Pared Down and Looking Backward, Local Synth-Pop Duo Camp Crush Heads Toward the Stars

“When you’re writing a song, you feel really vulnerable, and sharing, especially with your significant other, can be really hard.”

Tall and blond and beautiful, goofily engaging others while still very much in love, Camp Crush carry just enough of their sustained romantic fulfillment to their concerts that we’re glad the long-married couple ended up choosing ’80s electropop as their favored metier. Acoustic coffee-house folk ballads would’ve felt unbearable, but so long as ever larger synthscapes push singer-keyboardist Jen Deale’s marvelous voice and lifemate Chris Spicer’s inventive drumming toward new heights, rising passions lift all ships.

Since casting off past bandmates and genre signifiers five years ago to focus their muse, the duo has steadily booked larger and larger rooms while sharing the stage with a damnably eclectic array: IDKHow, Brandi Carlile, The Dears, Michael Franti, and the Slants in their final Portland performance. Also, they’ve released a sparkling string of singles and EPs as part of a virtual collaboration with Grammy-nominated (Doja Cat, Gorillaz, D.R.A.M.) producer Rian Lewis that continues to open doors.

After 2020 single “Fangirl,” their first wholly self-recorded tune, somehow found its way to the Portland Timbers DJ, Camp Crush won a spot in the game day regular rotation, and a midmatch spin of “Shadows” (standout track from ‘22 EP Always) brought them to the attention of the Bossa Nova Ballroom booker, who anointed them as oddly perfect opener for Nov. 11′s evening with Corey Feldman.

As the pair awaited perhaps their highest profile gig yet, WW sat down with Camp Crush about the rarefied opportunity and their singular career.

WW: How’d this all start? Did you actually go to camp together?

Jen Deale: OK, this is some Camp Crush lore here….Just after meeting, over a decade ago, we were walking back our history and realized we’d been at the same summer camp when we were kids.

Chris Spicer: Sleepaway camp somewhere in Oregon.

Deale: And, then, Chris asked if I was that blonde Jenny singing in the talent show, which of course I was.

Spicer: And I had the biggest crush on you!

And that’s when you started as a band?

Deale: I wish! No, I actually started studying classical singing in Alaska and went through the training to pursue opera before realizing I didn’t want to do that at all. I wanted to play rock ’n’ roll.

Spicer: I finished up at Portland State, Chris moved back after college, and we started playing music together when a friend said she needed a drummer.

And the ’80s sound was always a joint passion? You’re too young to remember the original releases.

Spicer: We definitely missed the first go round. I’ve always been interested in music and I dove right back. Jen, with four much older brothers, had a much more interesting take.

Deale: So, I was listening to AC/DC, Twisted Sister, age 5 because my brothers were teenage, college age, and that’s what they liked.

Spicer: Mixed with your own love of your own music from the era.

Deale: I was glued to MTV as a kid and still, today, have that pure obsession with Paula Abdul and Madonna. Then, of course, watching all the ’80s movies. That’s why it’s so cool we’re doing this [Feldman] show. I had a Goonies poster in my bedroom back in the day. He’s such a performer through and through, and we’re big fans of all of his films. This really seems like he’s reclaiming his artistry.

Spicer: You know, he tours with his wife, too!

So, the current incarnation…

Spicer: Officially, Camp Crush started in 2017, but we went through maybe five other iterations of bands under a variety of names that didn’t go very well.

Deale: We played under my name for a long time.

Spicer: Back in the day, we played at Ash Street Saloon under the name Blues Baby.

Deale: Some of the band names were better than others, I’ll tell you that.

Spicer: There was the blues-rock band. We had a kind of piano singer-songwriter situation. They were all different genres. The one that probably caught on the most was the one directly before Camp Crush: an alt-folk trio with guitarist called Santiam.

Deale: We were playing a lot of shows and making good headway. I started out with a True Keys organ-y sound and kept upgrading from better synth to better synth. Then, all of a sudden, it was like we were an alt-folk band making synth-pop songs. We were having a little bit of an identity crisis.

Spicer: What I love about all the different genres that we explored and where we are today is that I feel we really tried to find the thing that most fit us. We explored every different avenue until we finally just asked what would happen if we made the music we want to play, the music we feel inspires us. And that’s what stuck the most.

No plans to augment the act, then?

Spicer: Life as a duo’s pretty awesome. It’s just the two of us with the same schedule. We can practice whenever we want.

Deale: We can tour as much as our schedules allow.

You are aware that not every couple views spending every hour together as a perk.

Deale: Yeah, we’re pretty lucky that we’re kind of nerds for each other because we work so closely writing songs. I’ll do the beginnings (you know, the chords, the lyrics, the framework) and bring my ideas to play for Chris. He has such an incredible ear for music and memory of its history. He’ll be like, “Oh, I hear these vibes,” or, “What if we tried this…?”

Spicer: We might even start the process just with chords on a guitar even though, you know, our EPs don’t have any guitars, but she’ll bring that to me. The next step (building the vibe, bouncing the sound back and forth between each other, taking it to the next level) is kind of like playing catch.

Deale: That was the challenge. Let’s just do the stuff we’re excited about listening to (very poppy, very synthy, very new wavey) and make songs that sound pretty.

Spicer: It started out a little bit more rock leaning because we did have a guitarist and bassist and sometimes even horns (a trombone player) for some shows. The evolution of the Camp Crush sound took a turn when we looked at each other and realized this was just us. What do we want to do? How do we want this to sound? I think that was an important moment for us as a duo because, well, we don’t have a guitarist. We don’t have a bassist. We’re just writing these songs around what we can do, and I really love where the music’s come with that realm of thinking.

Deale: That was a really big turning point for us. We’d spent a year playing with this rotating cast of incredible musicians. Some of them played on our records, but, in 2018, we made the jump to a duo, which meant figuring out how to still make the big energy dance show with just two of us at live sets. We added a bass synth and started working on creating really full soundscapes with just what was really synth and drums.

Spicer: If it brings more energy and benefits the song, we will bring in some extra musicians. Last show was a half and half situation. We had other musicians on stage for half the songs, but we ended up doing half the set as just a duo. That’s what a lot of other people connect with.

Deale: We got really specific about not bringing in guitar players to record. Everything you’ll hear is myself, Chris, and our producer, the three of us working together and trying to stay true to the synth and drums sound. A lot of our bass sounds are arpeggiated synths anyway, so bringing in somebody playing more traditional bass isn’t quite true to the recordings.

When you’re creating, the sound you hear in your head is just the two of you…

Deale: Yeah, exactly. It’s still a pretty massive sound. As we’ve moved into recording these last few years, we’ve been lucky to build out some really cool, giant patches that got people dancing.

Spicer: We’ve released four EPs now, and we’re continuing to release singles. We’re currently in the beginning stages of working out our next material for another release while moving in the direction of a possible full length.

And, should something happen to the relationship, would you continue onward as an act?

Deale: We’re about to celebrate our 10th anniversary this summer. Going pretty good, so far.

Spicer: That’s not a scenario we’ve even explored.

Deale: One thing that helps our relationship (in day-to-day life, but, also, music), we’re very “yes, and….” people. Songs are never, like, not good. It’s “OK, yes, and what else can we do? What’s the next step? How can we set a positive mentality to keep the working together as easy as possible…?”

Spicer: I love the feel of Jen’s recent songs. Connecting what she’s writing with what I’m playing has been really awesome. There’s depth and…not an edge but a moodiness to them that comes forward in the music.

Deale: Not an edge?

Spicer: You’re sooo edgy [laughter].

Deale: When you’re writing a song, you feel really vulnerable, and sharing, especially with your significant other, can be really hard. What if they don’t like it? What if the song was written about them?

Spicer: Which happens!

Deale: So, that’s the challenge in front of us: Continue to evolve our sound, make it even punchier and more danceable but, at the same time, come up with songs that actually mean something to us.