In the Whole Earth catalog, a Vetiver is a highly fragrant type of South Asian plant. It’s also the alias that singer-songwriter Andy Cabic has used for seven years now. For Vetiver’s first stateside trek in 2004, Cabic’s band struck out on a now-infamous tour that introduced the world to both “freak-folk” and the quirky talents of Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom. Unlike his friends and tourmates though, Vetiver’s music stayed closer to deep-in-the-pocket musicianship and songcraft rather than ornate poesy and “freak”-ness. Their resplendent 2006 album Find Me Gone and a follow-up LP of deep folk covers (2008′s Thing of the Past) caught the attention of Sub Pop, who just released their decidedly more propulsive and new wave-tinged album, The Errant Charm.
eMusic’s Andy Beta caught up with Cabic to walk through his roots and influences in song.
When people first heard you and Devendra Banhart, they always cited T. Rex as a reference.
Not one time ever in conversation did T. Rex come up between us [laughs]. I think people just say that because Devendra’s voice has that quaver like Marc Bolan. And the fact that he is charismatic and has long hair. His songs came out of poetry. This doesn’t often get said, but he was doing poems, drawings and art pieces. He would make these little books of poetry that he would hand out in the school. His songs worked the way his poems worked, just put to music. But sound-wise, I don’t hear a lot of affinity. I hear it in the vocal, but T. Rex wasn’t a touchstone for me either. I love T. Rex and Electric Warrior, but for me, the changes in my own songwriting stemmed from what I had done before.
In North Carolina, I had done Polvo, Sonic Youth kind of stuff on the DIY scene. But moving to San Francisco changed my songwriting. I didn’t have a job for awhile and so I learned how to fingerpick on my acoustic guitar. When I think back on it, I lived in a really small room, so I guess everything got quieter because of it. My songwriting was shaped by that and just learning how to fingerpick on an acoustic guitar and writing songs that suited my voice were what I was focused on, less on some mythical rocker from the 1970s.
Oh, it’s Kevin [Barker, who frequently contributed to Vetiver recordings]! Interesting, I don’t know this record that well. I’m more familiar with his stuff after that. I could barely tell that was Kevin. It sounded a little British, but kinda American as well.
I recently saw The Family Jams, a documentary film about a 2004 tour that Kevin shot with you, Devendra and Joanna Newsom on the road together.
I met Kevin at the Cooler in New York that I played with Devendra. I came to know him on that tour. That was when everyone was living in San Francisco. And I knew Joanna through Noah Georgeson. Vetiver had never played outside the West Coast. Over the course of that tour, Joanna’s profile grew and grew. People barely recognized us at all. Kevin started playing with us during that tour and recorded with us over the next few records.
I’ve never been interested in playing Vetiver songs by myself. From the beginning, I’ve had people play with me live. Over time, who I’ve played with has changed. The albums reflect these line-up changes. The band is collaborative in a sense, but I’m still at home by myself writing the songs.
You are known to be a pretty deep digger, so I tried to stump you on this female folksinger.
You stumped me on this one! What you just played was awesome, but I actually tend to listen to pop music with folk arrangements or a formerly-folk performer turned pop. I have a fondness for singer-songwriters from the ’70s and ’80s, that’s the time I grew up in, but I’m a little more saccharine in my tastes.
This was also recorded at Water Music in New Jersey, same as your new record.
They have these rimshots going through the track that aren’t typical of them, but the melodies are telltale: is this the new Feelies record? I heard just a tiny bit of their new record because I begged and coaxed someone at Water Music to play me some of it. The Feelies were the band tracking in the studio just before Vetiver went into the studio to record This Errant Charm. [The album] was built up the same way that To Find Me Gone was put together. I started with Thom Monahan in the studio and demoed them, but we kept what we had built up. It was just us in his home studio in L.A. The record is split between the band and the demos. We brought the demos to Water Music and tracked the songs with the band and everyone played into these other songs. The last two records were done live in the studio.
It’s got more keyboards which gives it a bit of new-wave feel. It’s more upbeat and jangly, which reminds me of stuff I listened to growing up in the ’80s. It was poppier for us; the songs more direct. I wanted to have more keyboards and mix drum machines with Otto’s drums. I like that friction when it happens. They complement each other really well. He’s such a good player that he can adapt to that and still sit in the pocket.
Finally, something I know! These are my friends Sara Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion and I helped produce this record. That record was really fun and different in the sense that it was tracked live. They loved the covers record we did and that was the sound they were into. They brought musicians in and I came in with Otto, Kevin and Dan into the sessions. We cut it all live on the floor, save for the vocals. But there’d be 8-9 people playing at times in the live room. It was quite a feeling to get a take done that way. It gels together in a magical way when you have that going on.
It sounds so much like a Vetiver record that I thought for a moment the new one would take a similar course.
I made The Errant Charm right after that and it didn’t have a lot of bearing on how that record came out. It was actually just the opposite. I love producing and would do more of it. Circumstances are what they are and certain songs need certain things, but fun as that experience was, it didn’t impact how I did my record per se.
I kind of just listen to the first side of Mirage and then flip it over and play “Hold On.” Anything on the first side is amazing. There’s a memory I have of seeing that video when I was a kid growing up. It was one of the first world premiere videos, with them in the desert with the shards of mirrors in the sand. I love that song. It’s perfect, in my view. The way the guitar line work, there are parts that only come in on the chorus, or just on the bridge and go away. They come up for a few bars for a certain sound and then another instrument come sin to take the next part. They put so much time into those records and there’s so much going on in there.