Simplicity isn’t as easy as it looks. For two records and an EP, Vetiver’s Andy Cabic has been crafting sweet, organic songs that feel as natural as sunshine ... and as unpremeditated. “[Vetiver’s music] is easily just summed up as being natural and obvious,” Cabic admitted recently in a recent phone intervew from LA, where he and Devendra Banhart are recording with Juana Molina. “It may seem very simple at first but there’s a strife to that simplicity that is worked hard on.” His newest album, out now on DiCristina, is a case in point. Recorded in several sessions with nearly a dozen guest musicians, its surface is as calm and welcoming as country-flavored folk can be, but percolates with half-hidden textures and sounds.
Vetiver started in San Francisco when Cabic, newly arrived from North Carolina, found himself with an acoustic guitar, time on his hands and limited musical contacts. Formerly a rock guitarist, he began writing acoustic songs more out of necessity than anything else, but found his music taking on an interestingly traditional cast. As he met more musicians—violinist Jim Gaylord and cellist Allissa Anderson at first—he explored haunting string-based folk melodies that floated on a current of overtones. He connected with Devendra Banhart, then a little known folk eccentric, shared a house with the singer and began writing music with him. Vetiver’s first, self-titled album was lovely, atmospheric and evocative, produced by the Pernice Brothers’ Thom Monahan, and with cameos from Banhart, Joanna Newsom, Hope Sandoval and Colm Ciosoig.
As positive reviews trickled in and Vetiver embarked on a year-long tour supporting Banhart, the band seemed destined to become a footnote in the psych folk story, known mostly for its connections with better recognized acts. Yet slowly, helped by a radiantly beautiful series of concerts with Banhart and Newsome, many in churches and other alternate spaces, Vetiver began to carve out its own space. “With the first record, the response really didn’t pick up until a year or a year and a half after it came out,” said Cabic. “I think there’s something the trajectory that I’m involved with or the music I’m writing. It takes a while.”
During a busy couple of years, Cabic toured with Vetiver and as a member of Banhart’s Hairy Fairy backup band. Cabic said he had trouble writing new material while on the road. “You know, you have designs to go back to wherever you’re staying that night after the day’s events to work on things, but by that point, you’re pretty exhausted,” he said. And even the down time on a tour tends to be too short, uncomfortable, and chaotic to get much songwriting done. “It’s downtime in a van. You’re sitting on a seat with two people next to you. You can’t really hold a guitar,” said Cabic.
As a result, much of the new album—as well as 2005’s interim EP Between—was written, at least partially, before the incessant touring began. “I’m always kind of writing, but I’m not always finishing songs,” Cabic said. “Songs are in half awake half asleep periods and I just try to bring the songs back up and try to work on them some more. So, a lot of the songs on To Find Me Gone were as old as the ones on the first album. They just weren’t finished up yet.”
Vetiver / Devendra Banhart - Down at El Rio [Live at Vegoose 2005]
Three of the songs on To Find Me Gone made earlier appearance on the EP Between, a recod that Cabic explained was put together to support a tour in England. “The decree came down that I needed to have something to sell,” he admitted. “I wouldn’t have put that out otherwise, really. It’s just home recordings and loose live stuff that I had on hand at the time.” The EP’s version of “Maureen”, for instance, was recorded the first time the song was played live, while “Been So Long” was an early four-track recording. Both songs get fuller, richer treatments on the full-length album, which was recorded in several sessions in the spring and fall of 2005.
Tracking started in May last year, as Cabic invited friends and musical acquaintances to stop by whenever they were near Monahan’s LA studio. His core band included Kevin Barker from Currituck County—that’s him in the single-noted feedback freakout of “Red Lantern Girls”—and Otto Hauser from Espers on drums. Others such as Banhart, Noah Georgeson, Dave Scher, and Allissa Anderson dropped by, too. By the time Cabic left for a summer Hairy Fairy Tour, some of the songs were massively tracked, allowing nearly endless possibilities in the mixing process.
“A lot of the decisions about how the songs wound up were a result of playfulness in mixing and tracking,” said Cabic. In particular, “Been So Long” and “You May Be Blue” had been recorded in many different ways by different players. “We had tracked enough that the possibilities were open,” said Cabic. “When it came time to mix, we made some surprising decisions and that’s how the songs shaped up from there.”
For instance, Cabic said, “You May Be Blue” could have been a jam-band blow-out, since it had more musicians playing on it than any other song on the record. “By the time we started in, we pulled up the tracks for that song, and we were just like, ‘Whoa, we’ve got a lot to deal with here,’” Cabic recalled. There were two separate drumbeats from Hauser, three different guitar tracks from Banhart, and slide guitar from both Noah Georgeson and Nathan Shinywater of Brightblack Morning Light. The challenge was to incorporate as much as possible without undermining the song’s lovely simplicity.
After a summer’s worth of playing the song on the road, Cabic said he had a clear picture of how he wanted it to sound. During the mixing process, balance came through careful filtering, where parts would emerge briefly, then fade back. “With the slide guitar playing, Noah and Nathan just kind of sit in two different realms, and they each come up a little bit and fade away,” said Cabic. “Dev’s guitar is really only hinted at. And with the drums, we cut all the way back to a kick drum, and built on that.” The result is a song that’s dark and brooding—and far more complex than casual listeners will pick up on.
Indeed, all the songs on To Find Me Gone gain warmth and resonance on repeated play, starting out merely pretty and becoming, over time, meaningful and moving. The problem is that the album takes a few weeks to worm its way in, time that most writers and music industry people can’t or won’t spend on a record. Cabic said he thinks about how his slow-building music will fare among critics all the time. “I imagine most critics or reviewers or writers, due to the nature of their job, they don’t really get a chance to really sit with the record very long. They might listen to it once or maybe twice before they have to write what they write.”
“I think about the amount of time I spent making this record, and that it does wind up getting a critique from someone who can only listen to it once or has other considerations going on in their lives. I think about that sometimes. But I’m not in any hurry,” he said. “My music takes time to sink in.”
A live Vetiver show, all warm tones and reverberating overtones, can be a good way to hasten the process. Cabic will be touring the US starting in July with a mostly new band, Sanders Trip on guitar, Brett Dunn on bass, Allissa Anderson on cello, and Otto Hauser on drums. (Violinist Jim Gaylord left the band to get a master’s degree and pursue painting full time in New York City.) You can find complete dates at myspace.com/vetiverse.
Vetiver / Devendra Banhart - You May Be Blue [Live at Bonnaroo 2006]