Caracara Keep Getting Better
The Philly band on producer Will Yip, the opioid crisis, and their incredible new EP
When William Lindsay arrived at Drexel University in 2010, Philadelphia still lagged behind his hometown of Columbus as far as music scene credibility went. The Caracara frontman recalls a vibrant “pay-to-play” scene dominated by an early incarnation of Twenty One Pilots, “The coolest band that was crushing those 200-cap shows.” Metalcore and its mutant toxic spawn crabcore was also doing big business in Hot Topics and Houses of Blues across the country, and that still shocks him to this day, “The immediate question I got from everybody at that time was, ‘Oh, do you know Attack! Attack!?'”
Having seen the profoundly life-altering “Stick Stickly” video, I don’t blame them — and if you haven’t, please close this tab and take four minutes to do so before reading on. Of course, soon enough, Philadelphia’s reputation as an indie rock mecca advanced to the point where Lindsay would start seeing even his friends from a “northeastern liberal arts background [become] Philly crust punks.” Everyone seemed to be in six different bands if they could just manage to start their first: “There’s so many people that starting a new band is … man, who do we talk to?”
Fortunately for Lindsay, the formation of Caracara couldn’t have been easier. Bassist George Legatos was in the same freshman orientation group at Drexel and another friend connected Lindsay with his brother’s band, an experimental instrumental project named Square Peg Round Hole that included drummer Sean Gill and Rhodes player Carlos Pacheco-Perez, then students at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music. “I just loved their instincts and willingness to experiment with texture, which I think is overlooked, particularly in guitar based music,” Lindsay gushes.
The quartet kept in touch via email and once Gill and Pacheco-Perez moved to Philadelphia, Lindsay urged them to get in the same room immediately. “I have a voice memo from that first rehearsal of basically the instrumental for ‘Apotheosis’ in its entirety,” Lindsay states, referring to the the basement show ceiling-lifter at the center of 2017’s Summer Megalith, an album Caracara made before ever playing one show. “We basically started the band with the goal of, ‘we’re gonna make a record this summer, we’re gonna do it now.'”
Summer Megalith had a few newsworthy things going for it. It was produced by Drexel classmate and former Modern Baseball songwriter Jacob Ewald and released on Flower Girl, the label started by Sorority Noise’s Cameron Boucher. Their benefactors’ bands were good RIYL’s for the punchy, circumlocutory lead single “Crystalline,” and while Caracara described themselves as “distorted emotional music,” that’s just a clever sidestep of you-know-what. But as the band started to play Summer Megalith live, they found that the slower, more dynamic songs — like the smoldering opener “Evil” and the brassy, blustery codas of “Apotheosis” and “Oh Brother” — resonated more strongly with their audiences. “We realized not only what we love about playing together and playing live, but also what other people seem to be connecting with, are hand in hand.”
There was a lot of promise obscured by Summer Megalith’s harsh production, echoes of the National and the Antlers at their most unhinged. Caracara seemed like a band that just needed to have the right mentor or producer to give them a little bit of guidance to set them apart. In early 2018, Caracara were one of the few Philadelphia bands that hadn’t set foot in Will Yip’s Studio 4 in suburban Conshohocken, the crucible for just about every post-hardcore album of note in the past five years, including Pianos Become The Teeth’s Wait For Love.
Caracara make no secret of their reverence for Pianos Become The Teeth — the opening song on their debut album name-drops PBTT’s post-screamo 2011 release The Lack Long After. Though they hail from Baltimore, Pianos announced a record release show for Wait For Love at The Boot & Saddle and Lindsay noticed there was no supporting act billed. They reached out to Pianos’ manager Tim Zahodski, pleading their case as fans: “Here’s our record, we would not be a band if it was not for Pianos Become The Teeth. We’re coming to you in earnest, can we please play this?”
Caracara were billed as the opener and met Yip after the show, where conversation quickly shifted from mutual admiration to culinary one-upmanship. “Carlos and Sean were living in Chinatown and Will’s parents actually owned restaurants there when he was growing up,” Lindsay recalls. “And that evening ended [with Will saying] – ‘you kinda get Chinatown, but I gotta show you where the real shit’s at.'” Lindsay now sees that night as a work interview disguised as a group hang and remembers Zahodski and Yip citing their “untapped potential” and a desire to work on new material together.
The partnership was announced this December with a video for a remastered “Evil.” In the meantime, Caracara developed the songs for the audaciously anthemic Better, a three-song EP streaming below produced by Yip and released on his label, Memory Music. For all of the obvious leveling up, Better is the result of Lindsay digging up his Ohio roots and finding some unexpectedly toxic dirt. The title track was inspired by a reading of Sam Quinones’ Dreamland: The True Tale Of America’s Opioid Epidemic, named after an abandoned public pool in Portsmouth, the hometown of Lindsay’s father. Lindsay followed Big Pharma’s trail from the depressed mill towns of the Midwest to Kensington, a rapidly-gentrifying part of Philadelphia known for its bustling, open-air narcotics market. The New York Times quoted a local pastor calling it “the Walmart of heroin” in 2017.
Despite the abject despair of “Better” and its follow-up single “New Chemical Hades,” its lustrous, alt-rock production simultaneously inspires thoughts of, “These guys should be huge,” and, “I’m not sure how.” While Summer Megalith recalled a number of orchestral, brooding indie rock acts that are still enormously popular amongst casual listeners, those exact bands were in the process of being ushered out of the zeitgeist. Likewise, Stereogum’s Chris DeVille has lovingly likened these new songs to the National and Bon Iver and also Our Lady Peace and the Verve Pipe, whereas I hear Third Eye Blind in “Better.” Late-’90s pop-rock like this was often deceptively dark and preemptively nostalgic, many of these songs now serving as elegies for the false promise of the Fruitopian boom period. It’s basically classic rock to bands like Caracara.
The actual inspirations for Better are more credible; Lindsay cites the marathon burners of Deafheaven and the miniature bangers of Tierra Whack as equal influences. “Carlos showed us Whack World in the studio and we were like, ‘Holy shit, you can really make whatever you want,'” Lindsay remembers. “We can make it 10 minutes, or we can make it 60 seconds. Whatever we decide serves the song is OK.” Still, both the sound of Better and Lindsay’s ambitions to take Caracara beyond the confines of Philly’s DIY scene feel borne of an alt-rock striving that’s as welcome as it is anachronistic, mostly because it feels like a remnant of a booming music industry.
“I think that there’s always been an intersection between post-rock and hardcore, but what I’m not seeing as much as I want to see is that type of music but with a greater attention paid to sung vocals and lyrics,” Lindsay says. “I love bands like the National who have very forward vocals in the mix and bands that have no vocals in the mix, and I want an intersection there. I see that as our space. And there’s a lot of bands who dance around that but we wanna take it head on.”
Stream Caracara’s Better EP and read a Q&A with Lindsay below.
STEREOGUM: “Better” makes a very specific mention of “K&A,” which is both an infamous gang and the intersection of Kensington and Allegheny in Fishtown. What were you looking to get across with that reference?
WILL LINDSAY: What provoked this song was moving to this part of Philly, and to be totally honest with you, I did not fully understand the opioid epidemic or how rapidly changing the neighborhood was. More so than any other area I’ve ever lived in Philly, it’s very diverse and the lines of — to put it bluntly — gentrifier and those being displaced aren’t so clearly drawn. I try to be sensitive to issues of gentrification in Philly, and when I moved [to this area], The New York Times ran an article about the tent cities that exist under these overpasses several blocks away. I saw this devastation, and a friend of mine was doing this internship at Prevention Point, which is a needle exchange and place where people can detox and get clean injection sites. It’s an incredible non-profit doing important work in the neighborhood. What started me down the road where I could write “Better” is: I need to learn about this so I’m not just an infiltrator in this community. I want to be able to speak to my neighbors. I want to be respectful and show I do care about what’s going on here.
So I read this book Dreamland by Sam Quinones, and it walks you through the beginning of the pill mill outbreak in southern Ohio in the mid ’90s and traces Big Pharma’s influence spreading the idea that opioids are non-addictive. What was crazy to me is that my dad grew up in Portsmouth, Ohio, which is the town that Dreamland establishes was the first pill mecca — the book is named after an abandoned swimming pool in Portsmouth that my dad used to go to as a kid. I started talking to him about this and his upbringing and I learned a lot about him in the process and followed the lines in the book that as they come to Columbus. It took me through the mid-2000s as they start talking about suburban high school kids getting a hold of their parents’ prescriptions and kids getting prescribed opioids for their sports injuries. I remember kids cutting up lines of Vicodin at parties and at the time, I was just like every other kid — “a doctor prescribes it, how bad could it be?” Since I’ve moved away to Philly, I’ve had a couple friends I had lost touch with go to prison for selling black tar heroin, I’ve had a couple friends die of overdoses, and I didn’t see the connection there.
In the New York Times article, it talks about how there’s drug tourism and addicts will come here because of the product and never leave. I weirdly envisioned people I knew from my hometown who have now detoxed or died or gone to jail, I wonder if they could’ve made it here to the neighborhood I live in now on a whole different path. And I started envisioning what it might look like to see someone in my neighborhood that I knew. I’m extremely lucky in that I’ve never been prescribed something that could take me down this path and that I’ve never had the instinct to ask somebody for a pill because it was that close. It did feel that trivial at the time, and to this day, suburban kids are in this situation and they don’t realize it’s heroin in a pill.
STEREOGUM: It’s pretty brutal stuff given the triumphant build in the second half — did the lyrics dictate the need for a new direction in the song, or was the instrumental already in place?
LINDSAY: With us, it’s never so clear which comes first. I’m obsessed with narrative — lyrical or otherwise — and I don’t want to leave people stranded at the end of the second verse after having brought up stolen pills and the largest open air drug market in the United States. At the same time, I don’t know if this is a story I can put a happy cap on. We like that grandiosity, we like to build an arc with the music as much as the lyrics and in that moment, it felt as though … this sounds corny because we’re already talking about the intersection of two streets, but at the end of the second verse, there is a crossroads. Is this person too far gone and they don’t understand why anyone would be worried about them or why anyone would care? Where can we take this narrative? And we decided to make it explode — leave it ambiguous, but give this person an out. One of the reasons we were most excited about Marisa [Dabice of Mannequin Pussy] collaborating with us, having that second voice layered in there, it opens up the possibilities of what that bridge could mean. With the bigger ending, we wanted to open it up in that way.
STEREOGUM: This is why bands work with Will Yip, right?
LINDSAY: He’s an absolute powerhouse for real. I’m extremely proud of our debut and love every track, but songs like “Evil” and “Apotheosis” and “Oh Brother,” songs that can be lyrically dense but transform dynamically and get heavy and quiet — that’s what we like to do, and that’s what people seem to want from us. Not to say all our new stuff is like that, because it isn’t. But we love when bands can whisper and scream in the same song. I especially find myself appreciating that more in the era of playlsisting and being so concerned with algorithms — I love a band that will take you on a journey whether or not it’s the best commercial move.
STEREOGUM: Who are those bands in 2019?
LINDSAY: One of our biggest influences is Pianos Become The Teeth, we’ve made that pretty obvious. They’re a band we look up to in a lot of ways. But a lot of the bands we listen to are a bit towards the heavier side of things. We incessantly draw huge inspiration from Caspian and This Will Destroy You, particularly Carlos and Sean. I mentioned Deafheaven earlier, and a band that I’ve been really obsessing over recently is Brutus from Belgium. Really everyone but me listens to a ton of instrumental music. Dynamics are very important to me, but my bandmates will not allow a song through that couldn’t potentially stand alone as an instrumental piece.
STEREOGUM: Given how much critics continually stress that listeners, or mostly themselves, are shifting away from loud, dynamic guitar bands, have you wondered where the space is for Caracara?
LINDSAY: It’s not necessarily that we are trying to buck the algorithmic system. Maybe I’m old-school in this, I really respect when artists take the time to develop a larger work and the thing that’s really heartbreaking to me that we may be headed towards a world where most people get their music from putting on a 300-song playlist and just letting it ride. If that’s the way people want to consume music, I don’t criticize that. What makes me sad is that a band might say that, “If people consume music passively by listening to four hours of random songs, how do we get our songs with those songs?” If the algorithms want to pick us up, I’m all for it, but it just makes me sad to consider the fact that bands might be writing towards an algorithm rather than an audience.
STEREOGUM: I often get the sense from bands, particularly newer ones, that EPs aren’t given as much attention as a full album. So was there any temptation to save these for the follow-up to Summer Megalith?
LINDSAY: As much as I get frustrated with the new way that music is being consumed, I do also understand that there is also a voracious appetite for new stuff. Will’s a busy guy, he’s making like 15 incredible records a year. We wanted to take the earliest opportunity to get in the studio with him and get to work, almost to test proof of concept even though there was just a general suspicion between all of us that it was gonna go great. But it’s a terrifying prospect to go in and do an EP with someone where you’re not sure what the workflow’s gonna be like. We did Summer Megalith in seven days with a close friend, and we were so comfortable from the get go. And Will made us comfortable too, but we had never worked together and the studio is crazy. So we go into do the EP and all of our suspicions were correct.
Stereogum: Have you started working on the next album?
LINDSAY: Our main focus now after this EP comes out is getting on the road as much as possible. We’re still very proud of Summer Megalith, and it still has room to grow. And with the complement of the new stuff, we really feel like we can take this on the road and reach new listeners. We do have designs on getting in the studio as soon as we can, but we’re excited to push this 7″ and we are really excited to bring the songs of Summer Megalith to larger audiences that may not have come across it.
Better is out 3/29 digitally and 4/14 on vinyl via Memory Music.