Unpacking This is My Suitcase
Leader of local quintet dishes on getting dark, friends in high places
Special to Metromix
This is My Suitcase has a knack for good luck. As frontman Joe Camerlengo eagerly details, the local pop group has seen a handful of scenarios other young acts would kill for. This includes being mentored by the singer of Motion City Soundtrack, opening a packed Chicago show for The Hush Sound without applying for the slot, and talking turkey with the members of Fall Out Boy after a sold-out Schottenstein show. Now affiliated with Paper + Plastick Records, a label run by Less Than Jake drummer Vinnie Fiorello, TIMS are poised to nab more opportunities (and ears) than ever before.
Chalking their swell stories up to fortune alone would be a little unfair. There's something endearing about the off-the-wall antics orchestrated by Camerlengo-jubilant piano, subversive feline metaphors and a wavering but lively falsetto-and they certainly have the uninhibited gusto to warrant the attention. Currently towing last year's "The Keys to Cat Heaven," the five-piece band has been hitting the highways frequently. You can catch them at Skully's Music Diner Friday, March 26, as special guests at Karate Coyote's "Inner Animals" CD-release party; and Friday, April 9 at Rumba Café alongside LOHIO. We spoke to Camerlengo about his punk past, similar artists and why TIMS is reaching new levels of popularity.
Tell us about cutting your teeth with Full Frontal, your band that occasionally played at the now-defunct Midgard Comics by the Columbus Bowling Palace.
That was me and my friend Matt, the original piano player in This is My Suitcase. We had the ever-rotating drummers-five different ones over the years. It was really weird. If I had to say what adults thought it was, it was punk music. It wasn't punk like I had ever heard because I never wrote cheesy pop-punk. If [TIMS] went to Milwaukee and we played with Full Frontal, I would probably think, "This is crazy and sloppy. There's something wrong with that singer/guitarist (which was me)." I was always rocking too hard. I would throw my guitar everywhere, grab people from the audience and throw the microphone on the ground. I had a filthy mouth, even back then, and Keith [Cousineau], the guy that owned Midgard, used to tell me that parents who came to see their kids' bands play would complain because I would curse so much between songs. [Keith] told them, "If they don't like it, get out of here!" I wrote the songs for [Full Frontal], too. I like to think that I play and write infinitely better than when I first picked up a guitar.
How does the music you make in TIMS compare to Full Frontal?
I don't think it's that different. It's still punk-ish. My music has never sounded like anything else I've heard. My songwriting is bizarre. In that way, the music today is a natural extension of what I used to make. It wasn't like, "I used to be in a punk band, now I'm in an indie band." The instrumentation changed a bit but that's only because Full Frontal was a three-piece band. This Is My Suitcase was me alone-intentionally-at the beginning. That's when things opened up.
Why do you use choose to pair upbeat music with gloomy lyrics in TIMS?
I don't necessarily try to do anything. Lyrics I write have always been on the darker side-I find it interesting. Just as I assume any writer does, I always write for myself and [don't] try to think about where it'll fit in or how it'll sound to other people. [Laughs] I constantly think about death but at the same time, I'm not a downer. I'm excited [and] usually optimistic to people who don't know me. If you know that I have this naturally pessimistic mindset and am simultaneously this nice, overactive guy, my music is what I am. It has depressing lyrics and it's fast because all I do is pace around all day and smile at people and talk about dying. I don't write about death to bring anybody down. I have a lot of songs about death that are supposed to be love songs-about eight at the very least.
The band's MySpace features an odd bio bit: "In one week in particular, This Is My Suitcase was compared to all of the following: Queen, The Unicorns, Elliott Smith, Wilco, Ben Folds, Jellyfish, The Flaming Lips." What's the story behind this?
We had played three local shows that week and people kept talking to us afterward, giving us comparisons. Each of those was from a different person. We love all those bands. We wrote that because I don't think we sound like anything as far as I know. If you want to compare us to other bands, we sound a little bit like everything I've heard in my entire life. The songs either sound like the songs I write (the easier way to take it) or you could say, "It sounds one percent like Ben Folds, one percent like The Beatles, one percent like The Starting Line, [and] one percent like the Beach Boys." We often get people misinterpreting what we sound like, which isn't a big deal but kind of sucks. In my mind, our band is different than a pop act. Lately, we have so much energy in our concerts that people mistake us for a less serious band. They don't give us credit other than being fun. It's a weird situation.
How did TIMS land on Paper + Plastick Records?
We met [P+P] through Justin Pierre of Motion City Soundtrack because Justin has been a fan of our band since it was just me. It was bizarre. I put stripped-down demos online because I didn't know how to record. They were all natural. He heard them and wrote to us. "Hey, I love it. Great songwriting, a little sloppy, but beautifully sloppy. Do you want any help?" I was like, "Uh, yeah." Since I answered yes, he hasn't been our manager or anything official but he has randomly done a lot of crazy things for TIMS. He showed us to Brett Gurewitz [owner of Epitaph Records]. We were talking to him for a while four years ago. About a year and a half ago, Justin showed us to Vinnie, who owns Paper + Plastick. One night in December 2008, I got a text from Justin that said, "Vinnie from Less than Jake is going to call you tomorrow about putting out your vinyl. Thank me later." Within an hour, I had a text from Vinnie. He called the next day and he's like, "I want to put out your record." I said, "Cool, it's almost done," even though the truth was that we worked on it for another year. We thought it was almost done but isn't that always the story? [Laughs] Ironically, they still haven't put out our vinyl. We're not sure why. You can buy our album on their web store. P+P doesn't use contracts so technically, we're not even signed.
Why would you say TIMS has received all this interest?
I assume whatever attention we get is the same as whatever attention any other musician/band gets if [listeners] like the music and tell other people and they like the music. There's obviously a million other factors I don't even want to consider, like labels pushing bands to radio, but we don't have anything like that. We only have the albums we record, the website we run and the self-booking. We've always been a band that's done our own shit. We're not paying anyone to make us popular. It doesn't have to be like, "Oh, Pete Wentz told people to listen to us."
With "The Keys to Cat Heaven" behind the band, what do your 2010 plans involve?
I'm pretty sure we're touring this summer. We already have our next album written and demos for it. It's by far our best album-probably the best album I'm ever going to write. I absolutely love it. The rest of the band has heard it, and they've all separately told me, "It's crazy how good our next album is," which means a lot to me because I rarely hear what they think of our songs. By the end of the year, our goal is that we five will all actively know the next album. Hopefully, we'll be recording our best album four months later, be releasing at least two videos by the end of the year (one of which we have been working on for six months) [and] get our album on vinyl on Paper + Plastick. We will be pretty busy.
Don't forget This is My Suitcase is set to take the stage Friday, March 26, at Skully's Music Diner and Friday, April 9, at Rumba Café. For more information visit the This is My Suitcase Web site.
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