Nick Byron Campbell is a musician and sound artist from Bend, Oregon. He got his start as a songwriter and member of the band Arizona in the early 2000s and has since worked on a variety of other projects, from the bands Wages, Lovett and Sincere Gifts, to work on film and TV, recently scoring his first full-length feature film, Faceless. His most recent project bears the moniker Left Vessel, and the calling card for Left Vessel’s upcoming album, One (and Driftless), which will be released on June 25, is music made from trees.
Read on for our interview with Left Vessel where we discuss his career thus far, taking a deep dive into his recent projects and debut album.
Do you recall having a realization that you wanted to pursue music as a career?
Left Vessel: I always knew it was what I wanted to pursue. The moment it became real, I drove up to New York and did a session with two friends, it was sort of casual. We had a really deep click, and that writing experience with those two people, a sort of immediate light when off. And that was my band Arizona. We made a series of atrocious business decisions that sort of kept that band from getting further than I think it probably could have gone. But we made music that I was very proud of and it was a beautiful thing to be a part of for a few years. That was the moment. I knew I was going to go into music, but just sitting in a room, working with them, just feeling the total magnetism of it was the moment I was like “okay, this is my moment.“ I quit my job, packed the car, drove to New York, started the band, that was it.
Can you just go through all the different projects/bands you’ve been a part of?
Left Vessel: Sincere Gifts is with the other songwriter from Arizona, so we’re just starting to release some music. I’m really stoked about our first full length, we’re sort of tinkering around with it. I think that’ll be really cool. Faded Rituals, so far we just have an EP that we haven’t even released yet. It’s with a writing partner of mine, an amazing guy, Kevin Theodore, he’s a really amazing keyboardist, songwriter and producer. Lovett, I played some guitar on that. Wages, I did a lot of the songwriting. That was with the drummer of Arizona. That band was definitely the one that’s had the most legs thus far. For whatever reason, for TV placement, people really like that band.
And then I also started doing a lot of sound art stuff. That led me down the path of doing a bit of film. I helped out, writing pieces of music for film in the past. The two films I’ve done that on did very well, actually. This year, the first full-length feature I’ve scored came out. It was a fun horror movie called Faceless. And then right now I’m working on a short that I’m really stoked about. Doing film scoring stuff and also the sound art; I just wanted to find more ways to put music in the world in a different way. It’s not like I got bored with bands, it just feels like music’s become commodified. It’s really a shame. Of all the artforms, it’s the one that’s been most beaten down by the internet in terms of the value it’s afforded. Books took a beating, but people still buy and hold onto books; people see value in it, still. And again, people are paying for music, but I do think the 2000s really changed how people view music. I wanted to find new ways to put music in the world outside of sort of normal formats.
Having got your start writing in bands, what does it look like to write a film score?
Left Vessel: The first thing I did was call the band Lovett, that’s Ben Lovett, he’s a fairly successful indie film composer. I just called him and was like “tell me what to do.“ It was my first time doing one from the ground up. I should also mention I brought in my writing partner, Kevin Theodore, to help me out with that, I shouldn’t take the full credit. I was a little nervous to do my first film score, so I brought in some support and he’s a total badass. It was an awesome learning experience.
It was already filmed, so I got a rough edit with timecode to it. I had done some commercial stuff, which was actually great practice. And I also should mention that for a little while I was doing some music editing for Agents of Shield, and that gave me some experience, too. I’ve had a background in figuring out how to conceptualize music to image. It’s actually in a weird way easier. When you’re recording a song, it’s a beautiful thing, but you’re conjuring everything. Whereas when you’re working to a film, there’s already an emotional arc happening; you sort of know where you want to start, where you go. I just tinker around with ideas and things start to work. I’ll sit down with a guitar, sometimes even start with rhythm and play with that. Just start to throw things around and see if something starts to feel cool.
It was a fun experience to do the first one, definitely excited to be doing another—a short—right now. I hope I can do a lot more with that.
Can you explain your role as a Sound Artist, what that is, and how you started doing it?
Left Vessel: The first thing, I don’t even know why I thought of it, but it was when I was moving to Los Angeles and I was like “I think I wanna do something in an art gallery.“ Just a random goal. I started to put together a story in my mind of what I wanted this thing to be. This idea of a, don’t know why I thought this, a child being born and being alive for one year—this sounds morbid, it wasn’t meant to be—and then the kid dies, so never learns language. The sound of their existence from utero. I never said this in the art gallery, it was just, for whatever reason this idea that I had. I got online, figured out the average heart rate throughout each phase and made that the bpms. And just started to sketch out this thing. I have no idea why I did any of this, but I started to run fishing wire through guitars and pull on it and it made a cool sound. I went into a friend’s studio and set up all these guitars, and then I went to this art gallery with a pitch and to my total amazement the guy running it was just like “yeah, let’s do it.“
I spent a few months putting something together. I started incorporating flowing sand playing guitars—it was sort of a bunch of random crap, honestly, this first time. I actually really liked the music that came out of it. It was basically a room filled with guitars being played in strange ways, but it created this ambient experience. It just started to pick up a bit. I haven’t extensively done it, but it got me a couple different artist residencies. Then I started really focusing on sand playing guitars. And then the idea that comes current, for some reason I was like, wouldn’t it be nice to lay strings over a tree and just bow it and mic the tree and get a sound. That concept led to a residency in Minnesota where I was in the woods for 10 days. I ended up writing a bunch of music in the woods and it was one of the most wonderful songwriting experiences of my life.
So, you essentially invented this tree-instrument concept, which you call the Arbow?
Left Vessel: That was the idea. Initially, it was a fun idea for how to play something. Then it started to strike me as, in an era of collapsing environment and doom and gloom, perhaps a meaningful concept for engaging with nature in a different way. The music I’m making is still extractive, everything we do as humans is to a degree. I’m not gonna sit here and claim to be some incredibly thoughtful or great environmentalist at all. But like any thoughtful human, I’m concerned about things as they’re headed. I thought it was symbolically interesting. We cut down trees to make instruments, but what if we could work with a tree instead. Then it became more interesting. Everything developed around that. That idea sort of has built up. I really wanna do a lot more with that. So that’s on the record.
If that whole concept that spawned Left Vessel and the album is the Arbow, are some of those themes you were just mentioning—the environment, reconnecting with nature—prevalent on the album?
Left Vessel: Yeah, some of it. I’d say the record’s split 50/50. Half of it’s sort of like interpersonal music. Songs written at a time in my life. And then four tracks in particular were most definitely fully written and recorded in the woods in Minnesota, and those are very much about that, it was heavily on my mind. I tend to not write too directly, usually, lyrically. I probably don’t think about my lyrics as much as I should. Sometimes I write with a goal in mind, a lot of times it’s just a vibe thing, and then I start to go in a direction. I’m in the woods playing guitar and stomping my feet on the ground and a storm comes in so I start singing about that. And then that becomes an analogy—the clouds are like an army coming in to take back the earth. So a lot of it became that, the imagery of the forest and what was happening around me but tying that back to what I was thinking about a lot, which was the environment and our relationship to it.
Also, I was reading a lot of books about trees leading up to it to get inspired. Trees are fucking amazing, man. They have relationships and live lives that could be considered meaningful.
One song on the record in particular stuck out to me. “Society“ is lyrically sparse but has a lot of musical elements going on within it. Can you just jump into the track, take us behind the scenes on this one?
Left Vessel: I love that you picked that one out. I almost started the record with it. That one is definitely the coolest story. That one was recorded on the Arbow trip. The eerie string sounds, those are the Arbow. I just spent some time while I was out there driving around some little towns. I went to this town there and there was this historical society, and so I go in and this amazing older man, he had to be in his late eighties, walks up to me and was like ‘would you like a tour, young man?’ So we start walking around and he’s just the nicest guy. This museum was just piled with stuff. We started walking by some instruments. I had my little handheld recorder, so I started recording stuff. This is all historical stuff, I was trying not to be disrespectful. Tap the bass drum, tap the snare drum, hit the cymbal real quiet.
I got that and found some other sounds. Just walked through these buildings and started collecting sounds. Every sound was gathered at that museum. It opens with this stream down the street. It just all felt connected—the surrounding nature, the history of the place.
And then the lyrics, I liked them super sparse. I wanted it to be a really simple idea. It was really inspired by this small town atmosphere. On the one hand, it’s really freeing to be in a small place. I spent a lot of my life in big cities. When you get to a more rural place, there’s a freedom there. On the flip side, there’s extra societal pressure. There’s less people around; people know you. That song was about society in general, especially society in rural areas that maybe are a little closer to nature. But also, how do we harmonize with each other as people and how do those societies harmonize with nature?
Has there ever been a time, with all the different musical outlets you explore, that the art and joy of making music has been tainted for you?
Left Vessel: Oh yeah. Definitely, that was why that first band, Arizona, ended. We really stopped having fun making music. It’s hard to explain. We really pushed ourselves incredibly hard in a really great way. It’s funny, people have this image of musicians as stoners—I’ve never worked harder in my life than in that band. It’s not like a healthy thing. Used to do three-day long sessions, work for 30 hours straight, sleep for six hours and then do it again, and go on tour between that. I think we put too much pressure on ourselves. We stopped creating music from a place of beauty—we got in the wrong mindset. That one phase of my life was the only time of my life that I think music became tainted. My gut instinct was ‘this is sort of wrong.’ I’m still making music with the singer from that band, my last band with the drummer.
Moving from that experience, have you had that notion that your music has to be coming from a healthier, happier place, in your head as you went into all these other projects?
Left Vessel: Yeah. At that time, music was all I did a hundred percent of the time. I’ve actually found that when you take away the consumer element—not to say I won’t welcome it when it comes—I no longer have any specifically financial goals with music at all. I purposefully keep that very far away from my thinking process. What I try to avoid and I consciously have to avoid is sometimes stopping and spending too much time thinking “oh, would someone else think this is cool?“ That’s the only area it really gets poisonous sometimes, is getting too far into that mindset.
As we come out of the pandemic and your album gets released, what’s on the horizon for you, moving forward?
Left Vessel: It’s definitely a funny time for music, in general. I’m gonna start, hopefully booking some shows. Start slowly to play out again, and see what comes of it. At this point, a lot of my focus is just writing and recording, which is how I like it, anyway. My passion is in the studio. I’m already writing more music for future Left Vessel stuff. A little bit of a record concept is starting to form in my mind. I should also mention I’ve had the support of Giftshop Records that’s helping out with this as well. That’s really made this all much more doable to have support from that label.
Left Vessel’s debut album will be released on June 25. You can check out Left Vessel’s music here.