Operating on the mellow fringe of Austinâ€™s always healthy psychedelic scene, Cavedweller has quietly put together some of the most fascinating work in town, including our newest choice for CD of the month: The Best Version of Gloria Ever There Was. This isnâ€™t a new album; itâ€™s just one we feel deserves digging back up, because it never received anywhere close to its due.
Cavedweller, aka Dirk Michener, kicks the album off in typically understated style with â€œA Horse and A Man,â€ a creaky, timeless song that showcases his weatherbeaten voice. Thereâ€™s plenty going on in this voice: cracks and rumbles that hint at wisdom, but also just the slightest sense of amusement, and occasionally, behind the resignation, a little bit of swagger. That swagger comes the front more on songs like â€œAugusta, Ga.â€ and the immediately appealing and memorable â€œBlack Black Magicâ€, where he filters Marc Bolan through Tom Waits. But even on the more mournful numbers the various never-quite-meshing emotions evident in his voice raise his music far above ordinary.
Literalists may struggle with the fact that there is no version of Gloria included on the albumâ€¦weâ€™ll take votes on what he means by that.
There is, of course, a dreamy, druggy feel to the whole thing (his myspace page, under influences: â€œmost of the timeâ€), and a lo-fi recording style that would fit right in the Nuggets compilation, all of which lead to the psychedelic designation. But that label tends to sell short the songwritingâ€¦these are just excellent songs, songs you could cover in any number of ways and come up with gold. Itâ€™s all off-kilter and the lyrics are surreal, but thatâ€™s also true of probably the best music of the last forty years.â€ –The Deli Magazine
Continued Reading on Cavedweller.
By Kathryn-Terese Haik
Dirk Michener is lyrical riddle wrapped inside an enigma, a long beard, and a galaxy of other musician and artist friends who orbit around his gravitational personality. Keeping his personal life separate from his recording efforts, he prefers to form musical collectives while sitting in the background letting things take shape organically, the consummate Man Behind the Curtain. This role fits him to a T, and has driven his musical career since his formative teenage years.
When I visit him, Dirk is perched atop the steel grated landing that leads to his apartment bungalow. Heâ€™s wearing a flowing tunic top, quietly sipping a Lone Star, and reading a library book, I Served the King of England. His apartment is a musicianâ€™s dream: multiple guitars, amps, an electric piano, and various pieces of recording equipment fill the space alongside bookshelves stacked with paperbacks and LPs. At 5â€™5 barefoot, Michener precariously climbs to his roof with drink in hand, as Hyde Park wakes up and shakes off last nightâ€™s hangover.
With his band mates, heâ€™s been creating a unique brand of psychedelic folk rock for over thirteen years (and from Austin since 2002), under the name Cavedweller. The tongue-in-cheek storytelling, simple melodies, and bedroom recording aesthetic can often be heard gracing the stages of Beerland, Emoâ€™s, Mohawk and clubs across Texas. Just as his music evokes an air of reticence, his path to becoming a musician and an uncomfortable partner with the music industry is full of starts, stops and detours. It begins traditionally, but, without a manager directing traffic or much in the way of PR, it soon takes a more grassroots road.
â€œThe formal part/business stuff brings me down. Itâ€™s what kills it for me. Hiring a manager, is something that youâ€™d need to do to go to the next level otherwise youâ€™d have to do it yourself, and Iâ€™m just not motivated to do that I guess. It shouldnâ€™t have to be that way, really, artists and musicians shouldnâ€™t have to worry about it. Music really shouldnâ€™t be something that should have to be sold â€“ a commodity.â€
And yet, without the typical industry hubbub, Cavedweller has managed to build a strong following and climb to the upper echelons of the Austin scene, performing regularly with The Black Angels, Basic, Yellow Fever, Horse+Donkey, The Strange Boys, The Strip Cult, Baby Robots, The Silver Pines, Headdress and ST37.
â€œMy favorite venue has to be Emos. I know a lot of the folks that work there. We do a lot of shows at Mohawk and they are really accommodating. Most of the places we play now are really good, but before, we used to play a lot of places regularly just to play. It was nice for a while, but then it got to the point where we just had to become more selective. Like the Carousel [Lounge], I just donâ€™t ever want to play there again. It used to be nice because they would let us be in total control â€“ telling us to just do whatever we want. But they close at midnight, their PA system generally sucks and thereâ€™s a manager who tries to censor what you sing while on stage. One time she interrupted a show and told the band that they canâ€™t sing profanity in her establishment. It was nuts. So we are more selective in the venues we choose.â€
The name Cavedweller suits Michener well. Like most of his career moves, it wasnâ€™t a decision that was labored over.
â€œIâ€™m not sure where it came from really. I suppose it had to do with the fact that when recording, you are in this cold, dark space and the sound that is produced is relatively primitive with minimal arrangements. I found out that there are three previous Cavedweller bands, most of which are defunct, but in 1996, after I had been using the name for a year, I found another Cavedweller and had made plans to contact this guy. They were playing a sort of grunge rock sound. Somehow I found out that he was a member of one of the big grunge establishments like Pearl Jam or the Smashing Pumpkins or something and I was like, oh shit, I donâ€™t want to have to deal with this stuff. So I considered changing my name to something ridiculously long, I tend to like really long band names and titles, but then they broke up and the emo industry started doing the whole long band name thing, and so Cavedweller just stuck.â€
The group has been compared to the likes of Elliott Smith, Sebadoh, T. Rex and the Violent Femmes, favoring simplicity and pure storytelling. His songs are often tales, usually based on a movie or an event that inspired him. During conversation, he often throws irony at the listener just to see if you are listening.
â€œI try to keep it light and vague; I donâ€™t like to get sappy and hear sappy things. It boils down to what I like to hear from other bands, so I prefer some songs to be very obtuse and open to interpretation whereas others will be incredibly specific with no room for analytical interpretation.â€ His latest release, 2006â€™s The Best Recording of Gloria that there Ever Was, in pure Michener form, has no cover of Gloria on the album.
At the age of ten, while living in Ft. Worth, Dirkâ€™s father lent him his 1960â€™s Silver Tone guitar, and the world of music soon unfolded. Along with Smoky Farris, a friend from school, he began to explore record stores, drawn especially to the alternative LP section. The duo would pull out any record to buy, go home and listen to, and become immediately influenced to record something that sounded similar. They were determined that â€œtheirâ€ music would one day end up in the same section.
â€œWe were really into music by the Dead Milkmen, and quirky early 1980s and late 1970s punk rock, finding inspiration from indie labels and SST at that time.â€
Homemade cassette tapes of Michener and Farrisâ€™ jamming efforts were sold around town to friends and fans. â€œOver the years more and more people were interested in starting bands with us and we never took anything particularly seriously, it was more just for kicks. Nothing was serious. BUT, we took the aspect of recording very seriously. We wouldnâ€™t particularly write songs, we would just get together and press record and just go and whoever was in the room playing would be that band, so weâ€™d dub tapes and name the band. And weâ€™d do it again. And even if the lineup changed by one single person, then it would be have to be called a different band. And weâ€™d sell those. And in 1994 we started calling it Business Deal Records. It was essentially just ten dudes, but it was just us with a bunch of different folks, a mix and match of sorts. Today thereâ€™s probably about thirty different individuals involved.â€ Originally created to allow a space in which Michener and the other core musicians to release their own music, over the years it has expanded to increase production.
By age thirteen, he was writing songs and playing his own shows wherever theyâ€™d let him onstage. His music career began to take shape in 1995 after a stint at the University of North Texas in Denton studying art. Cavedweller was formed as a solo recording project, heavily influenced by Smog, Pavement, Guided By Voices, Stereolab, and Beck. With no intentions of playing live shows, Michener was finally persuaded by The Good/Bad art collective in Denton, and had his first live show at the Argo in the summer of â€˜97. Still pressing homemade tapes in his apartment to sell at shows, Cavedweller was growing up and needed a new place to inhabit. At the time, Michener, Farris, and Gene Defcon, another friend, began talking about seriously pursuing their art. They realized that in order to do so, theyâ€™d have to be in the same town, so they packed up and moved to Austin. â€œWe decided that if we were going to do this, we were going to do it together, so we made Business Deal more formal with a business plan and a tax ID number and the whole bit and then we were like, â€˜What do we do with this nowâ€¦I donâ€™t knowâ€¦ we canâ€™t do it this way.â€™ So we backed off and instead decided to try to form as many bands as possible and play as many shows as possible. I became impatient with the progress and decided to skip town for a while and move to New York City. When I came back, two years later, things were happening and I thought, â€˜Alright, I think I can stay here in Austin for a while.â€™ I felt more comfortable with the progress.â€
Meanwhile, he was also involving himself in other projects. The Charles Potts Magic Windmill Band was formed after a trip to Walla Walla, Washington where he befriended the poet Charles Potts. The Windmill Band spreads New York City-style experimental country through five musicians who harmonize, strum and collaborate on stage. Shows are often unrehearsed and the audience is treated to a rawer effort, allowing for an intimacy that is often lost in more staged shows. Releasing their first album, Becky, in 2003, the project has since produced a 7â€ vinyl as well as The Golden Calves in 2008. Pataphysics came calling in 2007, asking Michener to play bass, and he was soon opening for Ariel Pink, Hawnay Troof and Yip Yip. Even though Michener has his plate full, he still finds it difficult to turn away offers to expand his musical palette.
â€œItâ€™s been hard to say no to projects even though I feel really spread thin. Not too long ago a friend of mine, Ryan Anderson, asked me to play drums for him a while back and I was like, sure, and then I was like, â€˜Wait a second, Iâ€™ve got way too much going on AND I really canâ€™t play the drumsâ€¦ so I only did one show with him.â€™
Michener anticipates taking a hiatus with some projects while others pick up steam in the future in order to balance the load of creativity while also holding down a nine-to-fiver.
Every project in which heâ€™s dipped his guitar seems to be a co-opt effort â€“ and this extends to finding musical inspiration. When in a songwriting slump, he draws on a communal idea of revisiting influences â€“ pulling apart different elements and putting them back together again.
â€œI will just lift a rhythm from a Sam Cooke song and turn it into a rock song and then Iâ€™ll take all the lyrics from these two Stereolab songs and stick those on top of it and then take the melody from this Donovan song and stick it on top of that. And it works pretty good. One of the best things that I feel like happens within a music scene is when bands take ideas from each other. A lot of times, I feel like traditionally thatâ€™s not something that people think is a good idea â€“ it creates enemies â€“ but there are a lot of bands in Austin that are just like â€˜Hey, they are doing something great, letâ€™s try thatâ€™.â€
Business Dealâ€™s latest baby is a project termed The Band Lotto, based on the annual Rock Lottery put on in Denton and Seattle annually. Thirty-two people were chosen from a list of 150, and the idea being to then draw four names out of a hat to determine the members of a band. After doing this four times to create eight bands, each band members had to draw the instrument they would be playing. Finally, all 32 people had to write down topics for songs. The topic â€œbaby fatâ€ was drawn, becoming the theme of one of the two songs each band has to write and record. â€œEverybody was like, â€˜â€˜Baby fat,â€™â€™ what, are you kidding me?â€™ And Gene said, â€˜No man, thatâ€™s what we picked so weâ€™re doing it!â€™â€ Members had until October to write and record their two songs, with an album slated for February 2009.
Cavedwellerâ€™s style and many side projects hearken to a time when music wasnâ€™t slick, polished and corporately produced. Itâ€™s perhaps sad that simply playing music to play music makes you something of a unique artifact in todayâ€™s focus-grouped, lip-syncing, Auto-Tuned industry. And, in true Michener fashion, he doesnâ€™t have any grand scheme about whatâ€™s next. Comfortable at the level on which Cavedweller sits, they donâ€™t feel compelled to change up their sound to expand their market.
@ Club Deville 2008, photo by Francis Cruzada
â€œYou know, I donâ€™t have any particular aspirations or plans or goals. I will just do what I do until I burnout, I guess.â€ And so far, this approach has worked out nicely for Michener, Cavedweller, Business Deal, Band Lotto et al.
The latest exhibit of evidence: Cavedwellerâ€™s split 7â€³ record with longtime-gig partner Shapes Have Fangs. This vinyl yin yang features the fuzzed-out garage rhythms and infectious R&B of the latter, just what the doctor ordered to work out the Kinks on the dance floor. When juxtaposed with Cavedwellerâ€™s languid grooves, it throws the sonic styles of each into starker, complementary relief.