Q&A: Cave Bears' Nick Williams On New Orleans, Rabid Fans, And The Fine Art of Building A Live Mystery

Massachusetts/Baltimore conceptual-rock unit Cave Bears—Nick Williams and Carrie Bren, with occasional guests—tear into sound with an almost childlike avidity and intensity, challenging preconceived notions about how music can or should sound. YouTube examples of their uncompromising insanity abound—we've embedded a few here—but for a taste of what the group is capable of, Sound of the City recommends sampling the free-for-download records available on the band's website. Two especially twisted offerings stand out. On Horrible & Useless (Yod Tapes, 2008), the Bears' dirge-y abnormal-normal encompasses the gutting of live guitars, electro-shock noise, and sci-fi monster sounds. Meanwhile, on Geen Teets (Serf Released, 2008), mental-patient stage banter and aimless tune-up feedback give way to what might best be described as "maniacal hillbilly grindcore," tape-speed shenanigans, demonic voices cutting in and out of caterwauling distortion, and nightmare funhouse Big Band blare that suggests pachyderms storming an orchestra pit. For our feature on the band running today, we emailed with Williams about audio extremism, terrorizing audiences, and mellowing with age.

Who's in the band, and what roles does each member play?

My name is Nick, and I've played every Cave Bears show. The only other regular member of the band is Carrie, who is somewhat of a mad genius. She's played about 70 percent of our live shows, and has appeared on every release with me. The band initially started as a collective exercise in excess. Both Carrie and I lived in what could only be deemed a "punk house" in Hadley, Massachusetts with about seven other guys and gals, circa 2005. We somewhat ironically called the place "Chaos Inc." Nobody else really entered our little world, and it became a fertile ground for sharing inspirations and whatnot. The band and the house were pretty much the same trip in those days, and we played some of our first gigs, opening for members of the Sun City Girls and for Jackie-O Motherfucker, as a huge ensemble.

In 2006, Carrie and I moved to New Orleans, where we met Mary Collins, the only other semi-permanent member of the band. It was there, using instruments that we'd salvaged from the post-Katrina wreckage, that we recorded the material that would comprise our first couple of real releases. The three of us eventually moved back to Western Massachusetts, released a few more recordings and even did one tour of the Northeast with artist Eugenia Semjonova before we all went our separate ways in the summer of 2008. These years culminated in the release of our GERMICIDE 12" split with Id M Theft Able. The live lineup during this period was Carrie on drums and vocals, Mary on bass, and myself on guitar.

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Since 2009, the band has pretty much consisted of Carrie and I as a duo that focuses on spoken-word performances with minimal musical accompaniment or as a solo project of mine that sometimes includes pick-up bands and could loosely fall into the genre of "conceptual punk rock." I think we've done our best work, both public and private, as a duo. But who am I to judge? I always keep the project semi-active, regardless of the interest and availability of the other members.

 

Cave Bears, 2009

What was NOLA like post-Katrina? What were the instruments that you found in the wreckage, and do you still play them now? Using them must feel like operating Ouija boards in a way.

Completely fucked! It really fit our aesthetic at the time. Cars on top of houses, houses on top of cars.

We had a drum tent set up in the parking lot of an abandoned Catholic school where we lived. Lots of kids from the neighborhood would come and show off their crazy percussion skills. We also had a saxophone and a trumpet. I sadly lost nearly all of the recordings from that period and I also had to leave all of the instruments behind. Most of the surviving music from this period appears on the Jazz Hands Just Dads tapes.

Cave Bears are astonishingly prolific; between what you've got up on the site and some other materials I've received, I'm cerebellum-twisting to like 10 hours of music, and I know that's only a small part of the picture. How much CB material is out there in your vault/hard drive that the public hasn't heard yet—how many hours would you guess, and what does it sound like?

There are approximately 200 cassettes of Cave Bears music sitting in my closet, totaling roughly 150 hours of "music"—ranging from recordings of live sets, practices for our punk band Milky Death, material that was later parsed-out and released on cassette or vinyl and endless hours of close-mic'ed retching. When you consider the roughly 20 full-length albums we've put out, that leaves a lot left completely unheard.

Most of it was channeled "live" onto a hand-held stereo Sony tape recorder or double-mic stereo GE boom box. We've never done any overdubbing or post-production audio trickery to make the music sound different. We've employed some tape-deck "mixing" techniques during the recording process, such as a thumb-in-the-spool warping effects or just using old batteries, but most of the weird sounds are completely accidental. There was a period where we were recording onto multiple decks at once to get a degraded sound, so some of the material exists in multiple versions, but most of the cassettes are unique. In fact, I've only lost one or two that I can think of, so it's a pretty complete archive.

I'd like to imagine that the best stuff has made it out into the world already, but there's also a lot of stuff I haven't listened to in years that was recorded on my four-track before the power supply broke. If anyone has a spare 12v DC adapter, feel free to get in touch.

Do you often go through this archive, to visit performances or prepare material for release? Is most of the material home-recorded, and how often does the band practice or record? What are recording sessions like?

We only go through our tapes when it's time to make a release, and I think at this point we've pretty much exhausted the archive. We've recorded most of our music in homes or cars, sometimes in alleyways and forests—usually in a pretty psychotic, free-association-babble setting. We used to record all the time, but I think we're living a more healthy lifestyle right now and the inspiration for our special brand of madness comes less frequently with sobriety. Plus, the two core members of the group live over 500 miles apart, so our "recording sessions" are few and far between these days.

Do you ever miss the craziness of that earlier phase of your life? How different is it to approach the Cave Bears mindset in a sober state than it was before?

I think the psychedelic experience has informed our work a great deal, but I've decided to put that stuff aside for good. It's not like I'm a teetotaler or anything, it's just a lot more fun for me to go into a performance with a clear head.

Being less wigged-out has definitely limited the intensity of our recordings somewhat. But intensity via loud noises is not really what we are going for anymore. Plus, my ears hurt.

 

Cave Bears, live in 2009

When you enter a live situation, what are the odds that you're going to perform a specific set of material or go full-on improvisation? And how important is audience size and/or enthusiasm to what you achieve and how you achieve it in the live arena? There were some live sets in the mass-release push from Feeding Tube, and it was kind of hard to tell how many people you were playing to.

The basis of our band has always been the "idea." We have but a few pre-written songs, and those are rarely ever performed more than a few times. We usually hash out a scenario in the hours or moments before show time and try to follow through as well as we can, like actors in an amateur play that have forgotten half of their lines.

Audience size is completely unimportant as long as there is at least one person who we can direct our energies towards; we play to about 23 people, on average. Enthusiasm is a different story. When we find ourselves up against an apathetic or hostile audience, our performances tend to turn cagey/hostile or intentionally long-winded and boring, respectively. I've come away from a gig in tears due to the sheer level of "evil" energy we directed towards the crowd. We try not to be exclusionary and greatly prefer folks to feel like they are in on the "joke."

I think a successful Cave Bears gig can best be summed up in a few words. For example: "they built a fake campfire and told ghost stories," "they covered [Germs song] 'Forming' for a quarter of an hour," "they played epic guitar solos whilst shooting fireworks into the crowd," "they made a Christmas list on vintage printer paper and sung pornographic ditties about Santa," or "they made the entire audience do some sort of inane and embarrassing ritual."

In my opinion, the best Cave Bears jams are the ones were ideas are stretched almost beyond all reasonable limits, like on Escape From Ironic Castle where "Bittersweet Symphony" is dissected and spattered with gore and reassembled as this sort of psychotic episode. It begins as a parody of a pop landmark, in a familiar place, but then suddenly band and listener alike are on a totally different planet.

Yeah, those are my favorites too. Whereas past groups like Culturcide were mocking the pop music of their day, we are mocking the mocking of pop culture to the point where it becomes difficult to discern our intentions. I suppose this is the escape from the castle—i.e. prison—of irony that we seek.

I get the impression that show attendees either walk away hating you or become true believers. Are Cave Bears fans super, duper diehards?

Yeah, that's pretty much accurate. I suppose we have a few diehard fans out there, but I like to make a joke that we should be called Fire Code: Clearing Rooms. Sometimes people react aggressively, but mostly they just leave.

My way of looking at it is that if we impact just one or two people during a performance, than we usually do so in a pretty monumental way and it's totally worth it for us. Most people who order tapes or records from me tend to buy the whole catalog and there are a few fans of our YouTube videos scattered around the world. There are other folks who discover us through "favorite" videos on Carrie's allofthetrash YouTube channel. We've had folks we've never met request some pretty specific stuff like "science fiction story-songs" or whatever. [Note: some of these songs appear on Get Out Of The House.] I think there were about six people at our science fiction story-songs show in Holyoke, Massachusetts and it can be kind of neat when some kids in Florida know about it. Thanks, YouTube! Thanks, Internet!

In your opinion, does the general pop-music diaspora take itself too seriously?

Well, that question is almost beside the point. I am way more concerned with whether or not the contemporary American underground takes itself too seriously? Or maybe that's what you meant by "pop-diaspora"?

The answer to this question would be, undoubtedly, yes. I see folks getting so wrapped up in these archaic music styles—analog synths, '80s-obsessed lo-fi pop or even harsh electronic feedback—and passing them off as something new. I know that some of these folks do it playfully, and there's really nothing wrong with that. All revolutionary music movements are built on the shoulders of a previous one, but I really don't see the point in idolizing a bunch of Tangerine Dream knock-offs or second-rate Michael Jacksons shrouding their music with bunch of delay and tape hiss. I think a lot of our music and album art gently pokes fun at these folks.

What do you guys do for a living? There's a part on Get Out Of The House where you say something about being a teacher—this is right before the band starts totally murdering kids' songs. And I wondered if that was true; I believed it, because kindergarten/first grade craziness is sort of in line with the Cave Bears' spontaneous, off-the-wall aesthetic.

I was a preschool teacher for two years, and I've definitely derived a lot of inspiration from the spontaneous music of children. Some of my favorite records were recorded by kids, particularly The Dandelions/Children Of Sunshine album and the incredibly strange and totally unknown early 2000s mp3.com oddity, Girls With Attitude. Sometimes I felt like I was living a double life as a teacher. I don't think my coworkers had any concept of what was going on when I said I was in a band. Thankfully, they never came to any of my shows.

Right now I run the day-to-day operations of Feeding Tube Records, a small vinyl- and cassette-based record label in Western Massachusetts. We also have a record store that, among other things, operates as a consignment outlet for Byron Coley and Thurston Moore's vast record collections. I'm the manager there. Carrie is more of a "free spirit." She currently lives in Baltimore with her partner, the writer and current Cave Bears member Jackie Wang.

I've known Carrie to work in the packing department of the Yankee Candle Company as well as on her family's farm, but she mostly spends her time working on establishing herself as comic artist.

 

Cave Bears, live in 2010

Where did you and Carrie grow up?

I grew up in New York City and went to Bronx Science. Carrie grew up in a bed and breakfast in New Hampshire. I think she's from the same area that the Shaggs are from, but I could be wrong.

When and how were you first drawn to music as a means of personal expression?

One of the most inspiring aspects of Cave Bears is the DIY, "everything's valid" ethos, the sense that the point isn't so much to throw ideas at the wall to see what sticks as it is to just throw stuff at the wall.

I committed my first music to tape when I was a sophomore in high school. I had just heard Ornette Coleman's Dancing In Your Head on a friend's Walkman, and I was blown away and changed for life. At that point I was into the Grateful Dead, so I had some experience with improvised music, but this took it to a whole other level.

I immediately went home and used a double-deck JVC tape player to overdub myself into sounding like a full-sized Harmolodic band. The result was a bedroom "Theme From A Symphony" that I still listen to ever-so often. Oddly enough, I labeled the band on that record "Care Bears."

Carrie has also been making music since high school, mostly as the soundtrack to her relatively popular flash animation series TAOC TEH WODNER DOG (long discontinued). She was one of the earliest stars of the Flash-animation scene and some of her work is still archived on different websites. I'm glad that you find our work inspiring, because I frankly worry that we veer too often into negativity.

Obviously now you need to track down some Care Bear tapes and a Teddy Ruxpin and engage in some sort of torture porn exercise.

No comment.

One interesting thing about your catalogue is its sheer range, from the live performance art stuff to at home collating/collage to recordings like Burning Tri Pyramid Prism that seem to come from a totally different place, almost a meditative drone realm—no discernible vocal, no especially spastic sonics, just this subterranean dirge hum. How was that recording made? And for the collages, you're drawing from radio and from other media sources and your own vocals; do you keep a bank of these sounds, field recorded, on hand to create these montages?

The "drone" tape was a silly little exercise in pitch-shifting. It's actually a live tape of about 15 minutes of music from the first three Cave Bears gigs, slowed down to about one-sixth of the speed to fill up both sides of a c90. That one is pretty relaxing in an ominous sort of way.

There have only been a few tapes that featured found audio material. Carrie is a big fan of horror movies, and the trailers or soundtracks to some of her favorites appear on a few of our releases: Tourist Trap, Tombs of the Blind Dead, Tragic Ceremony, Eyes Of Fire. We also covered the theme from Cannibal Holocaust; that recording appears on a new compilation from Mystra Records which also features Ed Askew, Exusamwa, Tall Firs, and Ralph White.

Do you and Carrie have any other musical projects going collectively or otherwise?

Carrie contributes her "musical talents" to Cave Bears exclusively, and somewhat begrudgingly I might add. I am in two other bands: Flaming Dragons Of Middle Earth and an as-yet unnamed duo with my partner Janane Tripp, of the bands Visitations and Prisma. Flaming Dragons is a group formed under the tutelage of wheelchair-bound shaman Danny Cruz; the band started when he was 14 years old, and has been practicing at a community center in Turners Falls, Massachusetts every Thursday for over four years. Our numbers have slowly expanded, and we are now somewhat of a local phenomenon. We have an LP on Feeding Tube and a cassette on Beniffer Editions, plus tons of other stuff in the works.

Do you think of Cave Bears as more a live project or a "studio" project, fundamentally speaking?

I think there has been a shift from being mainly a home-recording project toward being mainly a performance spectacle. I'd like to think that our recordings are just as enjoyable as our live sets, if not more so—I mean, I listen to them all the time and they sure do put a smile on my face.

I think we both used to think much more highly of the recordings, and viewed our live performances as complete failures, but eventually we learned to take the same artistic risks in a public setting that we had been taking alone with a tape recorder. Because of this, we've really come into our own as performers over the last three years.

Is there a performance that sticks out in your mind as having failed or succeeded beyond your wildest imaginings?

I think all the good ones are successes and failures in equal measure. I often have a hard time discerning whether or not the audience had an "appropriate" reaction. I like it when the viewer goes from thinking "this is just absolutely dreadful" to "hey, maybe they're onto something here."

My two favorite performances can be found by searching for "Cave Bears 2.14.09" and "Cave Bears 12.13.09" on YouTube. Those ones, plus the full-length Solar Illness VHS, give a pretty good idea of what we're about on stage. All of my least favorite performances are not on YouTube.

Recently, you guys issued this sort of party-pack of releases in various formats via Feeding Tube, which struck me as a pretty ambitious enterprise. What inspired this? Was it a kick off for the recent tours, or was there a feeling that you needed you get all of this material out there now? In my mind it's all pretty great, and served to really draw me into the band's web, as it were.

The Jump To Your Bed LP is an old recording that was not widely distributed, and we felt that it was just about time to put it out in a larger run. All the other albums—No Weird USA, Escape From Ironic Castle, and Cave Bears With Kommissar Hjuler And Mama Baer—were completed over the last two years and were initially slated to come out on other labels, but I got tired of waiting and decided just to issue them all myself.

I suppose our ambitious program of spring and summer live events had something to do with it too, seeing as we had pretty much run out of stuff to sell at shows. I also figured that I could maybe make back my money more quickly if I just lumped all the recordings together. You can get an LP, a CD-R, a VHS, a 7" and three cassettes for $35, including shipping in the United States.

There's a crazy unsettling moment at the start of Side B of Jump To Your Bed where you're whispering into a microphone like you're hiding from marauders under a bed or something; you're asking the audience if we're listening, then you say "Now that you're all with me, I'd like to say -" and then it's the longest minute of dead silence ever before you segue into something else, something guitar-based and bramble-y. But that introduction manages to be more intense than a lot of the more assaulting stuff Cave Bears does, like a Blair Witch kind of thing.

I'm glad you like that. Both of our LPs have contained about one minute of dead air. It's kind of a bold thing to do, considering the cost of pressing vinyl these days.

Do you identify Cave Bears with any formal musical or artistic movements?

I don't think there is really a word for what we do. If the psych rockers and folkers of ten years past were dubbed the "New Weird America," I'd like what we do to be called the "No Weird America," but maybe that's too cute?

There are quite a few bands or solo performers in the New England "noise scene" that I am very fond of, though their music sounds about as different from each other's as it does from ours. I'm really into Fat Worm Of Error, Noise Nomads, Id M Theft Able, Crank Sturgeon, Bengeorge7, and Egg Eggs to name a few. There are also a number of artists who have been working over the last 60 years that share a commonality with Cave Bears. In this group I would include Robert Ashley, Hasil Adkins, Paul McCarthy, Caroliner, and The Sun City Girls. I think some folks might compare us to privately-pressed outsider musicians from the days of yore, but I think the difference is that we are infinitely more self-aware and do not plan on fading into obscurity any time soon.

Cave Bears play the rooftop at 193 Newel Street in Greenpoint tonight.


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