"Total Devotion" Sets Appeal/November 1993
by Natalie Davis Connolly

Oh, the fabulous '80s - what a decade it was for music fans. Disco was (supposedly) dead, straightforward rock-and-roll went corporate, and punk took the first of its final breaths. A new wave emerged; artists like Depeche Mode, the Cure, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, and the Psychedelic Furs burst forth with a brand of computer-generated sounds that took the college world, the clubs, and eventually, the music industry by storm.

When punk rock hit the late '70s, it heralded a time when just about anybody with a taste for anarchy could pick up a guitar or a pair of drum sticks and start a band. Even - or, perhaps more accurately, especially-if he or she had no musical training. Punk was a raging fireball-its loud, angry guitars and thrashing, machine gun-like drums exploded with passion and rage. I suppose it was only inevitable that it would have to cool down.

The fall-out engendered the new wave. After all-out musical brutality, it's only logical that people would reach for something, softer, prettier. It sort of makes sense that after 100-degree heat, people would crave something cool. And it's normal that after waging war, people would be left feeling numb and, perhaps, depressed.

The packaging and sound of this new form of alternative music differed from its aggressive predecessor's in a number of ways. Edwardian poet blouses, eye-liner, and gravity-defying coiffures took the place of the ripped t-shirts and mohawks of the Johnny Rotten era. Where the punks were boisterous and passionate in music, new wavers appeared cool, detached. The guitars and drums of punk were gone, replaced by computer-driven synthesizers and electronic drums. In fact, if there is a similarity between the two genres, this is it: where just about anybody could play punk, anyone who was slightly despondent, well-dressed, and able to lay hands on a computerized keyboard could be a pop star-especially if he or she had no musical training.

Years after the new wave became fodder for lite-rock radio and guitars-the janglier the better-regained the top spot on the rock-and-roll instrument chain, Total Devotion are making synth-pop music. It may not be the most fashionable thing in 1993, but the band, or rather, its mastermind, Rimas Campe, is completely committed to the genre. And why not? Campe, in many ways, fits the synth-popper profile. He admits he's had no formal musical education, but he's become proficient on keyboards and synthesizers. I wouldn't call him despondent, but his cheery, sometimes manic bearing can sometimes drift toward the dark side. And check the photo-he does, indeed, dress the part.

But there is a key difference between the likes of, say, Robert Smith and Rimas Campe, a major variation that can give a once-new wave a new energy, a new vitality. That difference is passion. What once was icy has begun to thaw in Campe's warm hands. And that is due to his total devotion to his work, his music, and his creation.

Initially, Total Devotion was a one-man production project. In the winter of 1991, Rimas Campe, a student at Towson State University, went to cover a Book of Love concert at Odell's, a now-defunct Baltimore nightspot, for the TSU Towerlight. Hanging out backstage, he got to chat with a member of Moderation, the opening act. And while watching the show, his life changed.

"I was just so amazed," Campe gushes. "These guys were my age and they were doing this! I was, like, wow--I can do this!"

At the time, Campe was saving money "for no reason in particular," and he used the cash to buy a keyboard. He'd always loved music, anyway-at TSU, he'd worked as a DJ for the campus radio station. And his talents in writing, audio production, and the like would serve him well. Initially, he used his new keyboard to noodle around with for fun, but after graduating (magna cum laude in Mass Communications) and finding a job in the public television field, he became even more serious about his hobby.

First, Campe had to learn how to sing. "My family is musical, but I just couldn't sing. It's just not me," he says. But never say die-after unsuccessfully trying to hire a singer for a band he'd hoped to start, he decided he'd take lessons and do it himself. The result: he claims to be much more confident with vocalizing. And from the listener's standpoint, his voice is quirky and unique-and trust me, that ain't a bad thing.

D.I.Y. seems to be Rimas' life philosophy. "I need to be in control of everything," he states in an agitated tone. "I can't stand having to depend on people too much. I like to be the main man, you know? I can't be the guy in the back behind the keyboards-I have to do everything."

And he does-singing, songwriting, programming and playing, recording, producing. And he seems to have become quite proficient over the past year or so. Still, Rimas is not an egomaniac, and he realizes that there is only so much that one man can do. That is why he performs live with two other players: Henry Heuscher, formerly of Moderation, helps out on keyboards while Rob Strickland plays electronic drums-actually, electric pads connected to a drum module programmed by Campe. "The members are there for image," he says, "for our performances, for music videos, and that's basically it. It just looks better [to see more than one person]."

Total Devotion's first performance was in January, 1993 at Club Heaven in Adams-Morgan, opening for Romania, another synth act. "As a regular show, it was okay," Rimas recalls. "As a first show, it was incredible!" He and his players have steadily built a following doing live gigs, primarily in the D.C.-area ever since. The shows, he says, get great reactions from audiences, but Campe believes the music is the key.

"In the early stages, it [went] through lots of stages," says the songwriter of his music. "You've got real light synth-pop happy songs that turn into a dark, industrial mad stage. It kind of fluctuated. An now, it's kind of in a phase where it's finally starting to develop a fingerprint. It's kind of brooding, kind of haunting, and atmospheric. The best stuff comes out of self-seclusion, or reaching out, or anger.

"People ask me what songs like "Flight 71" mean. "71" has no real significance; it just sounds neat," Rimas continues, his voice rising and quickening. "My fiancee-she was my girlfriend at the time-was leaving for school for four months. [The song's about] what it was doing to me and me leaving the airport. And the I started thinking about the destruction and then, well maybe this is a plane that I was on and I'm reminiscing about what happened. And then I start thinking-it's like drugs, it's an addiction-flying the friendly skies. There are just so many meanings that go out that I would never want to limit a song to one message. I like to let people read in what they want."

I told you he could be a bit manic, but he's very normal. But not mainstream. Accessible, yes, to a degree. Mainstream, never. Rimas Campe is a 24-year-old college graduate who's engaged to be married in January and still lives with his parents. "It's what I think is right," he says. He's very value-centered, but doesn't want to become preachy about his beliefs. He lives his life quietly and uses his music to express the dark side.

"It's a very personal thing," he says. "I can release my emotions, but people don't really know what's behind it. It's almost like a side diary of life; it's definitely an emotional tool. I used to write poems-now, I write music."

Why synth-pop in the '90s, though, when Depeche Mode have even gotten into the guitar thing? For Campe, synth music has been the only thing since college, when he discovered Thompson Twins, O.M.D., and Information Society (his favorite). "I don't know," he explains, "the music just started becoming more and more to me. And once I started writing this kind of music, I started becoming totally biased-if it's not synth, I don't want it.

"The most annoying thing is that people don't respect music that comes from keyboards. 'Oh, it's a machine, it's just programmed. That's not real talent; you have to play guitar.' That's so lame. I respect guitarists-what they do is more difficult, obviously. Still, it's very annoying. So, I've become biased towards synths."

Is it annoying that others of his age group are more likely to enjoy Nirvana or the classic rock of Zeppelin? "Listen to my voice--yes!" Indeed, Rimas' voice has taken on quite the edge. Let's move on to goals.

Campe's goals are to put out a CD. He'd like to be signed to a small label-considering his upcoming nuptials and moving expenses, he can't afford to finance a recording project on his own. Beyond that, "As long as I'm writing, recording, and getting a response from people, I'm happy," he states.

Wait a minute-what about fame? Money? Glamour? "If I were to become Howard Jones or Depeche Mode, I think I'd hate it. Fame sucks, it really does," he reasons. "There are more important things-my family, my marriage, security. Music is what I love to do, and to get recognition for it-that's great. It makes me happy, but I don't want to make it my life. When music becomes a job, your only income, it's no longer unique. I'm scared of that. [When it comes to fame], I'd probably like a little taste of it, but not a full-course meal."

Bet you'd never catch Robert Smith saying that.