Vetiver interview: Less Hostility and More Listening

Mark Dale speaks to Vetiver's Andy Cabic about latest album Complete Strangers, collaborations, cross-cultural musings and more ahead of the band's upcoming UK dates.

Ben Smith

Date published: 7th Oct 2015

Image: Vetiver

Vetiver are a band that is centred around the songwriting of sole constant member Andy Cabic. They were formed in San Francisco in 2002, a city Cabic has lived in since 1998.

They released their self-titled debut album in 2004 on the small indie folk label DiCristina and were regarded as one of the key acts in the emerging 'freak folk' scene of the time. Particularly because of Cabic's relationship with one of that scene's perceived leading lights Devendra Banhart, with whom Cabic has collaborated, including on Vetiver material.

Alongside this association with Devendra Banhart, Vetiver cemented their affiliation to the freak folk scene by opening for and collaborating with Joanna Newsom. Vetiver have also performed with Juana Molina, Vashti BunyanAdem and have toured with the likes of Fleet Foxes, The Shins, Fruit Bats and Wilco.

Together, Banhart and Cabic launched their own label, Gnomonsong Recordings, releasing Jana Hunter's Blank Unstaring Heirs of Doom in 2005, There's No Home in 2007 and Vetiver's Thing of the Past album in 2008 - a collection of cover versions, mostly of American folk music but which also included a memorable take on Hawkwind's 'Hurry On Sundown'.

Since 2009 Sub Pop Records and Bella Union have released Vetiver's albums in the US and the UK respectively, including this year's Complete Strangers album which is their sixth.

Cabic writes material that is suitable for his at times understated voice. His vocals can sometimes appear quite low in the mix on Vetiver's albums, which have progressed in musical scope considerably since they were first pigeonholed as a freak folk act.

New album Complete Strangers (listen to the band perform 'Stranger Still below) contains dance music, soft rock and Latin music influences and is currently being toured in the US.

Mark Dale put a few questions to Andy Cabic prior to Vetiver bringing this live show to the UK. These questions, which include one about the American Bill of Rights and gun control, were put to Andy Cabic prior to the October 1 mass shooting at Umpqua Community College, Oregon.

Your Vetiver project arrived at a time when folk music was a bit of a buzz for media who like to put things into scenes and boxes. Kinda annoying that they do that. Would you agree that you've moved away from that sound gradually over subsequent recordings? 

The first Vetiver album came out over ten years ago. I think exploring new sounds and changing with each record is to be expected and I don't pay much attention to genres or media buzz when I write or record.

I like much of your new album a lot. To me it sounds like it was influenced by San Francisco and LA, the place where you live and the place where it was recorded. Would you agree? You've lived in that city for quite a long time now. Do you think it has perhaps taken its time to influence your sound?

The Bay Area has been an influence on my music from the very beginning. That said, I write songs that suit my voice and style of playing and pull people from all over to help me perform and record them. We worked on a lot of Complete Strangers in LA so I'm sure this very directly impacted the sound and feel of the album.

On your Thing Of The Past album, amongst the many covers you did were songs by two British artists. Can you tell me a bit about your appreciation for those two artists, Iain Matthews and Hawkwind? 

I appreciate both Matthews and Hawkwind in different ways. Both are examples of longevity in the music business and they have changed and grown over time.  Iain is one of the best song selectors out there, in terms of the tunes he chooses to record.

These two songs just happened to be a couple out of many that me and my friends, who played on the album, loved and thought we could bring something of ourselves to them.

You were seen performing with Juana Molina, Vashti Bunyan and Adem as "zero degrees of seperation". You've also collaborated with Joanna Newsom and Devendra Banhart, including on the new album with the latter. Do you have any definite plans to work with any of these people again? Who would you be excited to work with in the future?

I'm always open to collaborations but I don't have anything planned at the moment. Devendra and I tour together from time to time and still talk about working on an album together at some point.

Your new album is being appreciated by quite a few DJs who play an eclectic mix of chill out dance music, soft disco and funky rock. Over here it's called Balearic disco and incorporates a music labelled as "yacht rock". Are you aware of this scene at all? 

Yes, I'm well aware of Balearic disco, yacht rock, etc. I listen widely and keep up with all that stuff. I assume most good DJs have broad tastes and if they like my albums that's great. I really don't know that much about the reach or range of my listeners, only those who contact me or come to see me DJ or perform.

What's your favourite record of the year so far?

The album I have listened to the most this year is the self-titled album by Fantastic Something and their single "If She Doesn't Smile (It'll Rain)".

You said about the new album "As with many of Vetiver’s better moments, sunshine is only a chord away from melancholy. An introspective lyric underlies an extroverted chorus. Subtlety tries to be outgoing, loneliness familiar, in an effort to connect the dots of life’s ellipsis." Would it be fair to say you like to mess with contrasts and contradictions? 

Yes but not for their own sake, only to enrich the song.

You've changed the personel of the studio and touring band many times, yet the producer has remained constant. Is the new sound that different musicians bring to each project something you are actively seeking? If so, isn't it again a contradiction to have them produced by the same guy?

I enjoy collaborating and working with friends. Thom Monahan, who has produced all my records, is a close friend and someone whom I work with very easily.  It helps to have a steady understanding and creative language when other elements keep changing. This eases the distance between the old and the new and provides perspective.

In some of the reviews of your new album that I've read you've been accused of sounding bitter in some places within the record's lyrics. Do you think that is either fair or true? You do seem to sometimes deliberately explore darker mindsets in some of your lyrics, no? Coupled with often sunny, pop music, isn't that another contradiction/contrast?

I'm not aware of any bitterness on my part.  At any rate I don't always sing from my point of view nor are my lyrics always about me. I use characters and poetic license to communicate moods and stories, often obliquely.

I like to mix things up otherwise it gets boring and predictable. Pairing pensive lyrics with a hooky melody can heighten the ambiguity and interest in the song.  Or the reverse. I think over the course of an album it's nice when there is variety and motion between the melodies and lyrics, emotional dynamics.

What is that thing you guys in the US have with having the right to keep and bear arms written into the second amendment of the Bill Of Rights? Why does this debate never move on even when there's some kind of horrible school massacre? 

I don't own a gun, I've never fired a gun and I don't have any interest in violence or strife.  The United States is a large country and the Bill of Rights is an old document.  

Beyond these observations, I'm not sure I have much insight into the reasons why people take arms against one another. Less hostility, more listening and meaningful communication in our lives would make a big difference for everyone's well-being.

Thinking about the reaction that many black blues and soul musicians fom the south of the US had when they first came to tour the UK in the 1960s, many couldn't believe how well they were treated compared to back home, the lack of racism, the respect. They felt a completely different air in the UK.

Do you feel any kind of different air in the UK when you visit, say, from the absence of firearms to any other reason? Maybe the smaller portions of extremely bad fast food we have here? 

I don't frequent the UK enough to make any generalisations. I haven't visited in over three years. The people I've met have all been out-going, warm and eager to share their time and place with me, for which I'm grateful. Hopefully I can come over more often and get to know the country more.

You're playing the UK soon. Close to me you're playing Night and Day in Manchester, again, and Leaf in Liverpool. Can you tell me a little of what you know about these cities, their rivalries, their music? Do LA and San Francisco have similar rivalries (particularly ones outside sports)? 

I don't follow football (soccer or US-style), so though I presume through proximity and history these cities would have rivalries, the nature or extent of them I do not know. I know the legacy of their bands and scenes, more of Manchester's than Liverpool's and I'm an excited fan of British music in general. LA and SF have a rivalry in baseball and basketball to some extent.

That's about it. Amongst people I know there is a lot of back-and-forth between the two cities and creative support and enthusiasm.  There are also reductive caricatures and assumptions as there would be anywhere else.

A friend of mine is one of the disco DJs I mentioned in an earlier question. He used to work in a secondhand record store in Manchester called Vinyl Exchange where he met you. Do you always try and visit record stores when you travel? What other shops or places do you like to check out, when there's time, whilst touring?

Yes, I always try and visit record stores, bookstores, good vegetarian restaurants (I'm not vegetarian, I just try and eat healthy), rivers, parks, galleries and museums, if there's time.

It would be nice to see Mike again. I'm hoping to hit up Honest Jon's, Phonica, and Kristina while in London, along with Rough Trade where we'll be playing an in-store performance.

Vetiver play at Night and Day Cafe, Manchester on Thursday 15th November and Leaf On Bold Street, Liverpool on Saturday 17th October  (Tickets for Liverpool date below)


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