Before the members of Cave Flowers were all connected, Andy McAllister had spent the last few years writing and recording various songs, constantly on the lookout for the right group of musicians to join forces with and help bring his new tunes to life. In time, he linked up with the perfect players: guitarist Henry Derek Elis, drummer Ryan Wykert and bassist Ben Coil rounded out the band and the stage was set.
This past January, the four-piece outfit released their first studio album. Recorded live over the span of two days, Cave Flowers is an exhilarating and countrified hard rock affair, equal parts adrenaline-pumping and easygoing. Over the span of 11 tracks, the L.A. country-rockers flex both their impressive songcraft and instrumental muscle. Sporting contributions from dignified piano man Jon Niemann (GospelbeacH) and pedal steel virtuoso Frankie Palmer, the band channels the free and folky spirit of ’70s Topenga and Laurel Canyon and ignites it with gritty electric arrangements. The end result is a tight and cohesive record full of breezy Americana that suits a desert road trip and a back porch afternoon beer all the same.
Whether it’s the infinitely-singable highway jam “Best Lonesome Friend,” the Willie Nelson-flavored country-funk of “Country Fan” or the cathartic lyrics and heavy guitar passages on “Upper Hand,” on their debut record, Cave Flowers deliver a steady collection of clever and catchy tunes that meditate on what it means to gain wisdom with age, pursue your passions with your tribe and cherish the things closest to your heart.
Riffs & Rhymes Editor Roberto Johnson caught up with Cave Flowers members Andy McCallister (guitar/vocals) and Ben Coil (bass) to chat about their new album, country music in California, the spirit of collaboration and more. Check out their conversation below.
You all come from different paths in rock, country and beyond. How did you first link up in Los Angeles?
Ben: I was the only person in the band that did the Craigslist thing. I had lived in L.A. for a couple years but was not really connected to any scene here. I listened to Andy’s demos and knew there was something substantial there. We met for a quick beer and vibed but it wasn’t until months later that he asked me to come try out. Coincidentally, I had just quit playing in a friend’s band a couple days earlier. Good timing!
Andy: I moved to L.A. about ten years ago and Henry was one of the first people I met. I knew he was a powerful force from the get-go and we recorded a bit in my last band but it was really more of a piece-meal recording project. I always knew I wanted to form a band from the ground up where Henry could really let loose. After my last band folded, I was in limbo, just writing tunes for a while. Then I met Ryan, who was teaching drums, making videos, basically living drums 24/7. It was then I thought I could really pull something solid together. I figured I just needed to throw some decent tunes in and get out of their way. Ben showed up and rounded it all out, made the whole thing come together. I feel pretty dang lucky to be playing with these people. They all have good taste and can all be opinionated in a way that’s still proactive.
The record has been received pretty well. Can you talk me through the general creation of the album? How long were you guys working on it?
Ben: We kept it simple. We rehearsed a lot, showed up ready to work and just did our best. We listened to each other, had fun and played for the song.
Andy: I spent a couple years writing, recording demos. I narrowed those down to a pretty decent batch. When we all started playing together, I’d bring those into practice. It was pretty quick in terms of which ones the guys gelled with. They were able to mold them and really put life into them, air them out and give ’em personality. If it was too much of a stretch to find the vibe, we just moved on. We didn’t have to overthink much.
Was there a pretty clear vision for the record from the start or did it take shape as you got deeper into the recording process?
Andy: I knew I didn’t want to spend a long time in the studio. I’ve done records where the recording process is so long. You’re constantly layering, staring at waveforms. By the time you’re done, the songs don’t really mean anything. You can tinker on songs to the point where you become numb to them. The songs were feeling great in the room and I didn’t want to drive that vibe into the ground. We went in prepared and just banged out 11 tunes live. It was a blast. Chris Rondinella at Heritage Recording Company has his place really well-isolated and dialed in, so it made everything smooth. He did a lot of engineering for Levon Helm, which was huge. He had some great stories about working with Levon and knew the kind of vibe we were going for and how to get there. We did a little overdubbing later but got lucky getting everything pretty solidified over that first weekend.
There’s no mistaking that you guys love to rock, but country music is a huge reference point for you. When did you first start to really dig country? Was there a specific moment where you “bought in” to its message and sound?
Ben: For me, Steve Earle opened the door to country music. I was 19 or 20, very politically-minded and his album Jerusalem resonated and had me digging through his back catalog. I loved it all. His stuff sent me down several musical roads, from Johnny Cash to modern country like Jason Aldean. The Gram Parsons-Eagles-Poco brand of country music is truly home for me. GP and the Eagles are the reason I moved to LA. That’s a sound that only lives here.
Andy: I grew up listening to Willie Nelson’s Stardust. My mom played that record all the time when I was a kid, so it all probably goes back to Willie. I loved the lonesome crooner element to it all. Just relaxes me I guess. I’d listen to anything that had pedal steel on it. It’s one of the most beautiful sounds. One minute, it’s like the sound of heartbreak and dreams the next. In terms of specific moments, I’d say The Byrd’s Sweetheart of the Rodeo was a pretty major record for me. That was a bit of a gateway that led me to Flying Burrito Brothers and everything sort of snowballed from there.
California has always had its own unique brand of country. There’s certainly a faithful audience here for sincere and honest roots music. What’s your perception of public sentiment towards country music? Do you think a lot of people have the wrong idea about it?
Andy: I don’t think there’s really a wrong idea one way or another. I’ve been in L.A. for ten years and it does feel like playing country music is more embraced, which I love and am thankful to be living in a town where there’s lots of local music that I want to go out and see. Regardless of what drives folks to listen, there’s just something about that sound that gives me a sense of home. Not necessarily a physical place, but just a sense of peace and security, mentally, if that makes sense. Maybe that’s just what’s called relaxation music. I can come home and put on some Hank or Willie and it just makes me feel like everything’s going to be okay.
Refocusing on the album, you released an awesome animated video for the song “Midnight Movie.” How did the idea for that come about?
Andy: Raf Bonilla animated that. He’s incredible and I love his style and imagination. My daughter thought of the concept. It’s about two skeletons who get rejected at their big performance only to find a rocket ship that drills into an underground cave where they find fellow outcasts, which are movie monsters. The core idea is just to find your people, find your secret monster party.
The lyrics on “Upper Hand” are indirect but have some socio-political undertones to them. What was the overall concept behind that track?
Andy: I think it just comes out of overload. Information overload and the nature of the beast right now, people wanting to battle it out about everything. I wrote it pretty quick, so I didn’t really think that much about it. Probably just rolled out from the frustration of not finding some sort of unity in these times. I do try to be an optimist.
There’s a communal spirit to the music throughout the record. How did your guys’ chemistry evolve in the studio as you were making the album?
Andy: I think the best thing about how we evolved in-studio was we started talking less. The longer we played together, the more we could collectively just know if songs were working. We’ve all been in bands, we aren’t too precious. All ideas are welcome but we won’t waste time trying to convince each other otherwise.
Ben: We all listen a lot. There’s not a ton of talking and arguing and shit like that. I think that’s served us well, in that we are always hearing new elements and making adjustments. It feels and sounds easy because we let it be easy.
Current times have thrown a ripple in things but ideally, is there anything you guys are hoping to accomplish later on in 2020?
Andy: We’re obviously in a bit of a holding pattern with the current state of things but we’ll get out there as soon as we can. Now’s a good time to be writing a bunch of new songs but I won’t know if they’re worth a damn until I play ’em for the fellas.