”There are measurements too small for taking/ There are imperatives too large to see.”
Some albums function like puzzle boxes with each finger hold that unlocks a facet simultaneously obscuring others. While on the surface this might seem frustrating but for true music lovers it’s a gift to receive something that only gives up its secrets to those willing to fidget, twist and worry over it with not entirely voluntary determination. So much music today arrives pre-explicated and partially digested to make it easy to consume, but for a certain breed of listener it’s nifty to find a work eager to push boundaries and explore the recombinant possibilities of the modern age.
However, such “puzzle boxes” aren’t always much fun, the traditional pleasures of melody, romance and raw energy traded for noise, obfuscation and conscious distance. So, it’s an even more distinct treat to discover a complex yet utterly visceral album like Cavalcade (released on May 21 on swell Massachusetts indie label Signature Sound and available here), the second outing from Cold Satellite. Built around the core of poet Lisa Olstein and justifiably noted singer-songwriter Jeffrey Foucault, Cold Satellite began life after Olstein handed Foucault a sheaf of unused poems and fragments to forge into songs. As high-minded as the concept sounds, once Foucault and his sparring partners – drummer Billy Conway (Morphine), bassist Jeremy Moses Curtis (Booker T), electric guitarist David Goodrich (Chris Smither), pedal steel player Alex Mccollough, and multi-instrumentalist Hayward Williams [whose 2007 solo album Another Sailor’s Dream is worth your attention] – start tearing at and gnawing on the material it becomes as earthy as a good cry or sweaty commingling.
The band’s sound shares something in common with Jason Isbell, Ryan Bingham and John Murry, but more than anything, in tone and texture, Cold Satellite recalls The Cardinals at their feverish best but without all the baggage Ryan Adams brought to the table. Things rattle and roam in this music, whispers and screams hitting with equal intensity, and always the blood, muscle and deep feeling of fleshy, fracture riddled human beings powering the notes. As Foucault explains in this interview, the spiritual guides for Cavalcade were Neil Young’s Tonight’s The Night and the Faces’ Ooh La La – two classics as gutbucket right and emotionally jagged as anything rock has mustered – and Cavalcade holds its own in this grimy, illustrious company.
Movement, even if only the grinding wheels in one’s head, is everywhere on this album, midnight trains echoing in the distance as clouds drag their arms across the sky. Like most of Foucault’s solo work, Cavalcade is a superb driving record, a soundtrack for going somewhere/anywhere, devouring distance and opening up space. And like a similarly unorthodox but undeniably rockin’ Impound obsession from a few years back – Shooter Jennings’ Black Ribbons – it’s an album you’ll want as a companion, perhaps your sole companion, as you set out on a personal journey, its wide leaping verses and rollicking & tender passages just the sustenance one needs for long roads and profound thinking. That it’s also kinda perfect for pounding beers and getting lit as you annoy your neighbors with volume-distorted speakers on a moonlit night is part of Cavalcade and Cold Satellite’s simmering, charmingly contradictory magic.
You could hold a pistol to my head/ You could light fire to my bed/ You could leave the hungry all unfed/ What I meant by what I said/ Is please please stay.
Cavalcade never dumbs down the conversation but it’s still filled with balls to the wall rock ‘n’ roll.
Jeffrey Foucault: That’s what we were after for sure. The whole process, which is years long, starts when Lisa gives me raw material and some finished poems. There are three or four things on the records that appear in her book Little Stranger in poem form, where the language is different. You can’t just sing ‘em. You have to add something to make them scan or put an end rhyme in to move them around and make them work. Both versions of this process for the two records we’ve made have been satisfying because they’ve been experimental and far-flung. It relieves me of some of the responsibility of generating language. Every now and then I’ll add a word or a line but for the most part I’m not overly concerned about generating language. I’m not unconcerned but once I get going I don’t even care what the poem’s about. I try to take a real instinctual approach. I want the words in the first line to make me feel a certain way and then I run off in that direction.
The opening verse in each song establishes something – something textural or intellectual – that’s like someone jumping on a horse’s back and chasing after something.
I agree. I tried not to read the poems all the way through this time around. I browsed them and tried to get a sense of a through-line but it’s part of the reason the [new] record feels so disparate. There are a lot of different elements, and if you took out even one or two songs it’d have a very different feel and sound. The album covers a lot of different territory.
It’s clearly the collaboration of a group of strong minded people but each individual track stands on its own. There’s an overall mood that I can’t put my finger on that makes it unclear whether there’s a through-line or even if one is necessary. It all hangs together so well despite the diversity. Every time I put it on I think, “Where are we going this time?”
Good! That’s how we feel, too. We finished working on it in Upstate New York, driving back to our respective homes – I live in Western Massachusetts – listening to the roughs, and they were pretty down and dirty. We all had the same reaction that you just described – “What the hell just happened?” This record goes here and there and then darts over here. I’ve tortured myself over sequence in the past but this fell into place pretty naturally. My buddy Andy Friedman always says he wants to put on a record when he feels a certain way; he doesn’t want to feel every damn thing. It’s like, “I feel like this and I need this record to be my spirit guide today.” I try to make records that have an arc, but on this one we stuck close to the sequence we roughed out the last night [of the recording session]. Everyone in the band agreed “Elegy” should open it to establish this is a rock record. The bass player suggested “Necessary Monsters,” the blues track, to go second, and everyone thought that would change but it stuck and the rest followed from there. When we were on tour, we come out swinging with the five song opening salvo [from Cavalcade], except for a few nights because it’s fun to throw ourselves off and be uncomfortable.
The chemistry of this band is great. This setting really brings out a different side of you as a vocalist. There’s a kind of possession that takes you over that’s different than your own records.
I tried to sing the tunes on this record as if I wrote them in my office alone with the house empty. There’s a looseness that emerges when you’re by yourself that you’re always trying to get back to. When you go into the studio this thing happens where you concentrate on phrasing or other elements of singing that are more on the educated side. [With Cold Satellite] I wanted to NOT concentrate on those things and hone in on pure feeling. Possession might be a good way to put it; that might be it. Think about locking yourself in your room during high school and listening to a record that really mattered to you, or if you’re a musician, putting on that record and trying to inhabit that space along with the record. I didn’t concentrate too hard on singing.
What I love about the first tune on the record [“Elegy (In A Distant Room)”] is there’s three guitars and a pedal steel and nobody is in tune [laughs]! We’re all just mildly out of tune, and I’m singing slightly out of tune. If you isolate any one element it sounds terrible but put it all together and it’s like the Faces – it’s all happening if it’s together.
I like that you bring up the Faces because one of the first thoughts I had listening to Calvacade was, “These guys need a bar onstage like the Faces had in the 70s.” So, when somebody wasn’t actively doing something during a song, they’d wander over for a cocktail.
I like that!
My impression is the album is one form these songs might take but this music is too alive to remain static. Once you took it on the road and held them up to different light I imagine the music changed.
It did, and it was interesting to be on the road together. There’s a nice tension in this band and an impulse to stretch out and play. Some tunes became faster or slower, and sometimes we had to figure out the imperatives of being onstage and how to get everyone in and out the easiest. I was playing two different guitars and the electric guitar needed to go from one weird tuning to another weird tuning so it took some time to adjust, so we’d keep some noise going to give us some time and keep a sonic field happening. The tension comes from Billy (drums) and Goody (David Goodrich – guitar) being improvisers but Alex (pedal steel) is a Nashville guy who thinks, “If you can’t get it said in half a verse on your solo you got nothing to say.” So, he’s always back on the rails and true to form, if there is a form. He likes architecture, and somewhere in the midst of that is me or the bass player making decisions to help find a middle ground. There’s always certain amount of tension but it always makes sense.
There’s a push-me-pull-me energy that’s really enticing. If you’re not too hung up on things being perfect, if you like a little mess on your thing, this sidles up to you real fast. It’s exciting when even the people making the music don’t really know where it’s going on a particular night. One guy with a wild hair can change everything.
It’s really funny when it happens given what a reliable drummer he is but once in a while just when you expect a tune to wind down Billy will get it in his teeth and the song gets further and further out. Then everybody gets excited and it gets noisier and weirder. There might be one guy trying to hold the breaks but it doesn’t happen.
What was your thinking in putting this group of players together? They seem well suited to these somewhat unorthodox roles.
It went like this: I started writing the tunes for the first record in 2005 and it was sort of experimental. I called Lisa from the road and asked her about changing a lyric about a camera zooming in and out. She said it was fine and that she’d given me the words because she didn’t know what to do with them. I called her back later that night and sang a song into her answering machine because I thought it might amuse her. Then, Goody and I started to work on tunes together for what we thought would become a duo acoustic record. We did that for almost two years and eventually figured out we should hire a band. I felt very strongly I wanted it to be a brand new experience for everybody, so I asked Kris [Delmhorst, Foucault’s wife and a boffo singer-songwriter herself] who the best drummer she knew was and she said without hesitation, “Billy Conway.” He’d moved to Montana and I hadn’t ever met him but I sent him an email.
I was a big Morphine fan so I’m intimate with his work. Feel for days.
So, I wrote him and told him the spiritual touchstones for this record will be Tonight’s The Night and Ooh La La by the Faces. He told me those were his two favorite records and said, “Let’s do it!” Then I had to find a bass player that wouldn’t be overmatched by Billy and I think Moses had played with him in Twinemen after Morphine and Orchestra Morphine as well. I’d met him on a split bill I’d played a few years prior and I knew I liked him. The pedal steel player I’d met when I was on tour in Europe in ’07. I wanted someone to play long passing chords and such, and Alex is really tasteful and he was free.
So, most of these guys had never met or really played together, but that first record took from Friday night to Sunday morning to largely complete. And we ate three-squares per day – it makes a huge difference in creating trust to break bread together. In a studio it’s hard but in a residential situation we could record at all hours. We’d knock off for a big meal and a bunch of wine and say, “Well, let’s try this one again.” By then it’s midnight and you work until three, and a lot of the best stuff happens working in those dark hours.
That’s the cocktail, if you add in grief, that produced Tonight’s The Night.
Tequila and hamburgers!
The freedom to work when it feels right is really different than working artificially to a clock.
Oh yeah. I like to be in charge of creating the experience for the band because I think it impacts the way the album goes down. My first impulse is to throw a party and just happen to make a record [laughs].
That vibe infuses Calvalcade. It’s great that you cite those particular spiritual touchstones because they emerged in an era where the rules of rock hadn’t been entirely written. Most modern rock has no hips, no sway, and there’s some real swagger to Cold Satellite. You can hear when one of you bit down hard on something good and the others got dragged along by their momentum.
I enjoy irony as much as they next guy, but I don’t connect with the modern cultural sense where irony is elevated about all other qualities like there’s some witty cultural commentary to be had by wearing a Dukes of Hazzard t-shirt or some shit. That doesn’t mean anything to me. I play music, and in this case we’re taking modern poetry that’s not necessarily esoteric but can be hard to parse and playing it rock ‘n’ roll style. That second blues flavored tune (“Necessary Monsters”) is a boogie in the John Lee Hooker sense but the language is really out there.
Oh yeah – No scent of fig/ In the fig tree’s branches/ Nor yet any tree. It’s like Rumi being run over a band playing in the back of a pickup truck.
[Laughs] Being able to do that non-ironically is what makes this band what it is. These are all guys who LOVE American rock music and they’re not going out there quoting for the benefit of the hipster crowd. They aren’t going to show you what R.E.M. or Sonic Youth album they own by playing a certain riff. They’re going to create music in real time with a lot of heart. That’s all we really wanted to, and it’s such a fun band to be on the road with for that reason. Everyone is trying to pick up the red phone and see if God is on the other end.
This band seems far from done. There are a lot of neat dangling threads in this music I hope you pull.
For sure! Everyone has been on the road for a long time. Nobody’s been out for less than 10 years, and Billy’s been out for God only knows how long! You picture it that way and you understand that nobody wants to sleep on anybody’s couch. They will if they have to but I prefer to take care of everybody and make sure they feel looked after. I have no idea what the next thing will be. I have no doubt I’ll keep making records with these players in all sorts of different combinations. I want to keep it interesting and keep myself engaged. It’s easy to get trapped and feel painted into a corner. The trick is to leap out of the corner and paint somewhere else.