Cave Birds – That Ancient, Endless Battle

Siobhán Kane discusses love, Leeds and the distinct lack of crash cymbals on Hounds Of Love with Tom from Cave Birds.

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Some months ago a little package dropped through my letterbox, and on a carefully compiled mixtape, a song called ‘Some Lightning Thrill‘ leapt out at me, by a band called Cave Birds – there was just something that stuck. When I realised that they were part of the Plumpton Presents roster – the Leeds promoter and label, I knew they would be in safe hands to produce their first full-length record. Since then, I have heard a few more of their songs, which are intelligent, sometimes grandiose, and always interesting.

It is lovely when new music comes to you this way, unexpectedly, without guile – on a mixtape, and there Cave Birds were, nestled amidst older and newer bands. The mixtape was made by a friend who often compiles things for me on a theme. Over the years there have been ‘wine songs’, ‘songs to be on public transport to’, and ‘the miscellany of life’ (my favourite) – and it sometimes gives me an excuse to revisit bands I haven’t heard in a while, and probably take for granted, but also to discover new bands. This particular theme was ‘love can destroy’, which could be an alternative title for ‘Some Lightning Thrill’, as songwriter Tom Cavebird might say.

Some Lightning Thrill was the first single you released – it is a very melancholic song, and cinematic in scope – was it easy to choose that song as the one you wanted to release first?
Well, it was the one that demonstrated the Cave Birds vibe rather well. Poppy but abstract. Catchy but poetic. And James at Plumpton Presents and later Simon at Tritone/PIAS said they really wanted to help us put it out there, so we all agreed it would be a good place to start. It is quite dramatic. Some people have said it sounds like Echo and The Bunnymen, which is interesting, as I’ve never owned any of their records.

What went into that song? It is quite grandiose in the way that some love can be, and honest about the intensity of it, which is lovely in these increasingly odd, disjointed times we are living in.
I’ve little recollection of writing it or recording it. It was one of those songs that appeared. I should think I spent a few days locked in my room building it layer by layer. So I don’t know how to respond to that. But yes, we are living in a very odd age indeed, lots of information, which is a good thing, I think. However, I don’t read newspapers or watch television. Or very rarely. And I feel I’m a better person for it.

You have been a musician for many years, in other bands, and solo – but how did Cave Birds come together, and did you feel very different about this project than the others?
I joined my first band when I was 11 or 12 , on bass. We were all self taught and we played lots of Nirvana and Supergrass. Halcyon days! And yeah, since then I’ve been in a few other things in different places. Cave Birds is an amalgamation of all those years of learning, making mistakes, studying, researching. I landed back in Leeds after I’d been away travelling and started playing acoustic shows looking to meet a band. I think we all met through Gumtree and then started learning up my recordings. The rest of Cave Birds are far more accomplished musicians than I’ll ever be. They’re the scientists and I’m the painter. I do feel that it’s very different from everything I’ve done before because I feel my writing and production skills are at their best right now and the band I have around me are very intuitive.

Is Leeds, and the north, a kind of muse to you at all? What is the music scene like there?
I love Yorkshire but it’s not something that inspires my song writing. And if you said there’s a house waiting for me to move into in Ireland or Canada, I’d be off in a shot. Leeds has some great bands and some not so great ones too, like anywhere. But I’ve always found it hard to keep up. I don’t go out seeking live music very often. I prefer recorded music. I’ve never enjoyed standing in a room with a crowd of strangers. And I’m always suspicious of people who are fans of a thousand new bands a week. However, I have seen some great shows in my time. Leonard Cohen in Manchester a few years back. Spiritualized in Liverpool was pretty heavy. I just wish I’d seen Verve in 93/94. Leeds has a very healthy music scene. There are some people who work very hard to keep it that way. Some great promoters.

Which other Leeds bands would you recommend?
You should definitely check out Moody Gowns. They’re my favourites. And Heart Ships, who are doing some interesting things. Plus my old housemate Sam Airey. Just make sure they don’t get more attention than Cave Birds.

I believe that you used to write on your guitar, but then went towards writing from rhythms, when did that change occur, and why? What is the huge difference writing that way?
I had a very productive few years writing on guitar in my early twenties. After some time I got bored of standard tunings and learnt a few obscure ways of tuning – and that gave me a new lease of life. I wrote a whole new batch of songs. But eventually that also became tiring. So I started writing from rhythms on my computer; creating a drum beat, adding a bass or synth line and finding a melody that way. It is a very dangerous way to write a song – throwing things at the wall and seeing what sticks. It’s a daily exercise and I tend to discard ideas more than I keep them. My hard drive is packed with projects called things like ‘Weird Prince Vibe #36’ or ‘Bank Holiday Demo #45 part 3’. But just occasionally, very rarely, I hit the jackpot. I just worry that this method will become defunct sooner or later.

You are a huge Kate Bush fan – this pleases me greatly. She is the kind of musician whose work keeps giving, over the years. Which is your favourite Kate record and why? I think mine must be Hounds of Love, it is so shapeshifting and pulsating with life and ideas and philosophy, particularly side two – The Ninth Wave.
Well, my Dad used to play Hounds in the car when I was very little. But then I kind of forgot about it until a few years ago when my Mrs began playing it a lot. She’s always been a big fan. So she reintroduced me to Kate Bush. Of which I am eternally grateful. I listened to Hounds every day for at least a year. I don’t listen to it much now as it is etched into my brain. Did you know there are no crash cymbals in it at all? Not that I can spot anyway. I’d love to hear of another pop record that can lay claim to that. I absolutely love the production of that record. And that’s what sent me into a new way of writing and recording. She makes synthesized sounds appear natural. It’s probably my favourite record of all time.

Who else do you love, and continue going back to, and why?
I have had obsessions with all the great saints of rock music. I’m a great admirer of Cohen and Dylan. Particularly their later work. A lot of people say they’re big fans of them but aren’t familiar with ‘Waiting for the Miracle’ or ‘Jokerman’. Paul Simon is up there too. Recent records I’ve admired are Laura Marling’s ‘I Speak Because I Can’, which is faultless, and Bon Iver’s second album.

How is work coming along on your record? Are you still writing the record or trying to make sense of the songs you have so far?
We do have lots of songs. I’m currently saving up to rebuild my home set up before any album tracks are recorded. That could take a while. I want them to sound right. And I’m not entirely sure whether I’d want to co-produce it with someone or even let someone else take control. If John Leckie calls up one day, then who knows?

With ‘Some Lightning Thrill‘ and ‘In Love From Afar‘ it seems that the love that interests you the most is the one that is linked with a kind of emotional devastation. Are you more drawn to writing about such things because it contains an intensity just simply not present in everyday life?
I would agree with that to some extent. It’s that ancient, endless battle between the man and the woman. I just sing from the view of someone retreating! And that doesn’t necessarily match up with anything in my personal life. I could be singing from a woman’s point of view. Or it might be fiction, a daydream. It’s rare that I sit down and write lyrics in one sitting, or consciously choose a theme or subject. I often use words for their sound. But somehow they always end up similar in content.

Do you believe in that kind of love, and the sustaining of it?

How have your live shows gone? How do you feel about translating your sound live?
It’s taken a year of preparation. And we’re still learning. We’ve not saturated the live scene, just played occasionally and at the right places. We’ve had a very positive response. Especially when we’ve been lucky enough to have the light show and projectors on the go. But that’s rare. I look forward to the day when we can do a headline or bigger support tour and do the full show, with oil slides and film. It’ll blow minds. The best thing has been the great response the first single has had and the radio plays. We’re grateful for it all.

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