Werner Herzog or Errol Morris in Outer Space
Interview by Robert D. Patrick
The dewy, moon lacquered reverb of Indiana based group, Cactus Is, creates a hushed landscape of empyrean madness. Only a month away from our website being aesthetically overhauled, band members Bob Mathison and Noah East agreed, begrudgingly, to have their interview posted to the old, element rusted Cinema Spartan. In this exclusive exchange, Cactus Is confesses to the weirdness of Spotify, the coolness of Community’s Dan Harmon, and the phantom limb of Dave Dravecky. The results are as inimitable, fun, and creative as the band’s music.
ROBERT PATRICK: The moniker of your album, “The Left Field,” is prominent on your EP’s cover. What about that name resonated with you?
BOB MATHISON: Truth be told, ‘The Left Field’ was actually the name of the band while we were working on that EP. So the boring answer is that, on the surface, the name represents the strangeness we try to bring to the music blah blah blah; but in the back of our minds I think we always knew that the name was perhaps a tad too generic to ever gain any real traction, so I suppose one could consider that analogous to the left fielder in baseball, who has the farthest throw to first base.
NOAH EAST: I just like baseball and non-sequiturs, so this covers both of those.
There’s definitely an airy, emotional riptide that you guys possess. Not to go overboard, but it sounds like being neck deep in water on an unknown beach at midnight (is that a genre?). When you guys got together, initially, to form the band’s sound, what did you discuss?
B: [Laughs] I think the watery element is the ‘lo-fi’ of it all. I’m a shitty producer working with what I’ve got. You cross this threshold where you just have to embrace what you’ve got and learn how to do absolutely everything you can to push the limits of what your shitty gear can do. Noah and I have been making music together for over a decade now in countless projects to varying—if not dubious—degrees of quality and success. We went into this project knowing we wanted to blend Noah’s analog sensibilities with my digital ones, utilizing everything we’ve picked up along the way…
N: Yeah, the very limited gear that we use to record played a very strong hand in defining our “sound”. And we had a sort of mantra during recording which was, and I’m not gonna get this verbatim, but it was the idea that we saw it as a challenge and one that was going to make for better art and force us to get better. As much as we share, taste-wise, I think he and I still come from two very different places musically, so subconsciously there must have been an effort to convey that with these songs.
As a band, what’s your experience with Spotify, and do you think it has a permanent place in music?
B: We’ve got our EP on there and I guess we’ll likely continue to release material there, but I don’t believe it has helped nor hindered us in any way. Maybe we’d feel differently about it if we were motherfucking Coldplay, or Taylor Swift, or keen on gimmicks like asking fans to stream shit twenty-four/seven. Personally, I’ve always been one to own entire records. If you look at my iPod—that’s right—you’ll see nothing but full albums. Parenthetically, that has its downsides, but I’ve got a tick that won’t allow me to own a song but not the album from which it came—the exceptions being true singles and ‘Best of’ albums, which ostensibly scratch that itch. I’ve heard Spotify is great for discovering new music or pulling up a record in a pinch, but I don’t see it permanently replacing anything… but what do I know? I don’t even use it…
N: Honestly, I didn’t even know our EP was on there until 30 seconds when he just said it. So, that right there gives you an idea of how “plugged-in” I am to that whole world. I don’t use Spotify, mostly because I am technologically inept, but I have a friend who uses it almost exclusively as his source for taking in music. No iPod, no iTunes, no CD’s. He thinks I am some silly fossil because I still engage in the archaic practice of making mix CD’s for roadtrips and such. So clearly it has its place. And now with Beats 1 — what a lousy name, by the way — there seem to be more and more options for this type of musical intake. It seems to be the future. But what the hell do I know? I make mix CD’s.
What kind of film would you like to score, if given the opportunity, and who would it star?
B: Well clearly it would be an erratic kind of film starring the master himself, Bill Murray. Really though, Denis Villeneuve, Michael Haneke, Spike Jonze: they’ve all been making beautiful films for which we would have loved to create some noise—all-over-the-place as that sounds. God, I hope that doesn’t come across like we’ve got our heads so far up our own asses that we wouldn’t work on an indie project, because good lord, creating music is all we want to do and we’ll do it for whomever, provided at least a little artistic integrity remains intact. A collaborative spirit has always been the name of the game for us, for better or worse, really. And while I love a good movie, my first love was TV—and I know that, for some reason, this is an unpopular alignment. So on a related note, and at the risk of seeming overeager, we’re fucking huge fans of Dan Harmon and Community and Rick & Morty and Harmontown, so being involved creatively with him in any way, let alone musically, would be practically life affirming.
N: …probably a documentary, directed by either Werner Herzog or Errol Morris, about outer space.
B: That sounds great.
N: Doesn’t it?!
Do you think Pitchfork, as a whole, has been more positive or negative for musicians (I’m not trying to bait you, I swear)?
B: [Laughs] I have mixed feelings about Pitchfork. On one hand, they’re fairly extensive when it comes to exposing you to an impossibly vast array of music… but they certainly seem to love a lot of shit that is undeserving of that love—or at least undeserving of my love. I don’t know. I guess there’s nothing wrong with loving things… and my love is no better than yours… or theirs.
N: Look, they do dispense a certain service by inoculating the masses with music that otherwise would be difficult to find. You get exposed to a variety of bands at a rate unlike ever before, and some of them are good. It’s about 50/50. I’m not wild about how they did Sun Kil Moon with “Universal Themes” and, if we’re being honest, the importance of the number score and “Best New Music” and being on Staff Lists and all that is a little petty and superficial. I do think publicists play a larger role than I’d like them to in the process, but maybe that’s just because I don’t have a publicist. And I’m not worried about you baiting me, because they’ll never review our records.
In your opinion, what’s most important about a song? And, on a secondary level, what makes a good lyric?
B: I suppose you can ultimately boil it down to song structure… but obviously it’s more than that. A great song has to leave you wanting more. It has to make you want to listen to it again. And again. Ad infinitum. Until you know every word and every drum fill and every subtlety. It makes you angry that you didn’t come up with it. It makes you want to get better; to be better. Sometimes a great song will make me want to quit making music altogether. [Laughs] Erykah Badu has got this track called “The Healer” that just fucking kills me. And truthfully, I can’t really explain in words why. And that’s another variable in the equation: a sort of je ne sais quoi, if I may be so pretentious. Jesus…
N: Man, Bob, I really like that idea of dueling philosophies of songs. Where one song can inspire you creatively and make you want to get to work, and then another can render you speechless and make you just go “Ah, why even fucking bother?! I’ll never make anything as good as this!”. I feel as if I experience the latter on a damn-near daily basis. Now, as far as lyrics are concerned, man, that’s a loaded question. You are constantly riding this razor-thin line between cheesy and pretension, and often times it can be difficult to tell the difference between the two. That’s why I subscribe to the “less is more” school of thought, as it pertains to writing lyrics. It’s always helpful to have a firm grasp of you who are, and I know that I’m not the smartest dude in any room, so I keep it simple. Say what you need to, and then get the fuck out.
“Tabula Rasa” is so interesting to me in that way that it shapeshifts. There’s a tinge of rhythm and blues in there, some haunting reverb, and yet it belongs to its own genre. Where were you, emotionally, when writing that song?
N: What’s wild is that I was in a rare good mood when we wrote that song. Which might explain why the lyrics tend to tilt toward the positive side. I had just found out I’d been hired for a new job at my alma mater and would be leaving my grossly underpaid position with Hilton Hotels, where I’d worked for 3+ years. And so my outlook was uncharacteristically bright at the time. What I find funny is the nearly unanimous feedback we’ve received, telling us that the song is particularly “sexy”. That certainly wasn’t intentional. In fact, I have a pregnant friend who recently told me she’s fairly certain she conceived to “Tabula Rasa”. A bit more information than I needed. And probably far more than you bargained for. My apologies.
B: I tend to shy away from lyrics nowadays, and so musically it’s difficult for me to stick a pin in a specific place in the emotional map of where I was in my head when I created a specific song—does that make sense? [Laughs] It’s so difficult, in fact, that I actually feel like that’s what I’m doing when I’m creating a song. The truth is that just being alive is both thrilling and terrifying for me in a way I just can’t put into words—at least not concisely—and so I’m constantly channeling that into all of these fucking projects. Every sound you hear, very nearly, is something that either thrills me or terrifies me. So I’m certain there’s some sort of algorithm that could pinpoint these songs on an emotional map according to thrilling sounds versus terrifying sounds and what have you… It would be great to find that Goldilocks Zone in my brain. That… [Sings] “…that just might save me from a bunch of bad songs.” Promise Ring? No? I’m sorry. I can be insufferably tangential… Anyway, it all sounds fucking exhausting. Even more so than my typical process.
Do you think it’s necessary, as a musician, to utilize Facebook and Twitter, or can one still find success without those institutions in today’s world?
B: Unfortunately, I think this is something with which I am still coming to terms. I’m not Facebook’s biggest fan, and very rarely do I find myself using it long enough to self-promote. My parents are better at Facebook than I am. I can imagine you’ve gathered by now that my ideas so rarely come to me one-hundred-and-forty characters at a time, that I would spend most of my time on Twitter wishing I could abridge my thoughts enough to share them. It’s a very real possibility that, as a result, success still largely eludes me. Noah is much more of a man about town regarding social media. He’s a necessary counterpart for me if I ever want my work to see the light of day. You see, the facade is that we are such great friends or even brothers but the VH1 pseudo-documentary would reveal that they were merely using each other for their perceived talents. [Laughs] Truly though, I appreciate Noah for putting up with my neuroses—if not enabling them…
N: [Laughing] Enabling them? Contracting them. And projecting mine onto you, as well. [Pantomimes handing something to him] “Here you go. I shan’t be needing this any longer. I believe it’s your size.”
Where were we? Oh yeah, Facebook and Twitter. Can you be successful without them? Yes, absolutely you can. I mean, obviously they help. But it’s do-able. Facebook, that is. Twitter is straight-up useless. 140 characters? Give me a goddamn break. You know how long-winded I am? I can’t cobble together a coherent point in 140 characters! Get real.
If your band was a baseball player, who would it be?
B: Who was that one-handed pitcher? Dave Dravecky?
N: It was Jim Abbott, actually.
B: Jim Abbott. OK, but hold on. Dave Dravecky is a person, too. Abbott was born without a hand, right?
N: I think so, yes.
B: But Dravecky lost his arm later to like cancer or something. He quit shortly after he lost his arm, right?
N: You’re telling this story…
B: OK. Well, I’m not being glib, but if that’s even half-accurate, I guess some days you feel like Abbott and some days you feel like Dravecky.
N: [Pauses] Whoa. You’re a sage.
You’ve been quoted as saying that “Unaired Pilot” is a personal favorite. What about that song appeals to you the most?
N: It was a culmination. The tracklisting of the record is pretty much in the order in which we wrote and recorded the songs, chronologically. So, in a way, “Unaired Pilot” is the culmination of all of the things we learned, or re-learned, about each other musically, given that we hadn’t made music together for a couple of years. I like to think it encompasses all of the things we were hoping to glean from each other in deciding to collaborate on a project. But I’m admittedly far more romantic than most when it comes to these sorts of things.
B: …I’m just a sucker for the 7/8 time signature in the conclusion. I’ve always loved bands and artists who toy around with what pop or rock and roll can sound like, not only by using stranger and stranger sources for noise, but by stepping outside of the traditional 4/4, ¾ and 6/8 time signatures. If you can do this and still come up with an earworm-of-a-memorable-groove, dammit, I just love it. I mean, I’ve been listening to Radiohead since middle school. They come up with that shit all the time. Kills me.
Finally, someone makes a movie about Cactus Is, what would be the film’s tagline?
B: A movie? About us? Uh… “Mostly entertaining. Completely unearned.” …or “Clearly low-budget.”
N: “No one’s listening. But that’s never stopped them before.”