By Zach Schepis
Photo courtesy of Crisis Arm.
The three artists that comprise the shoegaze trio Crisis Arm are living in any musician’s paradise. Together they share a roof under the Southern California sun and inhabit a invariably charged practice space that feels like home because, well, it is. Though the band’s current line-up is only a few years old, the members of Crisis Arm are engaged and committed to their sound. Peeling back layer after layer of distorted dreamscapes, haunting vocals, and incredibly dense fuzz, an unknowing ear might not believe that only three people are responsible for building their wall of sound. Kevin McVey, Patrick Capinding, and Cameron Puleo know how to wield chaos, but there’s also an enchanting quality to it; perhaps it’s the sudden melody that leaps out of the bed of noise, or possibly the longing vocals. Regardless of how you evaluate its unique attributes, Caterwaul ends up sounding both refreshing and passionate. BTR catches up with the three members to talk about the music and what inspires it.
Tell me a little bit about the history of the band.
K: Pat and I have been playing music together and writing songs for some years now. I don’t have much musical theory knowledge but have been playing music long enough to know what I like. Pat has been playing just as long, but has a much better grasp on theory, so we combine our knowledge and ideas to make things musically pleasing to us. Nothing super serious, usually, but serious enough to know that we wanted to keep doing it. In 2009, after moving back to my hometown from San Francisco following a failed attempt at art school, and an even stronger love for making music, we started jamming around ideas again. We’ve had a few musical projects that just never panned out, and decided to take a different approach with this project. I picked up drums in late 2009, with Pat playing guitar while I was in the learning process, so our songwriting was very different than what we do now, the songs were ever changing. In 2010, we had amassed a good number of songs and started to demo them, but never played any shows. I then met Cameron at the local community college and she started hanging out with us a lot, watching us practice here and there. We decided it would be cool to have her jam with us as we were growing rather tired of our current songs as a duo. Her not having much of a musical background was a refreshing new dynamic for the band, and she has given us a lot of hope to continue Crisis Arm and make it more of a reality.
What is it like living with the band together under one roof – on a productive, emotional, and creative level?
C: It’s extremely productive. There’s almost never a time when we aren’t working on something, and even in our downtime it’s a very creative environment. Hearing a lot of our friends talk about only being able to practice once a week really puts into perspective how lucky we are to all live together and be able to practice whenever. We suck when we don’t play every day! We get along pretty well (usually) and we’ve all been under the same roof so long that we’re a family before we’re a band. Sometimes Pat misbehaves and is too lazy to work on shit or clean the litter boxes or wash the dishes, but we just have to slap him around a bit until he cooperates.
K: We get to practice everyday, make and eat amazing delicious vegan food, watch movies/anime and listen to new inspiring music together, work on projects and have a place to record our music as often as we please. What more could I ask for? Sometimes it’s rough and we get on each other’s nerves, but we have known each other for awhile now making us more like a family than a band. It’s awesome.
For a trio, Crisis Arm has a surprisingly big sound, especially without a bass player. How do you go about accomplishing this, and was it a conscious effort?
C: Originally it was unintentional. Pat played guitar and Kevin played drums, and then I started coming around and I had no musical equipment of my own, nor knowledge on how to play anything, but they had some extra guitar gear so I started trying to play to stuff. Eventually we started writing songs together as a band, and for awhile after that we were looking for a bassist, but we gave up that search after thinking about the inconvenience of working in another person’s schedule, and the fact all of our songs at the time were written to be sans-bass.
Over time and after plenty of “you guys are cool but would be cooler with bass” comments, we came to realize we sounded pretty darn weak and if nobody was going to be playing bass for us, we really needed to figure out another way to fill that low end. So over the duration of a year or two, Pat ended up getting a bass amp, and then a heavier guitar rig, and then two bass cabs paired with a 1000 watt head. Now (when he’s not blowing speakers or finding ways to accidentally mess up his shit,) he’s rattling brains, and people keep complimenting us for our great bass playing live… so I guess we’re doing something right.
What was it like expanding from a duo to a trio? How did it affect the music?
P: As a duo, things were vastly different. Musically speaking, it was more experimental and at the same time much more bland. Sound-wise, there was a lot less guitar texture and the vocals lacked in melodic power; everything was stripped thin. The introduction of a second guitar welcomed more depth and dynamic emphasis, as well as the addition of dual vocals, which was not present in earlier Crisis Arm.
K: A lot of earlier Crisis Arm songs had a strange dark folk feel and even jazzy at times. We no longer play any songs from that era. It was a time of searching and finding out what we wanted to do with our band. While I’m glad that we are no longer a two piece and are able to do the things we visualized back in the day, we would never be what we are today as a band if it wasn’t for all the things we tried during our first year.
Can you tell me about some of the inspiration behind the album Caterwaul? What was it like making it?
P: Inspirationally speaking, there was a lot more shoegaze elements that bled into the making of Caterwaul. The shift from post-punk vocals to more subdued dreamy vocals gave the roaring cascade wall of sound a more piercing, melodic element. I can say that a lot of early ’90s shoegaze bands influenced that decision. Production-wise, Caterwaul was actually supposed to be a tour tape. However, it came together much quicker than previous efforts and surprisingly was the best sounding, so after hearing the final mix it was unanimous that it would be a full-length.
K: We wanted to start playing more sonically with our sound for this album. I had always been a huge shoegaze fan and wanted to move more toward dreamy textures. Songwriting was also something I was doing more of on this album and continue to do with all newer Crisis Arm material.
Caterwaul cover art.
Although not prevalent throughout the majority of the record, there are some pop elements present on tracks like “Follow” and “Late.” How does this fit into your sound, and do you plan on bringing it out more as the band progresses?
P: Oh, definitely. As a band, the culmination of compromises, tastes, inspirations, and efforts have led us to be more accessible in a pop vein. In any case, our sound is not at all solidified. It’s definitely still evolving with every album we produce.
K: New Crisis Arm material definitely as even more pop elements because I’m obsessed with catchy vocal hooks over dreamy, driving sonic textures. Our newest EP, that we just finished, has a bit of a darker feel to it, but the newest LP we are working on feels more in the vein of Caterwaul I feel.
What’s the songwriting process like for Crisis Arm?
P: Usually it’s either Kevin writes a whole song with lyrics he or I have written, or I’ll write a riff or chord progression with a vocal melody and Kevin improves upon it. During live practice is usually where the lead guitar and drums are written. Occasionally there will be periods of long rewrites when the song is overhauled multiple times.
The three of you seem to have a thing for cats. Any particular reason, or do you just enjoy cats?
C: We have eight cats. If we weren’t able to find things we love about cats, we would basically be in hell, so we have to make the most of it… I’m just kidding; we’re all huge cat lovers. We started with only one a few years ago, a little kitten that we found in the bushes below our apartment at the time, and then we found another cat in an alleyway, and then when we moved into our current house we started feeding a stray who was pregnant, and not wanting to let her have her litter outside, we started keeping her in the house, and then she gave birth to five kittens… who we intended to find homes for, but no one was worthy, so we kept those too. If you ever hear about Crisis Arm on the news, it won’t be because we did something cool or got famous or anything, but because we are getting arrested for cat hoarding.
What has your experience been like working with various recording labels over the past few years?
C: Amazing. We were doing a lot of label work ourselves for awhile, ordering tapes, writing tapes, printing j-cards and inserts, and then simultaneously doing our own self-releases, and it gets pretty daunting. It’s something I wouldn’t mind picking up again in the future if we ever have more time/money, but it gets overwhelming fast and we really admire and appreciate everyone lately who has helped us out with our newer releases.
K: Mostly working with friends through labels is awesome and we will always try and support everything they do, even if we don’t have the means to financially. We have recently signed to Mayfly Records and I cannot say enough how excited we are to be a part of their ever growing family.
What are the band’s plans for next year?
P: Lots of touring, hopefully.
K: 2013 was a crazy good year for us and next year is looking to be even better! We are currently writing an LP that will be released by Mayfly Records late May or June, working on some possible splits to release, a short tour to SXSW, and a tour supporting our LP release! Next year is going to be a blast.
What’s the strangest thing that has happened to the band since you guys started?
C: We got really loud and amassed enough cats to probably break a law.
P: For me, the strangest thing that happened to us was just getting as far as we have. Being signed by Mayfly was just surreal in that anyone would be willing to bet on us. The fact that people appreciate our music just blows my mind.
K: I would have to say that the strangest thing for me would have to be all the support we have received for just doing something we love. It started off supportive and continues to be supportive, which has helped us realize that you can make things happen just by doing. Now, we plan to use all of this as drive to keep pushing forward, traveling the world and doing what we love. Not really too many crazy stories so far as a band, but here are some fun facts: We are all vegan and we also used to wear masks in earlier Crisis Arm shows. I’m sure you can find pictures of us wearing them online!