Toby Altman’s days in Philadelphia are likely numbered. A former Swarthmore English major, he’s off to Northwestern in the fall to study Elizabethan poetry.
But until then, his DIY electronica project, Camera Phone, is his singular obsession. For just over a year, Altman has been building compositions around samples borrowed from commercial radio hits — from Taylor Swift to U2.
“A lot of people out there are using top-40 samples. But the thing that differentiates me, I think, is that most people do it ironically. There’s a sort of disdain for what’s happening on top-40 radio. But I just really like that music,” says Altman. “I’m trying to take pop songs and turn them inside-out — into something abstract.”
But Camera Phone is a literary experiment as well. After all, Altman will spend the next four years of his life studying Donne, Milton and Shakespeare. His lyrics attempt to describe the emotional numbing and painful isolation that sometimes coincides with adulthood — all set to sugarcoated samples.
Both Camera Phone releases — “Fat Usher” and “Red Stag (for James)” — are currently available for free download by Cave Chorus Records, an international collective of electronica musicians (www.cavechorusrecords.co.uk).
“One of the things I’m thinking through in my own life is the experience of being less than the person you thought you would be, which, I admit, is a profoundly unsexy thing to sing about in a rock song,” he explains. “Rock music is usually about wish fulfillment. It creates desires in the listener. I’m trying to write about the opposite side.”