The five guys who make up New York City’s Caveman have known each other for the better part of a decade, with singer Matthew Iwanusa and guitarist Jimmy “Cobra” Carbonetti’s friendship dating back to high school. Rising from the ashes of several other bands, the men of Caveman—Iwanusa, Carbonetti, bassist Jeff Berrall, keyboardist Sam Hopkins and drummer Stefan Marolachakis—maintain their “clubhouse” in Carbonetti’s guitar shop in the city and party together by night at their various bars of employment.
They’re a close group, but in an attempt to tear down whatever barriers remained among the friends, the band made the journey to a New Hampshire barn to begin hashing out the bones of its self-titled sophomore album. As Marolachakis says, “When it’s your closest friends, it’s like breaking down the last wall.”
Caveman recorded the new album at the Rumpus Room in Brooklyn and worked again with producer Nick Stumpf while Albert Di Fiore handled engineering duties. The result is an album that achieves a bigger, still percussive sound that mulls the notion of change. On the lead single, “In The City,” the band incorporates buzzing synthesizers with Iwanusa crooning contemplative words about the city he calls home. Caveman comes out April 2 on Fat Possum, and the guys all seem excited while posted up in a Midtown hotel room two weeks ahead of a 31-date tour, which starts today. During our conversation, the quintet’s members gradually enter the room offering reflections on creating the new album, working with a label and Captain Planet.
Much has been made of your guys’ status as an NYC band. On “In The City,” you sing, “I don’t want to leave home.” Do you all still live here? Do you ever feel pulled away?
Jimmy: Yeah, absolutely. I think it’s amazing to have this as a home base and have this as a place to come back to. I grew up on Roosevelt Island and lived there until I was 16. Now I live in Park Slope. I could never really imagine living anywhere else right now. We travel and tour a lot, but it’s always nice to come home. It’s a city where you can do anything you want basically. There are no boundaries. You just have to be positive about it and keep your head on a swivel.
For your new album, the band headed up to Jimmy’s grandmother’s place in New Hampshire and started writing in a barn attic.
Jeff: It was mostly just to cement confidence in each other. Something would appear out of the air like magic: a riff, a vibe, etc. As a musician, typically you get together and there are concrete ideas. This was different. We purposely didn’t have any ideas before we went in. We wanted to summon it from the attic and the lights and just turn on the amps and purely jam. It was a good kick-start, and we did get a couple of the riffs for the record from those jams.
Jimmy: Looking back on it now, our sound when we were in the attic is closer to what it is now than what it was then, if that makes sense. We were in the direction we are now in those jams. It built a lot of confidence in each other.
Your debut album, CoCo Beware, was initially self-released before being picked up and re-released by Fat Possum.
Jimmy: We started our own label, Magic Man, had it digitally released as soon as were like, “Let’s not even wait for a label. Let’s put it out right now and pay to print the record.” Seems like most bands have to do it for their first record, at least. I think that’s one of the bigger myths within bands, the bands I’ve talked to. So many people sit on their music waiting for something to happen, but with anything, you can’t sit and wait. Put out the record no matter what. You could write another whole album by the time the first one goes out.
Did you feel any difference entering into the process with the label in place?
Jimmy: You always have to work, and you get put in a position where you have to work harder because there’s more at stake. There’s never that sense, “Oh alright, we signed with a label, and now it’s easy.” If anything, it’s more work because now you have other people working with you that care about the project. It’s like having more teammates.
Before Caveman, you were all friends. How did you meet?
Jimmy: We all toured with each other. Jeff was in Elefant, me and Matt were in the Subjects, Sam was in White Clam, Stefan was in End Of The World, and we all played shows together and hung out almost every day. All the projects ended around the same time for whatever reason, and we picked the all-star super group of what was in our brains [laughs]. It was basically everyone who we could hang out with the most.
How have those relationships grown over the course of a few years as a band?
Jeff: I’ve known these guys a lot longer than the time we’ve been in the band. I’ve known Cobra since 2004. It feels like there’s tons of growth to go and at the same time feels like nothing has changed. I look over at Sam, and he makes me laugh. It’s been like that for eight years. It feels really solid. Just like it’s the most normal thing in the world.
For the new album, you decided to work with producer Nick Stumpf again. What sort of new ideas or challenges did you discuss with him?
Jimmy: It was very hands on. Me and Matt met him at my 19th birthday at Sin-E, where Jeff used to bartend. We were playing pool, and we just really hit it off. It was another musician that we looked up to. It was like, “Holy shit! It’s Nick from the French Kicks!” Then you realize we’re all just people playing music and got really close. We were writing the first record and felt it was really appropriate he work on that and the new record. I felt this time was even more hands on. We were all together, and he understood the direction we were headed with bigger sounds. We went into this space, the Rumpus Room, which is amazing, that our friend Albert [Di Fiore] owns. It’s a great place that’s big and open, and that’s the sound we wanted.
Speaking of that bigger sound, it certainly comes through on the new record. It has more of a live feel.
Matthew: We traveled for two years together and tried out a lot of the new record live, which we didn’t do at all last time. The second record we had a huge room and songs that we had been playing live already that we knew we wanted to do. I think we might have recorded each song twice—once live and once not, and even mix them together sometimes too. I’ve been going through old footage too because we had a lot of it filmed, and there are funny versions of the songs where you’re like, “Wait a minute. We did it like this?” You don’t think when you’re moving so fast.
For CoCo Beware, you guys cited Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk and Gene Clark as being in heavy rotation while making the album. Anything specific this time around?
Jimmy: I was listening to Stone Roses and Tears For Fears a lot while we were recording. Just getting into that vibe of confident musicians doing their thing, coming up with a sound that they hear in their brains and believing in it so much that it comes across as, “This is what we’re doing. It doesn’t matter what people think. We’re going to be doing this forever.”
Stefan: We were listening to the Sébastien Tellier record Sexuality a lot in the van. It got us through a lot of nighttime driving.
Jeff: I was trying to scientifically get my mind back to the arithmetic of an album. Listening to stuff that’s been considered a great album. I feel like it will seep in if you listen to an album and how it unfolds. Like all those artists that made great albums from beginning to end, there’s definitely an art to it that’s different. It’s the stuff that’s not necessarily A chord to B chord but the stuff that really gets you off.
Jimmy: It’s like a crop circle [laughs]. When you see that there are a couple things off, you know it’s man-made. My goal with this record is to have people ask, “Did humans make this?”
On the new album, you sing lines like, “Never want to know if I was wrong for you” and “Where’s the time to waste on someone’s life?” What sorts of themes were you feeling?
Matthew: Sort of a slap in the face to change. Make a change with yourself and don’t worry about what other people are saying.
Jimmy: We were going through a lot individually but also together, so we had each others backs. With this record, it’s really emotional but a hugely positive outlook. It’s that fine line of dark and light but super positive, getting super deep with the men.
Jimmy, you have a shop here in the city where you make guitars. Do you guys hang out there?
Jimmy: Yup, it’s like our clubhouse where we get to hang out and listen to vinyl. I made Jeff a bass and Matthew a guitar. It’s kind of like Captain Planet. We have all the rings!
You guys played Outside Lands and Austin City Limits last year and have Sasquatch on the docket in May. Do you enjoy the festival experience?
Jimmy: It’s really the best thing ever. I think all of us, living in New York, love the fast pace and keeping busy. The more work the better while we’re on the road. When we did CMJ in 2011, we did something like 14 shows.
Matthew: You can be standing there in the same food line with somebody whose music you love and be thinking, “This is pretty cool!” You’re both just sitting there eating the same food!
Jimmy: “You eat food too?!”
Jeff: It seems to me like it’s almost a basic human birthright. There’s a call for all humanity to go to the fields in the summertime, get messed up and dance around.
Headlining Bowery Ballroom last year must have been an exciting benchmark for a bunch of NYC guys. Are there any shows on the upcoming tour that stick out?
Matthew: There are a lot of places we’ve played at when we were opening for other bands and thought one day it would be us, so it’s really cool to see it come together.
Jimmy: Even our first show was opening up for our friends White Rabbits at Bowery, and then a year and a half later, we’re headlining, so that felt really good. It feels good to set goals and really be able to take them down just to keep a high standard for us to work hard and make our mothers proud.