Why C.J. Camerieri Came to Minneapolis to Push the Boundaries of His Trumpet
C.J. Camerieri is trumpet royalty. He’s a Juilliard graduate who’s spent the last 15 years playing the horn for Sufjan Stevens and Bon Iver and Paul Simon. As well as in his own avant garde chamber music group, yMusic. But his latest project, CARM, is his first ever where his instrument is front and center in the spotlight, a place that his instrument is accustomed to being, even if Camerieri is not.
“I was so happy being a sideman,” he says. “I never thought about my own project, but I started thinking about the trumpet, and its history as a popular music instrument, from Louis Armstrong all the way up until Miles Davis died.” And he kept wondering, What would Miles Davis do if he was alive today? What kind of record would he make? A re-consideration of the trumpet, an instrument with one of the longest lineages in music history was a scary, ambitious thought, and for some reason he kept circling back to a producer in Minneapolis who he thought could help him do it. “I kept thinking about Ryan Olson,” he says. “Maybe because he was always this sort of scary figure to me—I was kind of intimidated by him, and he has this faux-meanness to him.”
His ambition was probably always there somewhere, but it took a while to find its focus. Camerieri says when he graduated from Juilliard, he didn’t set out to become indie rock’s consummate trumpet player, he just knew that he didn’t want to play classical music in a symphony orchestra, or in a pop outfit like Canadian Brass Band doing Beatles covers (that was his first offer out of college), and he definitely didn’t want to play any jazz, at least not straight jazz. “Jazz didn’t seem particularly culturally relevant,” he says. “But those are the exact skills I had.” It wasn’t until driving to another dead-end free jazz gig in Buffalo, New York that he heard Sufjan Stevens’ Come On Feel the Illinoise.
“It was all these great trumpet melodies,” he said, “And I was like that’s what I want to do. That seems new and fresh and relevant.” Within a year, he was playing in Sufjan’s backing band. From there, he formed his chamber music group yMusic, and it was after seeing a yMusic show in Brooklyn that Justin Vernon invited him to come to Wisconsin to help him record Bon Iver’s critically acclaimed self-titled album in 2011. Now, 10 years later, even though Camerieri still lives in New York with his wife and their baby, he is deeply ensconced in this Upper Midwestern music scene. He recorded CARM with Olson, and this past week, he flew into Minneapolis to debut the tracks live on stage at First Avenue at The Great Northern Festival. (You can still catch the livestream until midnight tonight.) I actually caught the show in the room on Wednesday night, my first time in the building since the pandemic shut everything down last February. The old black bus depot was cold and nearly completely empty except for Camerieri and his bandmate Trever Hagen alongside their accompaniment, Hippo Campus’ Jake Lupen and My Brightest Diamond’s Shara Nova. A skeleton crew of First Ave staffers and a couple camera-people were running around in the dark, shooting the livestream. The horns Camerieri and Hagen played were appropriately mournful, undergirded by Olson’s electronic darkness, but in their playing there was also grace and hope.
“I was nervous because I haven’t played music with other human beings for so long,” Camerieri says. “But from the moment I heard Trever’s brass, I thought, this is my dear friend who has had a complicated relationship with the trumpet and this project brought him back to it.” Camerieri says this first time playing live after such a long dormancy was more about the connection to his fellow musicians onstage than it was about the songs. I had a similar feeling—it was so good to be watching live music again that it was almost too hard to concentrate on the actual music. It was impossible not to consider when we would all be together again. And the P.A. wasn’t even on—this was for the people at home, and I felt more connected to the music when I watched the stream after I got home.
When Camerieri returned to New York, his plan was to quarantine for two weeks away from his family, leaving us plenty of time to finish the following conversation that started backstage at First Avenue.
You’re a trumpet player, and when you pitched Ryan Olson on producing your record, the first thing he said was, “I don’t like the trumpet.”
And that is exactly what I wanted! I went to Ryan because the whole scene here seems to revolve around him to some degree. And I love this scene; this is where I’ve done so much of my work. I didn’t want someone that’s like, oh you can do all these trumpet tricks—you can play fast, and high, and loud, so do that. I didn’t want that. I wanted to have to earn every moment of trumpet playing on the record.
So back up for a second, when did you fall in love with the trumpet?
My dad was a middle school band director and he conducted the church choir in Millville, New Jersey. And he taught piano lessons at the house. And I was jealous of those kids because they were able to play music and hang out with my dad. So when I was four years old, I started playing piano and took off with it right away. And in middle school he gave me a trumpet because he needed trumpet players in the band, and he knew I was gifted on piano.
And you never wavered?
If you would’ve asked 8-year-old me what I would be doing with my life, I’d say, “Playing the trumpet at a show at First Ave!” I never wavered for a second.
So you love Minneapolis’ music scene, and you came to us through playing with Bon Iver, and then the PEOPLE festivals in Berlin, and the Eaux Claires festivals, all these different touch points, but how does a Juilliard guy living in New York become so enamored with a Midwestern outsider art scene?
It’s mostly through Justin [Vernon]. Justin introduced me to all of these people. And especially Ryan. And I was like, “who’s this guy?” And he’s like, “I’ve loved Ryan’s music since I was in 8th grade” or whatever the story is.
Right. And it just seemed like, I just really liked Ryan and he scared me and he made me uncomfortable and he didn’t just love the trumpet and that seemed like the right position to put myself in.
So how did you end up making the record in Minneapolis?
I talked to Ryan at one of the Eaux Claires festivals, like “hey would you ever want to do that?” And he’s like [monster voice ] Aargh, sure, come to Minneapolis. And so I just texted him, “What do we do, should we go to April Base?” And he’s no no no, just come to Minneapolis, we’ll do it at my space. And I’m like okay. I didn’t know what his space was like, I didn’t know anything. When I got here, it was the NBA All Star game, which I watched with Justin at his apartment in Uptown in 2017. Justin is like, What are you doing here? And I was like, I wrote all these songs, I brought all this sheet music, and I’m going to start recording them with Ryan. And he’s like, mmmmmm…no. That’s not what you’re gonna do. But you’re here, follow Ryan’s process, trust him, and it will take you to places you would never have gone otherwise.
So what was the process like?
I’ll never forget the first thing Ryan said: “Do you like 110?” What do you mean, 110? And he said, “bpm!” [editor’s note: bpm = beats per minute] And I was like I dunno! So he started a click track, and he said play something long and melodic on the French horn. And I played some long melodic French horn phrase. And he immediately starts cutting it up in Ableton and chopping it up and making loops. Play something else, that’s a little bit shorter that goes like bum da boom. Then he put a beat on it. Then he was like, play something short and staccato on trumpet. And now we’re writing and that’s track 2 on the record.
But if he hates the trumpet so much, how is he directing your playing?
Ryan is one of the great pointers in the history of music. And he would have a way of pointing for me to do something, and I would know exactly what he meant. [points his finger gestures urgently] oh he means play like a hooky thing there. [points his finger up and out and makes a swiping motion] or go up high, or really be expressive or really unleash.
I still don’t understand why Ryan would tell you that he doesn’t like the trumpet.
Well I think the trumpet is loaded. Here’s the problem with the trumpet: It’s immediately genre-fied. Whatever sound you make, you can instantly go, “that sounds like a symphony orchestra!” “That sounds like John Williams!” “That sounds like Louis Armstrong!” “That sounds like Miles Davis!” “That sounds like Ennio Morricone!”
You’re right. Both on your record and in this set, you can hear so many brass sounds and you can’t help but connect them to references—you hear Sketches of Spain, or Fela Kuti, or even Chuck Mangione. Are you hoping you made so many of them that they start to fall away?
Well I really wanted to put the instrument into a contemporary culturally relevant sort of genre-less music that is “indie rock.” And I also wanted to pay tribute to the instrument’s past and reference those things in a way that kind of cancelled them out and made you just listen to the instrument. So in terms of song structure and form and production, we ignore the trumpet’s past, but these sounds are so iconic and recognizable I didn’t want to ignore them, and I didn’t want to try to completely get away from them. What was really challenging about this project, to not hide from the history of the instrument, but to try to constantly escape genre. And I think the way we arrived at that was through song form.
So you blend so many genres that by the end you hope the listener is past them?
That’s how you create genre-less music on a genre-filled instrument. It’s a thing I thought about constantly. And we did it with all of the things that went around the instrument. Some of it is manipulated, but we used the instrument in relatively conventional ways that reference all these historical uses in ways that made it recognizable but in this totally new context. And hopefully by the end you realize this person, who’s me, who’s making this music, knows all of these things. I was trained in all of these things. I’ve played in symphony orchestras, I’ve played on music scores, I’ve played in rock bands and jazz bands, I’ve played in chamber music, I’ve played in Afro-music ensembles. I’ve played in all these things, and I wouldn’t know how to like not include those things in a record of my music.
Someone like Peter Evans, who’s a trumpet player I really respect and admire, he created a totally new language for the trumpet which is sort of unrecognizable. You go like, wait is that really a trumpet? That’s your reaction. That’s not what does it for me personally—I love what he does—but I love the instrument and all of these reference points. I love when I get to play in the symphony orchestra on Friday and play a jazz gig on Saturday and then play a Paul Simon show on Sunday. That’s what I love about my life and my career and I wanted to infuse this music with that, without it being like this is a jazz song, this is a pop song, this is an R&B song. Hopefully, they all talk to each other and have a conversation about both the instrument and about where this record is positioned. And I really appreciate that people haven’t tried to call it any particular genre, other than “alternative music.” Which doesn’t really mean anything. And that’s kind of what I wanted.
Ryan told me you are so well immersed in your training, and so versatile in your ability, that you were able to do whatever he asked. But what’s the difference between providing accompaniment as a sideman and leading the ideas in the song?
One thing that was so interesting in this process, is I kept playing what I thought was the melody of the song, and Ryan kept pushing it down into the texture. So I was writing these lyrical melodic phrases that I thought were melodies and Ryan kept smushing them down and creating these melodic beds that I felt were the melody of the song. So what you have is the space where the keyboard or guitar would normally occupy in the music are these melodic, lyrical ideas. And the challenge for me was, now be the star of your own band. Now play the thing that makes me care about this. And that’s something that I did on my own, in hotel rooms.
So you would go into a cave of some kind to record your lyrics, so to speak, which is often the most vulnerable part of the process.
I did it in hotel rooms on off days on a Paul Simon tour. Yeah. it’s really hard to write a song with a few verses and a few choruses, without words. Because you can’t just repeat the verse on a trumpet. So you have to take the spirit of the first verse that leads into the chorus, and figure out a way to play the second verse that’s not note for note the first verse, or maybe isn’t even remotely like the first verse note for note, but has a similar gesture and arc to the phrase, and can carry the story forward so when you’re getting to the second chorus, it feels different, like we feel like we’re in a different place. The way words do! And that’s really difficult and that process forced me to tap into an emotive way of playing, and a way that connected to something that was way beyond genre. That helped me escape those boxes.
You told me this story off the record, but I did find it interesting that Paul Simon requires the musicians that he plays with to keep him appraised about what they’re doing musically. And he listened to this album, and he gave you an honest critique. And I was wondering if you could at least share part of it, because he actually understood what you were doing perfectly.
Yes. I think he said, you explore the possibilities and limitations of your instrument in a contemporary setting. And I was like, that’s exactly what I wanted to do! That’s incredible. And I feel so fortunate to have a relationship with him, because he’s the most curious person I’ve ever met, so he wants to hear what you’re working on. But he’s really honest, and really good, and it’s nerve wracking to play him music when you respect what he thinks so much. He’s told me with yMusic records, I love it, it’s perfect, and that’s amazing, and he’s told me, eeeh, not for me. And I appreciate that because when he says something good you know he means it.
You told me that since becoming a professional musician, you’ve always been a sideman and you were elated to be in that role. But the other night, out on the front of the stage, did you think about the amazing frontmen and frontwomen you’ve played for and how they do it? Front people like Paul Simon, and Sufjan Stevens, and Justin Vernon.
I think I think about taking something from all of them. I think about Paul Simon’s relentless attention to detail—he has this thing that he says: “The ear goes to the irritant.”
“The ear goes to the irritant.”
Pretty good, right? So like, my ear’s distracted by this thing that’s irritating it, and it’s taking me away from the message that I’m trying to get across. So utilizing so much technology on stage, especially with Trever’s set up, I felt it was really important that we dialed in the way he was using the trumpet, and the drum machine and the noise and feedback and samples—we really were super thoughtful about how his parts interacted with the songs as they were going. My personal role was sort of just being the lead singer, just with a trumpet. I really wanted everything to be in balance, and to have it feel both improvised and in the service of the song at the same time, which is a complicated balance. I thought a lot about how Paul goes about working with the band to realize the song and to realize his poetry to the greatest extent that it can be realized.
And I always try to think about the way that Justin’s voice can communicate whatever he’s feeling to a listener so directly. Nobody does that better than him. He makes me think about Louis Armstrong. One note and you smile like you’ve never smiled before and also feel this pain inside of you that you don’t know where it comes from. He can get this really complex emotion to you with one note. And I think Justin does that, and I think that’s rare. And people do it in different ways: John Coltrane does it with the language with what he’s playing. Paul Simon does it with the poetry. But to do it with one sound, that’s the shit. That’s what I try to think about constantly. Because that’s what I have. I don’t have words, I don’t have poetry. I want it to be that moment of intensity and I feel like the trumpet is particularly well poised to do that.
Regarding the baggage that the trumpet carries, your bandmate in this project is Trever Hagen. Some of my readers will know Trever as the “hey are we recording Trever?” guy from the Bon Iver albums. Some will know him from noise projects like Marijuana Deathsquads or his own projects, but they might not know that he’s this PhD musicologist who spent a decade in Europe studying outsider art movements before coming back to the Midwest. When you met him in Berlin, he was playing the trumpet without a mouthpiece using electronic feedback and making it into a noise instrument. And when you tried to collaborate, you asked him if he could play with a mouthpiece and he said he absolutely would not. But now he is, and he’s your bandmate for this CARM project. What happened?
Trever has a relationship to the trumpet that is not uncommon. He got a degree in undergraduate performance as a trumpet major and put the instrument in the case afterwards. And didn’t play it for years and years and years, and when he did pick it up again, he tried to approach it in a completely new way that avoided all of the things that made him put it in the case in the first place. The trumpet does have a lot of baggage. The pedagogy and the culture around the instrument is not the greatest. It’s very higher, faster, louder, and not expression-forward.
You’re making the way trumpet is taught sound like the way drums are taught in the movie Whiplash.
Yeah, and I think that really got to him. And I kind of have a different relationship to the trumpet. I had a really fantastic trumpet teacher at Juilliard named Mark Gould. Who was not the higher faster louder trumpet teacher, he was all about how you play melody and make someone cry—make someone really feel something.
So I was fascinated about this idea of having a band where there were two trumpets on stage with totally different approaches. Trever not using the mouthpiece was something I settled on. I was like okay, that’s how he wants to use the trumpet, let’s find a way. And honestly he played a trumpet and did his feedback noise thing on the record in some of our earliest writing days at Ryan’s studio. So there is that sound and presence on the record, so if that was how he wanted to use the trumpet in this band, in this set up, that was cool with me.
Then in November, around thanksgiving, we had a phone conversation where he’s like, hey, I put the mouthpiece in a couple weeks ago, I’m excited about this CARM stuff. And It actually kinda threw me. And I was like whoa! Okay, let’s figure out how we’re going to do this. So I started writing him parts, and those parts are kind of what he’s been using to get back into the instrument. So it’s really an inspiring thing. We are intolerable in rehearsal, because all we talk about is trumpet technique minutia. We’re going to be the worst group ever to be driving the van from the venue to the hotel—all we’re going to talk about is mouthpieces and stuff. But it’s been really interesting talking to somebody who has a completely different relationship to the trumpet but the exact relationship to music that I have. Trever is all about expression and communication and his writing about music is all about cultural movements and how sound is informed and informs those movements. He’s such a brilliant musical mind and the way he feels music is exactly how I do, it just made sense to be like, hey, even if uses the trumpet for totally different sound, this is how I want to present this music. That’s fascinating to me. What kind of band would that be like? I don’t know, but I think it could work. And that’s kind of how I’ve approached this whole project: like, I don’t know, but I think it could work. Why am I flying out to work with Ryan Olson, never been in a studio before with him, I don’t know but I think it could work. It sounds like a recipe for something interesting.
You’ve been so versatile: you’ve done soundtrack and scoring work for film, you’ve been a sideman playing huge arenas for Paul Simon and Bon Iver, you’ve done classical interpretation with your own band yMusic. You can work anywhere and you have. But this record was produced in Minneapolis, and you debuted it at First Avenue. A lot of your music community is based in the Midwest. Why do you keep coming back? Are you seeking some kind of constraint?
Let me think about that. [Waits a minute.] I think the opposite.
I think I was drawn to Minneapolis because in New York, there’s a jazz community, there’s a classical community, there’s a sort of indie rock community, it’s all very clubby and factionalized. In Minneapolis there’s not even a music community—there’s an art community, that you’re a part of, that Trever is a part of, that Justin is a part of, that Ryan seems to be the focus of. But there’s also Mike Lewis, who’s like the best jazz musician I’ve ever met, and I met him in a rock band where he played bass, right? And Kate Nordstrum, with festivals like this one, and Liquid Music, which was the most interestingly curated series that I’ve ever been a part of. It just seems like there is an artistic and music community that is open to anything. Any kind of sound, any kind of ideas, and really attracted to newness. And that’s what drew me here.
And it’s also so supportive of anybody coming there to do something new. In New York you don’t really have that kind of community. Maybe some people have it, but I’ve never seen it. I think that it existed in the 80s when it was cheaper and more reasonable place to live. It’s not the case anymore. There’s not a lot of crossing over between clubs. And Minneapolis just felt like if I’m doing a song, that leans jazzy, there’s the best people for that, that will also understand this other sensibility. And it just seems like the right mix of people who didn’t judge things. I think about Justin and every single Bon Iver record he ever makes will be radically different in sound and production and it will be a new way of presenting his voice. And I hope that the same will be said about my project and I can’t imagine realizing that in any other musical community. It really feels like an accepting, supportive, informed and open place, to go and make things.