On a warm summer evening in early July, I met Jamie Cameron, the vision behind The Last Dinosaur, in a shabby old East End boozer near Bethnal Green. I had reviewed Jamie’s magnum opus ‘The Nothing’ previously; he had enjoyed the review and asked if I’d consider writing a more involved and personal piece. We sat down over a pint (ale for me, water for him – he’s recently gone teetotal) to get to the bottom of what makes him tick.
Jamie starts by telling me the story of his musical beginnings. He grew up in a fairly middle class Essex household, with a record collecting Dad who was more than happy to indulge his son’s voracious listening appetites. In particular, the ethereal music of the last three Talk Talk albums caught the younger Cameron’s ear, laying the groundwork for his compositional approach later in life. I was quite astounded that music like ‘Laughing Stock‘ would be something that would appeal to a listener who hadn’t even hit double digits yet, but then again I guess that Jamie would have been far from your average nine year old. The improvisational philosophy of Talk Talk’s mysterious frontman, Mark Hollis, clearly resonates through Jamie, as he gleefully tells me about the magic of the first take – “When you improvise, and you play something for the first time, you kind of play it at it’s peak. And if you kind of like play something and then you think “oh I like that” and then you replay it, you never quite get it.” I ask Jamie about formal musical education, and to my great surprise he tells me that he has next to none – he can’t read music, has a limited understanding of chord structure, and has little inclination to learn. I am astounded that the person I am talking to is the mind behind ‘The Nothing‘, an album filled with advanced harmonic concepts, seeming to draw deeply from modern classical music. How could it be so? I ask Jamie to elaborate more on the specifics of his creative process…
The Last Dinosaur, it seems, works by combining the talents of people with very different skill sets. Jamie is assisted by magnificent viola player, Rachel Lanskey, and multi-instrumentalist, Luke Hayden, who bring out the detail in Cameron’s sound sketches. I am reminded of the way in which Renaissance painters worked on large scale artworks – employing a variety of specialists and delegates to focus on particular areas, whilst retaining the overall vision and direction of the composition. In particular, Jamie and Rachel often spent long evenings together experimenting with different note choices, textures and timbres, with Lanskey functioning as Cameron’s sonic paintbrush. Jamie tells me that this style of working can be incredibly meticulous and time consuming – he likens it to fumbling around on your hands and knees in a darkened house, searching for the light switch. I am further pushed into disbelief by the low-tech fashion which Jamie works – he has very little knowledge of the digital music production software that is ubiquitous these days, instead demoing everything on a traditional 4-track recorder. The original demos for ‘The Nothing‘ had been in the making for almost eight years, before their strength landed Jamie a publishing deal, giving him the confidence to take the tracks forward to be professionally recorded and mixed. Even so, that process seemed to me to be as torturous and painstaking as the rest of the production of ‘The Nothing,’ with the album being remixed several times before Cameron was happy with it. Even now, Jamie professes to be unsatisfied with some of the tracks – a fact which I find utterly mind-boggling – but such are the difficulties that come with The Last Dinosaur’s signature ‘attention-to-detail meets reckless experimentation’ approach.
I change tack at this point, and ask Jamie about the lyrical content of his work – is it painstaking and meticulous in the same way? I’m imagining screeds of journals overflowing with scientifically constructed couplets, but the answer it turns out, is almost the complete opposite. According to Cameron, the lyrics on ‘The Nothing‘ come from stream-of-consciousness meditations that are over and done with in a matter of minutes. Jamie tells me he doesn’t really know when the moment will seize him, but when it does, the words just seem to “fall out” of him. It stands in stark and bizarre contrast to the musical elements of his work. I ask if he can elaborate on the themes touched upon in the album, but it immediately becomes clear to me that there is still, even after all this time, a deeply ingrained pain that connects the different strands of his work together. I decide not to press too hard – to do so seems disrespectful and insensitive, but I can’t help imagining the various scenes that ‘The Nothing‘ hints at; aquaplaning cars, slowing heartbeats and lonely meditations on loss. Things seem to have taken a serious turn and a few awkward moments of pregnant silence pass between us. I decide to move on again.
I ask Jamie to tell me about the band’s name – The Last Dinosaur. Was he aware of the Australian psych-indie outfit using the similar moniker, “Last Dinosaurs”, and was he worried that people would think he had stolen their name? He laughs, and the mood lightens considerably. It turns out that The Last Dinosaur is in fact inspired by a late ’80s cartoon, “Denver, The Last Dinosaur”, which follows the adventures of a friendly anthropomorphic time-travelling dinosaur and his gang of friends. I’m filled with mirth at the irony of the slightly frivolous origin of the band’s name, juxtaposed with the deathly serious subject matter of the writing, and Jamie evidently agrees with me, a rueful twinkle in his eyes. He’s also aware of the Australian rockers, but has decided not to let them bother him, since “they’re doing a completely different thing, and anyone who wants to find us is able to.”
The conversation moves onto Jamie’s plans for the future direction of the project. Yet again, he surprises me with the news that he already has an entire album’s worth of material prepared. Before that sees the light of day though, he’s desperate to figure out how to translate ‘The Nothing‘ into a live experience. As an obsessive perfectionist, Jamie tells me he’s previously been sorely disappointed with inability to recreate the exactitudes of his recorded work in a live setting. I ask whether he’d contemplate using samples and synchronised backing tracks (as many of today’s artists do, brushing aside moral qualms about purported “authenticity”), but the answer is a firm “No!”, since he claims he doesn’t have the technical knowledge to operate such gear, and prefers the organic experience. In that case, I tell him, he’s going to have to become comfortable with releasing some of his creative control to other musicians. He agrees, with a mischievous grin, commenting that it’s likely to be a real challenge for him, but that he welcomes the perspective shift – and hopes that by introducing an improvisational element, he can go about creating some of that spontaneous magic that he works so desperately hard to capture in the studio. Considering the improvisational element, I ask if he’s considered working with Jazz musicians, but he’s not that familiar with the genre, and feels that modern jazz is somewhat hampered by an obsessive devotion to music theory at the expense of creativity. I must say to have a certain sympathy with that point of view, especially considering what Jamie has been able to achieve without the almost academic quantities of theory that I spent years accumulating in the hope that it would drive my creativity. Theory, he explains to me, works better as a descriptive tool than a book of rules.
I check the time and to my surprise, almost an hour has gone by. I’ve hugely enjoyed talking to Jamie – he’s a fascinating person with a unique musical perspective. I am left with a hazy portrait of an anxious, haunted young man, who for whatever reason, cannot stop making beautiful music even though he barely knows how he achieves it. In this respect I am somewhat reminded of Brian Wilson, who when pressed to agree about the influence of the composer Gabriel Faure on the Beach Boys’ harmonies, apparently looked “like he’d had a knife pulled on him” and muttered “I never heard of that guy before”. Compared to Wilson however, who was famously insecure about his musical background, Cameron takes a strong pride in his lack of knowledge and technical ability, claiming that it is precisely these constraints that allow him, paradoxically, to access his creativity. I must say that I leave our encounter agreeing with him – never before have I seen such a stark separation between creativity and technical knowhow – and I am convinced that when you can outsource technique and purely focus on listening, the results can be magnificent.
The new album ‘The Nothing’ is released now via Naim Records. All the various formats of the record can be purchased here.
Photo Credit: Alexandra Cameron