Through the LED Screen: Camera Phone

In these days of commodified regurgitation, it’s unusual to come across music that sounds like nothing you’ve ever heard before. It’s even more difficult to find innovative (and coherent) music that achieves melodic autonomy using the often-maligned act of sampling another artist’s work. But if Dr. Dre is the musical equivalent to a trash picker, Camera Phone is the avant-garde, junkyard artist.

A Philly transplant from Chicago, Camera Phone is the one-man, bedroom project created by Toby Altman, formerly of the band Luftwaffe. With haunting vocals layered over murky, ambient beats, Toby somehow weaves together foreign soundscapes with a modern sensibility to craft paradoxically catchy music.

Camera Phone’s sound is realized through sampling Top 40 pop music, including acts like U2, ‘N Sync and Taylor Swift. By isolating and heavily manipulating select pop phrases, Camera Phone produces music that lives clear on the other side of the Top 40 universe.

But his subversive sampling isn’t some vague condemnation of pop music, “I wanted to take something very flat, very commercial, and turn it into something confusing, artsy, abstract. So it’s not really about a certain ‘sound’ — it’s more about process, about setting pop-music in a warped-mirror.”

Most of the time, that “warped mirror” is a lot more interesting than the original “image.”

Altman happily admits to listening to mainly Top 40 music, “…a lot of indie musicians who play with pop music do so ironically, with disdain for their source material. But I just really like Taylor Swift.” His subsequent sonic mixtures are, for the most part, far from mainstream. Though, for every discordant vocal or uneasy change, there’s always a familiar cadence right around the corner to resolve the dissonance.

Another important part of Camera Phone’s methodology is that all his songs are all available for free online. His album Red Stag (For James) is entirely sampled from Taylor Swift’s new album, which no doubt makes it difficult for Altman to turn a profit.

Listen to his newest track, “Fat Usher,” to witness first hand what Camera Phone is really doing- alchemizing pop songs to yield  music that’s, perhaps, a little more worth your time.

Fat Usher from Camera Phone on Vimeo.

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Chris Lipczynski

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