"Emphasize That New Beginning": An Interview with Young Man
His second album was called Vol. 1. He's retiring the Young Man moniker given that he's getting older. Yet songwriting wunderkid Colin Caulfield is more than such simple plays on words: he's a DIY bedroom composer who is finishing his last album as Young Man, and tells PopMatters all about it.
If having a long career in music is in your long term plans, naming your project Young Man may almost seem to risk inviting ridicule or worse, eventual self-parody. However, Colin Caulfield, the brainchild, principle songwriter and driving force behind (and in front of) Young Man, is a tad too self-aware to allow for that, and perhaps, even deeper in on the joke. From its inception, Young Man, the project, the group, whatever you wish to call it, had a finite lifespan.
Created as a musical outlet for Caulfield to explore the transition of adolescence into young adulthood, Young Man, as it was conceived and developed has much to owe to Caulfield's chosen course of study while attending Loyola. Rather than enter a music program, Caulfield instead chose to pursue a degree in both English and French. Majoring in English helped Caulfield to develop the overall narrative arc that connects the three full-length albums, Ideas of Distance, Vol.1, and his latest, Beyond Was All Around Me (and to a lesser degree Boy, his six-song debut EP), while learning French led to him studying abroad for a semester. During his time in Paris, Caulfield was forced to adapt to being out of his comfort zone. Focusing on his songwriting, the young musician began playing out in various French clubs and cafes, developing his skills, increasing his confidence and eventually paving the way towards recording his debut release.
Caulfield's first two releases, Boy and Ideas of Distance, were very much solo endeavors, with Caulfield playing everything and recording both albums on his own, in either his bedroom or various other locations. Though critically lauded, Boy was filled with songs of such languorous quality it was often too tempting to simply center the discussion on his place in line with dream pop acts of yesteryear and chillwave acts of today, rather than on the merits of the material. Ideas of Distance, Caulfield's full-length follow-up to his debut EP and the first of what would become a "trilogy of albums", with its intelligent use of space and time, Caulfield's songs develop in an organic way that reveal themselves to be more than the product of someone simply trapped in an ethereal dream pop haze.
It was that development away from the hypnagogic on Ideas that led some to initially consider Vol. 1, Caulfield's second installment of the trilogy and first with a full band and producer, a step sideways. With Tortoise's John McEntire at the production helm, Vol. 1 has a heavier feel to it than Young Man's earlier output, balancing drone-like tones with ambient synths and celestial noodling, but it's only after hearing the latest and final Young Man album, Beyond Was All Around Me that perhaps what was once thought of as a detour by some critics, may very well have simply been a warm up. The final Young Man release sees both Caulfield and his band, expanding upon earlier output but this time seemingly veering toward a more direct approach to pop, albeit a bit eclectic pop, rather than idly floating on a dreamy river once populated by the likes of 4AD's earliest roster.
PopMatters caught up with Caulfield while the artist was taking some time out at a rock climbing gym to talk about Beyond Was All Around Me, the latest and final Young Man album, comparing working with producers John McEntire and Nicolas Vernhes, how this whole trilogy thing came about, and what does it mean for Caulfield now that this project is ending ...
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Beyond Was All Around Me is the final installment of your trilogy of albums beginning with Ideas of Distance and followed by Vol. 1. Did you always see this as a trilogy or when did the idea to construct it in such a way become apparent?
Well, actually, the whole "trilogy" idea was kind of born out of that being the most convenient, but more specifically I always saw this album being the end of the project. When people say trilogy it makes it sound like there's this specific arc in the three albums and it's more of the whole project being a three-album, one-EP cycle or whatever. But, yeah, to answer your question, the songs that I wrote for this were always intended to be the last Young Man songs.
Does the title to this album refer to anything the way Ideas referenced your long distance relationship at the time?
Have you ever seen Alone In the Wilderness, the documentary from the '70s? It's about this guy Dick Proenneke. I can't remember what his occupation was; I think he was like ex-Navy or something. But he moves to Alaska and lives up there for 35 years and builds his own cabin. It's all about solitude and living alone. He's effortlessly poetic in his narration and that's one of the things he says when he's talking about the whole ambition at the beginning of the documentary. He says, "Beyond was all around me." It's really a beautiful line.
OK, well I have to ask, why did you name the second album Vol. 1?
[laughs] There were a couple reasons. One, we wanted to make a record that referenced some old cheesy prog-rock and a lot of those old '70s records were just named Volume One and [Volume] Two. So it was kind of a reference to that, but also it was a new beginning for the project. It was the first record made in a studio and the first record made with a full band, so it just felt right to emphasize that new beginning; but, while the titles to the other albums are very intentional and everything, Vol. 1 was a little bit of a joke.
During your promotion of Vol. 1 in the spring of 2012 you made some comments suggesting that this album, the third album, was already done or at least written. Was it?
Yeah. I can't remember exactly when, but we recorded a little over a year ago. Yeah, it's been done for over six months probably.
Why the delay?
I think just because of Frenchkiss' release schedule. Pretty much the release schedule and the whole holiday season threw us a kink because nothing gets released for a couple of months. I would have liked to release it sooner but it totally makes sense why it didn't come out sooner.
The press for Beyond states that the album was mixed and engineered by Nicolas Vernhes. Does that mean you retained the production reins or is Vernhes more like Steve Albini in that he doesn't like to be called a producer?
Oh no, I am totally comfortable calling Nicolas a producer on this record. He was a really excellent partner creatively. I don't have an example of a producer who's super hands on, but Nic strikes a really great balance between letting us do our thing in the live room and letting us flush everything out, but then at really crucial points coming in and being, "Hey guys, this isn't working. You should try it this way." That was for the full-band stuff, but when I went back to New York alone to do all the vocal tracking, he was really, really, really helpful in getting the best vocal takes out of me; not only with performance, but we were projecting certain vocal melodies and delivery. Yeah, the record would have sounded completely different without him.
Were you looking for something specific working with him versus how you worked with John McEntire on your last album? Was there something that Vernhes could provide that McEntire or you couldn't?
Not really. Obviously, I really loved the albums that Nicolas had worked on previously, like Deerhunter and Fiery Furnaces and some Dirty Projectors stuff. So I loved his work, but actually, I met him very cosmically. I'm not big into that kind of stuff, but when I was studying in France and first starting to play shows in Paris, this guy, who was like a label partner at the time, was telling me about this French producer who lived in New York. He was, "You've got to meet up with him and make a record with him" and then immediately after I came back from Paris, I went to New York for some meetings and randomly, completely randomly, ran into Nicolas and met him at a bar and we talked for a long time and hung out all night. So it just felt right and ever since then it was just trying to find the right situation to work on the record with him. I'm still new to the whole "studio world" and the whole idea of making a record in the studio because it's a completely different ballgame. I think now I have more vocabulary so the next time I work on a record in a studio I think I'll select a producer with a bit more precision, but for this it was more just feeling that the fit was right with the person.
You've mentioned how the first two albums were definite solo records, but that Vol. 1 and Beyond are more of a group effort. You however, still write all the music. Have you found yourself writing differently now that you have a band and what has the group provided aside from playing?
I still write the songs but for Beyond, especially "Josie" and "Scrape On the Knee", those songs were pretty collaborative. In terms of songwriting, I still wrote them but a lot of the band and a lot of the variety that is found in our music now comes out of playing in a room together and playing live and trying things. When I write music alone I think very simplistically. I can play a lot of instruments but I'm not necessarily super adept at bass, especially bass, for example. So a lot of times my music that I write alone will be really simple harmonically, and then when we get into the room it's about taking those simple progressions and those simple approaches to songs and just trying to vary them, especially rhythmically. I think we do a lot of stuff rhythmically that is subtle and exploratory in terms of shifting rhythms and time signatures and stuff like that.
I think that's the big difference with the band. It just sounds more like a band in a room rather than people laying down tracks. The big difference for this one was having a different drummer. Our old drummer, Dylan [Andrews], who's an incredible, incredible musician, was never the right fit for the band necessarily. Not in terms of personality or anything like that. Essentially Darian, the new drummer, knows how to lay back and let the parts breathe a little bit more. I think that's the dynamic approach of the band too, everyone playing their parts and getting locked into a section and then these flourishes that jump out at different times. So it could be that someone's jumping out alone, like a big drum solo, or we all jump out in synchronization. With the five person set up we've really gotten comfortable. Sometimes there are some obstacles because Jeff [Graupner], the keyboardist, has this Little Phatty, which is this bass synth, and so he's always capable of playing really low-end stuff with Joe [Bailey], the bassist. So there's this constant struggle to balance those parts in the same way Emmet [Conway] and I play very similar guitar parts and so it's always trying to make sure everything lives the other parts well. It's always a challenge.
What led to you to decide to actually work with a band as well as a producer [John McEntire] when you started working on Vol. 1?
Just the songs themselves. I wrote the stuff for Boy and Ideas of Distance, it's very intimate sounding and simple and it's cool in that way. But the songs that I was writing, at the same time, I was putting them aside, [thinking] this is going to sound much better with a full band.
How hard was it for you to relinquish control over to a producer, even one as renown as John McEntire?
Not very hard, because I have a deep respect for production and I have a respect for how difficult it is. For example, I do not know that much about specific microphones or preamps or outboard, so when McEntire or Nicolas would suggest a mic I would never question that. But in the mixing stage, in a stage where I'm more comfortable, there were times I felt a little bit more comfortable saying I don't think we should do it this way. But for the most part I just let things happen because that's why we were working with a producer, because of their opinion and input.
What was behind the decision to choose McEntire? What did he bring to the table?
I'm a big fan of Tortoise, we're all really big fans of Tortoise, and he's just a really well-respected Chicago music head.
You once said that Vol. 1 was the first album you recorded in a studio, so the others were literally bedroom recordings?
Yeah, very much so. Ideas of Distance I did every single thing in my bedroom except for piano on the first track. Every single thing took place in this little room in Rogers Park in Chicago. For Boy I recorded in a bunch of different places but it was still like D.I.Y. room recording. But yeah, Ideas was very much a bedroom record.
You've mentioned how Boy is part of this 'trilogy' and isn't part of it. Is it accurate to think of Boy informing the trilogy perhaps the way The Hobbit informed Lord of the Rings?
I think people exclude it when they talk about the music we make now mainly because it was an EP, I guess, because it's not a full-length. On one hand I think that it could just as easily be included because it set the conceptual framework for the project and it adheres to the framework of wanting to discuss youth and the progression to adulthood. It sticks to that most specifically and rigidly but at the same time, we don't play any of those songs live anymore and it definitely feels, mainly because they were some of the first songs I made, that they don't have the same 'oomph', for lack of a better word; especially in a live setting. They definitely, without a doubt, inform the rest of it. I don't know if it's like The Hobbit.
That's the only thing I could think of where you had this other book that was part of something but not really part of it.
You know, actually, I'm going to run with that. I'm going to take that from you. That actually makes a lot of sense. The character is different in a lot of ways because he's younger and it takes place in the same universe, if you will, but it's just a different time period. So I guess it is a lot like The Hobbit.
You've also said that this latest release will also mark the end of Young Man; however that doesn't mean you are not leaving music, just putting this phase behind you. You've also mentioned wanting to have some time away from music. Do you have any idea what you are going to do once Young Man is done?
I'm moving back to the Twin Cities for a few months, in a couple of weeks actually. And then I'm going to New York. That's a big thing right there, moving to another city, especially New York. Right now, I'm constantly writing music and I have like, 20 songs that I could narrow down and I could make a record probably right after this touring is done. I could probably make a record in the next five months if I wanted, but I don't want to force it. I just want to give myself time so that I could come out with something that's worth coming out. Nicolas said at one point when we were talking, he has this question that he asks bands sometimes, "Does this record need to come out?" That's a terrifying question as a musician. Does this album need to be heard? Because almost always the answer is "No, not really," but that's a really great goal in my mind. I want to make a record that really needs to come out and is different. So yeah, I think I'm just going to take time and let my creativity settle and see what happens.
Speaking of forcing yourself, you made a comment once that you write a song every time you sit down at the piano but you've also made the comment that you can find yourself sometimes forcing the songs out, hence your decision to step away for a bit. How hard is it for you to actually step away from music?
It's really hard, especially because I write so much in my head. It's very easy. I bike all the time, or even when I'm walking around, and a song will just pop into my head and it's almost immediate, automatic, for me to jump in working on it. But I've come to terms with the idea that it's not negative to be writing all the time, it's just negative for me to feel this compulsion to finish songs and put stuff out. So if I'm always writing, that's not bad. It's just like how a drawer might sketch all the time and never take those sketches to the canvas. I just need to keep working and try not to feel too much pressure to finish things, because that's when I stressed out and that's when I get worked up about not putting stuff out and finishing; I over think stuff.
What about just stepping back a little bit and working with the same crew you have now and just doing something different with the band; have it be more of a group effort? Wouldn't that relieve some of it?
I've definitely thought about that, but I'm moving and they're not moving, essentially. And everyone has their own stuff. Jeff's in another band; Joe's in another band; Darian, the drummer, is in a bunch of projects; Emmet is really getting into brewing and beer, because of his family tradition. It's a huge, huge commitment being in a band, especially a touring band that puts out music. You have to really do it. You have to be able to drop whatever job you have. It's cool for that reason and it's really fun but it's also ... I don't know.
Your career began in sorts with you posting covers of songs on YouTube. In more recent years you've seemed to hint that those covers have become something of an albatross around your neck, but what about in the live setting? Do you ever throw one or two of those into the mix just to see what happens?
We haven't actually; we've wanted to. We were thinking about covering "Elevation" by Television but just haven't gotten around to it. And also, "Milk Man" by Deerhoof. We've played "All Tomorrow's Parties" by Velvet Underground and that's pretty much the only cover we've ever done. I'd like to do it but for one, I've kind of tried to distance myself from the covers a little bit, like you said, but two, we have so many original songs there isn't really like a need to play a cover. I think a lot of bands naturally go to covers at the beginning or at their inception just to fill space and we've never had to really do that, so that's part of the reason we don't.
You've been praised by Bradford Cox for covering one of his Deerhunter songs ["Rainwater Cassette Exchange"] and you've talked about the heavy influence of Dirty Projectors on you personally. Aside from working with Vernhes, who has produced Dirty Projectors, has any opportunity to work with either act presented itself?
[laughs] No, nothing like that. I'd love to collaborate more. That's one of the goals of going to New York. Not to specifically collaborate with anyone but just to be surrounded by people who are slightly more active in what they're doing. Chicago's really, really awesome. Don't get me wrong. I love Chicago and I think the music coming out of here is really cool but it doesn't seem like as much of it goes outside of Chicago; a syndrome of many cities. So I'm just excited to get super involved with people while I'm there.