cal – am – a – teur (a definition)

January 8, 2010

Here’s something I’ve been asked a lot over the last ten years:

What does Calamateur mean and where did the word come from?

Well, the first part – Cal – is the name of a character from the book ‘East of Eden’ by John Steinbeck, one of my favourite authors.

There is a discussion in the book between two of it’s characters, which revolves around this passage in the bible:

“And in process of time it came to pass, that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto the LORD. And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof. And the LORD had respect unto Abel and to his offering. But unto Cain and to his offering he had not respect. And Cain was very wroth, and his countenance fell. And the LORD said unto Cain, Why art thou wroth? and why is thy countenance fallen? If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him. And Cain talked with Abel his brother: and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him.”
Genesis 4: 3-7

Here’s the key discussion of that passage from ‘East of Eden’:

Lee’s hand shook as he filled the delicate cups. He drank his down in one gulp. “Don’t you see?” he cried. “The American Standard translation orders men to triumph over sin, and you can call sin ignorance. The King James translation makes a promise in ‘Thou shalt,’ meaning that men will surely triumph over sin. But the Hebrew word, the word timshel—‘Thou mayest’— that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.’ Don’t you see?”

“Yes, I see. I do see. But you do not believe this is divine law. Why do you feel its importance?”

“Ah!” said Lee. “I’ve wanted to tell you this for a long time. I even anticipated your questions and I am well prepared. Any writing which has influenced the thinking and the lives of innumerable people is important. Now, there are many millions in their sects and churches who feel the order, ‘Do thou,’ and throw their weight into obedience. And there are millions more who feel predestination in ‘Thou shalt.’ Nothing they may do can interfere with what will be. But ‘Thou mayest’! Why, that makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win.” Lee’s voice was a chant of triumph.

I loved this idea when I read the book many years ago, and it still resonates with me now.

Cal is the character in ‘East of Eden’ who embodies this theme of us all having a choice in how we decide to live.


Amateur, the second part of the word, is the name of one of my all time favourite films.

Directed by Hal Hartley, it tells the story of an amnesiac, Thomas, who wakes up in an alleyway, unaware of who he is or how he got there, who is then taken under the wing of an ex-nun and writer of pornography who believes it is her mission from God to find out what happened to him.

Here is a quote from The Film Journal about the film:

Thomas’s amnesia (also symbolized by his white T-shirt, a blank surface that speaks of both absence and a new beginning) not only drives the film’s action and is a powerful metaphor for his “lost-ness;” it also points to his subconscious desire to start again from zero, to wipe out his former self.

You can read more about Amateur here.

So there you go: Cal – Amateur.

But why call myself that and not just use my own name?

Well, one of my favourite bands of all time is Sparklehorse, who is really just one man – Mark Linkous.

And then there’s The Divine Comedy, The Durutti Column, Bat for Lashes, Cat Power, Duke Special, Faultline, Iron & Wine, Minotaur Shock, Squarepusher, The Wisdom of Harry….etc, etc.

All acts who are essentially the work of one individual, as far as I’m aware….

So it wasn’t without precedent. People still find it odd I that use the name Calamateur though.

Worse still though is that no-one knows how to pronouce or spell it.

From the time John Peel introduced my first single on his radio show back in 2000, to the last gig I played (where I was introduced as “Calamatra!”) everyone has struggled with the word.

Which leads me to think, as I get ready to put out a new album, is it time to put ‘Calamateur’ to rest?

Should I come clean and use my own, actual name?

If any of you have any thoughts on this I would love to hear them…

Thanks for reading.

A Decade of Calamateur, Part 2: 2002

December 15, 2009
Part one of this series is here.
(Calamateur – ‘Driscoll’, from the Autocity EP)


After the release of ‘White Light Unknown / Inhabit‘ I was approached by a couple of cool little indie labels. One wanted me to record a 7″ single for them and another asked me to record an EP.

This was very exciting news for me and was definitely a step in the direction I wanted to go in. But, after a lot of initial enthusiasm on their part, followed by a lot of waiting around and frustration on mine, it all came to nothing.

So my second release as Calamateur was again self-released and couldn’t have sounded more different to my debut 7″.


The Autocity EP was a collection of four long, and fairly disturbing, sonic soundscapes that dealt with the cheerful subject of car-crashes. Yes, it was only my second release but I was already making concept records!

In the months preceding the recording of these songs a close relative of mine had been involved in a car-crash, a young guy I’d known since early childhood had been killed in a motorcycle accident, and Channel 4 screened a 3-part documentary series about car-crashes (from which I stole much of the spoken word material you can hear on the EP) so I’m guessing all of these played a part in the songwriting process.

I remember one person who listened to the CD and said they felt nauseous by the end of it. Another gave the genius one-word summation – ‘Shite’.

Either way, it was never going to be a chart-topper :-)

It was, however, played by John Peel again and was also played on Late Junction, Radio 3′s late night, laid back music programme. (note – if you want to get large royalty cheques for very little radio play, write really LONG songs)

Here are some of the reviews it got:

“…4 pulsating tracks on a 3” cd which somehow mimic engine noise, while samples of crash death statistics interplay in a cursory warning on the evils of the automobile…so spooky that it seems it would soundtrack a space shuttle crash…” – Is This Music?

“…a lovely thing to look at…very pretty beautiful sounding stuff and well worth a punt…” – Norman Records

“…beautifully packaged 3″CD…” – Rough Trade

(note: the Autocity EP isn’t available anywhere right now but I’ll try and remedy that soon.)


Not long after the Autocity EP came out I was asked by Scottish indie music magazine ‘Is This Music?‘ for an exclusive track for their cover-mounted CD.

I chose a track I recorded at the same time as the EP, called ‘Orion’.

Is This Music? CD

(Again, I’ll try and make this available sometime soon. I should also say that all of these songs were recorded using Mark Russell‘s equipment while he was away in the USA for a few months. He generously lent me all of his gear and let me use it as much as I wanted. Thanks Mark.)

You can read the next chapter here.

A Decade of Calamateur, Part 1: 2000-2001

December 14, 2009

I’ve been reading a lot of end-of-year and end-of-decade lists recently and so thought I’d make one of my own.

I’ve been making music as Calamateur for nearly 10 years now and this is the first in a series of blogs in which I’ll be cataloguing all the music I’ve been involved in making throughout that time.


White Light Unknown / Inhabit

The first Calamateur release was the 7″ single ‘White Light Unknown / Inhabit‘, released in early 2000.

It was a pretty lo-fi affair: recorded using Mark Russell’s (of Oldsolar) reel-to-reel 8 track, then mixed to Minidisc (a real no-no!) and, with the whole mastering process by-passed (because I had no idea what it was at the time!), it was then sent off to the Czech Republic to be made into 200 pieces of thick black vinyl.

I really had no idea what I was doing throughout the whole process, but clearly remember the excitement I felt when I opened the newly-arrived cardboard box and found 7″ singles with my music on them inside.

And that was nothing compared to how I felt when I heard John Peel playing the single on his Radio 1 show.

Here are some of the reviews it got:

“…possessing the kind of delicate use of vinyl grooves that deserves one of those sit down and contemplate it all moments in life….trembling as if touched by something altogether magical…” – Losing Today

“…astonishing debut single…” – Jockrock

“…gradually grows into a beguiling, bleary eyed, late night glory. seek it out, great things could follow.”- Track & Field

“…a thing of great beauty…”- The List

(note: I re-recorded ‘White Light Unknown’ for my latest album, Jesus is for Losers. If you want to hear the original 7″ version it’s on the Bonus Tracks EP you can get by donating here.

‘Inhabit’ is on my new ‘Commissions 2008-2009′ EP which you can get here.)



In 1997 I met the wonderfully talented Mark Russell and we started making music together.

Mark Russell

Using his amazing collection of guitars, synths and samplers we slowly found a sound all of our own and started playing live in and around Glasgow.

After a while we decided on a name, Oldsolar, and with the help of a new independent Scottish record label, Mint Blue Records, put out our debut album, ‘Many Visitors Have Been Gored by Buffalo’ in early 2001.

Oldsolar - Many Visitors Have Been Gored By Buffalo

I’m still hugely proud of this album and of all the music I made with Mark.

Listening to it now brings back a whole host of great memories – recording in Glasgow tenement flats & old church halls, playing live downstairs in the 13th Note, disturbing our neighbours by mixing songs too loud in our Easterhouse flat, and learning loads along the way about music gear, playing live and being in a band. Turns out I wasn’t that good at that last one though….

I don’t think you can actually get a hold of this album anywhere online at the moment but if you give this man an email he might be able to get you a copy.

Here are some of the reviews it got:

“…a thing of real beauty…gorgeous, a million miles away from the tired rock that the west coast sometimes seems happy to churn out.” – The Big Issue

“…a stunner of an album that applies electrodes to the sonic parts others have neglected for too long…a wonderful record…” – The Sunday Times Culture Section

“…very beautiful music which gets more intriguing with every listen…” – The List

“…a frequently beautiful record…” (7/10)- NME

“…this is incredible stuff, the kind of tear inducing drone that would have Coldplay crying into their lager top. It’s also beautifully produced and on evidence of this (their debut album) these two blokes from Glasgow have a lot of dreamy, drony potential…” - Sleaze Nation

You can read the next part of the story here.

Jesus is for Losers track 6: White Light Unknown

October 7, 2008

Calamateur – White_Light_Unknown.mp3

I wrote this song years ago, possibly as far back as…hmmm….1998. 10 years – wow, I didn’t realise it was that long ago until I figured it out just there.

The song began it’s life with a completely different chorus which hopefully only 1 or 2 other people will remember. Then, in the summer of 1999, my friend Mark (who I was in the band Oldsolar with) went away for 3 weeks and let me stay in his flat and use his studio equipment. I recorded 6 songs, including White Light Unknown, and then in early 2000 I released my first and only 7″ single, with White Light Unknown as the A-side and Inhabit as the B-side.

White Light Unknown was played by John Peel, Radio 1′s Scottish Evening Session & Beat 106 and got some great reviews. I was thrilled and surprised by the positive reception the single received and I think White Light Unknown is still many people’s favourite Calamateur song (which is both cool and little bit depressing!). Hopefully most folk will think this new version is an improvement on the original.

As for the B-side Inhabit, it recently had fresh life breathed into it when the song’s lyrics were chosen by DUFI to be one of 30 stencillised quotes to be sandblasted into the city streets as part of the current re-development of Inverness city-centre:


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