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.
Live Music Capitol | Cavedweller
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.
Live Music Capitol | Cavedwellerphoto 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.