Andy Cabic of Vetiver on songwriting and Michael Hurley
Andy Cabic of Vetiver (due tonight at The Bluebird Theater) started out in more rock-oriented bands when he was a college student in North Carolina in the 1990s, rubbing shoulders with some of the great underground bands of the era, as will be outlined below.
Touring in support of Vetiver's fifth album, The Errant Charm, Cabic and his band mates are making the kind of dreamy, experimental pop music many artists strive for but rarely pull off with the kind of grace and quiet beauty present in all the album's songs. Around ten years ago, Cabic relocated to San Francisco where he fell in with a widening circle of artists that came to include friends and future collaborators in Devendra Banhart, Joanna Newsom and Hope Sandoval. We spoke with the thoughtful, observant and engaging Cabic on a Sunday about his history, the aesthetics of his songwriting and Michael Hurley.
Westword: What got you started playing rock music and what was the social and cultural environment like for you and The Raymond Brake?
Andy Cabic: I had just graduated from high school and went to college. It was sort of moving to a different state and meeting people there and finding people who had more closely aligned musical interests with me than where I grew up. I had a band in high school but it wasn't much of a thing. Here, I wrote songs that got a better reaction from friends. Through our bass player we were starting to play with bands that were trying like Small 23 and Archers of Loaf.
At that time period, it was one of the high points of the North Carolina music scene. You had Superchunk, Archers, Polvo, Erectus Monotone and a lot of Greensboro bands like Geezer Lake and bands no one probably recalls now that were really influential to me at the time and inspiring.
How did you get hooked up with Simple Machines?
When I went back home after the summer of my freshman year in North Carolina, I just kind of called up Simple Machines and Teenbeat and offered to intern there. So I helped them for a summer putting together Working Holiday [series of] seven inches. At that point, Unrest was just releasing what would be Perfect Teeth. So I helped to put together the boxed set and Barbara Manning seven inches and Blastoff Country Style stuff. Drove Mark Robinson to the post office and things like that.
I went back to school that year and The Raymond Brake ended up getting a show opening for Tsunami at The Cat's Cradle. I don't know that they remembered that I'd interned for them but they really liked our band and offered to release something so we just kept in contact.
So you worked with Jenny Toomey?
A lot of people try to play a different version of the same kind of music when they start a new project. What was your impetus for kind of making a clean break with the kind of music you'd been playing in North Carolina?
I didn't have an electric guitar because I had been in a car accident and the one that I had was destroyed. What I had was an acoustic guitar given to me as a parting gift from a friend. I was learning how to play that, how to finger pick. So a lot of the first album's worth of songs I wrote when I had a lot of time to myself in San Francisco on a new sort of instrument.
Around the same time I was doing a project called Tussle, which was two friends of mine from North Carolina who had moved out here to go to school. That was a similar situation because I was playing bass in that group, which I had never played before. Everyone was playing instruments they really hadn't played much before. It was mostly due to switching tack and trying to develop some kind of vocabulary for the instrument.
Why did you move to San Francisco and in what ways was it what you were hoping and expecting it to be and in what ways was it very different?
I moved here because friends who had moved here from North Carolina had and empty room. So I had a room waiting for me that was going to be really cheap. It was a room in a closet under the stairs. It was just big enough for a mattress. So it made the rent comparable to the really cheap rent in North Carolina. Things had pretty much run their course there.
I was a big fan of the band Thinking Fellers Union and I think I thought that was going to be happening out here. A lot of Thinking Fellers Union, like, post-Royal Trux, you know, Residents-Chrome residue and things like that. Thinker Fellers Union were kind of trailing off at that point. I think I saw one show in the first year I moved here. It sort of seemed like the city was in between scenes. There wasn't quite anything I tapped into. I played for a few years with people and not really finding my bearings until I developed enough songs on my own. And Tussle started to play more and I met Devendra Banhart and found someone that I could perform my songs live with and things started to go from there.
San Francisco has a reputation for being a very expensive place to live. How did you manage to survive there when you first arrived and how do you get by now? Assuming music hasn't exactly made you affluent.
I worked at Kinko's in North Carolina and you can transfer to another branch, so that's what I did. I transferred to a branch here on Van Ness. I worked there for the first few months. But the branch was horribly run and I quit by Christmas time because they weren't going to let me take time off to see my family and I was like, "I'm not really asking you for time off, I'm telling you I'm taking time off" and just left. Then I was unemployed for a while but I was DJ-ing. I started doing a DJ night every Monday at a bar called El Rio in the mission. Then I found a job at a used bookstore as a buyer. It was a great place to work because I got into contact with so many interesting people in the city.
That's where I first met Devendra and other people that I would collaborate and work with including my girlfriend of ten years. So between my meager income as a bookstore employee and DJ-ing, that's pretty much how I got by for years. And my rent wasn't much because I was in an apartment with quite a few people. I've lived on the opposite side of town for a while now with my girlfriend. Our rent isn't crazy expensive by city standards. The money I make with Vetiver covers that. I hadn't expected that. I'm a pretty frugal, moderate person expense-wise. I never had a ton of money and I don't live a lavish life that requires a lot of money.
How did you come to work with Devendra Banhart on music?
His girlfriend at the time was an ex-girlfriend of my roommate's and a friend. So I was working at Aardvark Books one day and she came in with him and introduced us. She went out of town a week later and Devendra came by the store without her and introduced himself again and invited me to go see a movie, he was working at the Castro Theater at the time. I went and saw a movie and went back to his place and he played me some of his songs and I did the same and the friendship struck up from there. We were hanging out all the time and playing music pretty regularly.
Eventually, he was playing by himself and playing with me and he did more traveling to Paris and L.A. and there he was discovered by Michael Gira's partner and they moved to New York and everything else followed. He was going to the Art Institute at the time, where my roommates were going, so I spent a lot of time hanging around that school with those people.
When he came to Denver on early tours hardly anyone knew who he was and he'd play tiny clubs.
Yeah, yeah. He probably came there with Guy Blakeslee from Entrance Band. He set up a tour with him, Xiu Xiu, a long term he did with them as well early on. Did you take the name Vetiver from that species of plant and is there any special significance to choosing that name for your band?
I took it from the scent, which comes from the plant, and it was something that a co-worker of mine at that same bookstore used to wear that I loved. It kind of hit my nose around the same time I needed a name for the project. I liked the shape of the word, I liked that it put me near The Velvet Underground in the bins and over time it has proven, to me, an apt name and the qualities of essence aren't dissimilar to how you might describe my music in a fitting way.
In what way would you say that is?
Oh, kind of soothing, comforting, maybe, you know, rooted. Natural.
Tussle are your friends and former roommates. In playing bass for that band did they give you any guidance and what do you think you learn from your role in that band?
I learned collaborative vocabularies, like how to work with other people. Those are my friends but we argued all the time too. So I think it showed the freedom I had in Vetiver to do whatever I wanted. It made me learn, early on, that Vetiver was collaborative but in the end I make the decisions. I think that viewpoint came from Tussle in the sense that I was not going to do another project where I can't be the final arbiter of what happens.
Musically, they're pretty different. Tussle is all about grooves and danciness. But they're both similar in that they both work with minimalism--doing as much as you could with what little you had. That was the impetus behind both projects. And letting chance and accidents inform the songwriting process.
What do you think Colm Ó Cíosóig (from My Bloody Valentine) brought to the recording you did with him?
He and Hope Sandoval were living together so they brought a space that we recorded in. We recorded at their house. He had lots of great pre-amps, microphones and gear that Thom [Monahan] used in the process. So he physically provided some of the tools we used to make the record. They were working on the Warm Inventions record at the time so he was in a similar headspace of sorts in terms of minimalism and ambiance and sound.
The way he had to play for Vetiver he was tracking to guitars, which were already done. He was playing with mallets really subtly. He may have been using his hands on the kit. He's a really encouraging force. He's a sweetheart. It was such a mind melter to even have him and Hope involved because I was such a big fan of their music. It made me think I was doing something right to even have that happening. I felt very fortunate and grateful.
Your music is often referred to as folk. Do you feel this to be an accurate descriptor even considering the electronic elements in the music?
I think that's just one part of it. I think you have to go song by song. Even from the very first record, "chamber pop" or "folk elements," that came close to it and I was comfortable with that. But I think at the time you had a handful of musicians using acoustic instruments, or even more than a handful, and sort of reviving a singer-songwriter/solo performance thing. And you had groups doing something more free and noisy and communal but still made with acoustic instruments.
So you had a preponderance of this sort of freak folk or "new folk" genre tag. Timing and location pulled me into that and, of course, working with Devendra, and that still lingers and people still look at Wikipedia entries I haven't written and whatever else and regurgitating the same sort of thing. I definitely love folk music and listen to it but I also listen to techno and electronic music and even more of that for a while lately. But I don't want to say I'm not one thing or all one thing. I just want to do what I do and see what happens.
Yeah, sometimes people just use term like that to describe music to others so they might want to check out something that might be familiar to them.
Yeah, totally, I know. Then they listen and go, "Wow, that's not what I thought it was going to be." Sometimes that's good and sometimes that's bad. That happens quite a bit with us and people think we're going to be one thing and we're not quite that.
The Errant Charm sounds like it could be the title of a novel. What's the significance of the title and did you approach writing the lyrics for this album in a way that could be compared to the way one might write a novel or a short story collection of interrelated pieces?
No, I didn't. They came last after I had the shapes of the songs I put together. And they were just kind of written per song. I use a method of free association, assonance, consonance, alliteration, vowel sounds to come up with lines in words and I might just get one phrase that seems to be at the core of a song and elaborate from that. Or one idea that seems to tie the thing together and go from there.
"The Errant Charm" is just a line from the song "Faint Praise" and it seems to have a quality that seemed multifarious and could take on many meanings, which I liked, and it seemed to describe the difference record this had compared to others. I like the physics connotations. In working with Matt Russell on the cover art, when he came back with the ideas, it seemed to fit the title.
When you talk about physics, you mean the subatomic particle, right?
For Discollective you said that Michael Hurley is your favorite living songwriter. I've been lucky enough to see him a couple of times in really intimate spaces. Why is he your favorite living songwriter?
Because he does what he wants to do and he has created his own world in song. He has some repeating characters. He seems to visualize it with his drawings somehow. His sense of rhythm is really unique. He's always hinting at extra bars or shortening the lengths of things. He plays his songs the way he wants to and they just change as he plays them. I think he has a great take on the world and he lives his life in a modest but proud and right on way. I don't know.
He's a really cool guy and he does all the things that are hard to do in songwriting really well. He has a unique voice. He writes songs that are funny, which is really hard to do. And also sad. He can do it all. And he's done it all just for joy of it. I don't think he even made money from music until the '80s or something.
How would you describe his take on the world?
He sees the wonder of situations. He likes things that work well -- old things that are built to last. I don't know that I know his view of the world but I've hung around with him enough times to appreciate his sense of humor and his style. I just saw him play last weekend in Portland and he has a great band pulled together called The Croakers that he's been playing with on Wednesdays at the Laurelhurst in Portland and it's great to see him play with guitar, bass and drums because it's not common. Vetiver w/Fruit Bats and Fairchildren, 7 p.m., Thursday, September 22, Bluebird Theater, 303-377-1666, $15, 16+
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