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American Primitive JOE CARDAMONE

May 20, 2020

By Richard Ray Ruiz


Joe Cardamone: the man, the myth, the legend. Once the frontman of L.A.-based band, The Icarus Line, he’s continued to persevere in an art world that no longer embraces originality and rebellion. Dubbed by Vice Magazine as “reviled” due to some of his bad-boy antics, he and fellow rebel pal Travis Keller have carved out an art scene in L.A. that is reminiscent of the 70s and 80s NYC music scene. In 1998, Keller started Buddyhead, a label that gave no fucks and kept its integrity and vision intact as a result. Now, Cardamone and Keller have started an art collective, American Primitive. Made up of the likes of Keller, Cardamone, Annie Hardy, and Ollie Problemas, it’s a gang of non-conformists who, instead of selling out to corporate art interests, have joined forces. They use their strength in numbers to promote each other’s music, art, and film.

 Despite the dry, wry humor, and dark intensity Cardamone displays throughout his work, he gives off the feeling that you’re immediate friends straight out of the gate, to the point where I actually kind of forgot I was interviewing him. Once we got to talking, it wasn’t long before we were interrupting each other and finishing each other’s sentences. Well okay, I was interrupting him and finishing his sentences. He knows how to be critical while keeping a glint in his eye. Fervid and fucking hilarious. The kind of guy I wished I knew in high school because I’d probably be a total badass now…either that or I’d be incarcerated.

 Along with forming American Primitive since The Icarus Line disbanded, Cardamone has written and starred in the semi-biographical indie film The Icarus Line Must Die, and began a solo music project under his own name. He and Keller also released Holy War II, an indie flick that, unbeknownst to me, was available for public streaming for a limited time only.

Photography by Olivia Jaffe

Jules: So I didn’t know there was a time limit on watching Holy War II.

 JC: (laughs) Yeah. (sighs) There’s something that gets me down about the indefinite nature of posting things on the fucking internet. It takes the event away from it and it makes it less special and I think it’s just better if it’s a limited engagement. Because if you don’t set controls on things, it’s just gonna be floating around forever. It opens things to different kinds of scrutiny as well. Not that it’s like, “Oh, you don’t believe in your product if it doesn’t stand up to viewings for eternity.” But yeah, no one gets to stand in front of their favorite painting for the rest of their life and pick it apart.

 Jules: I mean, at this point in the game, having any sort of legitimate, well thought out reason behind doing something (that’s not related to making money) is noteworthy.

 JC: Yeah, it’s a weird time, because most of it is like just fucking throw as much shit at the wall as possible. But it’s just like pollution, though.

 Jules: What I did end up watching was The Icarus Line Must Die, and there was so much about that film I definitely related to as a musician. Music got completely fucked after The Telecommunications Act of 1996 was signed. There was no more of using music as a way to spread a message or send ideas. It was just about what the masses want…or what corporate interests want the masses to want.

 JC: Yeah, so how old are you?

Jules: I’m 40.

 JC: Okay, so yeah, you’re my age. So you can remember growing up and it was like, the antithesis of cool was to sell your music for any sort of branding. And I don’t really know how it happened besides the fact that the music industry was gutted at a certain point, and basically just left everyone to claw like animals at each other’s eyes, and it turned into what it is today.

 Jules: Well this is why I typically enjoy interviewing people in our age range the most…

 JC: The Lost Generation.

 Jules: Honestly, I’m not saying this to sound self-important, but I do think it’s a really important generation because…

 JC: We’re on both sides.

 Jules: Yeah, we’re not totally dependant on technology.

 JC: We watched it happen. We came of age while the change happened. And I’m guessing we’re the last generation that will know what it was like before.

 Jules: Yeah, and I think it’s a little bit of a call to action to sort of take the reigns, and be the elders and be the ones that say, “Listen, it’s still not cool to brand yourself and sell your music as a consumable commodity, rather than something you experience, and sit down and listen to.”

 JC: Totally.

Jules: So “The Icarus Line Must Die,” was that pretty much biographical?

 JC: Yeeeeah. I would say for the most part, probably more than I care to admit in there is on point. The only thing I kind of struggled with in general was, I didn’t control the focus of the narrative. I wrote the story, but the director really had kind of a story he wanted to tell about struggling as a musician. While that was true, at the same time, while we were making it, it felt like “Aw man, I feel like I’m focused on money the whole time,” and that’s not really my life. I mean, yeah, there’s points of everybody’s life where you’re like “Oh, I’m fucked” and that becomes the focus. I don’t have an objective point of view on that (film) at all, but I don’t know if it comes through that art is the leader in my life.

 Jules: I do think that came through because that’s the very reason why you’re struggling for money. If it wasn’t about the art, who knows, you could have sold out and…

 JC: Yeah, made different choices.

Jules: Have you ever had that option (to be more commercially successful)?

 JC: Oh yeah, I’ve blown that option a few times.

Jules: In what way?

 JC: The earliest one I remember was, there was a meeting at EMI right after “Penance” came out, and Travis and I were both high as fuck, and we both thought our passports had lapsed. We couldn’t read the numbers on our passports. It was that bad. So the day of the EMI meeting, we were like, “We’re goin’ to the West Side (of L.A.), and we’ve been up all night, so why don’t we go to the passport office and get new passports?” So we show up at the passport office as soon as it opens, cus we’re still awake, and I get to the counter and she looks at my passport, and the lady was like, “Sir, this doesn’t expire for another three years.” It was like that. Like stone-cold idiot stuff.

 So we have three hours to kill before the meeting and, at that time, all the A&R offices in Los Angeles were open doors to us, not because people were like, genuinely interested in the stuff we were doing, I don’t think. For the most part, they weren’t. But they were terrified of Buddyhead, or envious of Buddyhead, and were interested in what we thought. They would play us records and be like, “Is this cool?” So we ended up in some A&R guy’s office over at Interscope, who started pouring shots of Jack Daniels. And I never really drank, still don’t. I always liked hardcore street drugs. And I had, like, three shots, we went down to the meeting. I don’t remember the meeting, but I do remember that when we showed up, there was a contract for $100,000 on the table, and by the time we left, we were being escorted out the building and the contract was completely dissolved.

 Jules: What year was that?

 JC: That was probably 2005. But that choice ended up in me owning my own publishing forever, and my music not getting used in ways that maybe would have made my skin crawl. Who knows, we could be doing this call from my yacht. (Laughs) But probably not.

Photography by Olivia Jaffe

 Jules: That, to me, was probably the worst time ever for rock music. I remember being so confused about music at that time. I was bartending and cocktail waitressing, and I was hearing all this music that the DJs were playing, and it was all this electro-pop with whispery vocals.

 JC: Everything was already on its way down at that point.

 Jules: Yeah, I feel like everything since then has just been pop, pitched as rock.   

 JC: Yeah, it really has. Well, it’s turned into— at least at a mainstream level, more into a lifestyle supplement sort of thing.

 Jules: Yeah, people don’t even care about the music, they care about the lifestyle of the artist. What they’re wearing, where they’re going, who they’re dating.

 JC: Totally. And that shit obviously mattered before, too, but in a different way. Because the first thing that got you there was the music. It’s like, Little Richard died today, and you heard a song by Little Richard…and then you saw him, and then you wanted to know everything you could. I don’t know if that’s still the same sort of thread these days. I highly doubt it.

 Jules: So is American Primitive something that you and Travis are doing together?

JC: Yeah, when The Icarus Line was doing the last album that we did, I bounced around from a new label every release. Always. It was like, “Cool I found someone who will give us money, let’s do a record.” Finally, I got a deal that was more of like a distribution deal through Sony and was like, “Okay, we’re gonna do our own imprint for once.” And that’s when American Primitive was born. And since then, really because I have a studio here and end up working with a lot of local artists and musicians, it just became an umbrella for people to exist under so that, you know, there was some kind of continuity in everyone’s lives. It hasn’t really been much of a business move. More of an artistic shelter or umbrella for everyone to coalesce. And it’s slowly evolving into other things, but yeah, it’s not an LLC. Let’s put it that way.

 Jules: So how would you explain what it is?

 JC: It’s an art collective, is really what it is. Because Travis is doing photos and scenes and all kinds of work on his own. He’s designing clothes, I’m designing clothes for films.

 Jules: How do you curate it?

 JC: Almost everyone that’s been involved with it is either something I worked on, or something Travis worked on. And we have a genuine friendship with the person and admiration for their work. That’s the only way someone’s really included is, like, if they’re invested in a way that makes us feel like they’re invested in themselves and what they’re doing at the same kind of level that we are. And that’s the gatekeeper I guess.

 Jules: Is there a common thread between who you find coming through? A common ethos or message?

 JC: I mean, I don’t have a tagline, but as far as the people, I think it’s just like minds are attracted, you know? In general, we don’t have to seek. Things find us that are coming from like-minded individuals. Like we did a video for Mark Lanegan (Screaming Trees, Queens of the Stone Age, Masters of Reality) last year and that’s because I had just got off an eight-week tour with Mark, and Mark’s been a fan of mine for decades and likewise me of him. So that’s how American Primitive ends up creative directing Mark’s video. And that goes for most of the projects. People will see something we’re doing and either think that they’re artistically in line, or that we could help them be more artistically in line. Like they’ll see Holy War II and be like, “I want some of that for what I’m doing. Can you figure out a way to visually express the record we’re trying to do?” or whatever. So I think it’s an organic process. We’ve been doing this for so long that our tastes are symbiotic. (Laughs) You know, we share a brain in a lot of ways, so we don’t have to talk about it too much, let’s put it that way.

 Jules: When I look at American Primitive’s profile on Instagram, it looks like it could also be described as a kind of a movement in a way. I feel like what you were saying before about people clawing over each other when music went to shit a couple of decades ago, it’s like you’re sort of doing the opposite and saying, “We can actually share the success because there’s enough to go around. We may not all have yachts and private jets, but was that ever what it should have really been about?”

JC: Exactly. I mean, the thing is, the basic rules of the collective is that we never take a cut of anybody’s projects. It’s literally a place to share resources. I mean, I grew up on “Maximum Rocknroll” (zine) and that era of DIY punk, booking shows from my parents’ landline. So no matter what, that’s still what kind of formed me. Same thing with Travis. So I saw it work back then, and it worked in a way that I was totally comfortable with. So kind of carrying that forward into now without having to have an “Exploited” patch on my back…to me, that’s a cool way to do things. We all have our own reach, but together, we have a greater reach that doesn’t take away from anybody else’s. And the other thing is, when you’re all pulled together like that, it just makes it feel a little less lonely. Because most of the people that are involved with American Primitive are doing it more in a fine art sense. Not in a stuffy fine art gallery sense, but they’re putting things into the world that they really worked hard on, believe in, and probably did not consider commercial prospects so much.

 Jules: As much as we all need money to survive, It seems like if you did have a tagline, it would be “Not driven by money.” What else drives you to keep doing this?

 JC: Yeah, money cannot inform any of the art. That’s always been an impossibility and something I’ve struggled with. There have always been opportunities where someone says, “Hey, I know a friend who works in advertising and he’ll pay you $500 a song if you can kind of knock off this, this, this, this, and this.” And it’s the kind of thing that I’m just terrible at. I tried it once. I was terrible at it. Not only because I’m just not that great of a mimic, especially if I don’t like something. But also undercutting other art, whether I like it or not, to me just doesn’t seem to be the answer.

 When you see enough of your friends die and lose their lives and get taken out of the game early, you really feel it in your bones when you’re wasting your time. You know that what you’re doing right now is not right and that it’s diminishing whatever your point is on the planet. And that’s not to take away from anyone who has a job, you know? Because we all need to survive and everyone has to do what they have to do. But as an artist, I don’t have a responsibility to anybody in the fucking world to do anything except to distill my point of view as best I can.

 Jules: And also by doing that, there’s the hope that you’re going to reach other people that share your point of view.

 JC: Totally. And inspire other people to do that with their own work. For me, that’s been more of my life than anything. I don’t have big commercial success or any of that shit, but I do know, and this might sound a little bit lofty but my existence is positive in the sense that if I’m uncompromising, that, in some small way, ripples through the artistic community, musical community, and helps other people to feel like they can do that, too. Like it doesn’t matter what external pressures exist, go with what you are.

 Jules: Dude…this conversation is so validating for me!

 JC: (Laughs) Good!

 Jules: I was watching The Icarus Line Must Die and the relationship you have with your fiancee. I’m always telling my girlfriend that I pity her for dating a musician because we suck!

 JC: Terrible! (Laughs) Any sort of artist…just terrible.  

Jules: But as I watched the film, I was realizing it’s not just about your need to be a musician for your ego and to just put something out there…it’s something bigger than that. Because right now especially, we’re being told what to listen to. The power of choice has been taken away from us.

 JC: Yeah, it’s gone.

Jules: Labels put out what they already know is going to sell, and it’s sort of an assault on our intelligence and our tastes as listeners, as well as an assault on artists who are creating things that aren’t necessarily marketable. I really felt your pain when everybody was saying they didn’t know what to do with your album (from a marketing perspective). So it’s not just about the artist and their personal struggle, it’s also about this mass form of censorship that’s been placed on us, and I think that’s why it’s so important to keep doing it.

JC: Totally. Well at a certain point there’s no turning back. I’m 41 and have not been employed since I was 18. (Laughs). I don’t have a 401K. If you look at my life on paper, it’s a very scary life.

 Jules: But I also think it depends on who’s looking at it. Somebody might see it and think, “Goddamn, I wish I did what he did instead of staying in investment banking all my life.”

 JC: Totally. Music’s definitely afforded me experiences that money cannot buy. That’s the thing. I’ve traveled like a billionaire travels or something. I literally traveled in ways that my parents are baffled by. My dad hasn’t gone to five percent of the places I’ve gone to. It’s the only way someone like me, with the background I come from, was gonna go anywhere unless I got a crazy job somewhere and made shit tons of money. But that doesn’t really happen. More so these days than ever, you’re either born into it or you marry into it. It’s not set up for the American Dream. You can almost guarantee that anyone in art or music at this point, I would say, a high percentage of them is from nepotistic connections.

Photography by Olivia Jaffe

 Jules: Do you think American Primitive is the solution to that…or a solution to that?

 JC: I think that it’s an island. I don’t know if we’re a solution because when I look at the world, I exist in parallel to it. I don’t really feel like I’m part of the mainstream culture at large. Even though I appreciate a lot of shit from mainstream culture, you know, I want a pair of new Nikes or whatever. But yeah, it’s the answer for us. Let’s put it that way.

 Jules: Are you working on anything right now musically?

 JC: Yeah, ever since Holy War came out, I spent that last year and a half working on music and I finished I think, like, forty songs. So I have two records that are done. I was very fortunate that I was funded to be able to do something like that. So I have two records that are done, and then I’m also near the fourth quarter on a collaboration with Mark Lanegan, where I’m doing all the music, and he’s doing all the vocals. So there’s a lot of stuff that’s unreleased that is on deck to come out. And then working on a feature film idea and making paintings in the garage.

 Jules: God, you have a garage. You lucky bastard.

JC: I mean, that’s one of the reasons it’s been hard to leave here (L.A.). It’s a city with a yard and a garage. I can open the door and let the dog run out in the morning while I’m still, like, asleep.

Jules: That’s my dream you’re talking about right there.

 JC: I know, I’m just bragging now. (Laughs)

 Jules: But do you want to leave?

 JC: My dream is that I can do what I do from anywhere and still be able to eke out some kind of living and not have to be…

 Jules: Confined.

 JC: Yeah, especially with the way things are today, it really kind of puts a microscope, I’m sure way more in New York than here, that it’s like, “I don’t know if this is the best kind of life.” I’ve been wanting to live in nature for years, but when something like this (pandemic) happens, it really microscopes it.

 Jules: Well that’s another unique facet of our generation…that we don’t have the guarantees that our parents had, where if you stay in the same job for forty years, you’ll be set for the rest of your life. So we can be more mobile. What are your thoughts on how these facts affect the mental health of our generation? Like the mental health of people who follow the rules and have financial security, versus the people who don’t and struggle.

 JC: I feel, for the most part, our generation follows the rules. (Laughs) I mean, we were raised by people who grew up in the sixties, who were raised by people who were in World War II. So, I don’t know about you, but the threat of the lights going out and not being able to take care of yourself has always been a real thing to me. So even within what I do, that sort of real shit knocks at the back of the head, where it keeps me in line in a lot of ways. Where it keeps me on schedule and I have to be goal-oriented to be happy. Which might not sound very artistic, but if something doesn’t really have a point, then I’m not interested in it whatsoever. But most of the people I grew up with, they all got jobs and have kids and live regular lives.

 Jules: Do you think you suffer in a way that they wouldn’t know about?

 JC: Well yeah. There’s the give and take. They get to have a family, and that’s something that’s been out of reach for me. Especially as I get older and, it doesn’t seem any more possible today than it did ten years ago, which is kind of fucked up, you know? Because I’ve dedicated my life to this one thing and it’s really cut me off from a lot of the life experiences that people maybe take for granted. It’s like, they complain about their wife and kids and I would love to be a father to someone. But also, it’s kind of a hat trick.

 Jules: In The Icarus Line Must Die, I understood the frustration of having bandmates drop out and the frustration of having to depend on other people to pursue your creative endeavors. Has that been kind of a relief since you started your new solo project?

JC: Yeah, I mean, definitely. I spent a decade and a half dragging people around the world. Half the time, it felt like it was against their will. Showing up to airports on the day before or the day of a Europe tour, and the drummer just straight up doesn’t call or anything. I mean, so many stories like that over the course of my career. All I wanted to do was tour. We would buy a $900 van off of the recycler, and I would sit there and book tours over the phone, cold calling people. I didn’t even care if we played to anyone. Wanting it is what really manifested it. And I kind of think that’s how it works in general. The more you want something, the more you kind of manifest it. But working alone these days is the only way I would really like to work. Just because it’s a complete translation of whatever I’m trying to get across, which is really cool. It’s one of the best backing bands I’ve ever worked with. (Laughs) No one ever fucks up! And the other thing is, I got so burned out by touring and getting set up on these tours that didn’t make sense with bands I didn’t like and just putting myself in positions where I was like, “I hate what I’m doing.” So with Holy War and the new stuff, the decision was that I can tour out of a suitcase, and that frees it up so that I can bring anyone I want with me. It’s just me and a screen and this visual arts performance thing. So the last tour of Europe I did, I brought my little brother who’s never seen Europe. And it was the best touring experience I’ve ever had. That was one of the main motivations for why I did this. Because I feel like quitting music all the time. So I have to do things like I said, where I have a goal. It’s like, I want to be able to go on tour with my brother. How the fuck would that ever work in my circumstances? So I let that guide me and then made the best of that creatively.

 Jules: You’re also described as a composer, not just a musician. Were you trained musically?

 JC: No, I never had any art training whatsoever. My education was going to Catholic school til about ninth grade when I was kicked out for slingin’ dope, and after that, I went to public school for a little while and never an art program in any of those schools. So not only no music, but just no art in general. And this is before the internet. But for some reason, I was so fascinated with the stuff that I had discovered that I had, and still do to some extent, a voracious appetite for really digging into the things that caught me.

 Jules: So how did you do that back in the days before the internet?

 JC: Movies were a big one. Some of my favorite songs I learned in films. Like, let’s say “Drugstore Cowboy” I watched when I was a kid and William Burroughs is in that and then all of a sudden I’m like, “Wait I kind of know who that guy is” and then I got one of his books. And it was all these moments of discoveries by hook or crook. And I think it reinforces the worst parts of my opinionated points of view too. Because it’s like, you have this pride of discovery so then everything that doesn’t meet the criteria for something that I love is usually bullshit. I’m still kind of juvenile that way.

 Jules: I always think about how kids need to be taught how to be curious and how to refine their tastes.

 JC: Yeah, from what I can tell now, it’s a different thing, and maybe in some good ways. Because they kind of are open to whatever. I don’t see the same sort of lines in the sand with the younger generation. Whatever comes across, they tend to kind of embrace a lot of different things. Which is kind of a cool thing for art because there’s like a cross-pollination that takes place. But at the same point, I think there’s something kind of cool about our generation where you get super concentrated, like, specialized in certain ways.

Jules: Well that idea of being more specialized is starting to come more and more in handy now that, for example, you look at your record collection and you see what you have versus your Spotify and you have, like 80,000 songs and there.

 JC: My Spotify is a disaster. The stuff that I’ve liked so I can go back to it, I never go back to any of it. It’s this like, non-linear chasm. Which is why I took Holy War II down off the internet. It’s this non-linear shit, with no ending and no beginning. To me, that is like an endless chaos that is just terrible for an ADD mind. I can’t handle that. I still look at the record collection and think of music in that way. The record collection begins and ends somewhere. It’s a finite situation that the brain has to deal with. When I look at Spotify, I can’t think of anything to listen to. It’s like you have to think about your records to figure out what you want to listen to on Spotify.

 Jules: I feel like whenever these kinds of conversations come up with people about records versus digital, someone will without fail say something like, “Oh I sound like an old person,” but I don’t think it’s so much about age at this point, as it is about the way art has been so diluted in a way.

 JC: It’s really just the internet. What it all boils down to, is the internet changed the way everyone perceives everything. When people talk about the apocalypse, it’s like, the apocalypse is happening while you’re asleep. The fucking apocalypse started a few years ago. We’re in a new world now.

 Jules: It really is the craziest social experiment. It’s created this weird false form of individuality, where people think they’re unique, but…

 JC: Everyone’s the star of their own movie. And you really don’t have to do much to show up and become the star. I mean, you have to buy a phone, and you have to point it at yourself.

 Jules: And if you really wanna make it, there’s always the sex tape!

 JC: There’s always the sex tape. There’s a lot of easy ways out these days, and that does make me sound like an old man. Because when we were growing up, there basically was no easy way out. It was like, you had to fucking hustle, and you had to be good. Or at least think you were good. And someone else had to think you were good, too. You had to get cosigned. Now, that’s done. Nobody has to cosign you. If you do something ridiculous on Tik Tok or whatever that shit is, all of a sudden you’re feelin’ yourself and that’s it. But we’re never going back, so it’s kind of a moot issue.

Photographer: Olivia Jaffe @wicked_lady

Interview by: Jules Ross @nuclearfamilyfantasy

Insta G @joe_cardamone

Primo Gang​ http://americanprimitive.org/

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