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Charm School

Vetiver's Andy Cabic talks about songwriting, producing and staying home


Published September 12, 2012 at 4:01 a.m.

  • Vetiver

On their fifth full-length album, The Errant Charm, released in 2011, San Francisco’s Vetiver continue to refine their kaleidoscopic approach to indie folk. Though the band occupies the same “freak folk” tree as Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom, it lives on a more delicate branch that bends and rustles amid warm, gentle breezes. Vetiver’s sound, more accessible than the music of their NoCal contemporaries, is rooted in pop-centric — and often charming — songwriting.

Seven Days chatted by phone with Vetiver front man and songwriter Andy Cabic from his home in San Francisco, in advance of the band’s show at Signal Kitchen in Burlington this Sunday, September 16, with Big Search and Paper Castles.

SEVEN DAYS: There is a subtle evolution throughout the Vetiver catalog. Would you say you’re more concerned with process than end results?

ANDY CABIC: I take each song as it happens, and when I have enough, then I make a record. I don’t know that I’m pulling back for a bigger picture. It’s not clear to me what a record’s feel will be like until I’m nearly done, until I’m mixing it. And even at that point, I’m really close to it, and I wouldn’t say I have a complete handle on what’s happened until sometime afterward. One thing is that I’ve worked with the same engineer [Thom Monahan] for all these records. So the records are a product of our relationship, of us thinking about what we’ve just done and what we’re looking forward to doing the next time.

SD: So I’m basically just pulling out some music-crit BS here, then?

AC: [Laughs] I don’t know about that. But, you know, I’m a person. I think my songwriting is just a continuum. Vetiver is a band that has a lot of different people playing in it, but I’m the one writing all the songs. So there’s that continuity.

SD: Synth is more prominent on The Errant Charm than it is on previous records. Was it challenging to strike a balance between electronic and organic sounds, and still have it sound like a Vetiver record?

AC: I wanted to have more keyboards on the record. This time around we began the process at [Monahan’s] home studio, where he has a great keyboard collection. The records that preceded The Errant Charm began by tracking the band live and then adding from there. The Errant Charm was started with just myself and Thom. So the first things that went down, the basis for all the songs, were drum machines, acoustic guitars and keyboards. I was interested in creating a palette of sounds. I’ve been hinting at that for a while, and I had a lot of fun tweaking out with Thom on keyboards.

SD: Sense of place is a consistent theme in your songs. Can you talk a little about the role San Francisco plays in your writing?

AC: Well, that’s where I live and work, so a lot of times the ideas get going here. A lot of times I’ll get some version of a song finished, and it needs lyrics. So when I’m at that stage of the process, I’m usually just walking through my neighborhood and working things out. So I’m literally walking through the city and taking things in.

SD: I really like the title The Errant Charm. Where did that come from?

AC: It’s a line from a song, “Faint Praise.” I don’t think there’s any specific meaning to it. In fact, I think that’s the thing I like most about it. Both “errant” and “charm’ are words that have a variety of definitions. And I enjoy the way they can have different meanings.

SD: That record has been out for a little over a year now. Have you begun working on the next one?

AC: I’m making a little headway. But I’m not ready to record yet. I’ve found myself enjoying a break. I’ve hit the pause button for the first time in many years. So I’m working on some other projects and enjoying being home. But it’s coming up.

SD: What are some of the other projects?

AC: I’m doing work for a film, the soundtrack to a movie called Smashed with Eric Johnson, who plays in a band called Fruit Bats. That comes out in a couple of months.

SD: What sorts of nonmusical things do you enjoy while you’re home? Any interesting hobbies?

AC: I have no cool hobbies. [Laughs] Being home for me means touring around the city, playing tennis with friends, going to Giants games, cooking. Things like that.

SD: You and Thom Monahan coproduced Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion’s last record, Bright Examples. How do you know those guys?

AC: I guess I know them through Gary Louris [the Jayhawks]. We [Vetiver] did a tour a few years ago as Gary’s backing band, and I met Johnny on that tour. We have a lot of friends in common. Anyway, he really liked one of the Vetiver records, Thing of the Past, and wanted that feeling on their record.

SD: Did you learn anything that helped with The Errant Charm?

AC: Well, no. Their record was kind of the exact opposite of The Errant Charm. On certain tracks there were, like, eight or nine people playing at once. So with each take, you get a little closer to the finished product. You play it back and there are nine parts happening, and it sounds almost done. Errant Charm started with just me and Thom, and it felt better to start more intimately. On the other hand, it’s always nice to have so many great musicians around to get the ball rolling. It’s a real powerful thing.

Vetiver, Big Search and Paper Castles play Signal Kitchen in Burlington this Sunday, September 16. 8:30 p.m. $12. 18+.

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