There are no laws against castrating children’s standards live in concert, nothing preventing anyone from schlepping onstage to disembowel “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” by way of dinky synthesizer presets, feral snarls, and sports-fan wooooos. Just as freely, one might defend one’s unusual taste in cover songs as follows: “I’m a preschool teacher, by the way; this is a song I love to sing with my kids. They all sing it in harmony, in unison, it’s wonderful.”
If you’re Cave Bears frontman Nick Williams, you’re speaking earnestly and aware that these Romper Room bastardizations are just the tip of the weirdness iceberg on Get Out of the House (Blueberry Honey, 2010/Feeding Tube, 2011).
“Some of my favorite records were recorded by kids, particularly [the riotous power-pop songs on] The Dandelions/Children of Sunshine album,” Williams says in an e-mail. “Sometimes I felt like I was living a double life as a teacher. I don’t think my co-workers had any concept of what was going on when I said I was in a band.”
Birthed by Williams and Carrie Bren in 2005 as a Hadley, Massachusetts, punk-house “collective exercise in excess,” Cave Bears are less warped trad-rock insurgents than Situational melee given gooseflesh, amplification, and a counterfeit license to ill: a mind-fuck cocktail of Culturicide anti-demagoguery, Box the Bunny-era Bunnybrains schizophrenia, and Vieuphoria-interlude Frogs bile. To get the full effect, it’s essential to catch their live act, where the band feeds off the audience’s collective vibe.
“We usually hash out a scenario in the hours or moments before showtime and try to follow through as well as we can, like actors in an amateur play that have forgotten half of their lines,” Williams says.
“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 played epic guitar solos whilst shooting fireworks into the crowd,’ or ‘they made a Christmas list on vintage printer paper and sung pornographic ditties about Santa.’ “
In the duo’s hands, seemingly etched-in-stone notions like “entertainment” and “performance” are as fragmented and kaleidoscopic as the heady, unwieldy sound collages it bills as “studio” albums.
Escape From Ironic Castle (Feeding Tube, 2011) could be considered the Cave Bears’ magnum opus. Out-of-breath kids huff and puff through “Kids in America.” Rampaging roller-coaster hardcore begets a slowed-tape effect that makes Williams sound like Lucifer when he isn’t ranting about having achieved immortality by quaffing blood. Interwoven through it all is arguably the least hinged cover of the Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony” committed to tape. Williams defines the band’s mission as such: “We’re mocking pop culture to the point where it becomes difficult to discern our intentions.”
Driven by chemicals, impudence, and the sheer thrill of discovery, Williams and Bren added and shed fellow travelers as they migrated from Massachusetts to post-Katrina New Orleans. Right now Williams plays with Flaming Dragons of Middle Earth and manages day-to-day operations at the Easthampton, Massachusetts, record store/label Feeding Tube Records, while Baltimore-based Bren is pursuing a career in comic books. The band, it seems, is now less a vocation than an excuse to skip town, shock the bourgeois, and transform strangers into fans.
“We used to record all the time, but I think we’re living a healthier lifestyle right now, and the inspiration for our special brand of madness comes less frequently with sobriety,” Williams says. “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. … [New York] always brings out some positive energy in us—we’ll probably do some sing-alongs, stand-up routines, and have cake.”
Cave Bears play on the rooftop of 193 Newel Street in Greenpoint on Wednesday