Cavedweller Feature Article from livemusiccapitol.com
By Kathryn-Terese Haik, photo by Oswald James
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. He’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 musician’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 5’5 barefoot, Michener precariously climbs to his roof with drink in hand, as Hyde Park wakes up and shakes off last night’s hangover.
With his band mates, he’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, Emo’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.
“The formal part/business stuff brings me down. It’s what kills it for me. Hiring a manager, is something that you’d need to do to go to the next level otherwise you’d have to do it yourself, and I’m just not motivated to do that I guess. It shouldn’t have to be that way, really, artists and musicians shouldn’t have to worry about it. Music really shouldn’t be something that should have to be sold – a commodity.”
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.
“My 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 don’t ever want to play there again. It used to be nice because they would let us be in total control – telling us to just do whatever we want. But they close at midnight, their PA system generally sucks and there’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 can’t sing profanity in her establishment. It was nuts. So we are more selective in the venues we choose.”
The name Cavedweller suits Michener well. Like most of his career moves, it wasn’t a decision that was labored over.
“I’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 don’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.”
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.
“I try to keep it light and vague; I don’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.” His latest release, 2006’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, Dirk’s father lent him his 1960’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 “their” music would one day end up in the same section.
photo by Travis Catsull
“We 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.”
Homemade cassette tapes of Michener and Farris’ jamming efforts were sold around town to friends and fans. “Over 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 wouldn’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 we’d dub tapes and name the band. And we’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 we’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 there’s probably about thirty different individuals involved.” 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 they’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 ‘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, they’d have to be in the same town, so they packed up and moved to Austin. “We 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, ‘What do we do with this now…I don’t know… we can’t do it this way.’ 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, ‘Alright, I think I can stay here in Austin for a while.’ I felt more comfortable with the progress.”
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 7” 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.
“It’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, ‘Wait a second, I’ve got way too much going on AND I really can’t play the drums… so I only did one show with him.’
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 he’s dipped his guitar seems to be a co-opt effort – and this extends to finding musical inspiration. When in a songwriting slump, he draws on a communal idea of revisiting influences – pulling apart different elements and putting them back together again.
“I will just lift a rhythm from a Sam Cooke song and turn it into a rock song and then I’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 that’s not something that people think is a good idea – it creates enemies – but there are a lot of bands in Austin that are just like ‘Hey, they are doing something great, let’s try that’.”
Business Deal’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 “baby fat” was drawn, becoming the theme of one of the two songs each band has to write and record. “Everybody was like, ‘‘Baby fat,’’ what, are you kidding me?’ And Gene said, ‘No man, that’s what we picked so we’re doing it!’” Members had until October to write and record their two songs, with an album slated for February 2009.
Cavedweller’s style and many side projects hearken to a time when music wasn’t slick, polished and corporately produced. It’s perhaps sad that simply playing music to play music makes you something of a unique artifact in today’s focus-grouped, lip-syncing, Auto-Tuned industry. And, in true Michener fashion, he doesn’t have any grand scheme about what’s next. Comfortable at the level on which Cavedweller sits, they don’t feel compelled to change up their sound to expand their market.
@ Club Deville 2008, photo by Francis Cruzada
“You know, I don’t have any particular aspirations or plans or goals. I will just do what I do until I burnout, I guess.” And so far, this approach has worked out nicely for Michener, Cavedweller, Business Deal, Band Lotto et al.
The latest exhibit of evidence: Cavedweller’s split 7″ 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 Cavedweller’s languid grooves, it throws the sonic styles of each into starker, complementary relief.