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Out-of-the-box scoring

Death Cab and the Phil? David Campbell gets it. He's the go-to guy

July 13, 2009|Randy Lewis

Death Cab for Cutie's Ben Gibbard usually doesn't go in much for guest appearances.

"It's very rare that we've invited people into the inner circle," Gibbard said in a recent interview. "There's nothing wrong with doing that. Some people love to have 15 guests on their album and make the recording session a big party where everybody's singing backup or playing guitar. We've never been that band."

The Bellingham, Wash., quartet, however, made a sizable exception July 5 during its sold-out concert at the Hollywood Bowl, bringing what Gibbard introduced to the crowd as "our 50 new best friends" onstage in the form of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

The catalyst for Gibbard's change of heart? Composer-orchestrator-arranger David Campbell, who, over the last couple of decades, has become the go-to guy for outside-the-box collaborations bridging the worlds of pop and classical music. It's a role he's fully inhabiting this month at the Bowl, having crafted orchestral arrangements for the Death Cab show, rocker John Fogerty's three Independence Day weekend performances a few nights earlier, Ray LaMontagne's set Sunday and Faith Hill's two upcoming appearances.

"It's like going on tour without leaving home," Campbell, 60, joked from a seat a few yards from the stage one afternoon before the opening night of Fogerty's engagement.

Once, orchestras and pop music met in the stylistic middle of the road, working behind smooth crooners such as Andy Williams, Perry Como or Barry Manilow. Campbell has carved a niche for himself by infusing a rock attitude into classical music's cornerstone ensemble, supplying edgy accompaniment to dozens of disparate pop, rock, country, metal and hip-hop acts.

"We all went into the proposal of a Death Cab-with-strings show a little bit hesitantly," Gibbard said. "More times than not those kind of things tend to turn out overblown and cheesy. It's a difficult thing to pull off."

Not for Campbell, whose classical music studies growing up in Seattle and then at the Manhattan School of Music focused more on the 20th century works of Bartok, Paul Hindemith and Elliott Carter than Bach, Mozart and Beethoven.

"When I went to hear what he'd come up with a couple of weeks ago," Gibbard said, "I got really excited. I started kicking myself that we hadn't reached out to him when we were recording some of these songs."

Fogerty, like Gibbard, was working live with an orchestra for the first time at the Bowl.

"I can't say I really know how a philharmonic orchestra works," Fogerty said backstage shortly before his set began. "But it really comes down to the same thing I do with my band. Everybody has a range of harmony they stay within."

Campbell's interpretation cast Fogerty's rootsy swamp rock within the framework of quintessentially American music -- artistic elaboration that the audience sometimes gets a better sense of than the performers.

"I can't say that I hear it all while I'm performing," Fogerty said. "What I could really hear was 'Proud Mary.' That definitely to me had that Boston Pops kind of sound to it. You've got a classic [rock] song and then you got the philharmonic treatment, almost John Philip Sousa treatment."

Campbell's challenge is finding the right sounds and tonal colors to complement each song.

"When I first started out doing this in the '70s," he said, "the general notion on most records was, 'Yes, we want strings or horns or whatever, but we don't really want to hear them.' . . . Something changed in the mid-'90s, where the percentage went to the other side and it became, 'OK, we're going to have orchestra on this; we really want to hear them.' Where I first noticed that dramatically was a song I did called 'Uninvited' with Alanis Morissette."

The song from her 1999 "MTV Unplugged" album put the orchestra front and center.

"In the years since, the tendency when people call me to do something, they usually say, 'We don't just want long notes and wallpaper kind of stuff, we want to hear all these cool things; make it dissonant and make it unusual."

The passion for eliciting new and different sounds each time out is one he passed on to his son, Beck, with whom Campbell also has collaborated regularly over the course of the younger musician's 15-year recording career.

"I've done something on just about every one of his albums," said the longtime Glendale resident, who also passed along his wiry frame and boyish looks to Beck. (The alt-rocker got a full dose of avant-garde DNA, considering his mother is Bibbe Hansen, a onetime associate of Andy Warhol and daughter of Fluxus artist Al Hansen).

Despite the potential for father-son artistic conflicts, Campbell said, "There's no tension."

He recently landed the cherry assignment of arranging the music for the "Spider-Man" musical being developed for Broadway by Julie Taymor with music composed by U2's Bono and the Edge. He's also arranging the music for an original musical created by his wife of 23 years, Raven Kane Campbell, "Ataria," which they hope to mount next year.

Why do so many musical roads lead to Campbell?

"You meet a lot of people in various creative endeavors, and you can sense when someone gets it," Gibbard said. " 'Getting it' is a very amorphous, indefinable state of being, but it cuts across all aspects of life. . . . David is one of those who gets it."


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