Caltrop Interview with Sam Taylor: Measuring Space in Time

My general assumption when it comes to conducting interviews — especially for people with whom I’ve never spoken before — is that the other person has no idea who I am, what I may have written about their work or any of it, and neither do they have interest in knowing. In that regard, guitarist/vocalist Sam Taylor of North Carolinian foursome Caltrop caught me a little off-guard when he asked if I was the one who wrote the review of his band’s latest album, Ten Million Years and Eight Minutes (Holidays for Quince) that appeared on this site.

Without mentioning that I’m the only person who does reviews here, I said I was. I’d been asking about the pairing of obscure and concrete ideas that, to me, the album title and the names of several of the songs — “Shadows and Substance,” “Form and Abandon,” and so on — seemed to be driving toward. When I brought it up, Taylor already had some idea of what I was talking about. I was wrong, as it happened, in my interpretation. The real answer, go figure, was both more specific and more vague: 10 million years is how long it takes energy to form in the sun and eight minutes is as long as it takes to get to the earth. I was way off.

But I mention it not just to point out how off-base I was in estimating what I thought the album was trying to convey, but also to note that in his response, Taylor seemed to be speaking more to the review than to the question I’d actually asked, which was something unique among all the interviews I’ve done so far for this site. I’ve spoken to people who’ve seen their reviews beforehand before, and sometimes I’m more comfortable about that than others — it depends on the review and the amount of typos I find in it later — but Taylor was directly answering the case I made, and even having been wrong, that was exciting.

For me, it was also a thrill to talk to someone from Caltrop, of whom I’ve been a fan since their self-titled EP my way in 2005. I’d missed the release of 2008′s World Class (also on Holidays for Quince), but caught up to it later, and found the band’s growth as a heavy and intricately pastoral act as engaging as it was progressive. Ten Million Years and Eight Minutes, four years later, loses nothing creatively for the length of time, and as Taylor explains in the interview that follows here, the process by which he and the rest of the band — bassist/vocalist Murat Dirlik, guitarist Adam Nolton and drummer John Crouch — rounded out the record is as interesting as the record itself, basically moving away from their joint writing process to each write a whole track and bring it in to the others.

Below, Taylor talks about some of Caltrop‘s motives for taking this approach with Ten Million Years and Eight Minutes, gives his feelings as regards his band’s close relationship with Brooklyn post-metallers Hull, with whom Caltrop has toured several times (the two groups also appeared in each other’s press shots: see if you can spot them here and here), and discusses a range of other topics, including touring-life vs. real-life concerns and the reasoning behind noting who’s singing which part of a song between him and Dirlik in the liner notes of the album.

You’ll find the (mostly) complete 3,500-word Q&A after the jump. Please enjoy.

When were songs for this record written?

They’ve been written over the past several years. We put out World Class in 2008, and we pretty much immediately started writing on some of these. We got probably – have you been able to listen to the record?

Yeah, I reviewed it.

Is that you that wrote that review?

Um, I wrote a review.

There’s a review on The Obelisk. It’s long and detailed, and I thought it was awesome, man.

Yeah, that’s me. Thank you, man.

It’s rare that someone takes that effort to go into it so thoroughly. I thought it was flattering and it was great, man. Not like flattering, like shining somebody’s ass, but you went really in depth into what you thought about it, and I appreciated that.

Thank you very much, man, I appreciate that. That’s always better than “Your review sucks, fuck you.”

We wrote way back, in the last couple years, “Ancient,” “Light Does Not Get Old,” we wrote “Perihelion” and we wrote ”Blessed.” Those were really three pieces of material that we’d written and recorded as early as 2010. We recorded some of those three songs, a very rough version of them, and we were listening to those recordings, we just got together with Nick Peterson, who did the record, and we just set up and did two days – didn’t even try all that super hard to get the takes right – and we listened through those as a rough version of what we were going to do to record, and then we came back and re-recorded all of them at that warehouse in a serious recording session, and got them all done and mixed. We decided it was a 12-minute thing, a 13-minute thing and an eight-minute thing. Although it was great, we decided it needed more material to offset the longer, dense stuff. We decided to write four things that we each brought. We normally are real egalitarian and all operate within the writing process. This time, we put these four things, and everybody brought something. Everybody brought an idea and we turned that into a song. We tried to limit them to five minutes. We wrote four five-minute things to offset the more dense, longer material that we’d already written, and we recorded those in a separate [session]. We wrote those within probably eight months and recorded them in a separate session. To answer your question, this has been kind of ready to go, because we ended up not getting Holidays for Quince to agree to do it until… We wanted it out last summer or fall, honestly. Then they wanted to have a finished product for a few months, so it ended up getting basically put off until this spring, because there’s no point in putting a record out in January. That’s what happened there.

Seems like kind of a wild process, putting those other songs together. Which four was it?

Well, “Birdsong,” and then “Shadow and Substance” and “Form and Abandon,” and then “Zelma.” Those four basically are the ones that are kind of interjected between the longer piece. We split “Ancient Light Does Not Get Old” into two tracks because sometimes we’ll just play “Ancient” and go into another song or whatever. It was really because we listened to it and thought it might flow better with some stuff that was – not like we were trying to make easygoing shit, but things that would be just as good but maybe just a little less complicated and a little less dense than the other stuff. So that’s why we were like, “Alright, hey, you write a riff and come in here and we’ll turn it into a song, but you’ll be the main person that directs how it goes.” We still all ended up having input on everything, but one person drove what happened with each track, as opposed to normally, we’re all just beating each other up trying to figure out what we should do with transitions and parts and so forth.

Splitting it up among the four of you: Was part of that just trying to make a different sound on each track?

Normally, the songs we write, everybody has input. A riff will come from somebody, but it’ll get changed. The timing will change or a bridge will be added, so it’s a very thorough, all four of our input process. Doing those four tracks to flesh out the album, I don’t think we really thought about what you just suggested, but it is true. Adam, “Zelma” was a riff he’s been playing for a long time, and that’s his grandmother’s name. And it ended up being what you said, whether it was intentional or not, I guess.

So it’s almost like two different periods of writing.

Two totally different recording sessions that took place a long time from one to the other, but they all happened at the same location with the same sound engineer.

Were you worried about the two not flowing together?

Sure. Especially because we recorded it in a warehouse, and this warehouse has an active in and out of stuff that’s in it. Two of the guys work for this fella around town as carpenters, and there’s a variety of different companies that have different – when we first recorded, there was way less stuff than there was the second time, so we’re standing out in the middle of this huge, 35-foot ceiling gymnasium, basically. Was a concrete floor and we set all our stuff up, and the first time was a way different congregation of stuff than there was the second time. As what would naturally occur, Nick also had approached it the same way, but things were just a little tweaked the second recording session from the first recording session. I know for example my guitar cabinet had kind of blown out a speaker during the first recording session, and I figured that out and got it fixed before the second, so there’s a better sound on some of the guitar rhythms and some of the stuff, but it all ended up being pretty not-noticeable. Nick is so good, and we  ended up mixing it all again. We did two separate ones, but the second time incorporated changes that we had made to the drum sounds and room mics being added and taken out and so forth. That was made as a blanket across all of the tracks, and then mastering, James Plotkin did a really good job of leveling everything out. I think it comes across as a pretty seamless sound.

I wouldn’t have guessed that it was made under those circumstances. I guess that’s why I’m kind of surprised to hear it. Tell me about the difference then between writing for the first session and the second. You said everybody split it up for the second session. How was the stuff that came more directly after World Class different?

Well, the way that goes is kind of how we normally write, and everything we’ve written since is following that same pattern, so I can speak to it. What happens is it’s part-driven. Our songs are part-driven. In other words, someone will come in with a few ideas. Adam will have a few ideas, and I’ll have a few ideas, and some of them will seem to work well together. We jam on each individual part. We’ll jam on it for a long time. One part. And it’ll have ebbs and flows of its own. If you play something for five minutes and come back to it for another five or 10 minutes, and you’re just working on it, trying to explore whether, “Does this part sound good heavy and aggressive, or does it sound good pretty and more intricate? Does it sound good building one crescendo to the other?” In other words, you end up with a single riff that’s turned into a five-minute jam, where you’ve got two or three different means of liking it, and not always do we have the same opinion. This has occurred with a part that I’ve brought in, a part that Murat brought in, a part that Adam brought in, and then we’re trying to combine several of these parts into one song. Nobody sits down and says, “Alright, here’s part A, B, C, D, we’re done.” Nobody does that – except during that one particular secondary recording session that we did. We’ll go through this process whereby someone who has written a part then has to negotiate with everyone as to how it changes, because the bass player may not like this part or the guitar player may not like the guitar player as much as the other guitar player who brought it in, so they’ll want to interject a different little minor change that makes it a little interesting, throw in a bridge. And then we combine the parts. I can’t really count them out, but if you think about the song “Ancient,” there’s probably at least five different parts with little bridges and so forth, and “Perihelion”’s got even more. It’s a matter of combining those and coming up with ways they flow and coming up with bridges. What Adam always says is we have to kill our babies, because everybody ends up pissed off one way or another about what’s happened to what they originally brought in, but it’s morphed into what it is now – a Caltrop song, not a Sam riff. Just having to weed through all the stuff that we’ve jammed on and then get what’s best of it and figure a way to combine it with everybody else’s parts, to where it ends up being something which is cohesive. We definitely try and avoid having gratuitous parts. We also don’t want to be too complicated. It can’t be just nothing but music for musicians. There’s a lot of bands that I love that are really mathematical in their approach, but we always throw and element out of there. We want to let the smooth stuff and the blues follow through. And John, the drummer, is super-steady, in terms of understanding what everyone’s bringing in, interpreting it. His rhythms will change what we do. I’m going on a tangent here, but I brought in one part that we hadn’t quite worked out yet, and he plays it two different ways, and it’s incredible what it does to it. It’s awesome. To me, that’s part of the fantastic nature of writing without any expectations other than the fact that we’re going to combine our various influences and our various thoughts to come up with something that is a whole.

You mentioned “Perihelion” in there and that was a track I wanted to ask about specifically. The vocal tradeoff gave a definite impression of having multiple writers at work. Can you talk about how that song came together?

Yeah. The instrumental aspect of it is what I just described. Same as everything else we do. The actual lyrical aspect of it, Murat writes his stuff and I write my stuff. We juggle who’s gonna do what for. Aside from saying after the fact, “What is it you wrote about?” and they happen to actually go together in some poetic way, which is usually just fortunate. Everything he sings in there is what he wrote, what he was feeling, and everything I put in there lyrically is what I wrote and what I was feeling. They happen to combine. I thought they did pretty well on World Class when we traded off, too. You might think it would be disjointed, but it’s worked out to where the lyrical content flows well and makes sense even though it’s two separate authors. We also, on the record, we made sure in the liner notes to differentiate between who wrote what, so it would make sense, “These words are from Murat,” “These words are from Sam,” but they’re thematically along the same lines. I would say they’re following a similar vibe. For someone who really gets into listening to music and trying to figure out what’s going on, it’s totally interesting to have that happen. It’s a bonus. We did the same thing with World Class, except for it’s all handwritten lyrics. He hand-wrote what he wrote, and I hand-wrote what I wrote, so if you can tell our chicken scratch apart, you can tell who did what.

The title Ten Million Years and Eight Minutes. What was behind that? It seems like there’s a lot of contrast on the album between things you can perceive and things you can’t. A lot of vague vs. concrete.

That was really cool, what you’d said in that review. I hadn’t 100 percent thought of it that way specifically, but I will say that from an overarching standpoint, yeah. I’ll tell you what we mean via the title, and I’ll also say that in and of itself, it absolutely stands for a contrast of things, but it’s more question-oriented, from my perspective. It’s more question-mark oriented, than it is definitive. We talked about the title. Murat found a book. He was reading this book, and it was some physics-oriented book. I like to read a lot of science and physics, non-fiction stuff, and I was way down with the idea. What he was talking about was this one individual physicist, his interpretation of what occurs with respect to the length of time that it takes for energy inside the center of the sun to form into and travel through the mass of the sun to the exterior of the sun – that’s supposed to take 10 million years – and a photon or generation of, traveling through, back and forth across everything, 10 million years approximately on average is this guy’s interpretation it would take for that energy to form, travel and hit the exterior of the sun. As a photon, it takes eight minutes to travel to planet Earth, as a particle, beam or whatever the hell it is. So Ten Million Years and Eight Minutes is exactly a contrast, I would say less of concrete and diffuse, and more of, “How about that?” It takes 10 million years for this to happen and eight minutes for this to happen. It’s really a statement, an analogy or an allegory or whatever you want to call it. If you know that, you know that. If you don’t, you don’t. It’s an interesting contrast, really cool subject matter. The kind of stuff that everybody questions about that’s thoughtful and trying to figure out what the hell’s going on externally, outside of our small lives on this gas-filled planet. Not gas-filled, but you know what I’m saying. There’s the atmosphere and we’re living in it, and we’re just another one of a billion planets or whatever. But again, this is my perspective. Not everybody else’s. I would say that Ten Million Years and Eight Minutes and that being the length of time it takes for one thing and the length of time it takes for the other, that’s pretty much where it came from.

Way more specific than I had in mind, I guess.

Yeah, but it was kind of cool that it ended up working the way you had thought about it. The titles came individually, again. “Form and Abandon” was the title for what Murat had come up with bass-partwise, and “Shadows and Substance” was what John came up with drum-partwise. I don’t think you’re off base with what you said, and that’s one of the beautiful things about musical interpretation and art and so forth. You bring in what you perceive and what you think of it, and obviously you can expand on the meaning just through your own interpretation of it. It doesn’t give it any more or less worth. It actually kind of builds the breadth of what the body of work is. I thought it was great, what you said.

You’ve started writing again? Are you just always writing?

The thing is, we all work, a lot. And we tour. We don’t tour in super-huge chunks at once, generally, but we tour a lot in small chunks. We’ll go three days here, five days there, occasional 11 or 12-day tours, which is what we’ve been doing for the past five or six years, about 50 shows a year. That will require, no matter how much time you have of writing, if you don’t get to a certain point in the writing process, then you’ve got to start brushing up on your show material for tour, it kind of puts a delay on the writing process. But yeah, that’s part of the reason it took four years to get this damn record to come out, that right there. But we’ve kind of improved upon our writing process, whereby now we have this big eight-foot-by-four-foot dry-erase board and all our parts – we’ve got eight different songs we’re working on – and all the parts are written out. Not the music, but the parts are given names and what we’re going to do with them, like “1A,” “2A,” “4B,” and that kind of thing are written on there. We didn’t start doing that until we finished writing this record. We were practicing at that warehouse, and there was a big whiteboard in the dumpster, and we thought, “Why don’t we put this up and start writing on it and maybe it’ll help us remember what we’re supposed to be doing when we get back to it after three months of being on tour and someone being out of town.” So now everything’s up on this whiteboard, and we can go back through our various practice tapes and remember more readily what we’re doing. So yeah, we’re in the middle of writing. I hope we end up with a lot written in the next six months. I’d like it to be not too terrible long before we put something else out.

And in the meantime, I know you’re coming north for a couple shows. Brooklyn, Pittsburgh and a few others.

Right now, we’ve got 17 dates in April and May, and another four we’re working on in June – maybe another short tour in June – and then summer’s a question mark right now. We’re still trying to figure out what we’re going to do show-wise. We’re gonna go to New Orleans for a five-day trip, New York for a three-day trip, Atlanta, Athens, Richmond and all sorts of places. East Coast, New York City down, then we’re going to Chicago and Pittsburgh, and we haven’t been there in a while. We’re doing a fair amount of traveling in the next couple months.

I guess that plays into trying to balance the writing and the touring.

Yeah. We’ve done alright. The only real casualty of that is how long it takes to get something done. We’re all settled on that. We know that we don’t want it to take another four years before we put another record out, because hell, I’m 38 and how many times am I going to let four years go by before I put another record out? Shit could add up and you might not end up living all that terrible long (laughs). I hope that we end up working smoothly on what we’re doing now, and we’ll see what we end up putting out. I’d kind of be into putting out something smaller, a 10” or a 7” or a split 10” or something like that with somebody, but we’ll have to see what ends up happening, what’ sort of offers come up.

I know you did that run of shows, maybe a year ago at this point, with Hull and Batillus. I was wondering what for you is the kinship between what Caltrop is doing and what those guys are doing?

I only know the guys in that Batillus band from those couple of shows, so it’s not something I should really speak to, but Hull, we’ve played with those guys on and off for several years, and they’ve basically become really good friends. Like brothers. We really enjoy playing with them. We enjoy touring with them when we get the opportunity, meeting up in various locations across the country, playing with them here or them playing with us up in Brooklyn. I guess the kinship I would say is we’re all working at trying to put out really good music. I like their latest record, and I like all their music. I love watching them play live, and I’ve watched those fellas develop and I think they’re really good. They have been and are a really good band. I like what they do. I think that their songs are a little bit more longform, so you can make that relationship between us and them in certain circumstances, but it’s more just dudes that get along and have the same feelings about different things. That’s probably about as good an answer as I can give with that.

Caltrop’s website

Holidays for Quince

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