(Review/Interview) By Keith Henderson
From Aural Innovations #7 (July 1999)
The Phoebe Cates - "Turn on the Phantom" (Davenport 1999, Davcd 002-01)
The PC is just but one entity from a long list of transient indie space-rock acts that have been coming and going out of the Kent State vicinity. Surely, you remember the incident that occurred there thirty years ago... Crosby, Stills, and Nash sang about it. OK, so the otherwise obscure town of Kent, OH is now the breeding ground of both Channel and The Phoebe Cates, and with this release, I'd say that this quartet should be here to stay.
Following the brief intro of loose jamming and backmasked noises, the eight-minute dreamy "Radiation Sickness" comes calling. Dueling guitarists Matt Cassidy and Ryan Orvis also offer vocal harmonizing on this one - not quite their strong suit, but it fits well with the wall-of-sound approach on this tune. Quickly, they provide a welcome change of style by offering the almost stoner-heavy "Underwater Gurls" in the spirit of Blue Cheer, and then the retro shimmery-psychiness of "Between the Stars." This one's a bit deliberate and slow, but if you follow the Elephant 6 lot, you'll like it. The pleasant surprise from these newcomers are the really exciting instrumental interludes that prepare your tastebuds for the next long jam to come. "(Theme from) Under Lake Nightmare" is truly spooky (as the name suggests) - others (like "Cydonia" and "Mistrust Certain Flowers" are very experimental and almost Faustian.
Whereas the first half of the album is quality material, the second half is where the fun really begins. Another sidetrack that works nicely is the groovy and fun "Boneless," with an almost glam-rock feel (think T. Rex). But what you've all been waiting for... "The Melter" and the finale "... and Further Down this Hole" will please any Space Ritual-era Hawkwind fan. You know what that's like, so I'll tell you the differences - on the former, whispery vocals, a taste of slide guitar, and some psychedelic drone (á la Bardo Pond) under synth blurbs and bleeps. The latter opens with a slower bass line and sparse drumming, then builds towards a fabulous, slightly-dissonant, but massive climax and finally a gradual slow-down. Great stuff!
Like Channel, The Cates have a modern dreamy sound (á la Verve) but with the addition of the 'sonic swirl' synthesizers of Tom DeChristofaro above the rumbling guitars and bass (also shared between Cassidy and Orvis), the band truly reaches escape velocity. Few (if any) of the songs are 'perfect,' tending towards a looser, dirtier sound more often than not, but then the spirit of the music is absolutely wonderful and proves irresistible during either the brief wacky interludes or the extended space-blanga jams. In my opinion, this is what counts. So let me voice a strong recommendation for 'Phantom.' And chalk up another quality space-rock outfit from the Midwestern United States. Keep 'em coming.
Though the related entities Channel and The Phoebe Cates have each released their respective debuts just this year, there is already an extensive family tree (including PVR Streetgang, Necron 99, and the Miniature Pop Group) to sort through. Centered in Kent, Ohio (near Akron and Cleveland), the two groups share guitarist/vocalist Matt Cassidy and drummer Tim Perzan. Channel's CD-EP "Shooting Gallery" (Davenport Davcd001) we reviewed last time, a fine psychedeli-dream album showcasing Cassidy's thick 'shoegazer' guitar sounds and Kramies Windt's unusual vocal style. Now comes The Cates' full-length "Turn on the Phantom," an album with even more space-rockin' elements in the mix, with the additional synth stylings of Tim DeChristofaro and the dueling guitars of Cassidy and co-songwriter Ryan Orvis. For a Hawkwind freak like myself, this is an album that caters to my well-aged tastes and yet delivers a new quality to the traditional space/psych blueprint. For more, you can read the full review presented separately.
Let's get right down to business now.... Matt Cassidy was kind enough to answer some questions for us on the topics of both bands. So without further ado...here's Matt:
AI: You're on the brink of your record release party for 'Turn on the Phantom.' Are you happy with the way it came out?
MC: I love how it turned out. So does the rest of the band. For me, it's the closest I've come yet to having the music I imagine make it to reality and be more or less intact. We were pretty much just aiming for something really spacey and atmospheric, the typical psychedelic fare you know, with a couple rock/pop numbers mixed in to give the Juno 60 a break. Everyone having a different combination of guitar pedals switched on for each song, that sort of thing. The songs themselves were kind of an afterthought, either truncated versions of live jams or renovated 4-track ideas of mine or Ryan's.
AI: It seems like you went through a long, convoluted evolutionary period before finally settling into the lineups for both Channel and Phoebe Cates. Was it sort of a Darwinian thing, you know, the ones that lasted were the one that clicked from the outset?
MC: I guess the several bands and lineup changes is a requisite thing for all the bands in Kent. The family tree of any given band in Kent would likely rival that of Yes in complexity. A lot of it has to do with everyone's changing musical tastes. For example, when I came to school in Kent in '93, I was all about Mr. Bungle and, shortly thereafter, Zappa. So me and this fella James who lived in the same dorm started a band called PVR Streetgang, which was straight up eclectic rock, lots of weird time signatures, rapid stylistic changes within one song, purposefully disjointed stuff. At the same time I met Ryan Orvis, who was in a band called the Plague Dogs, a really moody Joy Division-meets-Sonic Youth sort of band. A year later, Plague Dogs split up, and Ryan starts Necron 99, which was a kind of spacey Husker Du type thing. I was a Husker Du fan, so when PVR broke up, I eventually joined Necron when their other guitarist/bassist moved out to LA. Now Necron is disbanded too, but James from PVR and Ian from Necron are now in Tom's other band, the Miniature Pop Group, a sort Syd Barrett/Village Green-era Kinks sounding group. And Tim (Perzan) from Channel and the Cates is the same drummer from PVR. So I guess we all switch places every so often more than weed out the weak links. Who knows, we may all switch bands again.
AI: How do you decide to divide your time and effort between the two bands? I mean, you have to write songs and book gigs to keep both bands going... do you use some sort of 'quota' system?
MC: Well, the truth of the matter is that Channel may have already bought the farm. It's been quite a while since we've practiced, but we haven't made our 'public announcement' about it, so I can't really say for certain just now. But to answer your question, Channel practice on Monday, Cates practice on Wednesday.
AI: What led you to start Davenport Records? Did you attempt to draw interest from other established labels initially?
MC: We've sent out demo tapes and other such things before, and not really received much response. But then again, most of the music I had done up to this point I felt was rather underdeveloped, so I didn't really have the confidence to try too hard to get label attention. 'Davenport Records' is probably more of a loose collective right now than a label, a kind of general connection between a couple Kent and Cleveland bands with similar approaches - mostly, whoever of our friends' bands want to be involved.
AI: Why 'Davenport'? Are most of your executive decisions made upon one?
MC: Me, my girlfriend Kristin, and Tom from the Cates were sitting around trying to brainstorm a name for the whole thing, and Tom spit out 'Davenport.' And I really liked it, cuz there's a kind of lazy atmosphere about Kent and Northeast Ohio, you know, call off work to pull tubes and watch Teletubbies on your couch all morning. It's kind of the mentality that is at once endearing and damning about Kent, Ohio. So yeah, I'd say that most executive decisions are made on the couch.
AI: You've seemingly go so many influences that I have a hard time pinning you guys down to a simple formula. Channel seems a little more aligned with the indie rock/dreampop sound, kinda taking off from the UK shoegazers' original idea, would you say?
MC: Well, when Kramies first asked me to be in the band, most of the song demos he had were just vocals and acoustic guitar. I kind of got a Richard Ashcroft (Verve) vibe off his vocals off the bat, like on 'A Storm in Heaven,' so I guess I thought of it along those lines. Plus I had just heard My Bloody Valentine's 'Loveless' on shrooms for the first time like, a week before Channel started getting together, so I was all about applying that kind of guitar playing to something. Kramies was more into the folkier David Bowie stuff, that and Jane's Addiction, like side two of 'Ritual.'
AI: But then Phoebe Cates is truly all over the place. The experimental passages like 'Cydonia' and 'Mistrust Certain Flowers' really caught me by surprise. Where did that stuff come from?
MC: Those little instrumental bits are 4-track things we did kind of separately. "Cydonia," I think Ryan did that on his own, while "Mistrust" is Ryan and Tom. We're all into albums in which all the songs are connected, so the whole thing is continuous. As it turned out, a lot of the 4-track instrumentals we had done in our spare time were in the same key as the songs they segue into or out of, so they worked towards that end all the better.
AI: The atmospherics and other synth stylings of Tom Dechristofaro are a really wonderful addition to your basic twin-guitar attack on 'Phantom.' Have you been able to transfer that spaciness to the stage, especially when Tom doubles on guitar himself? Or do you end up rocking out most of the time?
MC: I must admit to rocking out. We incorporate Tom's Juno 60 as often as possible, but as of late we haven't used it as much, just cuz it's rough to lug around all the time. It still makes guest appearances. It's the kind of synth with a hold button, so Tom has no trouble juggling that and guitar when we do use it.
AI: Are you gearing up for any road dates in the near future?
MC: As of yet we have no plans for touring. We all have day jobs and are desperately trying to earn back the money we put into this CD so we can make another. I figure we'll try to get 'Phantom' out to some more press here and there before we go too far out of town.
AI: Cleveland is a damn good rock 'n' roll town I'd say. How important is it to develop a strong support base there close to home, and do you sense that starting to happen?
MC: It is not an easy thing to build a following in Cleveland, but there are finally some signs of interest amongst the locals. That's the benefit of naming your band after an attractive 80's starlet. But being from Kent, we're kind of outside the Cleveland scene, though we play Grog Shop on the East Side more often than anywhere else. Also, the fact that Cleveland is a rock 'n' roll town can make it rough to be a moody droney spacerock band, especially in a stuffy crowded bar - hence the tendency to rock out.
AI: What's next for Davenport Records? What other sounds are being captured in amongst the cushions?
MC: Most of our effort is being concentrated on completing a Kent/Cleveland compilation, which will feature Channel, the Cates, the aforementioned Miniature Pop Group, and several others. It's turning out to be kind of half psych-rock/half harder stuff. Again, money is the issue, but we're mastering it now, so God help us it will be completed.