The last three years in the life of Brian Christinzio have been surreal to say the least. A few short days after the release of his 2015 album 'How to Die in the North', Brian, originally from New Jersey but living in Manchester, learned that he was to be deported. In the years that followed, Brian moved back home, became an Italian citizen, and wrote and recorded a new album, shot through with the experiences of his Kafkaesque exile.
Now returned to the UK and touring to promote the appropriately titled Deportation Blues, I caught up with Brian just before his gig at Newcastle’s Cluny.
I started by asking Brian about his expectations prior to the release of the album.
“Nothing.” He replies with a laugh. “I learned my lesson real quick! I don’t think there was a whole lot of optimism for anybody, from the label, God bless ‘em for sticking with me. So I think we’re pleasantly surprised that it’s going the way it is. I have never had even a glimpse of success in my life, but now I at least have that at the ripe age of 39. I’m just waiting for an air conditioner to fall on my head! It’s been more than I expected and you can’t imagine the strangest route.”
I question Brian about his song writing process, as there doesn’t seem to be a typical BC Camplight song.
“I tend not to write on instruments or in a traditional kind of, guy walking around with a guitar saying ‘Hey listen to my new song’ way. I write in strange places at strange times and strange circumstances; I do a lot of writing in Supermarkets, walking around and something will trigger a hook in my head. I get a lot of influence from visual things, so I don’t have much of a process. Not having a go-to way of doing things is why I tend not to repeat myself and things tend to sound hopefully organic and new because I have no interest in going into writing saying ‘ I want the chorus to go like this’. It’s usually I’m walking through a Tesco and my brain goes ‘I’m Desperate!’ That’s my process.”
Brian tells me that he’s settled back in Manchester for the time being.
“I became an Italian citizen to circumvent the…” Here he pauses and chooses his words carefully “immigration debacle, just in time to get probably voted out again, but I think I’m safe. Yeah, I’ve been settled in Manchester for the past year and a half. I’ve got the dog, and the fiancée, and the European passport so it seems like things are OK at the moment. But, like I said, I’ve never done anything without the other shoe dropping almost immediately, so I’m almost like a beaten puppy in a way. I learned my lesson not to take things for granted and try to be as cautious as humanly possible. For me I err on the side of pessimism and self-loathing” he says this with a hearty laugh though. “I don’t want to say things are going well, but as far as my immigration status, that, at the very least, seems to be in hand.”
He continues by explaining his plans following the current tour.
“After this tour we go on tour with White Denim for a while and then we’re just booking much bigger shows for another UK tour which is starting at Scala in London and we’re just trying to be on the road as much as possible. Because so much weird crap has happened in between records, and because of that fact I’ve always had a lot of time between records to write there’s now a sense of ‘oh shit, we’ve got to try and keep this going.’ I’m like ‘wait I got three years don’t I?’ and they’re like ‘no you got three months go and make another record’. That’s sort of what I’m dealing with in my head.”
I ask if Brian if he has started to work on his next album.
“No! Like I said, I need albums to happen to me. That’s the most pretentious thing anybody’s ever said, but I have to wait for it and I think the day that I start forcing it is the day that I turn to shit and I have to make up some sort of tragedy in my life. My next album can’t be about me not being able to find the right phone charger or something. Not that I need some sort of a tragedy, but I need an album to present itself to me and if that takes three months, great, but if that takes three years….”
Brian tells me that the new tour will start in April, and I inevitably ask if he’s planning to return to Newcastle.
“I sure hope so, it’s the first time I’ve been to Newcastle and it’s amazing. I took an unwanted detour on an Uber just now, about half an hour to get to here, but at least I got to see all the bridges and everything else and it was really nice.”
Given the powerful lyrics on Deportation Blues, I ask if Brian considers himself to be a protest singer.
“Not at all. I don’t feel like I’m speaking for anybody but myself. I don’t really wish to. I certainly have my own views on things, I’m fairly public about that and obviously there’s a song on the record about Theresa May but all that seems a bit ‘icky’ to me. There’s not much of a risk nowadays to being a protest singer. Everybody’s a protest singer nowadays. I’m always just protesting myself. I have things to say, but most of the stuff that I’m singing about is how the world affects me personally. I’m too selfish to worry about other people.”
I finish by questioning Brian about the people who have helped him through the last three traumatic years.
“My parents first of all, because I basically lived in their basement. And my girlfriend in Manchester has stayed with me. She would come over for a few weeks here and there to New Jersey and calm me down then go back to Manchester; she’s my fiancée now. That was huge. And if I had lost my record deal and lost everything else I wouldn’t be playing here tonight, And my record label Bella Union stuck with me and to their credit they still saw something in me. It was a team effort. And the band – we used to play festivals during that period where I wasn’t allowed in the UK and they’re all from Manchester so I would have to fly to Rotterdam, they would fly to Rotterdam, we’d practice that day and play the show. Then they’d go back to Manchester. They jumped through loads of hoops for me so now it’s my job to hopefully pay all these people back – but not financially!”
The gig, as had been widely prophesied, is nothing short of a scorching triumph. Brian is blinged-up but otherwise appears just as he did backstage; ball cap, beard, ‘I’m in a Weird Place’ T-shirt from the merchandise stand. His gentle, genial backstage persona, however, is replaced by a ‘stand up to play the piano’ swagger of Jerry Lee proportions as he sings and howls his way through ‘Deportation Blues’, before switching to acoustic guitar for ‘I’m in a Weird Place Now’, followed swiftly by ‘You Should’ve Gone to School’ from Brian’s last album 'How to Die in the North', about which he snipes “I got deported so nobody got to hear it”.
As an opening triple these three have all the intensity of a triumphant encore, but the mood calms a little with ‘Midnight Ease’ and the Randy Newman-like ‘When I Think of My Dog’, during which the band take a well-earned rest. Other highs come in the form of blue-eyed soul beauty ‘Just Because I Love You’ and ‘Thieves in Antigua’, crammed full of Brian Wilson melodies that connect with the lively crowd as well as anything that the band have to offer.
There’s a mutual admiration between band and crowd that elevates both, so when they return for their encore of ‘I’m Desperate’, with Brian swigging un-self-consciously from the wine bottle that has been his constant stage companion all night, The Cluny erupts accordingly.
It’s good to have him back.