the process, I like getting them in there as soon as possible, so it’s more of a downhill experience from there. It’s really interesting when the lyrics may come towards the beginning, maybe after you’ve established a rhythm part, but not all of the music. That way, you have an idea of what you’re doing, but there’s still a lot of space to work with.
Do you tend to write in spurts, with batches of songs from a given period of time? Or are you just constantly writing and recording?
It’s more constant. Like right now, I’m in sort of a writing process again – even though I’m still busy with Zagat-Rated, playing shows and emailing and everything you have to do when you release a record. I’ve basically put that stuff on hold so I could go back into the studio. I’m only really happy if I have something new to work on. I feel like for some artists, making things can be relaxing, or maybe it comes natural to them and they can be productive whenever they want. It’s not like that with me. Even after making an album, there’s always this anxiety that I might not be able to pull it off again. So I guess I’m always working, almost to prove to myself that I can do it. What the hell – I have the time, so why not?
Your Know-Wave show gives listeners a good sense of what you’re into to at the moment – but what about as you were growing up?
When I was younger, I listened to a hell of a lot of doo-wop, which I think is important. It made music seem like something you could do, even without a lot of training or technique or whatever. If you think about it, most doo-wop songs are basically the same – a few standard chords, lyrics that are character-driven without being arbitrary – but they’re all so damn good. I don’t listen to it as much anymore, but that was a big influence at the time – not even so much in the music I’d be making, but more in helping me see music as an achievable medium.
Tough Knuckles, Live at 169 Bar, 2008
As you began writing songs, was the plan always to record and release the tracks on your own? Or had you already started playing with the guys who would end up in Tough Knuckles?
I’ve always done things on my own; even Tough Knuckles was originally just a name I chose to put out solo stuff. Honestly, I find the whole experience of being in a group to be really challenging. It’s just a lot easier for me to do it myself. I mean, the whole thing with the band happened almost by accident. Basically, Christopher Owens from Girls had called me and asked if I wanted to open for them at the Bowery Ballroom. I agreed, and really quickly formed this band and kept the name. So from that show, it became this period of my life where I was doing the band thing, which eventually ran its course, and I went back to playing on my own.
Have you ever taken part in a satisfying musical collaboration?
In New York, for whatever reason, I’ve found it hard to find a music community to identify with, where you have people to play with, come check out your shit or whatever. I mean, I’m sure I have every opportunity in the world to go out and visit people; maybe I’m a little hermetic. But I guess there have been a few. Like over the summer, I played with Ed Askew’s band a lot. Ed’s beautiful – he’s an older dude, in his ‘80s, his music is amazing and his band is a bunch of sweethearts. So we performed a lot, and that was great. But even just as far as kinship with songwriting, there’s a guy out of Brooklyn named Ryan Howe, who’s a fucking wizard. He put out an album like six years ago with his band Punks on Mars, which was really beautiful. So with people like, I relate to them, and we’ve become friends, but at the same time, I really do operate in a fucking isolation chamber. Sometimes I feel like they’re on some different shit, and I’m over here, making sand castles or something. [laughs]
Reel Ten (Official Video), 2017, Directed by Jules Marquis
With Zagat-Rated, you’ve discarded the Tough Knuckles moniker and, for the first time, are releasing music under your own name. What was behind that decision?
It was basically a transition out of the band dissolving. It wasn’t a dramatic thing, aside from when my guitarist died, and it’s not like I’m making some big statement by going with my own name. I mean, Zagat-Rated could have been released as a Tough Knuckles album, and it wouldn’t have made any difference. But that just didn’t feel necessary anymore.
Has playing solo onstage presented any challenges of its own? It seems like in recent years, you’ve arrived at a pretty stripped down setup for live shows.
Yeah, I play almost karaoke-style, where I’m subtracting elements of rhythm and guitar from the recording, and then I’ll play and sing over what’s left. I guess there are pros and cons to it, like anything else, but overall I’ve found it to be a successful representation of the work.
Now where does the Brianne project fit into the narrative?
That happened while Tough Knuckles was a band. I’d written “Reel Ten,” which was a keyboard song, and sort of a different direction from what we’d been doing. We played it with the band for a while, but it became this totally different thing from the recording. So I ended up releasing the song on a 7” as Brianne. The cover and photo insert were shot by James Shanahan, who’s another close friend of mine, Dan and Colin’s. We were all basically inseparable during that period.
Tough Knuckles,Downtown Girls (Official Video), 2016, Directed by Cait McDonough
Where did the name come from?
I don’t know! I wanted the project to be under a girl’s name, for some reason. My friend’s girlfriend was named Brianne, so I used that. Not that the project’s named after her or anything – I just felt like the named resonated, because it’s sort of open. It’s not like Britney or Christie, where you can kind of imagine a character behind the name. Brianne sounds like a real person. It’s a little more stoic, a bit more mysterious.
Looking back on your catalogue, do you feel like the music you’ve made under these various guises is distinct, intentionally or not?
They’re basically all reflections of the same thing. Of course, the songwriting’s changed as I’ve learned new things, but I feel like my music is more or less consistent. I’m really only starting now to be conscious of manipulating the vibe of a song, giving it a specific direction. The only exception could be the record I made with the band [Vanna White, 2012], which was a studio album that came out on Famous Class records.
Was that your first experience recording in a studio?
Yeah. It was one of the two times I’ve ever worked in “proper” studios, and they were both fucking nightmarish.
Well, the thing is, it’s not like these songs always come naturally to me; recording the songs helps me bring them into some kind of focus. It’s actually part of the writing process. So if you’re going to a place where you’re on the clock, you’re under the gun and just trying to lay it down, you lose a lot of the spontaneous moments. To me, it ends up feeling like a huge compromise. People liked Vanna White when it came out, but it’s definitely not a recording that I revisit. Not that I’m apologizing for it, but honestly, I don’t really even think of that record as being part of my catalogue. It’s a total outlier.
So aside from that, you’ve worked exclusively from home.
Yeah, I just do it in my apartment. It’s a pretty basic setup, working with a combination of the tape machine and a computer. I definitely don’t have a hardline, factory-production style, where the process is really consistent, which can be a good thing or a bad thing. If the process is full of surprises but everything’s going well, it’s a joyous experience. At the same time, I do have a lot of false starts in the studio – almost on a pathological level, where I’ll invest a month’s worth of time and get nowhere. That gets frustrating, but I don’t have the kind of Zen where I feel like I can negate or even avoid those false starts. I don’t always know what the song “should be” – I’m just trying to figure out what it actually is.
Working that way, I’d imagine the final versions of the tracks can be quite different from what you’d initially had in mind.
Oh yeah, that happens all the time. “Elmira Property Tax” would be a good example. That song has a more advanced bass line than I’m used to writing. It’s actually lifted from a Three Dog Night tune, but it doesn’t sound like it. That line didn’t come up until I was well into the recording, and it totally changed the whole feel. There are a lot of happy accidents like that, where it takes a turn and becomes its own thing. It’s a tender situation, writing these songs.