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Notes From the Underground 

The Cave-ins' indie rock debut sounds mighty familiar -- but in a good way

Wednesday, Jan 30 2002
Rock 'n' roll is an art form that is practically bred on larceny. Elvis Presley stole from country and R&B artists, the Beatles swiped from Little Richard and Carl Perkins, nearly everyone nicked from the Beatles. Even first-generation punk acts, which swore allegiance to no one, pillaged from their musical forefathers. (Hell, the Ramones covered "Surfin' Bird" and recorded with Phil Spector.) In the past decade, this borrowing has reached new levels, thanks in part to the influence of hip hop, Beck's cross-genre pollinations, and the availability of sampling equipment. Today, the music world is the No. 1 place where everything old is new again.

Which brings us to the Cave-ins' lovely debut album, Gridfarce by Lamplight, released this week on Sacramento's Omnibus Records. At first listen, the oddly named LP may sound familiar, with hints of the Kinks' sunny folk period, the Velvet Underground's quieter experimental side, and the Beach Boys' intricate orchestrations. But upon further investigation, you will notice jazz guitar picking, woozy keyboard sounds, old-timey colorings, and vocal harmonies that unfurl like smoke from a cigarette. Over multiple listens, the Cave-ins' obvious influences fall away, leaving you with a record that feels like a slow-motion pile-up, in which the songs of the past collide to make something new.

The Outer Sunset apartment of Matt Popieluch and Luke Top, the Cave-ins' singers/songwriters/guitarists/organists, looks pretty much like you'd expect from hearing Gridfarce by Lamplight. There's a weather-beaten piano covered with well-thumbed books against one wall, with an equally ancient guitar lying at its side. On another wall, there's an ad for Peter Tosh's Legalize It, beneath which rests a thrashed drum set. Videotapes and records lie everywhere, and an old Buffalo Springfield album plays on the stereo. The only relatively new things in the room are an eight-track recorder that sits in a corner like a shrine, a cell phone on which Top joins the interview from Los Angeles, and Popieluch, who, despite his green wool blazer and bottle of Tott's champagne, appears far younger than his 22 years.

Popieluch and Top first met in an elevator at San Francisco State in late 1998. Since both freshmen lived in the dorms, they began borrowing each other's records, swapping Popieluch's blues and roots albums for Top's indie rock releases. Before long, they started playing together -- in the naturally reverby dorm stairwell.

"We both had our own songs: Matt's were mostly acoustic with percussion and mine were more noisy and dependent on keyboards, textures, and had a more modern feel," Top, 21, says on the cell phone. "The result was a slow, harmony-laced combination of songs that just kind of innocently lurked out through the doldrums of college life."

"We'd sing two different songs at the same time," Popieluch says. "Luke would sing about suicide rates and I would sing about canneries, over two very distinct guitar sounds. We'd just throw words and melodies out into the air until they made a baffling version of Cave-ins sense."

Those early collaborations were very quiet and slow, which caused initial problems for bassist Rob Williams, 24, who joined the band in early 1999 after Popieluch and Top caught his other group, Delta Song, a self-described "fast and cerebral" rock band. "Rob had trouble concentrating [with us] at first," Popieluch laughs. "He went from playing 100 notes a song to four."

The Cave-ins played two shows on campus in the winter of 1999. The opening band at one of the gigs, Bellwether, just happened to include Omnibus honcho Mark Kaiser and drummer Scott Eberhard, 23, who was a friend of Williams. When the band members decided to add a drummer, they gave Eberhard an audition.

"I remember hearing them play with him for the first time and thinking how much better it was," Williams says. "Before drums, they were very long, slow, simple-but-soothing songs. The drums just added another whole dimension to it -- it had more energy, more potential."

In May 2000, the Cave-ins debuted with a 7-inch co-release by Omnibus and Visalian Records (run by fellow SFSU student Matt Johnson). The tune "Buildings and Flags" is a good example of the band's early songwriting style, featuring two vocals that intersect, diverge, and then intersect again. But "Know That You Will" is the keeper, a chameleonlike gem that starts with gently picked jazz chords and a warbly vocal and then kicks into a '60s British beat and the chorus from the Ronettes' "Be My Baby."

Out of school for the summer, the boys set up a cross-country tour, with less than exceptional results. "We had 20 shows booked all over the U.S. and we only played three," Williams says, shaking his head.

The first show was canceled due to problems with the papers for the band's newly purchased van, which the previous owner had accidentally switched with another vehicle's. The subsequent gigs in Portland and Seattle proved miserable -- both in attendance and performance -- but the biggest disaster occurred after the Denver show. When the group was driving out of town, seven cop cars surrounded the van, with the police leveling their weapons at the confused musicians. Popieluch, Top, and Eberhard were handcuffed and carted away, while Williams, who was in a different car, tried to catch up. Popieluch spent the night in jail, attempting to explain that the van's registration confusion was responsible for the supposed grand theft auto. By the time the bandmates got the van back, several other gigs had passed, and they decided to scrap the rest.

When they returned, Williams moved down to Modesto, which made practicing difficult. And when he did come north, he would be greeted with a wealth of new material. "Every time I'd come up to practice, there'd be a new tape of songs to learn," Williams says. Popieluch and Top were obsessive music listeners: They'd discover artists such as Neil Young, John Cale, Os Mutantes, and Royal Trux, and then listen to nothing else, writing bushels of tunes in reverence of those acts. Having moved in together, they developed a more traditional collaborative style, constructing songs by adding verses to each other's choruses. To make matters more symbiotic, they developed the habit of finishing each other's sentences, speaking in their own elliptical language.

"They wear each other's clothes too," says Jason Quever, 26, who joined the band on organ and vocals in July 2001. "It's very cute."

"We share things we probably shouldn't, like socks and deodorant," Popieluch says.

That shared trust came in handy during the recording of Gridfarce by Lamplight. With Popieluch heading off for a semester abroad in Italy in February 2001, he had to lay down his vocals and instrumental parts and then leave Top to finish the tracks.

Thanks to Top and producer Mark Sanchez, the resulting album is a stunner. More than just time travel through the musical past, the record reconfigures old styles for a new age. While jazz guitarists like Charlie Christian and Johnny Smith influence midnight ballads such as "Masterpiece on the Docks" and "General's Daughters" and the shadows of Lou Reed and Brian Wilson loom over much of the singing, the group's intricate harmonies and dynamic instrumentation stake their own territory. Also, the duo's habit of combining disparate fragments leads the songs through unexpected twists and turns. "Timeshares" begins with a plaintive banjo quote and creepy, creaking noises, then slips into a melody from the Kinks' "Sunny Afternoon" and an upbeat call to "have some fun." "Mystic Mayo," constructed out of a Top riff and the bridges of two Popieluch songs, places chugging Modern Lovers-esque guitar next to softly droning organ and propulsive handclaps and tops it off with cooing vocals. "General's Daughters" mixes ambling guitar parts and spacey organ with a spoken VU-ish section about cops and doughnuts. The use of instruments such as banjo, kazoo, and xylophone adds an old-timey touch to the music, tilting it off its rock axis.

The Cave-ins' lyrics are also oddly juxtaposed, containing both nonsensical rejoinders ("By the way you forgot your mail/ Your message box is never full of ideas") and philosophical questioning ("If I fell in love would I be faking?"). Numbers like "The Undertaker" move easily between dark thoughts and rousing choruses, without seeming flippant or disjointed.

"It's rare to have such witty and catchy lyrics without coming across as corny or silly," Omnibus' Kaiser writes via e-mail.

"We don't write them down before we sing them," Top says about the lyrics. "Sometimes it's easier to be expressive like that."

"We're trying to make sense of all the things you don't consciously think about all of the time," Popieluch says.

Since the recording of Gridfarce, the songwriters have built up a huge backlog of material. An L.A. label called Kittridge Records is putting out some of Top's songs under the moniker Luke Top & the Immigrants, while Popieluch hopes to release a split record of his and Top's solo material in the near future. The pair also play their tunes with sometime Cave-ins organist Lewis Pesacov in a country offshoot called the Disparity Shacks and serve as backup for Jason Quever's other band, the Papercuts.

As the interview winds down, the topic of the Beachwood Sparks and the Shins, two groups that borrow liberally from the same pool of influences as the Cave-ins do, comes up.

Quever shakes his head. "The Beachwood Sparks are like the opposite of us. If people want more honest songs, they'll like the Cave-ins. The Beachwood Sparks are more polished."

As if on cue, a bag of pretzels falls off the table, spilling its contents in a surprisingly pretty pattern. "That's the Cave-ins right there," Popieluch says.

About The Author

Dan Strachota


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