Gary Calamar: A little luck and a lot of perseverance
Singer-songwriter Gary Calamar started out working at record stores in the ‘80s. He somehow weaseled his way into a DJ gig at KCRW, the hugely influential NPR station based out of Santa Monica. He’s worked as music supervisor for TV shows like True Blood, Weeds and Six Feet Under and he’s the co-author of the book Record Store Days: From Vinyl to Digital and Back Again. Calamar just released his first album, You Are What You Listen To. It’s a terrific collection of spirited pop tunes that show his various influences. He called us from his L.A. home to talk about it.
You started out working at record stores. How closely did those experiences mirror High Fidelity?
Very much. The Beta Band scene was a classic. We would look into the aisles to see who was there and try to put something on that people would respond to. In-store play was a valuable thing in selling records. I worked at a few record stores where they had that “too-cool-for-school” thing. We had some of that Jack Black-ism. We miss the record stores. There’s still a few good ones here. They’re fighting the good fight and holding on but it’s a different story today.
From there, you went on to manage The Balancing Act?
I’m trying to remember the chronology. They were a great little acoustic electric band. They were similar to Violent Femmes as far as instrumentation goes. They put out a couple of EPs. The first was produced by Peter Case. Andy Gill from Gang of Four produced one of their albums. They were great. A few of them still make music. We were eventually on the I.R.S. label.
Talk about how you got started DJing.
Just with a little luck and a lot of perseverance I was between jobs. I was laid off from my job at Rhino Records in Westwood and I had a friend who worked at KCRW. They were looking for volunteers. I volunteered. And got a serious talking to about not hoping to get on the air. I got lucky to know the music director Chris Douridas. He saw that I knew my stuff, being a fan and working in the business awhile. One thing led to another. He told me they were looking for someone to do overnights on Saturday and Sundays. I literally got off my chair and begged him to give me a shot. Fortunately, he did. . That’s my favorite job.
Wasn’t your show called “The Open Road”?
Yes. At a certain point, the management wanted to get rid of the names. They thought they were losing the branding power as KCRW. “Morning Becomes Eclectic” has retained its name but now my show is just “The Gary Calamar Show.”
How did KCRW develop such strong music programs?
Chris Douridas was running the music department and he brought in people who had great taste and loved a wide range of music. Some people have come and gone over the years. I think the lineup we have now has been fairly steady for the last ten years. Nic Harcourt who followed Chris is good as well.
At what point did you decide to make an album?
It was never really a decision. I had always written for myself. I have my acoustic guitar and would write songs. I wasn’t planning on doing anything with them. Some were coming out pretty good. As a music supervisor I had an opportunity to write a song that Iggy Pop would record. I had rough recordings that I played for a business friend at Atlantic Records and he liked it. He said, “Let’s put this out.” I said, “I couldn’t agree with you more.” He gave me a little money to put it out. I’m thrilled to have it done and out there. So far, I’ve gotten some nice response.
What was it like working with producer John Would?
He’s amazing. When I used to manage the Moby Disc store, back in the ‘90s I think it was, John had a tape duplication place next door. He would come and hang out at the store. He used to be in Warren Zevon’s band. He’s produced Fiona Apple. When the opportunity came up, he was the first guy I thought of. He’s great. He plays every instrument. His daughter is a fantastic drummer.
I love the track “She’s So Mid-Century.” What inspired it?
I just came up with that term. I do live in Laurel Canyon in a mid-century-style house. I do like that architectural design and I like the ‘60s. But I just came up with that phrase and decided to write a song called that. I enlisted Palmyra Delran. She’s a cool New York garage rocker. And Kim Lenz, who’s a rockabilly gal. I thought the mid-century thing would work for them as well. I had the basic structure of the song and I sent it to both of them. They came back with good ideas and we put it together.
Is that a live horn section playing in “Giddy”?
Yeah. It’s one guy with a few overdubs. It’s Probyn Gregory who plays with the Brian Wilson Band. He plays with a lot of bands around Los Angeles.
It’s only six songs. Surely you have more material.
I do. I have a Christmas song I’ll send out in December. We have a few more songs, none of which are recorded at this point. One way or another I’ll record them. I don’t know what the future holds, but I’ll definitely keep it going. I had a good time with it.