NOT FREAKY, NOT FOLKY Vetiver

Fronted by Andy Cabic, the San Francisco band makes pop music, period.
Any questions?

 

BY JENNIFER KELLY

 

“When a critic calls Vetiver a leading freak folk
band, that, to me, immediately marks them as not knowing what they’re talking
about,” says Andy Cabic, the band’s singer and songwriter. Yes, it’s true that
Cabic once lived in the same house as Devendra Banhart, that the two sometimes
wrote songs together and that Banhart sang on the first Vetiver album. It is
also a fact that Cabics’ band was included on the genre-defining compilation Golden Apples of the Sun and played on a
2004 tour with Banhart and Joanna Newsom that was memorialized in Kevin
Barker’s documentary The Family Jams.

 

And yet, there is nothing remotely folky about
Cabic’s fifth and best album, The Errant
Charm
, a landmark of understated, electronically-enhanced pop
Adds Cabic, “I’ve never really thought of us as a folk band and I never
really felt any affinity for the tag freak folk, either. “

 

Cabic founded Vetiver shortly after moving to San
Francisco in the early ‘00s. The band’s self-titled debut, released in 2004 on
DiCristina, certainly had some folk elements – prominent banjo, cello and viola
parts, for one thing and the presence of both Banhart and Newsom for another. Yet
by the second album, To Find Me Gone,
more standard rock instrumentation began to make clear that Vetiver was, in no
way an Americana outfit. Two covers albums linked Cabic’s art to a raft of
1960s and 1970s singers, some well-known, others obscure, and Tight Knit in 2009 further reinforced
the lucid pop purity that Vetiver had long tended towards. This year’s The Errant Charm (Sub Pop) continues the
trend towards extremely well-made and polished, yet laid-back pop songs. The
primary influence this time, says Cabic, was the Go-Betweens.

 

“I’m a big fan of 16 Lovers Lane,” he confesses. That
album made a big impression on me as I was doing this record. It had a bright,
trebly clarity that I wanted… with more chords on the guitar and more
keyboards.

 

“I also loved the writing, the melodies and how
succinct they were on that record in particular, but through all their
material.”

 

To realize this sound, Cabic
worked with Thom Monahan, who has produced all five of his albums as Vetiver.
The two met when a friend passed Monahan an early Vetiver demo. “I had just
moved to NYC and I drove around listening to these four songs over and over,”
said Monahan. “I called Andy up kind of out of the blue just to tell him how
much I loved the music and we found out as you do from time to time that we had
more connections than we realized. Both in terms of friends and appreciation of
certain records. Andy is still the only person I know that is into some of the
most loved but less travelled valleys of my record collection.”

 

Together Cabic and Monahan have
honed a sound that they jokingly call “Vetiverb,” or as Monahan explains
it “a warmth and low mid frequency thing that we both really search for.” But
for this album the process was slightly different. Both Tight Knit and To Find Me
Gone
were recorded more or less live with a full band right from the
beginning. But for the Errant Charm,
they started more modestly, just the two of them, and Cabic wasn’t even sure he
had enough material for an album

 

“I had two or three, maybe even four songs. I
didn’t have the feeling that I had a record,” Cabic admits. Still, once in the
studio, the two of them began playing around with the tunes that Cabic had,
scrapping some and creating others from scratch. After a week or two, an album
started taking shape.

 

Because Cabic and Monahan began without a band, the
earliest tracks were recorded with just a drum machine. “That gave us something
to keep time with as we were building the songs,” Cabic says, “but it also
allowed us to shape the drum sound any way we wanted. A lot of times when we had
the drum machine, we would play it through a speaker and re-mic it to allow it
to occupy a certain space.”

 

Cabic found himself liking the drum machine sound
and wanting to keep it even after Vetiver drummer Otto Hauser became available.
Many of the songs on The Errant Charm have both programmed drums and live ones.

 

“Hard to Break,” for instance, layers a full-band
sound over the skeleton that Cabic and Monahan had created. “That’s the oldest
song on the record. That’s the one that we have been playing live for the
longest time,” says Cabic. “But before we went to record in New Jersey, we set
up a P.A. and played all the demos through the PA and played along to them. So
everyone could get the tempos set and we could make sure the parts were
working.”

 

The demo, though, was quite different from the live
version, adding a slight bossa nova lilt to what had been a more
straightforward drum-kit rhythm. “So, we changed the beat a little bit, about
two days before we tracked the song. I was really happy with how it turned out.
It’s an example of how the live drums accommodate the drum machine.”

 

Perhaps because of its studio
origins, The Errant Charm also makes
extensive use of keyboards, including a Roland Juno, a Hammond organ and a Moog
and a stack of old synthesizers.

 

“Andy and I have been doing
remixes under the name Neighbors off and on for a few years now and there’s a
Juno 106 at my place that always seems to come alive when Andy plays it,”
Monahan says. “I do a lot of programming at my place so the synths are full of
sounds when you sit down and Andy just takes them further and coaxes sounds out
of that Juno that kind of take me by surprise. He’s a fiendishly great synth
player.”

 

He adds, “My room is set up with
different stations so I have a spot with a Mini Moog and a few other things and
Andy plays the Juno, and Arp Quadra and sometimes my Rhodes… it sort of always
seems to start from there.”

 

It’s more the amount of synths than their presence
that distinguishes The Errant Charm,
Monahan explains. “There have been synths on every record since the first in
one way or another and we both dig a lot of electronic music so it’s an easy
transition between worlds for both of us. And we managed to use EVERY hardware
synth in the studio on the new record. Maybe the biggest change is the amount
of synth bass that shows up, and the drone elements are much more prominent.”

 

For instance, you can hear three or four different
kinds of keyboards in “Can’t You Tell,” one of the album’s breeziest tracks,
which borrows a drum beat from Canadian alterna-rockers Len’s 1970s-inspired
chestnut “Steal My Sunshine.”  Sara
Versprille plays many of these keyboards and sings. The remainder of the band
includes Bob Parins on pedal steel and bass, Daniel Hindman and Otto Hauser on
drums.   

 

The Errant Charm is an exceptionally pretty album,
quite possibly the best in Cabic’s five album string of winners. The songwriter
himself seems very pleased with how the tunes came out. “Having not begun it
like I usually did, feeling like I had a record, I didn’t know that it would
all fit in together,” he says. “But now that it’s done, I like that there’s a
little bit of everything in it. There are some of the poppiest songs that I’ve
done so far. I like that there’s more jangle and there’s a sunnier feel. That’s
sort of where I’m at right now. That’s what I like to listen to, so I’m just
happy that I was able to have that find its way in my songs.”

 

Yet you can divine a little bit of frustration in
the lyrics to “Faint Praise,” a quasi title track near the end (it contains the
phrase “the errant charm”) that picks at the scabs of cult songwriter-hood. “Don’t
let their smiles bring you down/faint praise is all they have found/for you
now…” he murmurs in his clear, quiet voice, and you can almost hear him bracing
for a lukewarm reaction.

 

“The world likes to be lifted up. They like a
rousing chorus and an anthem,” he says, when the conversation turns to a
certain music board that has never had much good to say about Vetiver. “I like
to write songs that I think I’m going to want to play and not get tired of them
for a long time. Whatever it takes to get noticed in those circles…I don’t
worry about that. I just try to write songs that have some depth and subtlety.”

 

[Photo Credit: Alissa Anderson]

 

 

 

 

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