Interview: Caverns (w/ Kevin Hilliard)

Guitarist Kevin Hilliard, one-third of DC’s hard-rocking instrumentalists Caverns took some time out to chat about their music and other miscellaneous topics like the role of vocals in metal.

Below are a smattering of streamed tracks for you to enjoy while reading the interview after the jump. Don’t forget to catch them when they lay down the gauntlet with fellow DC-kids Imperial China, next to Baltimore’s own Moscow Telephone and UK crunchy-pop-punk from Buck Brothers on March 21st at Lo-Fi.

Aural States: So give me a little background, where you guys are from, how you guys formed.

Kevin Hilliard:
We all grew up in Montgomery County, we’re all from the Bethesda/Rockville area. We went to high school together. I played in the jazz band together with Pat who’s the piano player in high school. When we got back from college I wanted to play with him in something different. He was more on the classical/jazz side whereas I grew up listening to and playing rock and roll. I wanted to see how the two things sounded together.

We started jamming in 2004, but we didn’t really do anything serious until the drummer Ross moved back to DC. After he graduated college, he lived a couple other places before he came back. He was looking to play with some people so we just came together, a little over 2 years ago.

AS- Just out of curiousity, as a fellow Maryland native, where’d you guys goto high school?

KH- Georgetown Prep.

AS- You said initially you were interested in just seeing how the sounds meshed together. How did things go, how did things sound at first?

Well it started…Pat had a lot of experience working and doing producing work for hip-hop groups. He was also doing remixes. He had a lot of experience with music editing programs like Pro Tools. I always envisioned this band as having crazy guitar offset with more straight-forward and melodic piano, but also, I was at one time a little more interested in doing something along the lines of Mogwai (Wiki). You know how Mogwai will incorporate a lot of electronic elements into their sound like backing loops and sort of play along with it. The initial concept was more like that.

But we decided computers were more problematic than it was worth. We had the worst luck with every computer configuration. And with only the two of us, it just didn’t work. Some bands can do it and it’s awesome, but for us it was such a headache. It just so happened Ross was moving back to town around that time.

When he joined the band, I think that amped us up a little bit more, took us to another level of intensity. When he plays drums, he can be sort of aggressive and loud. We just kind of became what we were. We just started messing around. I would bring in ideas for songs, Pat and me would sort of develop them and they became just a lot heavier than I thought it was going to be. But we were all into it because we thought it wasn’t like anything we’d heard before.

None of us could sing, but we didn’t necessarily set out to be an instrumental band. None of us really wanted to sing. And really, I felt like the piano started acting like a vocalist in a way. So we just decided to develop it that way. Because a lot of the music we listened to and still listen to now, is more instrumental driven where the vocals are either buried, lower in the mix or kind of atmospheric rather than on the top.

I think that was just something we were more interested in exploring. We had all done stuff before that was more traditional. The crux was almost always finding a good vocalist or dealing with that aspect. And we just figured, none of us is a vocalist so let’s just be what we are.

AS- So you never dabbled with vocalists at all?

KH- Nah, after we’d developed enough songs to play a set live, we were comfortable and confident enough in them working as instrumentals. We got really psyched about presenting it as this full musical, almost like classical, vibe. Especially since the piano, the way Pat plays it in the context of our songs, has a very classical sound to it. I was really excited about it being this weird, sort of hyper-aggressive classical music. I don’t know if that’s what it really ended up being but…the idea was attractive.

AS- The piano definitely lends your music a symphonic or classical feel like you said. The closest sound I can even think of is symphonic metal without the ridiculous vocals of a hoarse screamer or some wailing 80s-hair metal vocalist.

Yeah, like I read your review and I really respect like Dream Theater (Wiki), for example. I think John Petrucci (Wiki) is one of the greatest guitarists who’s ever picked it up. But there’s a certain element that always has alienated me from it. There’s this sort of drama club element to it. It’s a sort of overwrought-ness to it that, no matter how technical we get in this music, I always want it to be completely immediate. Not have a theatrical thing going on.

It has that classical element but it’s very much in your face like Converge (Wiki) and Dillinger Escape Plan (Wiki). And I agree, so many times, the worst part about a heavy band whether it’s total cooke-monster shit or super-theatrical like the band Nevermore (Wiki)…insanely good musicians but the second the guy opens his mouth you just laugh. It sounds so dated and preposterous.

AS- The other thing that you seem to excel at is keeping things in balance. Not letting any one member just go off and destroy the flow of a song. So many bands like that can just go off on tangents that wreck a song.

Definitely, like I said, we want everything to be immediate. Bands I’ve seen like Mars Volta (Wiki), go into these long…impressive…but really long-winded instrumental, show-offy things…We’re not about that at all. We just want to get it done and present it. So many bands, instrumental bands, make this mistake…or maybe it’s not a mistake and we’re making a mistake I dunno…but do something in 5 minutes that they could have done in 30 seconds. It’s this weird sense that everything has to be developed to death, almost as an apology for the fact that there are no vocals. We never let ourselves feel that way.

AS- Is there anybody in charge of arranging your songs on the whole, keeping the balance and things like that? Or does everybody write and control their own stuff?

As far as writing the overall structure, the framework of the song, I probably take the lead. But the good thing about working with Pat is that, even though we’ve known each other for a long time, we have almost no common musical interests or tastes. I could list 30 bands that people think Caverns sounds like and he might be able to name 2 of them. He has no history in this scene, he comes from a classical, jazz, R&B, hip-hop vibe. I feel like I present what I have to him and he gives me his thoughts and that does help shape the songs and we make some changes. Once that’s done, Ross will come in and apply a rhythm and make some changes. Especially with Pat’s left hand, which acts kind of like our bassist. But usually I come in with the basic structure, ideas and the general way the songs will go. Pat finishes it in a sense and Ross puts a rhythmic cherry on top I guess.

AS- Are most of your songs born as jams or do you bring concepts in more often than not?

KH- It depends on what we’re doing. The more aggressive, fast and heavy a song is, the more likely it was something I brought to the table. The more loose, mid-tempo and atmospheric songs, we play a longer slow jam in the middle of our sets, that is an example of a song we sat down and took more time together on, shaping as a band rather than me sitting down alone and workshopping prior to introducing it to the band. But they aren’t Caverns songs until the other two guys have had their say.

AS- Since you mentioned 30 or so bands people think Caverns sounds like, name some.

KH- Haha, well the sort of one-sentence, elevator pitch for what our band sounds like…I’d say it’s like Mogwai and Dillinger Escape Plan had a lovechild. We combine some of the harmonic vocabulary that Dillinger or Converge does, some diminished, some whole scale stuff, some super discordant half-step or seventh harmonies. But also looking from an instrumental perspective, using the piano and the way we develop some of our ideas is more inspired by a band like Mogwai or Dan Caballero.

Or even bands like Battles or Holy Fuck.

When I was really young, the first bands that really blew my mind were like Fugazi or Rage Against the Machine. Bands that in the early 90s were really revolutionary to me. Some of the first bass lines I learned were to Fugazi or RATM songs. That’s sort of where I got that punk flavor or element from.

Ornette Coleman you know, and the whole free jazz thing. That really changed my definition of music. It’s one of those things that walks the line between genius and crap the whole time. That’s the thing. Playing music like we play, that’s kinda wild and out there, the lesson that taught me is that you have to make up, in a way for it being some out of the ordinary by being a really good player. Really knowing what you’re doing even if it doesn’t sound like it. One person might go “oh it’s just noise” but another might dig deeper and go “oh this guy knows what he’s doing.”

AS- How do you approach live shows? It sounds that you are all very into and proud of being individual instrumentalists. Does it become just an open jam session or are things more organized?

KH- I don’t think so, each song sort of just exists. The only person who really improvs is probably Pat. The way the piano operates in our songs is that it is kind of above the other things, even though there is balance. But especially the melodic stuff, he has more room to improv.

But since I’m playing a weird dual-role of lead guitarist and also a weird mix between bassist and rhythm guitarist, I have to wear a lot of hats so I don’t have a lot of time or places to deviate too much. Which is why I try to really write runs that interest me. I think that’s part of this attitude that this is our moment, our half-hour or 45 minutes or whatever, to just go out there and kill it. Put every ounce of energy and passion into this.

I just want to go out there and have people remember us.

AS- With that in mind, what are your priorities right now?

KH- We just went through a first-run pressing of our first EP Sing Along that we recorded a little over a year ago with J Robbins in Baltimore. It was like a mission statement. A lot of songs on it were a little older, things we wanted to get out. We had a lot of ideas and those were the songs we had started playing. We’re kind of at the end since we sold our last CD of that pressing at the Black Cat show.

Basically, our record Silk Scorpion that we are going to record starting in May is already written. So we’re kind of in pre-production for that now. We’re on Lujo Records, based out of Louisiana. This is probably, not right now, like a full-time thing for us. But basically every second we’re not working we’re putting into this band so I feel like our commitment is pretty high. We’re trying to do a tour at the end of the year. Our record is probably gonna come out in January.

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