Jeff Walls hints at nostalgia when he speaks of his wayward musical beginnings: driving around the woods in western Michigan high, listening to The Gories and The Olivia Tremor Control. He has spent years accruing a collection of obscure tape recorders and cheap microphones, culled from thrift stores and garage sales, yet bought his first actual drum kit a year ago. Now he makes music under the moniker Campfires in his apartment in Humboldt Park, Chicago. If he opens the windows to ventilate the rising midsummer heat, the shouts of kids playing basketball in the street leak into the mics while he’s recording. Born of a generation imbued by music-as-a-disposable-commodity piped through iPod headphones, Walls looks for something else in his music, feeding his guitar mics through an old conference recorder that had been used at city council meetings in the ‘80s. Knit with samples taken from crashing waves and thunderstorms, Campfires is a collage of lo-fi bliss.

Lush, sonorous melodies fed by cadenced drum beats unravel with guitars that wash over each other. Walls’ layered vocals—sad and beautiful tales steeped in restlessness and longing—culminate in exquisitely crafted hooks. Overloaded tape machines and microphones distort an already rugged sound. Walls references SF bands Ty Segall, White Fence and Sic Alps as inspiration.

Campfires has caught on like wildfire in the contemporary lo-fi scene, a genre that rejects the music industry’s attempt to hawk sounds crafted by PR pros and studio engineers. When asked to play SXSW in March, Walls agreed even though he had no band. He subsequently threw together a gaggle of musicians who learned the songs in five rehearsals; however, Campfires remains primarily a solo recording project. He recently released Stormy Late Fall, a three song 7” on the Mexican Summer label, as well as Burning Rivers, TV Flickers, Drifting Off to Bed, an eight-song cassette EP, on the nostalgic tape-pop label Leftist Nautical Antiques.

Walls reflects, “There’s no money at all in any of it, it’s just a labor of love because the music industry is in shambles. But I think music today is the best it’s been in years, with much of it being created sort of subversively.” When asked about the transition from bedroom recording sessions to the live stage, Walls says, “It’s a big adjustment, because while I’m recording I’m just in my own world, and at shows you have to make that world real for other people. But it’s fun trying.”

– Laurie Smolenski

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