Vetiver on “Up On High” | Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Vetiver on “Up On High”

Defining His Musical Approach

Nov 21, 2019 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

For the first time, Andy Cabic didn’t have a home for Vetiver’s new music. Still he proceeded, bringing together those he knows and works with so well to a house near Joshua Tree for a few days of live recording to capture the songs on which he’d been working.

Up On High is the end result and it might just be Vetiver’s most beautiful effort to date. The hallmarks of a Cabic record are there—the acoustic base, the intimate environment, the melodic approachbut there’s a confidence present on these songs in the no-frills approach. No bells are heard, no whistles employed. Up On High is nothing more or less than a collection of excellent acoustic songs recorded in short order with players who speak a similar language.

We recently sat down with Cabic to hear about the new album and what set this season apart from others.

Matt Conner (Under the Radar): This record sounds like a confident turn to me. Even the making of it is something you could only do now, it seems. A few friends tracking live in a cabin in a few short days. It feels like you knew what you wanted, what you could do, and you did exactly that.

Andy Cabic: Well, I don’t want to bust any myths, but it wasn’t a cabin. It was a house. Basically, the story is that I was between labels. I was self-funding the record and producing it myself. I was working with Thom Monahan [Neko Case, Fruit Bats], who I’ve done all of my records with, and we’re very close. As we do for any record, as we lead up to making it, I’m checking in with him all the time. I’m playing him the songs. He’s hearing them and, in this particular case, unlike maybe the prior two, there was no real pre-production.

All of the songs were built around the acoustic guitar, so I could sit there and play them for Thom. So he’s taking stock of my budget and the limitations of the whole production and he said, “You know, this is going to be very simple to do.” We already knew we wanted to have Gabe Noel and Josh Adams play bass and drums and they played on the last record. On the prior two records, Thom and I got together and did a lot of pre-production, tested a lot of ideas, maybe tracked the drum machine to build up layers to see how the song was laying. This didn’t need that. So Thom said, ‘I’ll just pack a van with all of my stuff and we’ll find a house.’ We found friends who had a house near Joshua Tree, and we went to check it out. So we went there for a few days. We set up and tracked the basics live.

This is the seventh record I’ve made with this producer and engineer. We know each other really well. We’re not reinventing the wheel, but we have a history together. We know what we want to do differently and we know what we do plays off of what we’ve done in the past. We’ve done everything together. The other two musicians, Josh and Gabe, are amazing, talented players, so there’s confidence in having them in the room cover their parts.

We went over to Thom’s afterwards and, for the next year, it took a while with schedules and stuff, we finished off overdubs, had other people come by to play keys, I did some vocals, and we were mixing all along. At each step of the way, we were hearing what it was going to be like.

Given your longevity together, have you ever given thought to working apart from Thom on something, from moving from something so well known to something less known?

I’m not sure what “less known” would get me. What advantages would that provide me? It would provide me with a degree of uncertainty, which I don’t see how that helps me attain the sound and the style of the record that I want. If I have limited time and a limited budget, I don’t know why I would prefer to work with someone who I have complete trust in and communication where he automatically does things the way I like.

Plus, Thom is blowing my mind all the time. Each time we see each other, it’s been four years. Thom is a different person; I am a different person. He’s still Thom, but he’s got new gear and worked on myriad projects that have improved his approach. It’s different each time. What is the same is our friendship and ease of communication.

I’m sure it will happen one day. Thom is busy and he was busy while making this record, which is why it took longer. He might not be available for the next record, and I don’t always presume he will. But I’d have to be convinced of why that would be a better thing.

Well, I guess that was the question beneath the question: the core values at work. For some artists, the uncertainty would be a core value.

I’m in my 40s. I don’t know. I think the people who want to do that are still exploring and maybe building their identity. This is my seventh record so I think I have my identity set. I know who I am as an artist pretty clearly now. But I would never say no. If someone really appreciated my work and seemed to know it well and came at me with an idea and it was compelling, I would certainly listen. But that hasn’t happened.

Given that you had to wait a bit longer than you’d like, did that allow the music to take on forms it wouldn’t have otherwise?

That’s happened with nearly every record. Through scheduling or something else, there’s always some waiting. I’m used to it. But in this case, I was eager to get going because I still had the entire process of trying to find a home for it and I knew that was going to take a while.

Waiting calms me down. When you’re in the throes of a record, you’re maybe over-listening. Then you relax and de-prioritize things that might seem very urgent in the moment of making them. You settle but you do so in a way that allows you to be removed from the album a little bit. That lets some of the things come into clearer focus.

In this case, all the constraints and the way the songs were written and how they were sounded, it all added to the idea that the record didn’t need to be labored over. It didn’t need a lot of extra stuff. We were hearing things with just the bass, drums and acoustic guitar. The songs were voicing well, so it was just a matter of tightening up some things and finding a good balance that it felt like it had dynamics and arrangements that allowed for shifts in the parts. But it didn’t need to be overcooked.

What are you most proud of concerning this set of songs?

I think that it sounds very natural. My singing is better. It’s more forward in the mix. It’s dry and right there. I’m just proud of seeing the whole thing through.

It’s also the first time I’d made a record where I didn’t have the support of anybody ongoing. Through the contributions of my friends and the steadfastness of people I’ve been working with for a while, the whole thing came together. Sometimes we start to do a record and all the steps can feel daunting, even if you’ve done it before, so just getting the whole thing to come together well is nice.

I also found a nice home with [the labels] Mama Bird and Loose Music [in Europe] who seem to get it and know how to talk about it and put it out there. That’s fortunate.

You’ve mentioned your experience of seven albums a few times now. How does that change your relationship with the muse?

It’s a total mystery. There’s no guarantee I have another one. I’m not a prolific writer. I don’t necessarily put time into doing that daily. I go through periods where I don’t for long stretches. I understand and admire those people who make a real disciplined effort out of it to put hours in every day as if it were a job for them. I’ve moved and I’ve settled into a place where I’ll be living for a while, so maybe I can have a routine come up. But making this record, I’d moved twice, once from a place I’d lived for 12 years. I had a lot of interruptions that would break up the routines that would lead to progress writing songs.

For me, it’s still a total matter of having inspiration. It’s finding a melody get caught in my head and keep bringing me back to finish it and refine it. That’s how I typically work on songs. Then if I have ones that don’t do that, they’re cast to the side. The ones that are still interesting enough to bring me back do so until they’re finished.

The most striking song on the record are the beautiful flourishes on the title track, which is also the longest of the set.

That’s the oldest song on the record and the one I wrote first. In all that moving and stuff where I was trying to figure out where things were going, like I mentioned earlier, I felt like I needed to get away. Friends of mine have a house up in Ukiah and they let me stay up there a couple days by myself. That’s where I got the idea up there for “Up On High,” the first beginning melody of what it would be came to me there in isolation. I didn’t leave their house for two days knowing if I just sat there, something would come up.

We went back and tried to do a good vocal for that three or four times and it’s the one I spent the most time working on from this record for sure. It’s got some parts from an earlier recording session we actually did somewhere else. It didn’t work out but some of the parts did and we wound up flying them into a mix later on. It’s got the tempo change and I couldn’t even get some of the parts under my fingers early on. Then I kept playing it and was able to. That song had a long gestation to get to where it was.

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Michael Harris
January 25th 2020

Great article and a great read!