Progress Report: The Cave Singers
Seattle’s Cave Singers have been releasing excellent records since way back in 2007 when they let loose with Invitation Songs. Over the course of two more albums — 2009’s Welcome Joy and 2011’s No Witch — the band perfected their own specific take on pastoral folk music. It’s the kind of music made to soundtrack road trips that end with everyone swimming in a pond or trying to put together a tent while simultaneously laughing and smoking a joint. For their fourth full-length — the easy, breezy Naomi — the band enlisted Phil Ek to give their signature twang just the slightest bit of polish. Not too much, though. It still sounds like music being played on a back porch by a bunch of mellow punks … just through better speakers. I called frontman Pete Quirk to find out more about how the record came to be.
STEREOGUM: Are you currently weathering that weird limbo period between when something is done and when it actually comes out?
QUIRK: Yeah, you can’t really go out and play any more because you already toured on the last record enough. We recorded the new one last August … and the first tour for that will be in March, which is a long time since we actually recorded it. But I think that once the touring schedule starts with that, I’ll be like, “Man that was nice when I had all that time off. Remember what that was like?”
STEREOGUM: What do you usually do with your time off — are you working on other music?
QUIRK: I don’t know … I’m always doing something. Lately I’ve been trying to do active stuff more — like go hang out outdoors and stuff — just because we live in Seattle and there’s so much of that nearby. So I’ve just been going on hikes … but I do like writing songs at home just for fun. There’s a bunch of different things I do to keep busy — I do meditation stuff and yoga stuff.
STEREOGUM: Those are good things to do before tour, which is the opposite of that kind of living. Not much meditation and yoga in the tour van.
QUIRK: I know … and then lose my mind.
STEREOGUM: Did you guys tour a ton on the back of No Witch?
QUIRK: I wouldn’t say a ton, but we were busy. We definitely got to go to more places. We ended up going overseas a few more times and stuff like that. It was awesome. It was a busy two years after that record came out.
STEREOGUM: How does it usually work for you guys? Does everybody take time off and sort of get away from each other for a while before you start working on new stuff? How does the division of labor — song-writing wise — break down with the band?
QUIRK: We’re all pretty tight friends — I mean we see each other a lot and hang out. I’ll go on a run and be like, “Hey Morgan, do you want to come?” We’re always writing music together, but not with any sort of intention other than it’s still fun to do. It’s part of our social interaction, but that being said, this is the first time we haven’t been working on an album, because we just finished that one. I would say this album that we just made was the longest process of writing, recording, and then figuring out what the art’s going to look like and all that. So all that stuff — producing what the record aesthetically and physically is going to be like — took a while. So that was fun too. That was September or October.
STEREOGUM: You worked with Phil Ek on this record, right?
STEREOGUM: Before you started recording, did you have all the songs pretty much mapped out?
STEREOGUM: How was it working with him?
QUIRK: It was great. It was really awesome. We know Phil from just around Seattle, because I’ve been here for a long enough time and Derek’s been here longer than that, staying with Marty and Morgan. So we know Phil as a friend. Derek’s recorded with him before. The weirder thing is thinking that this is our fourth record. It’s crazy — like we’re making four records? How old are we? Aren’t people tired of us, man?
STEREOGUM: Every band is different and has their own way of thinking about what they do, but did you not think this project would go for that long? Are you surprised?
QUIRK: I just never thought about it. Playing a show at the Sunset Tavern with a hundred people was like, “whoa, this is going to be crazy!” That was our first show, so anything that happened after that was a surprise. I’m super thankful. I’m super psyched on it. To record with Phil, we just had time a good time. We took a long time writing, we added Morgan on bass sort of halfway through the writing process. We didn’t feel like there was any pressure or anything. We always feel like we can write whatever we want, but I wanted to have everything finished before we went into the studio — instead of like finishing songs in the studio. It works out better if you have as much as you can done before you go in there.
STEREOGUM: I would imagine that then you can spend your time making the songs sound better as opposed to figuring out the songs.
QUIRK: Exactly. We could figure the songs out — we’d practice in Derek’s basement at his house and it was pretty much free. There was no reason to be in the studio for that. And Phil is sort of a mastermind technically, so if you have everything mapped out and done, it just all works so well together. Given his technical know-how and his engineering skills, if you have the songs, it all just works really quickly.
STEREOGUM: Was it a different way, recording-wise, that you’d worked in the past?
STEREOGUM: Like, more pro?
QUIRK: (laughs) Yeah, more pro. I feel like being like, “yeah more pro” sounds like we’re going for something or that that’s like a bad thing, like he’s yelling at us or blowing a coach whistle. I think it was just like, “We’re proud of these songs, we worked hard on these songs, and they’re finished. We want to make them sound as best they can within the context of how we think we should sound.”
STEREOGUM: That role the producer can play also varies wildly from band to band, and different producers are way different. But I think the best producers ideally understand what your vibe is and just try to make it sound better. It’s not about trying to make you do something you don’t want to do.
QUIRK: Yeah. I mean I never felt that way with Phil or anything. I just felt like he was trying to accentuate what makes us who we are musically. For me … you know, I play guitar a little bit, but I’m also singing a lot. I’ve never recorded vocals that way where I’m just trying to sing really well and actually sing on-key all the time. And at the time it’s just a little bit grueling. But you’re trying to make something great, so it shouldn’t necessarily be easy. It should be hard work. It’s what I’ve realized. Before I’d be like, “ok that sounds pretty good, let’s go eat this weed brownie.” And then I’d come back and be like “oh this shit sounds amazing!” But with Phil, it was a really rewarding experience. And it was “pro,” but Cave Singers’ version of pro.
STEREOGUM: I’ve had the new record for a while, and the one thing that struck me with a few listens, is that the vibe of the record seems a little lighter. The songs don’t seem as dark to me — not that the last one was super dark. I wonder if that was just my interpretation or if that seemed like an accurate takeaway.
QUIRK: Oh sweet. I feel like there’s sort of two sides of the coin to this record. One is just darker times — like you are waiting for something to happen, maybe a change or something like that. And then there’s more of a revelation — for me anyways — of coming to peace.
STEREOGUM: I could see that.
QUIRK: That could be a little too heavy-handed. They’re also just lighter songs. No Witch was just real fucking crazy people, so that was just darker times. I think we wrote it in the winter, so it was dark, and we were just doing whatever. And we wrote Naomi in the spring and recorded it in the summer. It’s dark in its own way because there are some dark songs, but there are also lighter songs, and some redemption songs, and some stuck-in-a-rut songs.
STEREOGUM: Where did the title come from? Who is Naomi?
QUIRK: Naomi is … we were trying to come up with names and I just came up with Naomi. I started just thinking of Naomi as a sort of fictional muse or something, because the songs are about certain things — but they’re an amalgam of many experiences. So it’s not just about one person. Is there a name for everyone, everything? And I just thought, “Man, Naomi. That’s a good name for a boat, or the girl who’s a waitress at the diner who you’ll never see again, or God.” It’s just a personification of different aspects of the record.
STEREOGUM: It’s also a beautiful name.
QUIRK: It’s just a good ass name.
STEREOGUM: I also love the album art, the whole packaging of the record. Who made that — where does that painting come from?
QUIRK: That is … fuck I can’t remember his name right now. I would really love to plug his name, so maybe before we get off the phone I’ll let you know his name. He’s actually a professor of art at the Carnegie Mellon, and I just found the art online. By just googling weird images, and one of his paintings came up and I found him. But I think the art looks really cool, and I think Naomi is a nice word. It just sounds nice when you say it.
STEREOGUM: It’s also a biblical name, though I can’t remember exactly what Naomi’s story was.
QUIRK: Yeah, she’s a small player in there. Oh that guy’s name is Clayton Merrell. He did the painting.
STEREOGUM: You guys will be touring as a four-piece this time. How does that change the dynamic of playing together, and playing the old songs?
QUIRK: It’s cool. It changes it a lot, because Morgan plays bass. He also plays flute. So some of the old songs have been with us for a while, but they’re changed a little bit. I mean they’re still the same song, but they have a new outlook. I don’t know, it’s exciting. They’re a little more dancey for playing them live. Morgan’s a really great addition to the band, and getting in the van with him is fun … he’s really funny.
STEREOGUM: That’s so important. It’s the real litmus test for every band. Can you be in a car with this person for many hours and not want to kill them …
QUIRK: Like, “You’re a pretty sweet bass player but let’s get you in a car for eight hours … ” But he’s been touring forever. We just played a bunch of shows, just sort of around the Pacific Northwest, and we played some over shows in the summer, a few festivals with Morgan. It’s awesome. It turned out that he was available and that he’s just the perfect fit, and now we’re playing shows and it just seems like the path that we should be on. He was also incredibly insightful during the recording process with different ideas, different flute things, and all different types of shit.
The Cave Singers’ new album, Naomi, is out 3/5 via Jagjaguwar.
[Photo by Kyle Johnson]