THE TURQUOISE BLUES BLUES
On a musical odyssey with The Lower Caves
Nothing quite beats a good, old-fashioned odyssey. Maybe that’s part of the allure of being in a rock band: Embarking upon a journey, destination unknown. Whether it’s writing a song, going on tour, or, as in the case of The Lower Caves, making a record, things never go according to plan. Lines on a map don’t always reveal the hidden dangers of the landscape, much less the true character of its inhabitants.
When Jonathan Williams, Aaron Ahlstrom, Jon Shearer, and Sean Savacool decided to make a record together, they couldn’t have imagined at the time that it would be a three-year process. But that’s what makes an odyssey interesting; you might find the throne at the end of the road, or the Cyclops could thwart you. Of course, ignoring the harpies’ call is all in a day’s work.
“We decided, ‘Ok, we’re making this record ourselves.’ So we made this record. It’s called Turquoise Blues, and we decided to not work with a producer. We thought we were the best people ever at making things ever,” says Ahlstrom, who sings and plays guitar. That’s usually how strange trips begin, especially when the trip is about recording an album. Too much thought projection would probably result in no records ever being made ever.
“We had this wonderful, successful Kickstarter campaign that paid for the album, and we figured, well, this is our opportunity to do exactly what we want,” he continues. “We don’t have to worry about any business types [being] like, oh you guys need more ‘Anytime’ songs [the album’s obvious single, and the song for which the band made the first video for Turquoise Blues] or you need less whatever, and so that’s what we decided to do. Obviously, I think at some point someone came up with a sad analogy — that, also, we were kind of set, it was almost like letting cats out into an open field. There was no, like, fence.” So, was there any adult supervision? “No, it was just like a bunch of bearded grown ups in a ball pit in a Burger King somewhere with no manager to kick you out.”
Sounds like fun. But so much for the harpies calling from within, unwittingly unleashed by choices made or roads not taken. How about those beguiling voices calling from without? Those are the ones that test the mettle of intrepid travelers.
“Anyway, we decided to make this record with a friend of ours who was starting up a studio over in 5 Points in East Nashville,” says Ahlstrom, who besides being the singer is also the band’s resident raconteur. “It’s no longer there, and unfortunately we just ran into a lot of problems along the way. To just be really transparent, you know, at the same time we were discovering a lot of our process, he was discovering a lot of his process. And there were all kind[s] of, you know, things along the way that we kind of didn’t agree on. Or we’d stumble into a scenario of YouTube videos we did not want to watch.
“[Our friend] was an awesome guy, but in that environment not only were we the cats loose in the field somewhere but, I don’t know, what analogy could he be? Like the paper bag blowing in the wind that we were chasing the whole time.”
“That’s it,” Williams, the band’s drummer, exclaims.
“So, there was all kind of discoveries, and not all of them were lovely. You know?” Ahlstrom continues. “Like, even in the recording process there were times when its like, ‘Aw that recording didn’t sound so great,’ — for him, too, because he was starting a studio. So, I mean, we were his guinea pigs in a lot of ways. We’re a lot of animals in this story.”
Using animals as a metaphor for rock musicians has a long and illustrious precedence. The thing is, these guys are incredibly laid back, and they have a disarming, self-effacing wit. Hedonistic-rockstar- animal behavior was never exhibited during the interview.
All four grew up in Nashville, and their tastes in music were similar long before they met one another. As bassist Sean Savacool explains: “Early on, when I was a kid I was totally subject to whatever my dad played. My dad’s a bass player, and he was really big into the prog rock scene as a musician [during the] ’70s and going into the ’80s. He was always listening to Rush, Yes — all that sort of stuff. But then he also listened to a lot of Jackson 5, The Beatles, Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and that was always the bass plane I gravitated towards. I loved the way Roger Waters played his and Paul McCartney played and John Paul Jones. That was always in my musical memory when I was trying to be a bass player later on.”
Long after the pyrotechnics, the groupies, and the excesses are gone, the music made by earlier generations of rock musicians still holds up. What’s more, a new generation is experiencing rock ‘n’ roll with fresh eyes and ears, unencumbered by the glitz and glamour surrounding days gone by. Sure, there’s still the intrigue, but when Pink Floyd’s music, for example, is first heard outside of the context of the times, it’s the same … but different. In a way, it’s more about the music.
“Going into my teens, … I was a big fan of Rage Against The Machine, Metallica, Pantera — hard rock stuff,” says Savacool. “But before the early ’90s, I remember being a kid listening to the radio. I remember Radiohead’s ‘Creep’ when that was a new thing. I remember that being awesome, and I remember digging Nirvana and Pearl Jam. I’ve always liked rock ‘n’ roll.”
Williams also followed in his father’s footsteps. “I was a little bit of a late bloomer when it came to listening to a bunch of stuff,” he says. “I grew up remembering my dad playing, … I see him like once a year, and I’m like, ‘Fuck! I thought I was good,’ I turned like 17 or 18 somewhere around there, that was about the point where I decided I wanted to play drums. I had been in drum lines and played some music here and there, but never made that hard choice, you know. He was like, you need to go upstairs and learn ‘Cissy Strut’ by The Meters. You need to just play it. It was about the feel and all that stuff. And a buddy of his, a bass player, Steve Mackey, was like, you need to go listen to D’Angelo ‘Chicken Grease.’ To this day, The Meters and D’Angelo, that’s some of my all time favorite drum sounds, feel, everything.”
Jon Shearer, who handles guitar and keyboards, also found his way to the heavier side of rock. “So probably the first records that were an on for me — Pearl Jam’s 10 and Soundgarden’s Super Unknown,” he says. “Those two for sure kind of stuck with me. I grew up in a little stricter family environment, where I kind of fought for listening to anything that was outside of the guys of like — like classic rock was safe, old stuff was safe. I remember listening to Crosby, Stills & Nash records when I was a kid, but that was the extent of it. My dad would sneak in Zeppelin or The Who now and then.”
Landing in the midst of all these memories and self-reflection is this quasi-psychoanalysis:
Shearer: “Anytime I would learn a guitar solo or part he [Dad] would parade me in front of his friends.”
Ahlstrom: “So you’re like the precursor to Honey Boo Boo.”
Shearer: (Laughs) “Yeah. Basically.” Ahlstrom: “You got to talk to your dad about that shit.”
“I had a lot of Beatles,” Ahlstrom says. “That stuff he [my dad] introduced me to. He grew up in Texas, so he could play every ZZ Top solo along with a lot of other things and Yes’ ‘Mood For A Day.’ He’d play all that on guitar. That is kind of what clued me in — like, I want to play guitar. I still can’t play all of that song. So he introduced me to all of that. My mom grew up in South Louisiana, so Saturdays with her sisters dancing to Soul Train on TV … Beatles and Marvin Gaye were kind of like the meeting point. I wasn’t subjected to too much else.”
The commonality of their backgrounds provided a starting point when they joined forces as a band. Having a musical language in common is important; otherwise, it would be like two painters trying to discuss the color of the sky without the word “blue.” The results of their collaboration have yielded a sound that’s all their own. Both textural and melodic, with strong dynamics and a unique atmosphere, The Lower Caves’ Turquoise Blues is a musical journey that reflects the temporal journey they made during it’s making.
As for immediate plans, The Lower Caves look forward to playing live. But are they willing to pile in a van and leave it all behind?
“Yes — for all of us, I would imagine,” says Williams.
“Yes,” Shearer adds. “It’s been kind of the idea.”
“I know that being on the road and sleeping in vans and being in a van all the time and being sleep deprived — doing all that stuff,” Savacool says. “It all comes together when someone is sitting there, and they get to hear what you do. As a band and as friends you do that as a whole, so it’s not an individual thing you do. We actually have made something together of our own individual talents and made something in and of itself. Like, I can’t do a Lower Caves song by myself, that’s not going to be it. It has to be everyone else.
“So now it’s more than myself. I’m up there, and it’s a bigger thing. It’s greater than I am, so I love being a part of that and selling that. I love entertaining and being an entertainer. So for me, it’s about the actual show I play. I could care less about a shirt, color, the way it looks or what the album looks like. I just want to play my bass and entertain people, so if I get to do that on the road, then hell, yeah.”
So as the “Making Turquoise Blues” chapter comes to a close, a new chapter begins, and, like the first odyssey, no one knows how it will end. There will be harpies along the way, beckoning them to cast their dreams upon the rocks, and they’ll look forward to showers and laundromats.
And what about the singer? Will his delicate sensibilities be able to weather the rigors of the road?