Vetiver: Down From Above

By: Dennis Cook

I say it all the time
You don’t pay no mind
when I tell you that I love you
Now do ya?
I wanna be clear
All I wanna hear is your voice
Have your face to see
How happy that would make me

Vetiver by Alissa Anderson
There’s a plainspoken draw to Vetiver that allows multiple points of entry into their smoothly flowing music. While they never bang a gong to get attention, fans of seriously well-put together rock have been flocking to them since their self-titled 2004 debut. They are one of those bands that other musicians talk about, with Chris Robinson (The Black Crowes), Ethan Miller (Howlin Rain, Comets On Fire), Wooden Wand and others bringing them up unbidden in my conversations with them. The comments are often succinct outbursts of sincere appreciation (“That’s a damn good band” or “what a cool song, huh?”). There’s the feeling by their peers that Vetiver is getting it right in many ways, and that’s never been more evident than 2009’s Tight Knit (released February 17 on Sub Pop), the latest edition to the “Vetiverse,” both the name of their website but also the intimation of a unique cosmology of their own making.

“I guess that’s true within my own songwriting, where something accrues and amasses to be a sound that one could say is Vetiver. I wouldn’t say I’m doing it intentionally or by design, but if I dig deep into any of my favorite artists or writers an invitation to happenstance and happy accidents might play into the form of their work, too,” says Andy Cabic, Vetiver’s songwriter/leader/soul, a man cautious to a fault when speaking about his music, eager to never give anyone too firm a nail to hang anything on his work. Still, there’s a reoccurring vibe that tells one they’re listening to Vetiver and no one else. “I know what you mean! But the fact that we would have a hard time putting our finger on it makes me skeptical about people who seem to easily put their finger on it.”

Case in point, the band’s Wikipedia entry describes them as “an American folk band.” Other common misses in describing their sound include “indie psych-folk,” “Americana” or the dreaded “freak folk.” Most writers focus on one aspect of the band, namely the more patient, airy numbers, which completely misses the subliminal swing or blues toughness that also runs through their catalog. Vetiver is so fluid in their execution of whatever they’re playing that one gets the feeling they could play anything and play it well. It’s a wide musical grasp and quiet confidence that’s seen them called into service as the touring band for The JayhawksGary Louris and Vashti Bunyan.

Vetiver by Steven Walter
“I think the root of it is soundbite culture and the time people can put into simple reviews like that. I can’t even be certain that people who write about me even listen to the album. They might listen to the beginnings of songs and not the whole thing, and of course, they’re cribbing off one-sheets and things like Wikipedia,” says Cabic. “Rolling Stone reviewed [Tight Knit] and said I was ‘the thinking man’s Jack Johnson‘ [laughs]. How is that possible? It’s funny so I don’t take this stuff too seriously. There’s really nothing you can do about it.”

“[In describing the band’s sound] I might describe the instrumentation. I say I’m a singer-songwriter, because at the root of the project that’s what’s happening. I’m writing these songs and I’m not living with or practicing with my band until right before a tour. Usually I just tell people to go listen to something we’ve done,” offers Cabic sensibly. And he’s right about the songwriting being the foundation of everything in Vetiver, where one hears tunes that have been refined until just what needs to be there remains. However, he knows full well there’s a lot of competition for your ears. “There’s just so many people doing music. You have this surfeit of things to choose from, and if that continues, realistically, there won’t even be a need to hear anything old 10-20 years from now because there’ll be this plurality of options everywhere, more even than we have now.”

In a very real way, it can feel overwhelming just choosing what to listen to given all that’s out there, especially knowing there’s more on the way, and then more after that. In a way, the purity of Vetiver’s music, the way it feels a part of something sturdier than fashion and charts, provides a bit of an oasis from the sonic onslaught. Press play and one is transported to the Vetiverse, where music is just this fine human creation to be enjoyed and allowed to inform our hunting and gathering. We all need music of retreat, our safety spots, and Vetiver is a swell one (and by the way, for Cabic it’s Skeeter Davis).

Continue reading for more on Vetiver…

I didn’t set out to show off some sort of range or anything. I’m sure there’s many people who would hear it and NOT hear that range at all, taking it all as sort of subdued and quiet. I always liken it to painting. A painter spends an inordinate time working and staring at this space and then this person is going to just walk by it in a museum or gallery and look at it for 30 seconds. I never expect I’m going to get ‘time spent’ in return that I spent on it, but it’s nice when that happens.

Andy Cabic on the new album

Photo of Vetiver by: Alissa Anderson

While frequently tagged as California hippies making mellow rock, Vetiver draws inspiration from a vast, unpredictable pool of ancestors. Their 2008 cover tune album, Thing of the Past (and companion EP, More of the Past) went some distance at showing there’s more going on below the surface than Crosby, Stills & Nash and the like.

Vetiver by Alissa Anderson
“It was reductive on one level because people then assumed that was my universe of songwriters but it was more about expressing a connection with these songs and knowing they were ones we could do well,” offers Cabic, whose picks include Hawkwind, Loudon Wainwright III, Michael Hurley, Garland Jeffreys, Townes Van Zandt and more. “My listening habits are WIDE. I’m just as likely to put on a Go-Betweens record as I am some new, minimal techno thing or Skeeter Davis or a Can record or whatever.”

Tight Knit resonates this diversity but in a way that defies one to follow the accents back to their sources. It is, without question, their most blended album to date, and as such it may not leap out quite as quickly as their previous original release, 2006’s To Find Me Gone (JamBase review). However, Tight Knit is a quintessential grower that amply rewards a slow drip into the subconscious leaving behind a rich yet elusive aftertaste.

“The album is a collection of songs and different approaches that I found a way to sequence together with the album art and title to kind of unify them. For a while there I wasn’t sure it was gonna work, but in the end I think it did,” Cabic says. “I didn’t set out to show off some sort of range or anything. I’m sure there’s many people who would hear it and NOT hear that range at all, taking it all as sort of subdued and quiet. I always liken it to painting. A painter spends an inordinate time working and staring at this space and then this person is going to just walk by it in a museum or gallery and look at it for 30 seconds. I never expect I’m going to get ‘time spent’ in return that I spent on it, but it’s nice when that happens.”

Vetiver by Alissa Anderson
“I’m also not terrifically prolific, so this is also what I had [laughs]. Some people will write a lot of material and whittle it down so some things don’t make an album. I tend to just work on what I know will make it,” says Cabic. “I’m not really sure what ultimately makes it hang together. In a way, like all of the records, there’s a core of acoustic guitar and vocals underlying it all, which is just how I write. And you can either have the guitar finger-picked and really textural and have that filigree that gives the song its body or you can smooth it out and have it be just rhythm. I think that’s what a lot of people who want to define us as folk hear. But, [Tight Knit] has a lot more keyboards, electric guitar and drums and bass on every track.”

Though possibly a stretch for some ears, this writer picks up on some of the winged loft of U2 in the new material, say “Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” or “A Sort of Homecoming” stripped of bombast but not their heart tickling sparkle. Vetiver is also developing a poppier edge that’s not dissimilar to the Irish quartet’s moves that ultimately landed them in the Top 10. It’s pop but pop crafted on their terms and not the prevailing markets. All Music remarked that Tight Knit‘s “Everyday” was “peppy, perfect for a soda pop commercial.” Really?

“[Laughs] Oh, I certainly was working on pushing things in as poppy a direction as I knew how. Probably what they’re saying is in popular culture typically ridiculously catchy songs like Feist‘s ‘1, 2, 3, 4’ wind up proving it in some ad. I don’t think that’s a bad thing at all, but I did push things as far as I could as far as catchiness goes,” says Cabic, whose music actively reaches out – it’s engaging and easy to enjoy in a hurry – but in musical not commercially minded ways. “It’s not always been that way. For a while the body of our music was more melancholic and quiet and didn’t survive in a bar atmosphere. But this album has more songs that allow us, in a live setting, to take things in different directions depending on what the setting is like.”

“I think we’re still figuring it all out,” says Cabic, putting a fittingly opaque, oblique spot of punctuation on our conversation, keeping the edges of his private galaxy open and ready for further exploration.

Vetiver tour dates available here.

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