Caves Caverns have been playing music around Richmond for several years now, and are very active in the local scene. Not only have they played over 100 shows in the past four years, the members all play in various other Richmond bands–Lost Tribe, Bermuda Triangles, and Tate House, among others. Their instrumental music is experimental and improvisational in nature, with tendencies towards heavy psychedelia. The band lineup mixes more standard instrumentation with instruments rarely seen in a conventional rock n’ roll setting, such as theremin and saxophone, plus lots and lots of percussion. The whole thing is fed through a ton of effects and then taken as far out as possible, especially during their wild, unpredictable live performances. Caves Caverns have released a variety of limited-edition cassettes over the course of their existence, the latest of which is the brand new Science And Sorcery, a three-song, 19-minute cassette that is also available for download, along with most of their previous releases, at their website, cavescaverns.com. Drummer Mike Raftery supplied detailed answers to my questions. Read on:
How long have you guys been playing together? What inspired you to do such a loosely structured musical project?
We all met in 2004. The next year, JRuss [Josh Russell, bass/theremin/saxophone] and I were living together above Aladdin’s in the apartment that used to be the GWAR World Domination Headquarters (aka the Slave Pit), and we played music together there quite a bit. Just going for it, being really weird and loud with all the windows open so that we’d torture that part of Broad Street. We did a bunch of different bedroom projects during this time, most of them quite disjointed, but all of them bearing different unfortunate monikers (Superhuman Wastoid, Stay High Moses, Doob Splice to name a few). We never played shows or anything because we felt (I think correctly) that it would have been pointless.
In 2007, we played music in [guitarist] JK’s efficiency apartment pretty much non-stop for an entire year at all hours of the day and night. I think the cops came twice, but I wasn’t ever present for that. At one point he had an entire wall of this little room stacked floor-to-ceiling with amplifiers, had two full drum sets in there. It was great. During this time, we started to psychically bond as a unit, and we started to wonder if we could hack it enough to play out. So we [gave] CD-Rs of our shit to our friends, played it for them when they would come by, and a couple of folks whose opinions we really respected nudged us to get off of our asses and start contributing.
Caves Caverns started as a thing we’d do as a two-piece when Josh was busy. It was JK playing bass and me playing drums. We had actually just started getting one song together (“Breathing Cave”) when we got asked to come along on this Human Smoke tour that May. We didn’t have any money, or any songs or anything yet, really, we just piled all of our gear and drugs into a Ford Taurus station wagon and went out on the road for ten days. We wound up managing to play like five shows. One of them sucked, the others were great. That summer, we played at Nara Sushi a lot–once a week on average, sometimes twice. We’d jump on shows when bands would flake (which is a lot more than you’d think). Pretty soon after that Josh started playing theremin with us, and we started recording the stuff that would later end up comprising our first hour-long cassette.
In Summer 2009 we asked Tony Lynch to join the band because he’d been driving us on tour, and truthfully was basically already in the band because he’d seen every show we’d ever played in town. We’ve been a four-piece since. In the last year or so we’ve expanded into asking other people to join us for different shows–we’ve had Dylan Languell and Jenny Moon Tucker from Twilight Memories of the Three Suns join us on saxophone on different nights to great effect, and we’ll probably pursue more stuff like that in the future.
As far as our approach to structure goes, I guess the best way to explain it is that as we started to circle around the idea, we started to have these conversations, you know, “What are we going to sound like? What are we going to do?” We had all been around music long enough to be at a point where we could hear a band and take the pieces apart in our head and identify what we liked [and] what we didn’t. I think that a lot of people have this discussion when they’re playing together or just starting to play together–it’s like, “Can we sound like [Hawkwind’s 1973 live album] Space Ritual? But we also want to sound like The Antique Blacks.” The reality is that it’s very difficult to consciously sit and blend the things you consider to be “your influences” together into something that you want others to appreciate, without the whole thing seeming contrived. If you’re perpetually seizing upon these little golden moments that happen on their own, trying to weave a whole bunch of them together, refine them for others’ consumption, isn’t there something lost in translation?
We started by refusing to put constraints on ourselves like, “We need to sound like [x],” or “this part sounds like [y] after this bridge, which goes like this…” We didn’t want to be in a band that comes out and plays the same set every night. We wanted to destroy a lot of the notions that we had about being in a band that we felt were negative or disingenuous, and just do whatever we wanted instead. Art is supposed to be about absolute freedom, without compromise. Choosing to put such an emphasis on improvisation in our music from square one gave us precisely that. We can, and often do, play multiple nights a week in Richmond, to different crowds, to support different acts, and it works out great. There have been nights where we have played two sets in Richmond in two different places and they sounded completely different from one another. Variety is key.
What is the ratio of composition to spontaneous improvisation in your songs? What is your songwriting process like?
The ratio of composition to improvisation in our songs is probably about 15% composition to 85% improvisation. When we get together to play, we typically set up, play through a few things we’ve been doing in our live set at the time, then we’ll try to move on to just total improvisation for a while, take a break, [and] do it over again. We write new material very, very slowly.
Typically someone will bring in a part, we’ll talk about it, play a few times, and go from there. When we’re approaching something from a more organized standpoint, we often pursue stuff like a jazz combo, with like an “A” part and a “B” part, trading solos and rhythm breaks. [This] plays a lot into [the times] when we try to do the opposite–we lash the entire piece to a single riff which acts as the head, then circle around it, relying on psychic cues and eye contact, often attempting to just play as insanely as possible to force each other to work harder for new results. There’s an enormous amount of trust between everybody, to maintain a certain level of energy, to make everything work. And if it doesn’t come together in that moment, we trust each other to create a way out, to bring everything back around again. We really, really don’t like to overstay our welcome.
You’ve released some limited edition cassettes and CD-Rs but nothing that could really be considered a proper album. Has this been a conscious choice? How important do you consider the process of documenting your sound to be?
We record ourselves a lot. We rarely consciously do a second take that sounds like the first. Many of our early recordings weren’t just one take, but in fact the first time we ever played those songs that way. It’s excellent to be able to pick and choose how to represent your sound to people instead of having to put all of your energy into, “OK, this is our ONE SHOT at doing this, we’re paying for this recording time.” Our first cassette was comprised of recordings from over an entire year’s time. Self-recording and releasing turns this kind of stuff into more of a curative process, which is great. That’s not to say it can’t be frustrating when it comes time to decide what to include, of course. We did three or four wildly different versions of Communique, the cassette we did in 2010 for our trip to SXSW, before we were finished with it.
We’ve been very lucky to have been recorded live frequently by diligent archivists all over–Silver Persinger, who does an amazing job of covering live music in town, has done a bunch of recordings and videos of us that are awesome. When we go to DC we often wind up being recorded by Steve Sanford, who’s a total genius. I could go on–there are people in towns all over who obsessively record every band they see, it’s great.
We have, up until this point, consciously avoided putting out a traditional LP for a couple of reasons, the first being that we haven’t felt until recently that we have a set of material that we’d like to press on wax and have sitting around on whoever’s shelf for eternity. Almost nothing sucks worse than feeling let down and ripped off by a record, or feeling like a band is “better live.” We’ve had a couple of people extend the offer to do a single or an LP, and we’re going to be working on one this fall and winter, but we want it to be right.
To that end, the second, more concrete reason we’ve not done an album or a single is money. We’re not a band that has a lot of resources–every single thing we do, we do on our own dime. Cassette is a great format for this reason–it’s cost-effective, you can do all the art and stuff yourself without breaking the bank, and best of all, you can sell it to people for cheap. Which is part of how we feel things ought to be, really–it sucks to go to a show, really dig on a band, want to support someone’s art further, then realize you’ve spent the $12 the guy wants for his LP on beer or your power bill or whatever. Tapes are cheap, you can ask people for what they feel they ought to give, get your gas money to make it to the next show, and feel good about the transaction on both sides. Somebody can come to one of our shows and get a t-shirt and whatever music we have for less than $10.
Despite your somewhat unusual style, the Richmond music scene seems quite receptive to what you do. Do you find that to be true when you go on tour as well? In your experience, how much of a national scene is there for experimental psychedelic music?
We’re very fortunate to live in Richmond, which is a place that’s always been very accepting of the exceptionally weird. We feel very grateful towards the weird bands that came long before us to make it that way, for sure. I would argue that historically, what we do is not unusual for Richmond. We play shows with metal bands, punk bands, in the last year or so we’ve been doing stuff with a lot of noise acts, but there’s a lot of variety, and that’s what we strive for. We’re too fucked up for the straight-up rockers, but too rock’n’roll for the contemplative popsters. [However,] we still get to do a lot of stuff because there are good people here who just happen to have blasted their creative consciousness to the same point we have. They wanna fucking boogie with us for thirty minutes or whatever, and we wanna give that to ’em. There are so many amazing, open-minded folks in this town, there really isn’t anything else like it.
We have had nothing but the most positive experiences on the road. When we went out last November with Bermuda Triangles, we had some scheduling issues that forced us to go out as a two-piece again, and it was still outrageous. Every single night of that tour, even on a couple of nights when the shows themselves were rather bleak, things ultimately turned out great. We had a blast, met good people, passed our music on to ’em, slept on a couple of floors. What else can you ask for? I think a lot of what you get from tour is what you put into it. It’s not always pretty or comfortable to be on tour, sometimes it actually fucking sucks, but that’s not what you should be looking to get out of it. You gotta pay your dues. On our last trip out, which was just a week up and down the East Coast, we played some of the best shows we’ve ever done and actually made money every single night, which has never happened to us before. Granted, by the end of the tour the “money” I “made” wound up amounting to about $15, but what more can you really ask for?
So, no, I don’t think that there’s necessarily more of a national scene for this kind of music, I just think that we live in a time where if you are willing to really go for it and work your ass off, you can do everything yourself. You can go out there and get it. You don’t have to have a booking agent, or a manager, or any of that shit. That’s not to say it won’t help you to do that, but if you’re willing to put the legwork in, you can be free, and tour the country, and show up at a dive bar in every little podunk town with a grip of stoked strangers waiting. You don’t have to compromise, or act like a minor-league internet suit.
As fucked up as the times we live in are, and acknowledging that things are far from perfect, I really feel that DIY has won against “The Music Industry,” or whatever. You don’t need to think of things in these terms like, “Will we have a draw in Baton Rouge?” “How can we ‘brand’ and ‘promote’ ourselves?” You just need to find the freaks in Baton Rouge, connect the dots so you can show up on time, and go for it. It doesn’t matter what kind of music it is, you just have to do it and mean it.
What’s coming up in the future for Caves Caverns?
Well, we’ve been on a bit of a break over the summer. But this fall we’re going to start gearing up to do a record, as I mentioned previously. We’ll probably put out a tape or two before then, in support of a couple of short trips out. We’d like to go to the Midwest and start working our way cross-country, do a couple of little building block trips so we can do a solid national tour this coming year in support of the LP.
Our first show back this fall is actually on the second day of RVA Music Fest. It’s on September 11th, it’s at Strange Matter with The Men (Brooklyn, NY; they’re on Sacred Bones, real excellent noise-punk kinda stuff) and Flechette (local upstanding brothers with a fresh new LP). It starts at 10PM and costs $5. Other than that, we just made an actual website for ourselves so that we don’t keep getting spam e-mails from DJ KING ASSASSIN CRAIG NITTY through Myspace. It’s www.cavescaverns.com. You can get all of our tapes to date on there in MP3 format, and prank call us on the phone, too.