Full disclosure: I’ve known the guys in Caveman for a long time. For a brief, glorious moment in 2010, the band’s drummer, Stefan Marolachakis, and I were bartenders together in the East Village. He quit bartending when Caveman started to take off (while sadly I did not). In the years since, I’ve had the pleasure of seeing the band grow from being one of NYC’s best-kept secrets to becoming one of the best bands in the city, period. Caveman’s moody first album, 2011’s CoCo Beware was initially self-released before eventually being snatched up by Fat Possum for re-release in early 2012. Brimming over with four-part harmonies, crystalline guitar lines, and tracks that see-sawed between echoey lullaby to shoegaze-by-way-of classic-FM-radio sprawl, the album was the perfect kind of slow build. This April they return with their self-titled sophomore album, a record that builds on the vibe of CoCo, and pushes it into even more grandly spaced-out directions. We’ve already had a taste of the record via “In The City” and “Over My Head,” but frontman Matthew Iwanusa sums up the cosmic ambitions of the record pretty nicely with the following: “I kept imagining a spaceship flying over the woods at night, all the lights bouncing through the trees. It seems silly, maybe, but I kept seeing that image when we working on the songs. It’s a cool thing to imagine — a sound that accompanies this big ship flying through the trees — this big, crazy light that just fills up the sky.” I conference-called Marolachakis and Iwanusa to discuss how the new record came to be.
STEREOGUM: Hello guys. Let’s start by talking about the last record, CoCo Beware, which came out in the fall of 2011. I know it probably felt like a slow build for you, but were you ultimately surprised by how much love that record received?
IWANUSA: We were really confident about that record, but it was really exciting when people started to really dig into it and say nice things about it. I really liked the record when we were finished with it, so I kind of just assumed that at least a few other people would be into it. Isn’t that how you are supposed to feel when you finish something? It just took a while for people to discover it.
STEREOGUM: You’ve all had the experience of playing in other bands that didn’t necessarily take off. Did you have the feeling pretty early on that Caveman was gonna be different?
MAROLACHAKIS: I had a feeling pretty early on. We had a really good chemistry from the outset. It just felt really special that the five of us just happened to cross paths at this one particular time. It was kind of like we were all dialed to the same frequency. For whatever reason, we were all at the place in our lives where we all wanted to produce this same kind of sound. It became during our very first practices, which I think is pretty rare. The vibe presented itself pretty quickly; we didn’t have to spend much time digging for it.
STEREOGUM: How did the songs on Caveman come together? Did you guys go away to write new material or had some of these songs been kicking around for a long time?
IWANUSA: It was a little all over the place. Some of these songs were written in the van while we were driving down to SXSW for the very first time, before the first record had even come out. Some of them were written in the studio. Occasionally we’d go to the studio to record something and it would end up getting bumped in favor of something that we’d write there on the spot. A few songs happened that way.
MAROLACHAKIS: There are a few songs that we were able to travel around with for a while, but some of it just happened really spontaneously. It was a nice mix, actually. It felt really good.
IWANUSA: When I look back at the first song that was written for this album I can see how the rest of the songs kind of fell in line somehow …
MAROLACHAKIS: We were all going through similar things in our personal lives — some of it the result of the first record, as well as the band finally starting to take on this life of its own. In some ways I can look at the songs on this record and see how they are kind of like variations on a theme.
STEREOGUM: That makes sense. The record is a nice mix of celebratory feelings and also a lot of melancholy ones. I wondered if it might be a case of “Hooray, our band is taking off … except now all of our relationships are crumbling to dust because we’re on tour all the time.” Or something.
IWANUSA: [Laughs] That sounds about right.
STEREOGUM: All that touring seems to have filtered nicely onto the new record. One of the great things about seeing you play live is how big the songs become — you guys really stretch out when you play live. It gets really loud and shoegazery and noisy. Did that carry over to the songs on Caveman as well?
IWANUSA: Oh totally. We basically played nonstop for two years, so we really wanted to translate that onto this record. We’d played some of these songs on the road — in a variety of different-sized rooms and venues — which is a great way to get a sense of how you actually want things to sound when you set about situating yourself in the studio.
MAROLACHAKIS: After playing together for so long you not only get a sense of what your strengths are as a band, but you also get inspired to explore a bunch of new sounds with these people … and I think that was what was on our minds going into the studio.
STEREOGUM: How long did you spend recording? You did the entire thing here in Brooklyn, right?
IWANUSA: Yeah. I think we spent about … five months? Most of it was done in this one-month chunk of time, then the rest was done in fits and starts … and then there were vocal overdubs and extra parts added. The mixing took a long time as well, but we were all there together in the room listening to it come together.
STEREOGUM: Have you been playing most of these songs live recently?
MAROLACHAKIS: We’ve been playing a handful of them, but I’m very excited to bust out all the other ones. We’ve been holding back.
STEREOGUM: Are you guys constantly being asked about being a specifically “New York City” kind of band … whatever that means?
IWANUSA: Yes, actually. People want to know if being from NYC has any bearing on the way people view us as a band — I don’t think it really does — or if we came from any particular kind of scene — which we really didn’t. I am proud to be from New York City though; I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being proud.
MAROLACHAKIS: We actually love talking about New York City. It’s our home. Both Matt and I have lived here our entire lives.
IWANUSA: We are way more influenced by each other — and our backgrounds — than any scene happening in New York. Between the five of us there is a very sizable age range. Jeff and Sam had very lengthy and interesting careers in music before any of us had ever met. Everybody brings their own interesting take on music to this group.
STEREOGUM: I’m always impressed by the veracity it takes to be in a successful band in this city, especially when there are five of you. When you have five people with day jobs trying to pay their rent in one of the most expensive cities in the world, just trying to find a time that you can call be together in the studio to practice at the same time can be a real feat.
MAROLACHAKIS: What’s funny about us is that we all kind of talk to each other all day almost every day. If something funny pops into one of our heads, it tends to get circulated within the group within a matter of minutes. We’re all just very very close friends now. Logistically it can be tricky sometimes, but generally speaking we’re always trying to find an excuse to play music together and/or hang out on pretty much a daily basis. Is that weird? It’s true, isn’t it Matt?
IWANUSA: It’s true. I feel very lucky.
MAROLACHAKIS: Me too. I feel very lucky to have these wonderful men in my life. [Laughs] I’m serious!
STEREOGUM: For a long time it really felt like Caveman was one of the NYC’s best-kept secrets. At what point did you feel like things really started to take off? What was the tipping point?
IWANUSA: When you have to quit your day job, that always feels like a good indicator that things are getting real. We put our record out ourselves initially, so it was hard to tell at first how much interest there was in what we were doing. I do remember that I was working the door at a bar where someone was throwing a record release party and I thought, “Maybe I shouldn’t be doing this anymore” … and that was kind of it. After that I focused on just doing the band and it just happened that things with the band started to really happen then.
MAROLACHAKIS: It was definitely in our heads from the beginning that the band would and should be our priority. That’s certainly not a guarantee that your band will indeed make it, but I think if you don’t approach it that way — especially in a place like New York — it’s sort of a guarantee that it won’t.
STEREOGUM: Now that the sophomore album is done — and there’s been a really nice reaction to the first couple of songs — is it easier to talk about it objectively? As exciting as the past two years have been for the band, I know it also comes as a kind of personal cost. Several of you were breaking up with loved ones while this record was being made. The record is equal parts beautiful and sad.
IWANUSA: It’s funny, I remember doing interviews for the first record and feeling really embarrassed to talk about where the songs were coming from and what they were about. Doing this record it really felt like we were just putting it all out there on the table and I felt more comfortable singing about the way I felt about things. I’m not sure if it would be obvious to anyone but us, but the earliest songs we wrote for the record were really kind of anxious and a little sad, and the ones we wrote toward the end were a lot more hopeful. It really reflected what was happening with us. In the end I think the vibe is much more positive — the songs are a lot more about possibility and the excitement of where life is about to take you.
STEREOGUM: So many times bands will have problems when it comes time to make a second album — whether be the whole “sophomore slump” thing or that they labor too hard to replicate whatever worked for them on their first record. I know the subject matter on this record is a little dark at times, but it sounds like you actually had a really good time making it.
IWANUSA: Oh yeah. We had the confidence of having made the first record and being happy with the results, so it just seemed like — rather than be anxious or freaked out, why not just go in and have a good time? We felt good about the songs we had.
MAROLACHAKIS: Plus, after all that time traveling, it’s just so refreshing to get back into the studio and to just be in one place … that also happened to be home. We were familiar with the studio and we were eager to get to work. The guys who run the studio are our friends, so there was a nice clubhouse feel to the whole thing. Plus, you learn so much about how your friends play after being on the road with them for two years … it helps you a lot when you go into the studio. Everyone adapts a kind of telepathy almost. Also, I’m a big believer in the sponge theory of living — you go out and allow yourself to soak up as much as you can, then occasionally you stop and squeeze yourself out. For us, the studio provided that.
IWANUSA: Nice one, Stefan. That pretty much sums it up.
Caveman’s self-titled sophomore album is out 4/2 on Fat Possum