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His Strings Really Zing

Punk-pop-classicist composer-arranger David Campbell is more than Beck's father.

January 16, 1999|NEIL WEISS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

David Campbell is a gentle, soft-spoken man. But when the lanky, tousle-haired string arranger steps up to the podium at A&M's Studio A to conduct the string section for a song by R&B newcomer Macy Gray, his presence is vibrant and striking.

Hunched over his chart, arms outstretched like wings, his baton flailing toward the musicians, Campbell brings the grand tones to life with a visible passion.

It's a common scene these days, a period when Campbell has been, in his words, "eating and breathing arrangements."

One morning he is conducting an orchestra for a new Phil Collins song. Later that night he's guiding a more experimental gig with a handful of players for alt-rock newcomers Zoppi. In the next week or so, you can find him completing sessions with folk-pop rookies Mulberry Lane, Japanese singer-songwriter Misako Odani, Korean pop sensation Lee Seung Hwan and, finally, Gray.

As for the hours in between, they're spent less on sleep than on voraciously composing in the studio of his home in the Glendale hills.

"I'm a monk," jokes Campbell, 50, seated in a lounge at A&M before the Gray session. "You have these spurts where you go to do a session, you're active and social. But the rest of the time you're there with a blank computer screen. Eight- and 12-hour days just sitting there writing, just on my own with no interplay, feedback, . . . anything."

Campbell's presence is strong, however, on the charts. In one week late last year, his arrangements could be found on a whopping 11 albums among the nation's 200 best-selling collections, including the soundtracks to "Armageddon" and "City of Angels" and a trio of alt-rock staples: the latest from Hole, the Goo Goo Dolls and Beck.

That last credit involves more than a musical relationship. Campbell is the father of the modern-rock hero.

Beck, Campbell's first son from his former marriage to onetime Warhol scenester Bibbe Hansen, picked up a thing or two about the exploration of music in the dozen or so years they lived under the same roof in the Los Feliz area.

"There was definitely an environment where it was cool to sort of do your own thing and be interested in whatever," Beck says in a separate interview. His father, he adds, "always had an ear for the weirder harmonies. That's probably what he passed to me."

Campbell, who has collaborated with Beck several times, is clearly the proud papa.

"It's not surprising at all that he got to create all this brilliant work," Campbell says. "The thing that is amazing to me is that he's managed to bring so much of the world into what he does. It's not your average stuff."

Campbell can brag about his other children as well. There's Beck's younger brother Channing, 26, a performance artist who Campbell says is most fully carrying on the tradition of their grandfather, noted Fluxus artist Al Hansen. And there's Alyssa Campbell, his stepdaughter from his current marriage to composer Raven Kane.

"She's 13 now," he says. "A champion figure skater. She's really quite good."

Campbell also grew up in a creative environment. Born in Canada the son of a Presbyterian minister--though nowadays Campbell adds to the mix the study of "Asian religious philosophies via Scientology"--he was surrounded by classical and choral music from day one.

After moving to Seattle, he took up violin at age 9, venturing into orchestration three years later. Soon he was attracted to the works of such 20th century composers as Bartok, Schoenberg and Stravinsky. He played in a string quartet with David Harrington, later of the genre-defying Kronos Quartet.

After studying at New York's Manhattan School of Music, Campbell came to Los Angeles in the late '60s to begin a crash course in pop. He studied the melodies of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Leonard Cohen by copying them on violin, and he played bluegrass for crowds in line for movies in Westwood Village.

Campbell landed a gig backing Jackson Browne on viola on "Song for Adam" on Browne's debut album. Soon after, he was part of Carole King's touring band at the height of her "Tapestry" popularity. That led, at age 23, to his first arranger role, for King's "Rhymes and Reasons" album.

"It was sort of straight into the fire," he says. "I had studied orchestration, but here was the biggest-selling artist of that era and I'm doing real work on her next album."

Nowadays, his four-page resume contains some of the great moments in contemporary pop, including work on more than 80 gold and platinum albums by such artists as the Rolling Stones, Neil Diamond, Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan. That's Campbell playing viola on Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On" and Bill Withers' "Lean on Me."

Campbell also had a part in L.A.'s original punk scene of the late-'70s, which may be a key to the current demand for his services--a classical musician with a punk ethic knows how to avoid that "kinda cheesy romanticism," as he calls it, that's usually associated with the use of strings in pop music.

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