Andy Cabic of Vetiver Chats

Posted by Miss Ess, May 18, 2008 10:30am | Post a Comment
San Francisco band Vetiver's latest album, consisting entirely of hand-selected covers, Thing of the Past, will be released today, May 6! I spoke to frontman Andy Cabic about the recording of the album, the frustration of his first guitar, and his new obsession with the mushrooms in his backyard.

Miss Ess: What is your first musical memory?

Andy Cabic: I have an odd memory of a large sunlit room with light hardwood floors, very reflective and bright, and a there being a step in front of me, and as I'm crawling towards it, Buddy Holly's "That'll Be The Day" is playing. I grew up listening to a lot of Buddy Holly and the Everly Brothers and stuff like that,'s possible this was an early apartment of my parents’ or something, I'm not really sure. It's one of those weird memories that feels like a dream and I'm not really certain of anything solid about it except for its strength in my mind and how vivid the light and the scene are when I remember it.
ME: What was the first record that really blew your mind and made you think about making music your life?  What albums formed your young musical mind?

AC: Well, I don't know that any one record made me come to a decision to make music my life. I just sort of played music, and looked back one day and realized music had become my life and there wasn't a whole lot else I seemed able to do. Whoops!

Growing up, the public library near my father's house was very good. I used to visit it every weekend I spent with him and check out cassettes, as many as I could, and a lot of what I found there had a big influence on me. VU by the Velvet Underground and At Yankee Stadium by NRBQ are two albums I remember renewing for months from the library. I grew up in the suburbs with no older siblings, pretty out-of-the-loop from any signposts pointing the way towards what "the good stuff" was, so...I would spend all my allowance on cassettes, read Star Hits magazine and Tower Records' Pulse, watch 120 Minutes every Sunday on MTV and just figure out stuff through trial and error. I loved anything out of Athens, GA and Minneapolis, and bands like Rain Parade, Camper Van Beethoven, Big Star and Fugazi meant a lot to me growing up.

When did you pick up your first instrument?

I talked my mother into getting me a Martin Stinger, sort of their bottom-of-the-line copy of a Stratocaster, when I was about 16. I took some piano lessons before that, but I hated practicing and that didn't last too long. I remember the salesman at the guitar store pulling down the guitar and plugging it in and laying this line on me, "See kid, this guitar can do anything! Say you want to sound like Prince...," and he switched to the neck pickup and played and sounded just like Prince, "or maybe Bruce Springsteen," and he switched to the bridge pickup and played just like the Boss. Thoroughly impressed, I told my mom, "See!? This guitar can do it ALL!" Then I took it home and couldn't get it to do anything but make half-assed plunky sounds and barely coherent chords for years. I’m still having trouble, and I don't even have that guitar anymore!

You grew up in Virginia. What brought you to SF and what keeps you here when we all know the major difficulties in coming up with rent, practice space, etc?

I came here because friends had an apartment with a room the size of a mattress that I lived in for around $150 for the first year or so I was out here. I've managed to somehow maintain an apartment with reasonable rent all the while. I love all my friends out here, the Pacific light, the low blanched, pastel buildings, Golden Gate park, everything about the city, really. I seem to travel a lot, and never fail to be relieved, excited and grateful to return here after every trip. I haven't had a practice space since my early days playing with Tussle. Vetiver usually just plays at low volume in our living room before most tours and I work out stuff on my own, quietly at home.

Vetiver has been an important band on the SF scene for the last at least 5 years. What do you think of the SF scene right now and how do you think it's changed over the time that you have been here?

Well, I feel a little more aloof and slightly more disconnected than I've been in years past at the moment, partially because I live in a neighborhood in the city at a slight remove from where stuff happens, and partially because I'm gone a lot. Most of the groups I go out to see have friends of mine in them, but they're all kicking ass right now. The Oh Sees, Deerhoof, Kelley Stoltz, Citay, Papercuts, Colossal Yes, Tussle, Erase Errata. Most of the people I've known since I arrived here are still active and making good music, so...that's pretty inspiring.

Your new album is all covers and I'm excited about it because I have always admired your discerning cover choices. How do you narrow it down and select covers, especially when you are creating a full album of them? What is it about the songs that appealed to you?

Thanks. I just thought these were great tunes that deserved a chance to be heard again and would be fun to play. We recorded about twenty songs and the ones that came out best made the album. Most of the songs are either ones we've played out live a few times or ones that we dug and I thought we could connect with in a good way. I have a penchant for finding older, somewhat forgotten albums, and falling deeply for a song or two on them. I’ve done that over and over in my life, and some of those songs appear here. 

So I remember reading that for your last album one of your sonic influences was Fleetwood Mac.  Who or what influenced the particular sound of this new album? It's especially interesting because you are taking other people's songs and putting your own stamp on them, while also creating a cohesive record.

I think the main influences on the album are the versions of the songs and the styles of the performers whose tunes we were trying to record, really. The sound of this album has a lot to do with the studio we tracked in (The Hanger in Sacramento), the fact that this is the first Vetiver album where all the basic tracks were recorded live, and the interesting collision that happens when your band has a tendency to sound one way, yet you strive to do justice to someone else's song and embody their sound in your performance. It's one of the reasons playing covers can be transformative and greater somehow than the sum of the parts. You work to find some space where your own style and the style of the song you are recording meet. Whether that place is familiar or new to what you are used to, the results can be pleasantly surprising and lead to unexpected musical insights.

What made you decide to record the album in Sacramento and LA? Was it the equipment in the studios? Friends nearby?

The Hanger is where Thom and I had mixed To Find Me Gone.  Everyone there is amazing, the gear is great, and it's a familiar place with a lot of space to try things out. Although Thom and I have worked on many projects there, this was the first album he had both tracked and mixed there from start to finish and that was something we had talked about doing with this album.

I see that Michael Hurley and Vashti Bunyan contributed to the new album. I know they are great friends of yours, so how was it working with them on your own project? What kind of experiences did they bring to the table that you learned from?

Well, I was honored they shared their time with us.  Hurley stayed at the house we had up in Sacramento for nearly the whole session, waiting for a part to arrive for his car and just generally hanging out and spicing up some of the takes. He is a fun person and one of my all-time favorite songwriters, and it was wonderful getting to know him better and just to be around him more. He has an intuitive approach to harmony that seems easy, but is really very nuanced and can be hard to follow. He keeps you on your toes. 

Vashti happened to be in LA for much of last summer, staying not very far from where Thom lives, so she came over one afternoon and sang on a song we had sung together when we toured a year or two back. She has one of my favorite smiles and laughs, not to mention voices, and it was a treat to be able to record a song with her and finally bring her over to Thom's.  Worlds colliding. I'm a quiet singer used to singing backing vocals, but fitting my voice inside hers was a challenge and a treat.

So you and Thom Monahan produced the record -- what was the philosophy behind the production work, if any?

I don't think we've ever really sketched out a philosophy. Thom is one of my closest friends and we communicate really well together. We are usually after the same result and have a very easy-going way of getting there. I consider him an integral part of any Vetiver album and I look forward to every time we get to work together.

It's very interesting how bunches of amazing music will crop up in particular places at particular times in history. What musical time and place do you wish you had lived in? Like, I wish I was in Bearsville in the late 60s, or Marin County in the early and mid 70s sometimes. Is there a musical moment and place you ever wistfully wish to have been a part of? Or at least a fly on the wall of?

Those two musical moments are favorites of mine, to be sure. New York city in the mid-70s would seem to be another fertile time and place.

You were kind enough to DJ here at Amoeba a few months back. When you are DJing, what song or series of songs is your "secret weapon"-- guaranteed to get people out on the dance floor or to bring the party up a notch?

Yikes! I’m not sure...the one-two punch of Norman Greenbaum's "Spirit In The Sky" and Bowie's "Sound And Vision" usually does the trick, but perhaps that says more about what me and my friends consider danceable. 

You've turned me on to all kinds of different music in the past. What have you been listening to lately?

I’ve been revisiting Unrest's Imperial FFRR album, which was a favorite of mine in the 90s. Sonoko's La Debutante has been on repeat a lot lately, along with the new album from Sebastien Tellier. Sadistic Mika Band, Sopwith Camel, and when in doubt...always Skeeter Davis!

I know you are into electronic music. What album or artist would you recommend to someone who is typically more into organic, melodic music?

Perhaps Sakura or Symbol by Susumu Yokota. I am a big fan of his work. Or Wearemonster by Isolée, if they want to ramp it up a bit. That's a great album.

You are a big fan of vinyl. What is it about the format that makes it your favorite?

I like vinyl because used records are usually cheap. I love the large cover art. I also like the time limit it imposes. I like getting up every fifteen minutes to flip a record over or make a new decision about what to listen to and put the kettle on.  The stereo you see on the cover of Thing Of The Past is the one I use at home and it makes my vinyl sound great.

What has been your best find at Amoeba?

Mmm...good question! Well, I've found every single Virginia Astley album in the dollar bin there. I don't know if that's objectively a "best find," but I love her stuff. My old roommate Ben Grass has the best Amoeba luck. He found and gave me my copy of Acnalbasac Noom by Slapp Happy that he got at Amoeba SF for my birthday. What a guy! Thanks again, Ben.

Who is your favorite local band?

The Grateful Dead.

You've traveled the world touring. Any favorite cities or venues to play? 

Zürich and Amsterdam are two of my favorite cities. The Great American here in SF is one of my favorite venues to play.

Name a record that you love more than anything and that you think more people should know about.

How I Learned To Write Backwards by The Aislers Set. Amy Linton writes such amazing songs. I can't wait to hear what she does next.

What song or album makes you pissed off every time you hear it cause it's so fabulous you wish you had written it?

Pissed off? Oh, I wouldn't get pissed off about that kind of thing. I envy Jerry Jeff Walker's voice on his self-titled album from 1972. When he sings all relaxed and low it is a truly great sound.  

How did this latest tour with Gary Louris go? What is it like to be playing a set of your own and then becoming part of the backing band for the other portion of the night? What are the particular challenges and benefits of it?

The tour was a lot of fun. Gary is a very talented songwriter and a great guitar player.  Backing him up on the harmonies to old Jayhawks tunes like "I'd Run Away" and "Blue" was not something I'd ever imagined getting the chance to do, was a thrill.  Playing twice a night was actually kind of great. I’ve done that before playing in Devendra's band and having Vetiver open up the night. As long as you're in good health and your voice is holding up, you are usually pretty warmed up after the first set and are just relaxed and ready to keep playing for a little while more. I've always enjoyed playing with other people, singing harmony and sharing the stage, so to speak, was a great time.

Is there a particular album that was written or created in the Bay Area that you feel captures the distinct sound of our home? It can be old or new. [My choice is, of course, If I Could Only Remember My Name.]

That is a good choice. Right now, I've been captivated by Miss Abrams & The Strawberry Point Fourth Grade Class by Rita Abrams. I think it may have been recorded at Wally Heider's around the same time If I Could Only Remember My Name was. That album sounds like the bay breeze drifting through a playground.

You’re right—thanks to you, I’ve heard that record and when I hear it I can smell the tanbark and hear the bounce of a ball! You worked in a book store for a while before you became a full-time musician.  What novels have inspired you and helped shape the way you look at your own song writing and/or music?

Charles Portis is an author I revere. Mario de Andrade's Macunaima, Miguel Asturias' Mulata, and Jaime de Angulo's Indians In Overalls are all favorites. Robert Walser, James Purdy, John Berryman, Robert Creeley, Paul & Jane Bowles and Mikhail Bulgakov are all fantastic.

Alissa told me that you have recently become obsessed with mushrooms. I know that you are into gardening in general, but what got you into mushroom hunting and have you gotten out there yet and found any? What kinds? What do you cook with them?

Well, I went to the fungus fair in Oakland last fall, which was a lot of fun. I am not a member of the mycological society around here, and my mushroom hunting skills are next to nonexistent. We did find some Pink Spikes in our back yard, but they didn't taste too good, and that was after we dried them, which I had read was the best approach to cooking them. I want to join the society so I can hunt in the company of more experienced gatherers and travel to some of the good spots in the area for mushrooms. I just haven't found the time yet.

Thanks so much for your time right now! 

Relevant Tags

Andy Cabic (6), Vetiver (19), Interview (341), Thing Of The Past (1), Vashti Bunyan (7), Michael Hurley (9)