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It's a warm March day in Carrboro, perfect for this kind of practice break. The dudes in Caltrop lounge just outside of the dorm-room-sized space where their super-loud band rehearses, drinking cheap beer and enjoying the late afternoon sun. Fittingly, the band practices just a few steps from where The Reservoir once stood; the bar and venue thrived on their kind of nontraditional heaviness.
With its incredibly loud, incredibly intense blues-prog, Caltrop is often labeled "metal" for lack of a better descriptor. Yet that belies a remarkable stylistic range—even within individual songs, the band blurs grunge with angular math with early '70s Southern rock. With second LP Ten Million Years and Eight Minutes coming out Saturday at the Cat's Cradle, we sat down with Caltrop to listen to some songs together—some at the root of this band, some by its modern cousins—and potentially glean some insight into how these four friends approach music.
Don Caballero, "Please Tokio, Please This is Tokio"
[from Don Caballero 2, 1995]
[Don Cab is an essential math-rock band with a bit of a cult following. Their influence is broad, in everything from math- and post-rock to the world of heavy bands that aren't actually metal – like Caltrop.]
Murat Dirlik [bass/ vocals]: That first fucking record sure ain't bad. I remember when that came out, hearing that record and immediately latching onto it and being like what we were trying to do. (Sam and I) were playing together at the time. That was a great record and I feel like nothing after that record by Don Cab really grabbed me.
Sam Taylor [guitar/ vocals]: That fellow Jason Jouver who plays in that band Creta Bourzia is the bass player, right? He is the bass player for Don Cab, or was, when we were up there last. He's a friend and he's a nice guy.
Murat: I thought they were a great band, but that drummer guy (Damon Che) is sort of a fucking asshole. Repeatedly proven, kind of an asshole. Honestly, for me, that kind of ruined their music for me. It was the fact that he's sort of just being irredeemably hostile and kind of lame to just people that were stoked about him. And as far as that goes, fuck that guy.
John Crouch [drums]: A friend of mine played in a band with him with him. (Che) was playing the guitar or whatever and not the drums and my friend was the drummer, and he said that that guy was always on him, just "your fucking timing's off!" Like, calling him out on everything.
Murat: It's like, the endless question of the artist as a person versus the artist as a musician and what you choose to ignore, I guess.
Adam Nolton [guitar]: But we're nice all around.
Murat: Well, most people probably aren't that pleasant to hang out with whose music you love, for whatever reason, but sometimes you should completely ignore that. But every now and then you read a biography that you regret reading because it makes you appreciate someone's music less.
Sam: One of those things I've always liked about that record For Respect, that one I like the most, I've always liked instrumental music and it's a band that really pulls it off...
Murat: Well, it's true. I saw them live and they were amazing. It's like music for musicians, in a good way, but this isn't mass appeal. It's nothing I could put on and my mom would be like "what was that?"
Adam: But you made your mama listen to Jethro Tull. It's the same thing, sorta.
Harvey Milk, "After All I've Done for You, This Is How You Repay Me?"
[from Life ... the Best Game in Town, 2008]
[Harvey Milk also straddles the boundary between rock and metal. One never knows where the band will take a song: This one starts with a scorching, boogie-descended riff, yet ends on a bass-heavy, speaker-destroying doom crunch.]
Sam: This is one of my favorite bands. I mean, of the obscure successful artists, they've done it. The noises that they make, the guitar's sound, the lock between the guitar player and the drummer—it's badass.
John: There's something about the way they sound, like Sam was saying, that huge guitar tone. Even the drummer, I think.
Murat: It's totally riff-worthy awesome stuff, but they also demand this sense of "OK, we're going to take this somewhere completely unexpected." It demands patience in a good way, I think.
Sam: And minimal vocals again. They have vocals, but it's not vocal-oriented. It's all about the musicianship and what they're doing structurally with the song. Nothing against vocal-oriented stuff; vocals really, really work when they work. And other than that, I focus on the music. This is heavy. This is the essence of heavy music to me.
Independent Weekly: It's that low tone right there, it's so low.
Sam: Some mixes on some of the songs are that way too. I forget which, uh, Courtesy and Goodwill Toward Men, that record—I think that's the name of it. It's got a song that's on the Kelly Sessions CD, I don't remember which song it is off which record, but it's the song that gets real quiet and then real loud and then real quiet. They kind of mastered it on the later release to where you could hear everything at a decent volume and the other one, the Courtesy and Goodwill Toward Men, you'd turn it up so loud trying to hear it and then it blows your freaking speakers flat out when it comes in. You've gotta turn it down or scare the cat.
[from Maker, 2009]
[Three brothers from the Virginia hills, making smoky, crunchy, riff-driven hard rock with haunting, close harmonies. This is one prolific band, too.]
John: It's an incredible thing to be in a band alone, but being in a band with two of your brothers, I could never imagine that.
Adam: One of my favorite things—there was a drumset set up, the drummer's drumset, and the guitar player sat down in front of it and they were playing off of each other. You could tell they had been doing this in a basement, probably since they were kids, and that energy translated. It was awesome.
Sam: They're nice guys. I like their band. We sort of were co-introduced to Arbouretum and Pontiak at the same time. Did we not play with both of them at the same time the first time we played with them?
Murat: Oh yeah, at the Nightlight.
Adam: And in Richmond.
Murat: I love Pontiak. To me, they're the kind of band you just go and do this [grooves, nods head] the whole show. They're not trying to, like, freak you out; they're more like something you can sink your teeth into—kind of like Black Skies to me in that. They establish a groove and they just ride it, sometimes for the whole show. The rapport between the brothers is awesome. Those guys stayed at my house and they were totally stoked about the fact that the (Eno River) was there and like, "oh, you've got shiitakes!" They live on a farm together outside of Charlottesville somewhere. They just struck me as totally cool, real guys who were just playing music. And it sort of is expressed in their music.
[from Mach II, 2010]
[Speaking of brothers, Sam Taylor's older brother Joe plays guitar and sings in this Chapel Hill rock duo. Joe's old band, Capsize 7, was a late-'90s local favorite.]
Murat: Aah. The Blag'ardians.
Sam: Joe has just now gotten the next record he recorded with Brian Paulson rough mixed and I have a copy of it in my truck and I look forward to hearing it in its entirety. And I like this song a lot. I mean his guitar playing is so clean and fast. It's the Strat sound through the Marshall.
Adam: He doesn't use any distortions. That's hard to fucking pull off. It'll let everybody and yourself know how bad you've fucked up. You've gotta know what you're doing.
Murat: The thing about Joe that I really love, ever since the Capsize 7 years, is he has impeccable rhythm and he uses that rhythm to do little leads as he plays. Watching him play live, he's an amazing guitar player. Joe's got great precision.
Sam: My brother is so much more proficient of a guitar player than I am. Always has been. His fucking hands! He can reach like fucking six frets with his fingers. And he's totally on top of what he does. Like he said, very detail-oriented with what he's doing and not fucking it up. It's the truth. I've always felt like my big brother is a fantastic guitar player and I just try and—not like I'm trying to be as good as he is or whatever, but I'm amazed at how fucking good he is.
Murat: It's an awesome thing watching Sam and Joe progress separately but still chronologically. The little brother love is definitely there. But I would say Joe is a big influence on Sam's playing for that reason.
Neil Young, "After the Gold Rush"
[from After the Gold Rush, 1970]
[This classic balances socio-political abstractions with quavering admissions of vulnerability. With sparse instrumentation, Young's distinctive voice is way out front: you either love this song or hate it.]
Murat: This is some orchestral fucking shit right here.
Adam: Memories, this is... this is a lot of my life. This is good.
John: This one in particular, Neil Young has said himself that it's not about anything. This is one of my favorite Neil Young records, but it's like an anomaly. It's hard to stick your teeth into. There's UFO stuff, there's something with, uh...
Indy: A burned-out basement?
Sam: The only record I have vinyl-style is On the Beach.
Murat: Okay, I like this song, but it, to me, in a way, approaches the Neil Young that to me is the shit that I like less which is like "A Man Needs a Maid" and that kind of stuff. The rhythm section is absent, you know what I mean? What I like, a lot of this era for me requires [sings a "Heart of Gold"-reminiscent rhythm line] and this is kind of like the break in the album when he does this and then he gets orchestral and all that stuff.
And I love it, I'm not being critical, and it's great, but it's sort of like... it's almost like Marvin Gaye, What's Going On, when it has these badass moments where I want to dance and then all of the sudden it's like "now I'm going to get freaky," you know? But for some reason I've always equated where they both expand away from rhythm and start having fun with orchestras, in a way it just seems the same. It's beautiful and big but it lacks the shit that makes me want to move my hips.
Adam: But what you're forgetting about the record is you get a little bit of that and then you slowly fall in love with it.
Murat: Sure, exactly
Earth, "An Inquest Concerning Teeth"
[from Hex: Or Printing in the Infernal Method, 2005]
[Earth's first record as a snail's-pace instro-country band was based directly on Cormac McCarthy's philosophical Western Blood Meridian—a favorite book within Caltrop.]
Adam: [Murat] gave me the book, but [Murat and Sam] both turned me on to that.
Sam: I give it to as many people as I can. I don't even have a copy. I get a copy and I give it away.
Murat: There's a good book called Perspectives on Cormac McCarthy that is all about whatever people's theorizing on the basic themes, Gnosticism and all that kind of stuff, and it's pretty amazing, it really is. It made me think about the book a lot more after I read that book and then I read Blood Meridian again.
Sam: I've never listened to this band. Are there vocals in this?
Sam: And that's fucking awesome. It's all about the direction of their music, the fucking feeling.
Adam: When I worked at Pepper's (Pizza), Lincoln Sward [of In the Year of the Pig] would listen to Earth. It was like a different Earth then. Like...
Indy: The noise Earth?
Adam: Yeah. And I've heard this before, it's country-ish and it's cleaner. I forget who brought it in, but I was like "who is this?" But yes, there's never anybody that sings.
John: I actually didn't know it was based on that Cormac McCarthy book, and it actually makes perfect sense with the way this album sounded. It reminded me a lot of Neil Young's soundtrack to Dead Man, with the solo guitar. It's really effective.
Murat: Yeah. It's immediately recognizable, that Dead Man shit.
Adam: [Quoting the film] "Stupid fucking white man."
Allman Brothers Band, "Statesboro Blues"
[from At Fillmore East, 1971]
[This cornerstone of Southern rock is one of Adam Nolton's favorite bands.]
Adam: Everybody knows the Allman Brothers is like Gregg Allman's singing but they did a bunch of instrumental shit. To me, it stands out way more than the shit that they play on the radio. "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed," there's not a lyric. One of the best damn songs you'll ever hear.
Soundgarden, "Jesus Christ Pose"
[from Badmotorfinger, 1991]
[From Matt Cameron's counter-intuitive drum lines to Kim Thayil's equally unexpected riff-craft, these grunge dudes also had a habit of making the blues go very strange, very intense places.]
Sam: [Walks around corner and recognizes song] Hell yeah!
Adam: You know, the '90s are considered cheesy. You know, grunge and all that, but if you listen to the first two Smashing Pumpkins albums and early Soundgarden, it was heavy as hell but it was also really melodic, and they had these parts that they would descend into beauty and then rise back up into heaviness.
Sam: I was definitely influenced by listening to this sort of stuff at that point in time.
Neurosis, "An Offering"
[from Sovereign EP, 2000]
[This slow-burner builds over eight minutes from doomy introspection and nihilistic growls to close on a super-dense heavy metal crush with chopped vocals.]
Murat: Neurosis almost feels to me like angry, tired muscle moving. It's not just music. It feels like some body, you know? But that's what I like about this band. They just encapsulate this physical thing of like the body, generally anger, I guess early on. Whatever, I guess, I'm not too into angry music but I do feel like I can close my eyes and when I listen to the music I picture this physical being moving around, just muscles and shit. I think that's an awesome thing that happens.
Sam: I can remember exactly where I was last time I listened to Times of Grace [a 1999 Neurosis album], which sounds just like this. I've never heard this record, but it sounds just like this in terms of heavy, long things like they're doing right there. It was the mood I was in and I wanted everybody in the neighborhood to hear that. I just cranked it.
John: Yeah, I've never heard this. It's on an EP, you said?
Indy: By "EP" they mean 40 minutes of music. It's the Sovereign EP and this is the second track.
John: I gotcha. The first and unfortunately only time I've seen Neurosis, I was 14 maybe and I was going to Winston-Salem to see Hatebreed...
Indy: At Ziggy's?
John: Ziggy's! Exactly, yes. And they were opening up for Neurosis and I had never ... I had heard Souls at Zero before and I was like "OK, they're a punk band or whatever." And it was one of those occasions where I was just like "Oh my God, I had no idea this existed. I've been looking for this, but I had no idea it was out there!"
Murat: I saw Neurosis when I was 13, probably 10 years before you saw Neurosis, in Fayetteville. The show was amazing. I was this little kid and they were already like, you know, crusty old men and it was awesome. It definitely was the same thing: "Holy shit, music can do this? That's fucking amazing."
Neurosis to me sounds like blood and guts. Something about the power and the multiple vocals coming in screaming at you and the amazing heavy drumming and shit—it's really visceral. It takes you to another place, and to me it almost feels like I'm on some operating table being torn apart by aliens. It's in a good way if I want to feel like that, but it is sort of cathartic kind of crazy shit.
Sam: The mix of this record sounds like it's being played through a badass PA.
Murat: It doesn't sound human, you know what I mean? Like in fucking Back to the Future when Michael J. Fox puts Eddie Van Halen on the guy's head. If you put this on someone's head back in 1950? They'd be like "I'm in hell," you know?
John: Iron Maiden used to scare me, you know? [Laughs]