When we talk about the dividing line between music and art, The Icarus Line's 2013 full-length Slave Vows and this year's follow-up Avowed Slavery are most definitely in the latter category. That said, these records ain't meant to be hoisted on a wall because the songs are present, immediate, primal and important.
And why shouldn't they be? Since 1998, the Los Angeles group has been creating a harmonious cacophony that would make Iggy and Nick Cave proud. You'd think being placed into that sort of rock royalty would render The Icarus Line a household name, but it hasn't. Instead, the band — led by singer Joe Cardamone and featuring bassist Alvin DeGuzman, drummer Ben Hallett, keyboardist/saxophonist Jeremy Gill and guitarist John Bennett — have been presumed dead by many since 2004's Penance Soiree, which might explain why Slave Vows sounds like a group with its back to the wall, swinging, not going down without a fight.
Slave Vows is a challenge, an artistic peak for a group uncomfortable with familiarity. You might love it or you might hate it, but you'll definitely have an opinion. And that's what makes for great art.
OC Weekly (Ryan Ritchie): You've said Slave Vows was recorded live. How did that process influence the recording itself?
Joe Cardamone: Well, when you track records live or together as a band playing a piece of music, preparation is paramount. Not so much rehearsal although that can help. Or hurt, too, depending on the goal. I'm speaking more on the technical side of things. You want to make sure everyone is comfortable enough to give a performance that will be compelling and also make sure you are set up properly to capture that performance. Those two, in my mind, would be the most important factors when we are doing records. I think we took longer setting up and getting things right than actual recording time.
Would Slave Vows be Slave Vows if it as recorded track-by-track?
Sonically it might be along the same lines, but perhaps the instruments would be more disconnected from each other. For Slave Vows, I wanted to do a good portion of the arrangements day of or on the fly. There's only one way to change the momentum of a group of musicians with the flick of a wrist that sounds natural to me and it is to have them all connected in a room breathing the same air, seeing the same gestures. This may seem like an archaic notion to our uninitiated reader, but to my mind it's a further advanced technique than anything a computer can provide at this point in time. What happens when recording this way is simply unable to happen any other way and that's a main motive. There's no key command for telepathy. Wisdom isn't something you can just Google.
As a songwriter, and as a songwriter who was written/performed/recorded with numerous musicians and lineups, how do you approach a live session knowing things could go awry from your original vision?
I guess I try to choose people's roles carefully beforehand to maximize the potential for success. A lot of what this band is doing these days is trying to harness the dangers/fears/loves that have previously been difficult to express without music. I think everyone in the group knows where to put their weight after a take or two. I'm usually the one scrambling.
Are you ok with others putting their musical stamp on your work?
This group has more or less been run by me since jump. That's with the help of some great folks along the way. It's hard to explain. I don't think there is a musical stamp once everyone is locked onto the heartbeat of what we are doing at any given moment. We are pushing toward one thing as hard as we can. Slave Vows in particular was penned and planned but not arranged, if that makes sense. I knew what it needed to be at the end of the day. The sections of chaos are not written out on paper but there I was waving my hands in the air like they were on fire. Everyone knew how to play in that moment.
Can you give an example from Slave Vows or Avowed Slavery in which a song took a turn you didn't expect?
To be honest, there are a few songs that I only had iPhone demos for that erupted the day of. "No Money Music" is one of those. "The Father" is another.
And what about Avowed Slavery? What was that recording process like? Were these leftover songs from Slave Vows or were you continuing with a similar point of inspiration?
Avowed is all the tracks that were slated to be our next record on the tour before we recorded Slave Vows. When it came time to make the record, it made more sense to me that we should do new material. Avowed is the songs that we had rotated in and out of the set over the previous years.
These previous two releases are more focused and primal than anything in your past. At least to my ears. Would you agree? If so, do you think that's unusual?
Yeah, I would agree that there is a primitive nature to a good deal of this material. A sophisticated primitive.
I mean, usually bands begin their careers somewhat timid and then work their way to their "art" record, but you've taken a different path in that your music seems to be stripping away the fat in favor of a more basic, rhythmic approach. Or am I crazy?
I would have to say that one of the best ways to introduce complex themes is to keep it simple. Sometimes the subject matter is enough to change the temperature of the room. If we can give it a good groove and let people come along, then I think that is something. For some reason, I feel like the band has been working towards this point for years.
You've said, "rock 'n' roll needs to stab people in the face right now. This is not a time for peace and love." Do you still agree and if so, are you succeeding at stabbing people in their faces? What's the reaction been from people whose faces have been stabbed?
Whoever said that should be stabbed in the face. It seems like when we play live anymore there is only one goal and that is to take the sound further than we had done on all previous attempts. Some will find this entertaining to watch because it has become a very physical process for us. You cannot perform these pieces properly by staring at your shoes. In that sense it hearkens to our punk or hardcore or whatever youth. The spirit is aligned with all that.
You've mentioned having a penchant for working with either friends or people from L.A. who grew up similarly to you. Why is that?
That might be a question for/from a therapist. I don't have one, though. Perhaps it's a comfort zone for myself. I'd like to think that shared experience — be it on different sides of a city or world — count for a lot in creative language. You cannot teach anyone how it felt to grow up on the poor sides of a city like Los Angeles in the '80s and '90s. There's a living vocabulary that we share that is special to our time and to me it has a sound. I feel somewhat of a duty to preserve that, even if it would be more lucrative to pretend that wasn't something that I recognized.
How has producing/recording other artists influenced the way you write and record?
Helping people make records has taught me exactly what I am in music for. What I like and what I don't like. It has revealed what I believe to be the heart of true expression from my perspective. Seeing younger artists searching for an identity or defining one before my eyes has really been an eye opener.
What's an Icarus Line show like in 2014? Is it anything like the live video you just released?
The live show is close to the video we released. Of course, that footage is all live/uncut/ one take, so it's one example of what you might be getting into. That footage is the third rehearsal for the current tour, so it's more representative of a rehearsal than the live show. Pour a 10-hour drive and dementia on that video. Now we are getting closer.
When was the last time you played Orange County?
I think it was with T.S.O.L. in 1983.
Is The Icarus Line an Orange County -friendly band? Meaning, do people here get what you're doing?
We are a coastal-friendly band. I used to live in Long Beach, which is on the way to the OC. I also worked in Huntington Beach for a stint. Can Social D fans have a good time at our show? Certainly. Just add bath salts.