Mixtape: Andrew Cedermark by Gary Canino

Andrew Cedermark’s unique perspective on sauerkraut and writing lyrics for his forthcoming album Home Life

Andrew Cedermark

Andrew Cedermark. Photo by Carianne King.

I first met Andrew Cedermark over four years ago, somewhere on the Corner in Charlottesville, Virginia. I was a first-year studying at the University of Virginia, and his former band Titus Andronicus was on tour, playing in town that night, and my old band was opening for his old band. Even though quite some time had passed since he lived in town, word had spread that we bore a resemblance, and initially, that’s all we had to talk about.

Four years later, the resemblance is all but gone with the passage of time, and now, we have a lot to talk about. Home Life, his second album, comes out next month after a long gestation period, and it delivers a more polished set of the early promise that Moon Deluxe suggested. His guitar heroics detonate nearly half the tunes on here, and when you sift through his pages of lyrics, it’s only the heavy words that come to mind: regret, remorse, loss, and regret again. But who ever listened to John Phillips, Tim Hardin, or Roy Orbison for the happy stuff? And weren’t Sinatra’s last words, “I’m losing?” Andrew and I met at the Polish restaurant Lomzynianka on Manhattan Avenue in Greenpoint, Brooklyn to discuss the last four years of our relationship.

Gary Canino In your recent interview with SPIN, you said the album was titled Lean on Me, but I see it was recently changed to Home Life. What’s the story behind that?

Andrew Cedermark Yeah, that was sort of unfortunate. It was going to be named after that Bill Withers song, but Sawyer [Jacobs] at Underwater Peoples, who studies intellectual property law, got cold feet in the 11th hour and didn’t want to get sued, and this is supposed to be a good, nice, fun thing, and it would have made it not that if Withers came and sued us, though that would have been a good story. You can even have Home Life written on your knuckles.

GC The press release mentioned that this time around you recorded the entire album in a studio, except for two of the tracks. How did that work out?

AC Yeah, “On Me,” which includes the interpolation of the melody and theme of the Bill Withers song, was originally a demo of what became “Men in Jail.” But when I was toying with names, I ended up singing “Lean On Me” on that first song. And that was the one song I recorded at home on GarageBand. “Come Back” was also done at our apartment.

GC I was surprised not to hear the full band version of “Come Back” on the album, which you’ve been opening your recent shows with. Did you try recording that one with a full band?

AC Yes, we did, but it just didn’t come together. So as we recorded the album, I recorded that one at home because I wanted it to be on there.

GC Can you explain the concept of having two different versions of the song as bookends of the record?

AC Well, after I changed the way I sang over the first version of the song, I thought that there were enough differences to justify including both versions of the album. I liked the idea of doing that because the first one is a thematic introduction, whereas the end is a capstone and perhaps the only song on the album that has a sense of humor, so they’re thematically quite different, even though musically they’ve very the same. So on that level it didn’t seem too redundant to do that, though I don’t know if anyone will agree that having two versions of the song on the same album is the best way to keep people entertained.

Jacob Wolf (bass) I think they sound pretty different. Maybe if you hadn’t read this interview, you’d be surprised to hear they’re the same song.

AC I think you’ve compared it to Neil Young before, Gary, but the way the album ends with that guitar solo is actually based on the melody from “Auld Lang Syne.” So it sort of traces that, and has this show tune-y crescendo that seemed to me like a good last song. Meanwhile the aforementioned qualities of “On Me” make it a good first song.

Do you want some of this sauerkraut?

GC No, thanks.

On both of your albums, you have these great spoken word parts on the last song. In “I Won’t Know Me Anymore,” there’s that interlude where you talk about the waves coming for your teenage daughters on the beach, and “Men in Jail” has that sort of Lee Hazelwood intro.

AC It seems to me that the process of making the kind of rock n’ roll music that people enjoy today is trying to incorporate these things that are cultural third rails, things that are untouchable and incredibly lame, and to do it right is to bring them back in new and interesting ways. And it seemed that perhaps the lamest thing in our whole entire culture would be show tunes. Or even more broadly, Bill Withers. He’s kind of cool, but also really lame. And Burt Bacharach, too, just these shat-upon middle-brow kind of guys. So in writing some of these songs, I kept in mind that I wanted it to have this musical theater, Great American Songbook, talk-singey-hokey kind of musicality to it.

GC The cover reminds me of that too, “Songs by Andrew Cedermark.”

AC Right. So I wasn’t too actively trying to engage with that, but I was.

GC You recorded this album with basically two different backing bands. Did you pick certain players for certain songs?

AC So much of the process was just trying to spackle over the massive gaps left by a lack of resources. Having just moved from Virginia to New York, it was impossible trying to put the album together with just one band. I don’t know if it sounds like there are two different bands playing on it, but it doesn’t necessarily strike me as a negative thing if that is the case, just for variety alone.

JW It seems like there’s enough continuity to it. Sometimes, when I’m listening back to it, I can’t remember if I played on a song or if Sarim [Al-Rawi, bass] did. (laughter) So I think they sound similar enough.

GC When I interviewed Deerhunter earlier this month, Bradford Cox talked for a while about his process of automatic writing, where the lyrics just come to him on the spot, and if some parts of are just gibberish, he’ll later fit it to words. But your process is quite different.

AC I would say it is the exact opposite of that. A lot of these songs started as other songs, and then I ended up re-writing those, and then in that process it became another song, which introduces a level of structure into the beginning of the process that is much different than working that way. Also, it seems like you probably get locked into patterns of gibberish that sound good, and it was also my intention to try and write words that weren’t gibberish, but also sounded like they weren’t too overwrought, and I might have even failed in that respect.

I spend a lot of time in the library reading things, and for the whole year that I was working as a copy-editor at a newspaper, I had a Google document that just had phrases and phrases of things I would lift from newspaper articles, or from the internet, or just random thoughts, where I was trying to integrate my own thoughts within a context of a song, hopefully in ways that weren’t gibberish and all had a point. So often when you get through reading song lyrics, you don’t know what you got out of it, or what it was trying to say. I was really hoping that each song, to put it sort of stupidly, would have a message or a thematic coherence as far as the words go.

GC One of my favorite quotes about writing lyrics is from Cass McCombs: “You got to do your homework … many people disagree with me anyway about songwriting and choose to oohand ahh their way through lyrics, but at least I got gut, even if I have no aesthetic.”

AC Yeah, and that’s why he’s the best. Who is better than him at writing lyrics these days?

GC Do words ever come first? For example, Cass said “The Executioner’s Song” started as lyrics first, which he then fit to a song.

AC No, I can’t imagine that ever working. I can imagine two things existing separately and then finding that they fit together well, but the idea that you could have some words and then deliberately set them to music sounds insanely difficult. My process works best when I allow these things to fall together, rather than try to force anything. I wonder if he actually sat down and had the poem, and then said, “I want it to be a song.”

GC It is an odd song rhythmically.

AC It’s also so wonderful how the title of the song is “The Executioner’s Song,” and then the first line is “I love my job…” (laughter)

GC I’ve always imagined Stephen Cushman—an English professor I had at the University of Virginia—talking about that song, noting that the body of the poem is very straightforward, and then saying something like, “But look at the title! That changes everything!” The video for that song is also pretty dark too, where he’s building a gallows.

AC Yeah, Cass has sort of taken a dark turn, and lost me a little bit. My girlfriend Carianne and I were listening to Not the Way earlier, and there’s a magical ease to that and A. I think as he’s improved, though it’s not actually overwrought, it’s just clear that the labor that he puts into his music demands a labor of listening, which is not necessarily in line with the way people consume music these days. So, as a casual music listener, it’s harder to find time to listen to Cass McCombs.

GC In the range of recordings I’ve heard of you, I noticed you tend to mix the vocals lower than the rest of the music.

AC As a former major devotee of Yo La Tengo, I know that variety is really important, and not just a variety of mixes, but of styles and approaches. It all makes for a more stimulating listen. I like when records are sort of mood pieces, but that’s not really what I want do. I think thatHome Life is intended to represent a full range of feelings and experiences in a person’s life, and on that level, sometimes you speak softly, and sometimes you speak loudly, and so too with mix levels.

GC When you describe it that way it reminds me of Terrence Malick. The audio mix in To the Wonder and The Tree of Life is pretty unconventional.

AC Sure, I love The Tree of Life. That seems to be his thing. Carianne and I were also talking before about how Malick has such terrible taste in leading men, even back to Richard Gere inDays of Heaven.

GC Uh, Martin Sheen in Badlands?

AC No, that was good! Anyway, variety offers multiple points of intrigue. Over the course of an album, I guess it can be alienating, because people like to listen to music to create a certain mood in their living room or headphones.

GC Because the vocals sort of flicker in and out. I remember my first time spending time with the lyrics on Moon Deluxe was reading the lyric sheet. Is that the way you intended it to be?

AC No, I wanted all of the words to be intelligible on the recording. I actually recorded the lyrics myself, because it wasn’t working in the studio. Jacob remembers, we went up there for a long weekend, and it was really hot, and I was standing there singing in my underwear, and for some reason I was jumping up and down on my one leg.

JW His singing leg got tired. So we couldn’t continue.

AC So sometimes my leg hurts and I refer to it as an old singing injury. (laughter)

GC Jacob, do you remember the time we spent in the dome car?

JW I was just thinking about that. Was this our original bonding moment? Did it all come together in the dome car?

AC What’s the dome car?

JW Gary and I were riding from Charlottesville to New York on the Amtrak, and at a certain time of the year, they have a special car with this glass dome roof, so it’s really pretty when travelling in the fall.

AC Ah, the foliage.

GC There are a lot of lyrics about trains and travelling on Home Life, and I can’t help but think of riding Amtrak in the fall. Particularly “Ah, Memories!” or “Autumn Leaves (Again).” Am I on to something here?

AC Definitely based on an Amtrak experience, yeah. Leaving Charlottesville. It also lifts from the old standard, “Autumn Leaves.” The lyrics are sort of re-writing that, and talking about myself.

GC I remember at one point you had uploaded an instrumental demo of that song. Do a lot of your songs start out as instrumental demos like that one?

AC Yeah, and there are probably 3 or 4 other songs that we recorded that haven’t made it to the record, maybe because the lyrics didn’t come together, or maybe the performances weren’t that good, and that song was sort of one that was in-between. It wasn’t totally written when we did it. It happened to come together in a way I really like, and that’s my favorite one on the whole record.

I just wish I could sing! Borrowing some of these melodies and words from these songs which were sung by a professional singer really outstrips my ability to sing the melodies as I wrote them, which accounts for how the singing can sound really bad.

GC You recorded most of this album with Kevin McMahon at Marcata in New Paltz. I’m always surprised to hear new albums that he’s done, because they sound nothing alike, production-wise. What is his role in the studio?

AC He definitely brings his guru-game to Marcata. He’s definitely not there just pushing the buttons as I’ve been led to believe engineers to do; he’s invested in the process and in helping make different decisions. And he gave me life advice!

GC Having done one record at home, and having done another in a studio this way, what are you thinking of doing next time around?

AC It was definitely annoying having to call everyone on the phone every time I wanted to do something really simple, where things that were once a small deal now have become very big decisions. But that has the effect on the process of making sure you really want that thing.

Yeah, it was hard, and it was expensive. But I think that the style of home recording, particularly with Moon Deluxe, gives you the option to use your aesthetic as a kind of a crutch, you know? That you did it yourself can give you a certain level of not taking it seriously, and I think that’s reflected in the songs I wrote on my first album. It was more like a job doing the second album. I’m not sure what I would do next time.

GC The songs on Moon Deluxe were older though, weren’t they? I know some of those recordings even go back to 2007.

AC Yeah, though some of the songs on this new record are as old as that, too.

JW There’s some stuff on Home Life that we’ve been playing for four years! Which is crazy.

AC And then you come out with this new record, so long after the first one came out, and no one cares! (laughter) Because everybody forgot the first one. But hopefully they’ll remember. Or if they didn’t like the first one, hopefully they wont remember.

JW It’s interesting how so much of the stuff we’ve been playing for such a long time continued to change right up until we recorded, and then even lyrically, it continues to change after.

AC Maybe it’s because the process by which our band comes to play songs revolves around my writing and finishing them, whereas bands can get to a definitive idea of what a song should be because they’re in more constant dialogue. I feel like the songs on the album aren’t even totally done, because we’re still trying to learn how to play them. We already have them, but we’re always coming up with ways to play them differently. I mean, I want our show to sound like the record, but…

Would anybody care for some cabbage?

Philip Larkin reads his “Aubade,” in which a drunk guy stays up late, and muses on the divine and the mundane.

Bill Withers slows down “Lean on Me” live.

Herb Alpert performs “This Guy’s in Love With You,” on which I based the song “Canis Major”

Handel’s “Lascia Ch’io Piango,” from Anti-Christ, which I rearranged for the song “Canis Minor”.

Party scene from Polanski’s The Tenant

Herzog discusses the jungle during the filming of Fitzcarraldo, a deleted sample from the Home Life sessions.

“The Rue of Ruby Whores” by Michael Hurley, top number; I borrowed a lot from him while making the record.

“A Better Place to Live” by Dolly Parton, sing it Dolly.

“Little Wing” by Neil Young, vibe lifted for my song “Tiller of Lawn”.

Home Life ends with “Men in Jail,” which itself ends with the rearranged melody of “Auld Lang Syne”.

Andrew Cedermark’s Home Life is out July 11 on Underwater Peoples records. Gary Canino lives in New York City, where he spends his nights playing guitar in the slow-motion country rock group the Monte de Rosas Band.

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