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Interview with Cantalouper.
This week I interviewed Levi Dolan from the band Cantalouper. Mr. Dolan contacted me a few weeks ago and sent me a copy of his recently released full length, Mandrakes. I was immediately struck by the artwork, which consists entirely of childhood crayon drawings by Dolan himself in 1986. These drawings somehow perfectly reflect the musical content of the album itself. Musically, references to Pedro the Lion are inevitable, but Cantalouper easily distinguish themselves as their own band. Levi Dolan's deep, melancholy voice has such a unique sound, it's enough to set the band apart on its own. Also, they list Starflyer 59 as one of their influences, so I'm automatically there! Enjoy the interview, and don't forget to visit Cantalouper at the links below. You'll be glad you did.
Brax: I'm curious about the name of your band. Is it a reference to fruit, or to a person who can't get married in a hurry? Please explain.
Cantalouper: The name of the band is taken from the title of a thing I wrote in college. In boring classes, I sat in the back and tried to make new Flannery O'Connor stories. "Cantalouper," the story, is about a boy and his sister who go out to sell cantaloupes that they grew themselves by the side of the road. The boy is younger, and sees it as an adventure, but the sister is (mad) because it seems impractical and stupid to her compared to hanging out with her friends.
Working on that story helped me sort of figure out the reasons I have for deciding to put out songs in a form that I can share. Like lots of other people, I spent a lot of time wondering about whether or not my songs were good enough to put lots of resources into them, and whether or not people would like them, and if so, how much, etc. I gradually decided I couldn't answer those questions and they didn't matter in terms of putting something out where people could hear it. What mattered was whether I offered what I had made that had value to me, or let it rot, which was what it felt like it was doing. I know some people are really good at doing stuff just for themselves in a healthy way, and maybe I'll get to stop doing this and move on to something else eventually, but this is how I have it worked out so far.
I turned in a version of that story for my English Comp class and got a "C" I think.
Brax: What music project are you currently working on?
Cantalouper: Right now, most of our efforts are going towards the next Cantalouper full-length, which will hopefully be out late next year. It may turn out to be more spacey and rocky than the last one. The material for it started to come together when I was reading through the complete Calvin and Hobbes and thinking about changes that come as you grow up, and which of those changes should and should not happen.
Andrew, Chuck, and I are also working on finishing an EP for Andrew's band Milk of Human Kindness.
Brax: What other artists/bands have had the biggest influence on your music?
Cantalouper: I grew up in an environment where I was only allowed to listen to Christian music, and then only the segment of that which had the appearance of being clean-cut. No Beatles or Beach Boys. Luckily for me, this included the greatest band of all time, Starflyer 59, and David Bazan's band Pedro the Lion. Now, I try to listen to anything that has good songwriting and performances, but my musical taste has been pretty affected by those two bands, for better or worse. Also as far as personal influence, if it were not for David Bazan's friendship and encouragement there would be no Cantalouper. I'd still be making tapes in my room.
Brax: Wormholes or black holes?
Cantalouper: I'd have to say wormholes, because it seems like that was what was going on in 2001: A Space Odyssey. At least when I read the book, it seemed that's what Arthur C. Clarke thought Kubrick was showing. And having Kubrick on my side makes me right.
Brax: What are your favorite bands to play shows with? Why?
Cantalouper: We played a show with Casiotone for the Painfully Alone last fall that was really satisfying. It's cool to play your set, and then see someone else go on doing something in the same vein as you in a more accomplished way; it elevates your band to kind of pointing the way towards how good it can be or something. I mean, Owen's thing is very different from ours, but we seem to overlap in the kinds of things that compel and direct the music.
Brax: What message do you most hope to get across through your music?
Cantalouper: I have this idea not to think in terms of message at all. I feel like that's beyond my control.
Again, this came from being around the Christian music "genre" a whole lot, which caused me to decide that the absolute worst music that's ever been made is the kind that's purpose is to convey a message, using pop music only as a conduit for dogma, a kind of grown up version of singing the alphabet as a memory device, except that grownups that invent clever ways of doing this get to look beautiful, make money, and attribute it to God's blessings. And it's even more ridiculous to me when bands with this philosophy try to veil it in various ways. I guess what I hope for is to genuinely express my experience and point of view in a way that fits pop music, not merely as an outlet for self-expression because that has its limits for me, but in a commitment to it as an expression of honesty, to make something outside myself. That's kind of how I think about it now anyway.
In making the Mandrakes record, I started with this frustration from my Christian background about how we could take stories about people's lives and reduce them to one-liner lessons, and then go out and make the same kinds of mistakes and not recognize it, feeling like our situations were unique. And I'd make songs when I thought about ways present day mistakes paralleled long ago stories of mistakes, and how that (angered) me. Then I kind of got attached to this one particular Bible story about Jacob making mistake after mistake after mistake, but then weirdly good stuff happening in spite of what he does. Structurally, it seemed like a good way to sort of filter stuff and pace this batch of songs. And it became really compelling to me, because as much as religion makes me angry, sad, and resentful, and in spite of all the mistakes in it and around it, there's something about it that doesn't add up in a way that lets me just be dismissive of everything that has to do with it. So it would be really cool if people who listen to the record detect some of the themes I was trying to make this album contain, and value them too, but hopefully there's lots of interesting stuff to hear besides just words on the album.
Brax: iPod, CD, Vinyl, or other? Why?
Cantalouper: I don't have an iPod. Maybe when they get rid of mp3's and start using better quality files I'll think about it. As they are now, they don't sound good to me and I don't like the tiny buttons. I'd rather buy a bunch more CD's and vinyls with physical packaging instead of another device to play music on. I like cassette tapes, too.
Brax: Tell me about your best live show ever.
Cantalouper: A couple months ago we opened for Blind Pilot, and Fat Tire Beer was doing this promotional thing with them where they brought all these bicycles and were going to have everyone ride them around before the show. I guess originally the plan was for their band to ride into town on bikes, because they'd done that before, but it got shifted to pre-show. What wound up happening was everyone left to ride bikes, and it of course went later than expected, and we were supposed to go on with most of the crowd gone. So this was a bummer, but we started to go on anyway, and then really fast a lot of people came back from hanging around the bikes, or on the ride or whatever, and we played a really good show. I would see the stragglers wandering in from outside, and get mad that they hadn't come in earlier, and the rest of the band fed off of having a bunch of excited people being there to watch us. A lot of times I play better if people aren't paying attention, and the other guys play better when they are, but not so often do we get that combination of both at one show.
Brax: Should Pluto still be considered a planet? Why or why not?
Cantalouper: The thing about Pluto is it reminds me of the stupid Disney dog. He was so dumb. I mean, you'd think if they decided to introduce this surreal concept of a mouse owning a dog, yet also being best friends with another dog, it would be because they had such good ideas for the funny cartoons they were going to make with him. But no. It's like first you're laughing your (butt) off at this talking duck tying a rubber pancake around every object in his house, then getting his feet buttered by a talking chipmunk and sliding backwards through everything until he's trapped in a stovepipe, and then the next cartoon starts and it consists of a dog who decides to try chewing gum. Yippee.
So no, I don't think Pluto should still be considered a planet, because I don't want to run the risk of elementary school children being reminded of that dog while trying to memorize the names of the planets. Plus, then there's one less thing to learn in school.
Brax: Any advice for others trying to “make it” in music?
Cantalouper: Oh man, probably others would like advice from someone who's a lot farther along.
I've got this: I just finished reading a book called Black Postcards, which is the memoirs of Dean Wareham, and is mostly about when he was in a band called Galaxie 500 and then in a band called Luna. It was good to read, but also depressing because it seems like when both bands broke up, he was really ready for it to end. He didn't want to keep playing the same venues and same songs.
It made me think the only way to be satisfied from doing the band thing, is to have material that you really care about with all your heart. And that's not guaranteed to work either, but I want to do a better job of that. That's the only way I can see how it could become something you feel like is worth what it costs. Maybe he did in a way that wasn't apparent to me in the book, but I was struck by how he didn't seem talk about whether or not the stuff he made had meaning for him personally. Of course, I don't know how I would feel about Cantalouper if I had a decade of touring behind me like him, but it made me think, man I had better try to write stuff that really matters to me. Some people can write really great songs that have nothing to do with what they care about, and enjoy them for what they are, or they can be in bands and really do it totally for fun, and I think that's amazing. But for me, if I'm going to devote a ton of my time and money and energy towards this stuff, it's got to be for something that goes beyond whether there's an external return that matches what I put into it. Anyway, I love Dean's songs and his voice, but I hope we're headed towards a better ending for Cantalouper.
Brax: Anything else you’d like to add?
Cantalouper: Thanks for the questions, and for keeping up a great site!
Tell them Brax sent you!
Thanks to Cantalouper.
Check back next Wednesday for another exciting band interview.
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