Don’t let the name, or the lush landscape depicted on the cover of their debut disc Invitation Songs, fool you. Seattle trio the Cave Singers are city boys. Guitarist Derek Fudesco hails from upstate New York, and singer Pete Quirk grew up on the Jersey shore. Only drummer Marty Lund is an Evergreen State native, and even he makes no pretense to any sort of “rural cred.”
Yet in the bosom of a metropolis struggling to cope with urban density and out-of-control housing costs, the Cave Singers have fashioned a bracingly woodsy and organic sound. Ever-circling acoustic guitar licks intertwine with Quirk’s keening vocals, which hover between hymn-singing, prayer, and chattering in tongues. A sense of invoking a higher power permeates originals such as the somber “Helen” or “New Monuments”, with its a cappella intro and syncopated rhythms. Rustic percussion — washboard, shakers — enlivens the vigorous stomp of “Dancing On Our Graves”, and Quirk also plays harmonica and melodica on assorted selections.
This isn’t what a fan might expect, based on the members’ individual resumes. Fudesco cut his teeth playing bass in Pretty Girls Make Graves and Seattle punk institution Murder City Devils; Quirk fronted postpunk quintet Hint Hint; and Lund kept time for prog-rock freaks Cobra High. Despite all this experience, the Cave Singers basically started from scratch in late 2006, after Quirk and Fudesco shacked up together.
“I’ve been playing bass since I was 13,” recalls Fudesco. “About three years ago, I started to hit a wall with the songs I would write.” Nothing seemed good enough. “Then Pete moved in, and he had this little baby guitar, a really neat, small acoustic.” Fudesco borrowed it, and fumbling around on an unfamiliar instrument silenced his inner critic.
“This was the first time I’d ever played guitar, and [that innocence] just made it so that everything that I wrote sounded good,” he explains. Technical finesse became a negligible concern. “Having a new instrument brought back all the excitement of when I first started to write music.”
When Fudesco went out of town, Quirk took one of the early instrumentals he’d recorded and added vocals. They both liked the end result, and forged ahead. Holed up in their basement rehearsal space, a second collaboration flowed out as naturally as the first.
“During the third thing we wrote, while Derek was recording the guitar part, I came up with the band name,” says Quirk. “It came together so quickly, we didn’t have time to think, ‘Should we do this?’ We just did it.”
Once they had accumulated a half-dozen originals, and playing above-ground became a consideration, they recruited Lund on drums. “Very shortly thereafter, we were coming up with things that were [based on] all three of us generating ideas,” adds Lund.
Quirk also seized this opportunity to approach singing anew. He experimented with different spots in his register, and sought to use the cadences and sounds of words — regardless of their literal meanings — to complement vocal melodies and harmonies. His nasal timbre might sound slightly affected, but it springs from a very honest place. “With any art form, you go through different stages,” observes Quirk. “This is what came naturally to me when listening to what Derek and Marty play.”
Outside the comfort of their subterranean lair, the Cave Singers still manage to make spaces feel cozy, be it a small, darkened club or a big outdoor stage at a radio station-sponsored summer BBQ. There is one secret, a good luck charm: For all their gigs, they bring along a favorite lamp, one that also illuminates their band practices. (It’s pictured on the back of Invitation Songs, which was released September 25 on Matador.)
“We enjoy playing music, just the three of us, so we were trying to get rid of big stage lights and make it the shows more intimate. It just makes us more comfortable,” says Quirk of the battered talisman. It has already traveled with them to New York, and will continue to accompany them on tour. “We might just buy it a seat on the airplane,” Quirk jokes.
Regardless of their rough-hewn sound, the Cave Singers aren’t exponents of any freak-folk school; rather, the guys cite bands such as the Pixies, the Replacements and Fleetwood Mac as common reference points. But their tastes are expanding.
“I had heard a lot of folk artists, but I’d never been obsessed or listened to them for hours on end,” admits Fudesco. Slowly, that’s changing. “It’s sort of neat to discover these records or bands that other people had always said were amazing. I own a Grateful Dead record now, and I never thought I would. I never gave them a chance. But it’s really good.”
Their relationship with the great outdoors has come around a bit, too. “Not that we are rural or rustic, but on our tours now, we’ve been going camping,” reveals Quirk. “On the last tour we did, we went to a hot springs, and the beach.” The latter proved particularly restorative. “Hangovers don’t last very long when you’re swimming at a beautiful beach in San Diego.”