“Lorrie [Matheson] labelled us the most uptight band in Calgary,” laughs Stephen van Kampen, leader of the band with his namesake. SAvK started work on their sophomore full-length, Love Letters and Hate Mail, back in February at Matheson’s studio, but they’ve waited close to nine months before releasing it to the public. The process was slowed down not only due to the band’s meticulous attention to even the most minute detail, orchestrating every element in each song until it was just right, but also due to the band’s transformation: in the past year, SAvK has evolved from Stephen van Kampen’s solo project to a sprawling, five-person opus, including his bother, Paul, Stefan Smith, Matt Chaplin and Brett Gunther.
SAvK was originally conceived as a solo project for Stephen after the dissolution of the orchestral indie rock outfit, Beija Flor. Too many of life’s responsibilities tugged in too many directions in that band and Beija Flor ultimately collapsed under the weight, though not before leaving an indelible mark on the Calgary scene. In its wake, the van Kampen brothers continued in their own directions, Stephen with SAvK and the brief Dark Red Dark Blue, and Paul with Magnetic North. As the projects progressed, the van Kampen brothers found themselves collaborating once more on each other’s work — “the deal was he’d help me with SAvK if I helped him with Magnetic North,” says Stephen — and, before long, it all coalesced into one.
“From my point of view, it was awesome,” says Stephen of the evolution. “I did the solo thing; I did the walk-out-on-stage-with-an-acoustic-guitar-and-watch-people-go-out-for-a-smoke thing, so it’s awesome to have a big sound behind you. It’s also great to have people collaborate with you, because your own brain can only think of so many ideas.”
“I think having your solo time really solidified what you wanted,” says Chaplin in response. “It wasn’t just five independent directions — there was focus, but not in any type of controlled way.” With Stephen’s solo project as a base, Paul, Chaplin, Gunther and Smith were able to help fill the sound out and realize SAvK’s potential. As a band, they were able to fine-tune and orchestrate each individual part so the final product became more than the sum of its parts. As they later admit, they’re a better live band, in part due to the wall of sound they’ve perfected on stage.
“I think, in a way, with SAvK, the rest of us were able to pinpoint the inspiration and fall in line with it,” agrees Paul. “We could adopt the inspiration and everything we do is following a lead and following an inspiration, to the point where Stephen is more comfortable saying, ‘Paul, can you shut up and do this.’ Everybody serves the inspiration.”
It also helps that the five in SAvK are best friends beyond the band, too. “When I lost my job recently,” laughs Stephen, “I called these guys before I called my family.” With no immature egos to stroke and no clashing personalities fighting over the direction of the songs, SAvK are able to focus in on their own sound, a unique blend of acoustic, folk, country and pop, and present exactly what they envision.
“We had a review done on this album and the same guy did a review on Beija Flor in 2005 and he was saying how chaotic it was, how manic it was, how it went down rabbit holes to nowhere,” says Stephen. “This is more mature. Before, we had all these different egos playing constantly — it was a constant fucking cacophony and chaos. Now, we’ve stripped it down. It’s an economy of sound.”
Love Letters and Hate Mail sounds all the better for that economy. Throughout the album’s runtime, just short of 45 minutes, not a moment is wasted, not a sound is accidental or out of place. SAvK laboured over the record in Matheson’s studio, sometimes to the producer’s immense frustration, they joke, chasing every note, every space between the notes, to ensure it sounded perfect. “It was a process of putting things together and taking them apart to see what actually mattered,” explains Stephen. “There was no peripheral bullshit.” Free from that bullshit, the album sounds surprisingly light and off-the-cuff, not a small achievement considering it could have easily been overwrought and overworked.
Having Matheson at the helm proved to be the challenge SAvK craved. In the past, they’d recorded with different producers in different locations, though these never turned out just right. Now, holed up in Arch Audio in Inglewood, the quintet sprawled and explored until they got the exact sound they desired.
“We love Lorrie,” says Stephen, “but we had many crazy moments in that studio… moments of him wanting to fucking choke me. We are a huge pain in the ass for him and we like certain things that he naturally finds repellant, like really loud floor toms and weird noises.
“Sometimes, the people that challenge you the most are the ones you should be working with. He gives a shit. Lorrie will push you and push for better performances.”
Emerging from the studio with a full-length in hand, SAvK teased their fans this summer by “leaking” the album one track at a time. There’s a strong current that runs through the album, tying it all together — the 11 songs all deal with the various dimensions of friendship and family, extending the latter to include the former — but each intimate song develops its own character, sometimes more traditionally folk, other times touching on singer-songwriter conventions, and yet other times working in its own space. At the centre of it all, as the album swirls and swells around you, SAvK stand proud, a band of brothers constantly refining their craft in search of perfection. Love Letters and Hate Mail is easily one of the strongest Calgary releases this year and, for many, a long-time coming. The wait, they promise, is worth it: as the pre-chorus on “Everstone” goes, “These are the good days/The good old new days.”
SAvK will release Love Letters and Hate Mail on November 23 at Festival Hall.
Words and photo by Sebastian Buzzalino