Notes From the Underground

The Cave-ins' indie rock debut sounds mighty familiar -- but in a good way

Rock 'n' roll is an art form that is practically bred on larceny. Elvis Presley stole from country and R&B artists, the Beatles swiped from Little Richard and Carl Perkins, nearly everyone nicked from the Beatles. Even first-generation punk acts, which swore allegiance to no one, pillaged from their musical forefathers. (Hell, the Ramones covered "Surfin' Bird" and recorded with Phil Spector.) In the past decade, this borrowing has reached new levels, thanks in part to the influence of hip hop, Beck's cross-genre pollinations, and the availability of sampling equipment. Today, the music world is the No. 1 place where everything old is new again.

Which brings us to the Cave-ins' lovely debut album, Gridfarce by Lamplight, released this week on Sacramento's Omnibus Records. At first listen, the oddly named LP may sound familiar, with hints of the Kinks' sunny folk period, the Velvet Underground's quieter experimental side, and the Beach Boys' intricate orchestrations. But upon further investigation, you will notice jazz guitar picking, woozy keyboard sounds, old-timey colorings, and vocal harmonies that unfurl like smoke from a cigarette. Over multiple listens, the Cave-ins' obvious influences fall away, leaving you with a record that feels like a slow-motion pile-up, in which the songs of the past collide to make something new.


Celebrate the release of Gridfarce by Lamplight

Wednesday, Jan. 30, at 9 p.m.

The Electro Group opens and eE headlines

Tickets are $5

Bottom of the Hill, 1233 17th St. (at Missouri), S.F., 621-4455

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The Outer Sunset apartment of Matt Popieluch and Luke Top, the Cave-ins' singers/songwriters/guitarists/organists, looks pretty much like you'd expect from hearing Gridfarce by Lamplight. There's a weather-beaten piano covered with well-thumbed books against one wall, with an equally ancient guitar lying at its side. On another wall, there's an ad for Peter Tosh's Legalize It, beneath which rests a thrashed drum set. Videotapes and records lie everywhere, and an old Buffalo Springfield album plays on the stereo. The only relatively new things in the room are an eight-track recorder that sits in a corner like a shrine, a cell phone on which Top joins the interview from Los Angeles, and Popieluch, who, despite his green wool blazer and bottle of Tott's champagne, appears far younger than his 22 years.

Popieluch and Top first met in an elevator at San Francisco State in late 1998. Since both freshmen lived in the dorms, they began borrowing each other's records, swapping Popieluch's blues and roots albums for Top's indie rock releases. Before long, they started playing together -- in the naturally reverby dorm stairwell.

"We both had our own songs: Matt's were mostly acoustic with percussion and mine were more noisy and dependent on keyboards, textures, and had a more modern feel," Top, 21, says on the cell phone. "The result was a slow, harmony-laced combination of songs that just kind of innocently lurked out through the doldrums of college life."

"We'd sing two different songs at the same time," Popieluch says. "Luke would sing about suicide rates and I would sing about canneries, over two very distinct guitar sounds. We'd just throw words and melodies out into the air until they made a baffling version of Cave-ins sense."

Those early collaborations were very quiet and slow, which caused initial problems for bassist Rob Williams, 24, who joined the band in early 1999 after Popieluch and Top caught his other group, Delta Song, a self-described "fast and cerebral" rock band. "Rob had trouble concentrating [with us] at first," Popieluch laughs. "He went from playing 100 notes a song to four."

The Cave-ins played two shows on campus in the winter of 1999. The opening band at one of the gigs, Bellwether, just happened to include Omnibus honcho Mark Kaiser and drummer Scott Eberhard, 23, who was a friend of Williams. When the band members decided to add a drummer, they gave Eberhard an audition.

"I remember hearing them play with him for the first time and thinking how much better it was," Williams says. "Before drums, they were very long, slow, simple-but-soothing songs. The drums just added another whole dimension to it -- it had more energy, more potential."

In May 2000, the Cave-ins debuted with a 7-inch co-release by Omnibus and Visalian Records (run by fellow SFSU student Matt Johnson). The tune "Buildings and Flags" is a good example of the band's early songwriting style, featuring two vocals that intersect, diverge, and then intersect again. But "Know That You Will" is the keeper, a chameleonlike gem that starts with gently picked jazz chords and a warbly vocal and then kicks into a '60s British beat and the chorus from the Ronettes' "Be My Baby."

Out of school for the summer, the boys set up a cross-country tour, with less than exceptional results. "We had 20 shows booked all over the U.S. and we only played three," Williams says, shaking his head.

The first show was canceled due to problems with the papers for the band's newly purchased van, which the previous owner had accidentally switched with another vehicle's. The subsequent gigs in Portland and Seattle proved miserable -- both in attendance and performance -- but the biggest disaster occurred after the Denver show. When the group was driving out of town, seven cop cars surrounded the van, with the police leveling their weapons at the confused musicians. Popieluch, Top, and Eberhard were handcuffed and carted away, while Williams, who was in a different car, tried to catch up. Popieluch spent the night in jail, attempting to explain that the van's registration confusion was responsible for the supposed grand theft auto. By the time the bandmates got the van back, several other gigs had passed, and they decided to scrap the rest.

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