How can you be a success at failure?
For the last four years, the destructo art pranksters Cave Bears took the slogan "how low can you go" to a new high with chaotic and retarded live shows and, later on, with more structured sound art and non-sound art.
At its core, Cave Bears is the twenty-something duo of Nick Williams and Caroline Bren. They met each other in 2004 while attending Hampshire College, from which neither of them graduated.
Williams started Cave Bears in Hadley, Massachusetts in 2005 with the hopes of being some sort of Sunburnedesque freakout collective: their first show featured 13 performers. But as soon as Bren moved into the group home, the creative energy they were generating left little room for anyone else's input.
Since then, Williams has been a permanent resident of Western Massachusetts, having just opened the Feeding Tube Records shop with Ted Lee, Byron Coley and Thurston Moore, but Bren has split her time between Western Massachusetts and Vermont and is now currently living in Baltimore, Maryland.
I talked to the male half of this duo, Nick Williams, a.k.a. Les Des Gustor, during work hours at the Feeding Tube record store.
I first heard of Cave Bears because of the reputation of your concerts. It's an understatement to say that a Cave Bears show is more than just a concert.
Definitely. We try to give an honest representation of our mental state during a performance. Both of us get hung-up on these very specific concepts and we can only exercise them properly by performing, either in private or in public. Often times, music gets in the way of direct translation of the message, so instruments and musical tropes are often discarded or simply mocked, in favour of the monologue with failure sounds in tow.
Your shows often look like 60s Dada or Fluxus happenings.
In terms of the influence of past art movements, it's hard to deny them as precedents but I prefer to think of Cave Bears as existing outside of any sphere of influence except, occasionally, each other. We do what we do because traditional forms of expression seem ill fitted to what we are trying to accomplish.
Do you treat a concert as some kind of ritual?
I often find our gigs to have transformative ritual properties for both the performers and the audience but sometime I wonder if we are in fact mocking the ritual itself. We come into a performance with a concept, which we usually think up a few hours before the show. Our most successful sets are usually the ones where the kernel is expanded beyond our initial conceiving of it, often to include the audience as a participant in our mutual embarrassment.
Your concerts don't just look na´ve or childish, they are often completely retarded. Is there an element in it where you think: let's see how far we can take this?
Taking it as far as possible has become second nature for us and we've slowly stripped away the layers of artifice over the last few years to the point where we've basically negated our own existence and now play very few shows.
Your set up is often very minimal.
I think at a certain point about this time last year, we weren't even bringing any gear to shows and things were getting very apocalyptic. I think that there is still room for growth but after trying so hard to be a failure for so long, we've reached what some might call a dead end, at least in terms of live performance. How can you be a success at failure? Questions for the ages?
We pretty much destroy any equipment we allow ourselves to use. A tour will often start with Cave Bears-as-Punk-Band only to end with a broken cymbal and a guitar with no strings, often to my own chagrin. This is a very challenging band to be in from a musical standpoint because it has a way of making it impossible to produce pleasing sonorities. On the other hand, it is very liberating to show up at a venue with what we can carry in both of our arms.
Did it already happen that an audience member felt offended?
Yeah, sure. I've been told that I get off on hate during a performance and we've had a few venues virtually ban us for damage we've caused. We used to be more confrontational but we've kind of mellowed out to the point where most of the damage is inflicted on our own persons or psyches. I like to think of what it must be like to watch a Cave Bears performance for the first, or any, time. There must be some sort of arc of understanding that goes on. I'd like to think that it starts with the audience thinking we are complete fools and laughing at us, then they get inkling that we are actually making a mockery of performance itself and ends up with the audience unclear what was funny and what was serious.
When I look at your performances, I start to think about very basic questions, like: "What does it mean to be on a stage"? Like in the "Heavy Duty Sandwich" performance, where you make a sandwich on stage and shave your head. Than I think: "When does shaving your head become art"? When you do it on a stage, I guess. It's like Marcel Duchamp who said that a toilet could be art if you put it in a museum.
I often feel that the success or failure of our shows depends a lot on whether or not the audience takes that journey to the place where they are asking themselves these questions about performance.
Most of your concerts don't take much longer than twenty minutes or so.
We've played a few marathon shows that have ended with foaming mouths and bruised limbs but in general we find it best to concentrate our attack. I think we both have a very short attention span.
It seems to me that Cave Bears starts where bands like Sunburned Hand Of The Man, Bunny Brains or No Neck Blues Band stop.
Sunburned, No Neck and Bunny Brains have all been inspirational to me at times but they frame their occasional shenanigans within a decidedly rock music context, whether they like it or not. We are not a rock band. Even our most musical recordings adhere, first and foremost, to the concept.
Because you take the rock out of noise, what Cave Bears is doing comes closer to Kommissar Hjuler or Noise Nomads.
There are similarities without a doubt. I would almost go so far as to say that we might start where all of the bands you mentioned stop. Jeff Hartford of Noise Nomads is a friend of mine and lives in the same town so his antics have been impossible to avoid. He deconstructs noise music much in the same way that we deconstruct our own twisted psyches. I think he is truly one of the most outstanding artists in the field right now but he is much more concerned with sonics than we are. For us, the sonics are the happy accident that occurs during a performance.
I've never met Hjuler but we both have records on the same label and we've done a very detailed collaboration through the mail that will hopefully see the light of day on vinyl sometime. I'm pretty much just hoarding it right now but I might end up making a cassette myself if it takes much longer to find a label.
You talked about recordings as a concept and Cave Bears as a punk band. So the fact that you covered the Germs "GI" record fits well into that whole idea.
Even though Matthew Thurber's album art references the "GI" record, the album is actually a tribute to the Germs record "Germicide: Live At The Whisky 1977". Specifically, it us attempting to play the first song on that record, "Forming", for as long as we possible can; about sixteen minutes.
Upon listening to the much-maligned original album, it becomes pretty clear where the inspiration lies: it is the sound of a band that can't play for the life of them, giving it all that they've got, with a confused and brilliant poet on the mic. I had actually never listened to the Germs when we recorded our "Germicide". I was listening to them for the first time on headphones while I played along on guitar. Carrie drums and sang.
The first Cave Bears releases were very raw cut-up collages.
Our recordings are very diverse and we've made approximately twenty of them. On our earliest material we used the sound collage method but on more recent releases everything you hear is how it happened inside the tape recorder. Granted, we sometimes do some pretty strange stuff to our tape machines to get them to sound the way they do but I consider our recordings, more so than our live shows, to be music, through and through. I think as time goes on, some of our recordings will begin to be appreciated more for their respective merits, especially as the focus on live music has been somewhat diminished over the course of the last year. While our performances can be very haphazard, most of our recordings are pretty meticulously constructed, albeit from a number of haphazard sources. I think our recordings far surpass our shows but who am I to judge?
It seems like the whole idea of recording something, making that recording into an object and than getting than object into the world is as important to you as what's actually on that recording. Like this, releasing a record becomes a performance on itself, in a way.
I suppose this is partially true. We certainly want to tie the audio, visual and conceptual aspects of our releases together. Our next record for Feeding Tube has a lot of a cappella duo singing and some stuff I recorded with some young kids where they sang to my keyboard playing. I think this is probably the furthest out album we've ever made but we are releasing it because we think it is enjoyable, not as some sort of sick joke.
With the "Germicide" stuff, you might have a case for record as performance; releasing a tribute to a record that was deleted by the original label. I mean, in some ways it's completely un-listenable but I've been told by a number of folks that they enjoy it as music. But as I stated earlier, while we may have some abject feelings towards our live performance, we are both very proud of our recordings and want them to be listened to as music.