This week I did a second interview with Levi Dolan from the band Cantalouper. It's been several years since we last spoke, and the band has since put out a new album, done a ton of shows, and recently finished up a successful tour. The new album is fantastic, with sorrowful vocals that perfectly match the melancholy tone of the lyrics. That's not to say it's all sad. In fact the poetic, storytelling nature of the lyrics, while sometimes challenging, is ultimately uplifting and hopeful. Mr. Dolan went deeper into some of the themes and ideas behind the music in our discussion, which now ranks among one of my favorite interviews yet. Enjoy the interview, and don't forget to visit Cantalouper at the links below.
Brax: I last interviewed you in 2009. When we last spoke, you were hoping to get your new album out in a year, but it became more like six years. Can you share a peek into that process? What has Cantalouper been up to in the last six years?
Cantalouper: Yeah, it's been longer than I wanted it to be between albums. There were several things that dragged out the process. I wanted Reproduction to be a significant technical improvement for us. But I didn't have money to improve our technology. So I kept rewriting and rerecording, looking for loopholes that would let us get the sounds we needed, and maybe once a year saving up enough to buy a new piece of gear. We kept practicing and playing shows regularly, but also had several band lineup changes. Every time we reconfigured, it took time to get us back on track.
Meanwhile I kept getting in feedback loops of being depressed, getting drunk, and gaining weight. If you have a steady source of pain in your life, it can become seductive. When you can't stop something from hurting you, sometimes you decide to encourage it as a form of control, because then you can at least keep it from sneaking up on you. Eventually I came to a place where I realized I wasn't going to find out anything different by continuing to do that. Everything had become the same. More and more kinds of choices, like sometimes whether or not to go outside for a few minutes, could seem mythological and removed from any real possibility; these were things that people walking around in lives somewhere else had to worry about. But I knew other people in my life who I loved that deserved better from me. I figured they at least deserved knowing that I had tried to change, even though I didn't believe I could. I set some very simple, short range goals: Eat good food for one month. Look for someone to go on one date with. No beer in the fridge. I took a second job to work on saving up for the release of Reproduction, and I wound up meeting a good woman while doing that who kept me from wanting to stop at those goals. I know that there will always be an internal door that swings open sometimes, and that nothing keeps it closed forever. But when the door opens, it doesn't mean you have to go through it. And it doesn't mean that you have to prove that you're unafraid. It's just a thing that happens sometimes. Right now, it's ok if I put some beers in the fridge.
Brax: What can you tell me about the newest Cantalouper album, Reproduction? How have you changed and grown musically since Mandrakes? Incidentally, I love it, and my favorite track is Katydid.
Cantalouper: That's so cool. I'm really happy you mentioned Katydid. It's one of my favorite songs that we've released. I've tried several times to write a song where the chorus appears before the first verse, and this was the first time I got it to work.
Definitely, I'm a better writer and performer than when we made Mandrakes. And the good thing about taking lots of time tracking was that I could grow as a guitar player and hone some murky ideas into actual audio recordings. A tricky thing about making a record over a long period of time is that the best thing that you can do today is simply not the best thing you can do in one year. On the one hand, you have the responsibility to make the best record you can. On the other hand, you have to finish your record. Somewhere between those two things, you have to start deciding to take a snapshot of today's best idea, and accept that those ideas are going to form an album. And if you're self-releasing an album that essentially exists to you and your friends, and you hear a voice telling you not to be working on this batch of songs next October, there is no other voice you're going to hear. So that makes it the voice you're supposed to listen to.
Brax: You just finished up a tour. How did it go? Any crazy stories from the road? Also, when will you be touring through Southern California?
Cantalouper: We played some of our very best shows on our last tour. I'm proud of how well we performed, how we adapted to different settings, and how we worked hard on the details.
We played some songs in a studio in the Dallas-Fort Worth area for a project called The Strange Transmission, which is some super rad guys who record and film bands for their Youtube channel. One of the guys filming us was named Josh, and he is a magician. We were all ready to play, and he took a razor blade from around his neck and had us touch it to see that it was actually dull, but then started sawing through the center of his tongue right in front of us! It was startling and cool in an eerie way. I feel like I shouldn't say how the magic worked, but it turns out it was not exactly an illusion.
Our tours have been regional so far because we are able to go on the road for a few weeks each year, and have to find every way we can to at least approach paying for the travelling expenses of four people and a bunch of gear. So far I haven't been able align that reality with getting us to Southern California, but I would very much like for Cantalouper to come out.
Brax: Star Wars or Star Trek? Also, how stoked are you on the new Star Wars movie?
Cantalouper: Always Star Wars. Star Trek did not take with me. Like so many of my generation, I went from fascination to hatred to weariness to mild affection for Star Wars, and I believe that the new movie will be a really fun evening. I'm happy that there are so many people working on it who seem to have a sense of context, but aren't so bogged down by nonsense as we were in 1999. Which would be hard to do.
Brax: What are you listening to lately? Any local bands or bands you’ve played shows with you’d like to recommend?
Cantalouper: Lately my music listening has been mainly demos from projects that I'm in some way involved with. My brother Andrew and I are starting a band called Milk of Human Kindness with songs that he wrote. The live set up will be him playing keyboards and singing, and me facing him with a bass guitar and two 1970's hexagon-shaped electronic drums between us, and a keyboard for me too. It's going to be very dark new wave with lots of handmade sound designs and intense builds, really cool stuff. I'm also working with my friend Justin Hickerson, a singer-songwriter hero of mine, on getting a live band together to play his songs, and with my friend Nathan Conrad's new project called State Parks, which will also involve me and a guitar or two.
From the many great bands we've played with recently, the performance that's sticking with me most today is the Champaign, IL band Windmills, who played a set that was crafted to go from almost pure ambience to noise rock by the end. And their album is named Valuable Coupons Inside! which is so punk it hurts.
Brax: Last time you shared some fascinating insight into the world of “Christian music” and the relationship between music, art, and message. In the last six years, have you seen a change for better or worse in that particular segment of the music industry? I hate asking artists to explain lyrics, and I won’t do that here. However, your lyrics tell some amazing, heart wrenching stories, and have an obvious undercurrent of frustration with the church and/or religion, so if you’d like to discuss some of the thoughts, feelings, themes, or emotions that you put out there on this album, I won’t stop you.
Cantalouper: My interface with the Christian music industry for the past six years has consisted of buying whatever Starflyer 59 puts out, and reading pulpy articles about 90's Christian music personas imploding, and then watching their old music videos. On a personal experience level I think that it's changing for the better. Cantalouper is playing at a festival this weekend called Audiofeed, that grew up after the Cornerstone festival ended, which offered lots of fringe and experimental music made by Christian people. Most of the bands that play Audiofeed don't seem interested in making music as a complicated device to get people to support the fact that they are Christians. Many people that play there aren't Christians, but are in some way connected to that culture, like me. I think that as the market for all popular music continues to expand in availability while decaying in sustainability, people everywhere care less and less about religious signifiers because producing new, original music today has become unifying in how much optimism it takes to do it. And that's as much of a religious experience as many of us are ever going to get, or need to get, regardless of how little our beliefs may otherwise overlap.
As far as Cantalouper lyrics go, first of all I'm super happy you've been listening to the words, that's really good for me to hear. Certainly a basic thematic idea with Reproduction was to explore how we're pushed toward and pulled away from whatever lies behind rituals that know how to convert impressions of beauty into institutional power, and then label the conversion things like "maturity" and "responsibility". In the end, no matter how it's spun, I find this to be a deeply unsatisfying way to live, and it is embedded in the nature of white middle-American Christian culture.
Many people will find gracious ways to work around the opportunity for spiritual abuse that is provided by that culture, but many won't. It's inherent in believing that there is an unchangeable truth that your group has a special piece of, which other people don't have. When it comes right down to it, if your group has to choose between an outsider and its very own special piece of truth (which produced its identity and sense of self), it will choose self-preservation. There's only room for one thing to be the most important. In certain cases, the true believers will make love the most important thing. But the institution as a whole will not. That's why, to put it charitably, the church did not lead the way in supporting equal marriage rights, which came to a head with the Supreme Court ruling last week. In the aftermath, I've had Christian friends talk about how they now support gay marriage in a political sphere, but not in a personal one; others have shifted the focus to how the church should have done a better job at policing its own morality instead of being so caught up with the morality of others. Others have remained silent. It's cool that this has been a time when lots of Christians are thinking about how their expression of faith should improve. And certainly there are voices within the church, like Andrew Sullivan's, that have relentlessly called for justice on the gay marriage issue. But there is a reason that Christianity as a whole still largely stands on the side of hatred, fear, and shame with this, and it's an evil reason, and it's a systemic reason, and it will again arise to support injustice in the name of truth over concern for an outsider in the name of grace. And that is the definition of the opposite of what Jesus taught his followers to do. And once they've done that, after waiting a few decades, they'll reframe history so that Christianity reappears on the side of society's moral consensus, just like leaders on the religious right such as Michelle Bachmann and Glen Beck have been trying to do with racism, the civil rights movement, and American Christianity for the past couple of years.
There will always be those who find healthy ways to express love through the Christian religion. Someone is going to start another Christian hospital really soon somewhere. But you can start a hospital without claiming information that goes beyond human understanding which informs people that they are spiritually guilty if they get an abortion. They can find guilt easily enough without being told how their Father in Heaven knits all the babies together in their mother's womb. You don't have to honor allegiance to the tenets of your faith in order to discover goodness. And if you want to prevent your spiritual experience from being about judgment, then the first thing you should do is throw away its right to judge. Not just your personal right, but the right of your God and your Christ through your religion. Why do They need so much help? I've decided They don't need mine, and that's why I'm not offering it anymore. I'd rather work on songs and talk to people.
Brax: What do you think about the “resurgence” of cassettes? Will it last, or is it all hype? Also, what thought process went into releasing Reproduction on vinyl instead of CD?
Cantalouper: I dig cassettes as a recording medium, but not as a listening medium. Sometimes putting a guitar track on tape makes it naturally occupy its own space and just works. Cassettes make sense as a release format for some bands, but not for Cantalouper so far. It's a cool way to get a physical souvenir, but it seems to be a less widely used format for actually spending time listening to music than others at this point. For Reproduction, we felt we had a tossup between people who would spend time with our record on vinyl versus people who would do that only if there was a CD version released, and we couldn't do both. We chose vinyl because it sounds better, and is a superior way to listen to a project that's ideally going to be experienced as a whole. And also because we wanted to be a part of this weirdly awesome moment in musical history where it makes more sense to put out a vinyl LP than it has for a really long time. Not that many rock bands have had that choice.
Brax: You’ve worked with some impressive names on your various recordings, such as David Bazan, TW Walsh, and Kramer. How has working with these music veterans throughout the years influenced and affected what you do?
Cantalouper: Those guys are huge influences on me, especially as someone without training in making a record or being in a band, each tiny bit of information they've passed on has been precious. Hopefully I remember well. Since I lacked awareness of what it meant for us to do the projects we've done together when we started them, maybe their biggest influence on me would be that they taught me to find ways to make it work. All of those guys share an ethic of finding what it takes to do the job, while reaching for a standard they can meet (whether the guy they're working with can even see it or not) in the name of doing the work without wallowing in distractions. I continue to aspire to do that. Bazan is definitely always going to be on my musical Mount Rushmore. He is a good teacher, a good learner, and if he's got your back, he will fight to the death for you. Or else talk about the last beer he drank.
Brax: Should we be looking at a colony on Mars, or should we start closer to home with the moon? Where would you rather live?
Cantalouper: I really wonder how the greater distance from Earth would psychologically affect colonists on Mars. There would have to be some mental arrangement that allowed you to get through your day to day tasks, but it also seems like the first thing that went wrong on Mars would be really, really hard to recover from. Like it would be so horrifying for someone to die there from a medical emergency that could possibly have been prevented somewhere on Earth. Of course, this happens all the time here already, but it would be psychologically weirder to have an astronaut-type figure die in a pathetic way.
I would rather live on the moon. I would like to be able to look out the window at Earth nearby.
Brax: Last time we spoke, you had some very sage advice for musicians looking to survive the challenges and potential burnout of being an artist. With six more years of experience, do you have any additional advice for others trying to “make it” in music?
Cantalouper: There is no making it. There is no demand. There are only drops in the bucket. There is only you, and this evening after you get off work. There is only you, and your brother and your sister. There is only you and that feeling you remember having once when you hummed something to yourself as you started the clothes dryer. There will always be music around us, and if we want to join in, we can. Whether we get to be artists or musicians is important, and I very much hope we'll get to be those things. But in the end that's not the part that's up to us.
Brax: Anything else you’d like to add?
Cantalouper: Brax, I'm so happy you're still going, and thank you so much for the questions.
Tell them Brax sent you!
Thanks to Cantalouper.
Check back next soon for another exciting band interview.
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