The Calgary Herald

Calgary band SAVK bring the love and a little hate with their new dream folk masterpiece

While records on such matters aren’t compiled, it’s fairly safe to say that Calgary roots pop act SAVK have achieved a musical first with the song Do Mi Ti Fa Re from their forthcoming release.

Somehow and in someway the band’s songwriter and namesake (or rather initialsake) Stephen A. van Kampen managed to fit in one track and in one line the names of iconic but perhaps opposites on the hip charts artists Neil Young and Nana Mouskouri.

And do so unironically. And make it seem cool.

“My dad adores Neil Young and my mom adores Nana Mouskouri,” says van Kampen with a smile while sipping a coffee in Marda Loop. “It’s not very punk rock to give (Mouskouri) a shoutout, but it’s more of a shoutout to my mom, I guess.”

Or a love letter. One of the two elements of nostalgia-driven emotion that make up SAVK’s profoundly moving, disarmingly intimate and astoundingly beautiful dream folk masterpiece Love Letters and Hate Mail.


The album, which the band will release with a show Saturday night at Festival Hall, cements the quintet’s place in the Canadian musical landscape. And while it, of course, recalls it both thematically and musically, the album also will finally put to rest and take over the legacy of van Kampen’s lamented last project Beija Flor, who earned their own place in the city’s indie history with 2007’s celebrated effort The American.

That seven-piece was put down as much for practical purposes (“It got to the point where everyone’s lives were going in different directions,” van Kampen says) as it was for artistic reasons.

“I was feeling stifled,” he says, noting he’d already written an album’s worth of material that he eventually decided to release solo under the SAVK (pronounced sa-vick) name.

At that same time, his brother and Beija Flor bandmate Paul, started up his own project The Magnetic North, with the siblings eventually performing in each other’s projects and, to the detriment of both, “splitting focus.” Eventually, they teamed once more for the short-lived band Dark Red Dark Blue, which came to an end when drummer Distance Bullock left as a result of the success of his brother’s band, Reuben and the Dark, which Distance is also a member of.

Van Kampen had all but put SAVK to bed when he discovered that he’d received a grant that he’d entirely forgot he’d applied for, and had to collect a band together and hit the studio so as not to lose it — something that proved remarkably easy.

“The good news is that all the guys I’m playing with are ex Beija Flor or family or high school buddies that I found after 10 years of not really talking to them,” he says of the crew, which features brother Paul, fellow Beija boy Brett Gunther, and longtime scene players Stefan Smith and Matt Chaplin.

“The relationship part was easy, it was just trying to figure out musically how we were going to align.”

That, with the wistful Love Letters and Hate Mail standing as the testament, seems effortless.

Recorded with an incredible amount of warmth and live silence by local producer Lorrie Matheson, it’s an album that doesn’t stray too far from Beija Flor’s chamber roots sound. But it scales it back some, while drawing sonically and melodically from influences as equally far-reaching as those previously mentioned two including Paul McCartney, Radiohead, Rheostatics, Spirit of Eden-era Talk Talk, that very same Messr Young and perhaps Ms. Mouskouri’s male equivalent, the whistling Mr. Whittaker.

Thematically, it also, like previous work from van Kampen acts, continues to explore his love-hate relationship with his hometown, albeit one he admits is a little more reasoned and coming from being “older, wiser and in a more comfortable place” — for both parties — but still with a passion that’s palpable.

“I guess the difference is, six, seven years on, the city’s changed a lot. And I think we’ve changed a lot. We’ve watered-down our angst or whiskeyed-down our angst a little bit about things and I think we’ve been afforded a lot of opportunities that back in that time we weren’t afforded,” van Kampen says.

“But then on the flip side, hindsight’s 20/20 and I think we’re making better music now, too, than we were back them. I think it’s a more mature, less manic sound ...

“I spent a lot of my twenties just trying to figure out who I was and I’m getting to an age now where I comfortable in my own skin,” he continues. “We’re writing for ourselves and it’s funny when you start creating for yourself suddenly everybody starts to latch on to it even better than they did when you were just trying to figure out who you were.”

As an example, long after the interview is over, van Kampen fires off an e-mail relating an anecdote from a showcase at the Ironwood that they played during the recent BreakOut West festival. The packed room, he says was enthralled to the point of silence during the entire time they were performing. When the show was over and they were packing their gear into their vehicles, an event volunteer shouted after them: “You guys play with love, real love.”

To this story, van Kampen adds: “That really sums up everything we do.”

Well, except maybe with a little hate thrown in for good measure, too.

SAVK release their new album Love Letters and Hate Mail with a show Saturday at Festival Hall.

Beatroute Magazine


“Lorrie [Matheson] labelled us the most uptight band in Calgary,” laughs Stephen van Kampen, leader of the band with his namesake. SAvK started work on their sophomore full-length, Love Letters and Hate Mail, back in February at Matheson’s studio, but they’ve waited close to nine months before releasing it to the public. The process was slowed down not only due to the band’s meticulous attention to even the most minute detail, orchestrating every element in each song until it was just right, but also due to the band’s transformation: in the past year, SAvK has evolved from Stephen van Kampen’s solo project to a sprawling, five-person opus, including his bother, Paul, Stefan Smith, Matt Chaplin and Brett Gunther.

SAvK was originally conceived as a solo project for Stephen after the dissolution of the orchestral indie rock outfit, Beija Flor. Too many of life’s responsibilities tugged in too many directions in that band and Beija Flor ultimately collapsed under the weight, though not before leaving an indelible mark on the Calgary scene. In its wake, the van Kampen brothers continued in their own directions, Stephen with SAvK and the brief Dark Red Dark Blue, and Paul with Magnetic North. As the projects progressed, the van Kampen brothers found themselves collaborating once more on each other’s work — “the deal was he’d help me with SAvK if I helped him with Magnetic North,” says Stephen — and, before long, it all coalesced into one.

“From my point of view, it was awesome,” says Stephen of the evolution. “I did the solo thing; I did the walk-out-on-stage-with-an-acoustic-guitar-and-watch-people-go-out-for-a-smoke thing, so it’s awesome to have a big sound behind you. It’s also great to have people collaborate with you, because your own brain can only think of so many ideas.”

“I think having your solo time really solidified what you wanted,” says Chaplin in response. “It wasn’t just five independent directions — there was focus, but not in any type of controlled way.” With Stephen’s solo project as a base, Paul, Chaplin, Gunther and Smith were able to help fill the sound out and realize SAvK’s potential. As a band, they were able to fine-tune and orchestrate each individual part so the final product became more than the sum of its parts. As they later admit, they’re a better live band, in part due to the wall of sound they’ve perfected on stage.

“I think, in a way, with SAvK, the rest of us were able to pinpoint the inspiration and fall in line with it,” agrees Paul. “We could adopt the inspiration and everything we do is following a lead and following an inspiration, to the point where Stephen is more comfortable saying, ‘Paul, can you shut up and do this.’ Everybody serves the inspiration.”

It also helps that the five in SAvK are best friends beyond the band, too. “When I lost my job recently,” laughs Stephen, “I called these guys before I called my family.” With no immature egos to stroke and no clashing personalities fighting over the direction of the songs, SAvK are able to focus in on their own sound, a unique blend of acoustic, folk, country and pop, and present exactly what they envision.

“We had a review done on this album and the same guy did a review on Beija Flor in 2005 and he was saying how chaotic it was, how manic it was, how it went down rabbit holes to nowhere,” says Stephen. “This is more mature. Before, we had all these different egos playing constantly — it was a constant fucking cacophony and chaos. Now, we’ve stripped it down. It’s an economy of sound.”

Love Letters and Hate Mail sounds all the better for that economy. Throughout the album’s runtime, just short of 45 minutes, not a moment is wasted, not a sound is accidental or out of place. SAvK laboured over the record in Matheson’s studio, sometimes to the producer’s immense frustration, they joke, chasing every note, every space between the notes, to ensure it sounded perfect. “It was a process of putting things together and taking them apart to see what actually mattered,” explains Stephen. “There was no peripheral bullshit.” Free from that bullshit, the album sounds surprisingly light and off-the-cuff, not a small achievement considering it could have easily been overwrought and overworked.

Having Matheson at the helm proved to be the challenge SAvK craved. In the past, they’d recorded with different producers in different locations, though these never turned out just right. Now, holed up in Arch Audio in Inglewood, the quintet sprawled and explored until they got the exact sound they desired.

“We love Lorrie,” says Stephen, “but we had many crazy moments in that studio… moments of him wanting to fucking choke me. We are a huge pain in the ass for him and we like certain things that he naturally finds repellant, like really loud floor toms and weird noises.

“Sometimes, the people that challenge you the most are the ones you should be working with. He gives a shit. Lorrie will push you and push for better performances.”

Emerging from the studio with a full-length in hand, SAvK teased their fans this summer by “leaking” the album one track at a time. There’s a strong current that runs through the album, tying it all together — the 11 songs all deal with the various dimensions of friendship and family, extending the latter to include the former — but each intimate song develops its own character, sometimes more traditionally folk, other times touching on singer-songwriter conventions, and yet other times working in its own space. At the centre of it all, as the album swirls and swells around you, SAvK stand proud, a band of brothers constantly refining their craft in search of perfection.Love Letters and Hate Mail is easily one of the strongest Calgary releases this year and, for many, a long-time coming. The wait, they promise, is worth it: as the pre-chorus on “Everstone” goes, “These are the good days/The good old new days.”

SAvK will release Love Letters and Hate Mail on November 23 at Festival Hall. 

Words and photo by Sebastian Buzzalino

The Gauntlet

Beija Flor is far from dead. Though the band itself may be no longer, former frontman Stephen van Kampen has kept the music alive with his new solo project Savk. Van Kampen is no fresh face to the Calgary music scene and his experience rings through in both lyrics and instrumentation.

Armed with a banjo and playful guitar licks van Kampen brings the best of Beija Flor to the table, and then some. Toe-tap inducing banjo licks on "Complex Inferiority" and "Red Eye" fit in well with van Kampen's signature scratchy, dynamic vocals. There are few among us that can pull of the high pitches that are reached by his tremulous voice.

The album as a whole swings between delightfully playful and seriously heartbreaking, all featuring van Kampen's quick fingered picking. There are fleeting moments that are reminiscent of Beija Flor's early, grittier days but for the most part this is a much softer van Kampen than we have seen before.

Most important of all, Savk has proved without a doubt that banjos are good for much more than kindling.

FFWD Weekly

For his self-titled debut, former Beija Flor singer Stephen A. van Kampen (or, more briefly, Savk), has built a sound by stripping down. Without his previous band’s kaleidoscope of noise to distract, the spotlight is squarely on van Kampen’s pleasantly strained falsetto and his intricate guitar work. Opening track “I Can’t Wait” sets the pattern that most of the album follows — its insistent acoustic rhythms and infectious energy belie the unadorned arrangement.

Unadorned doesn’t mean uncomplicated, though — none of van Kampen’s songs are anything less than intricate. His guitar weaves effortlessly around the beautifully constructed vocal melodies, exploring the middle ground between Nick Drake’s more sombre moments and the restless indie blues of fellow Albertans Ghostkeeper. Local uber-producer Arran Fisher adds just the right amount of background texture to keep things from becoming monotonous — a hint of trilling piano here, a bit of banjo twang there — while still ensuring that van Kampen remains crisp and clear in the foreground. It’s a position he’d better get used to.