While Cave In Sleep, Nomad Stones Roll Toward Nirvana
Cave In never made it easy on us. From 1995 to 2011, the Metheun, MA four-piece fearlessly veered from thrashy metalcore to epic space grunge to, ultimately, a curious hybrid of the two. Be it ripping supergroup Mutoid Man (guitarist/vocalist Stephen Brodsky) or sludge powerhouses Old Man Gloom and Zozobra (bassist Caleb Scofield),members have freely splintered off to explore new sonic landscapes. Guitarist Adam McGrath and drummer John-Robert Conners contributed to Zozobra, but aside from brief stints in, respectively, stoner-punk outfit Clouds and hard-rocking Converge offshoot Doomriders, the two were arguably the least visible members of Cave In. Until now. Recruiting Boston scene vet Erik Szyska on bass, McGrath and Conners have reemerged with Nomad Stones, whose self-titled debut dropped on Brutal Panda in early August.
Unlike the more assaultive Clouds, this three-piece delivers short, sweet, preposterously catchy bursts of East Coast grunge worship, with frontman McGrath as prominent a mic presence as Brodsky circa Cave In’s most accessible work, 2000’s Jupiter and 2003’s Antenna. You get a hard-charging Buddy Holly cover (“Heartbeat”), a partial repudiation of Kim Gordon’s Girl in a Band (“Dirty Boots and a Friend Named Goo”), and a tune about kicking booze before age 40 (“Drain Brain”). We’ll let McGrath explain why, on top of all that, Discover New England should be sponsoring all future Nomad Stones tours.
I didn't realize you had such a pronounced, clean, melodic voice. Did you ever talk with Steve about singing a lead on a Jupiter or Antenna song?
I couldn’t say it was evolved to that point yet. If you’re talking about [the] Jupiter and Antenna era, I was just a guitar player. A lot has changed since then. I sang some songs on [2011’s] White Silence record, the last Cave In record. I think I sang like two songs, but we were kind of in a different place when we made that record. I think that was right after Clouds. Steve’s always been encouraging of everything that any of us have done. I’m sure if I would’ve asked him to sing on a Cave In song, he’d let me. But Antenna and Jupiter … I didn’t have those skills yet.
Did it take a while to develop this voice, get confident with it in a band context? Clouds is where I kinda learned to do all that stuff. Clouds is certainly more riffy, and I shared the vocal duties with two other dudes, but I think I really cut it … I started playing solo acoustic shows the last three years. Not that I ever wanted to make a career off of it; I was doing it for an exercise. It’s not very fun. It’s more fun playing in a band. Like, playing solo, you learn how much people don’t fucking care. [Laughs] You practice two weeks, you get your set down, then you play a bar and everyone just talks the entire time. You certainly don’t have any magic moments. Especially if no one knows who you are. At the same time, it enabled me to kind of cut my craft and learn how to sing better. When I first started, I was trying all sorts of different shit. I’m not a country artist, I’m not a folk singer; I’m definitely from Boston. [Laughs] I think even with my voice in Clouds, there were things that I remember recording and then trying to do in reality — it was not easy. I think I kinda learned what I can and can’t do, playing solo. As far as Nomad Stones, I didn’t have a vision for what it was gonna be, but I knew I wasn’t gonna scream my way through it either.
When you were doing these shows, did you only do solo acoustic, or solo electric, too?
I did a little of both. I played electric because it enabled me to bring pedals and be more loud and obnoxious. At the same time, there’s something about playing acoustic, there really is. It’s a whole different trip. It’s definitely a whole different exercise, trying to keep people’s attention and trying to get through it.
So, after going through the minors, so to speak, at what point did you decide to call Erik and J.R.?
Erik’s kinda just a local guy. Anyone who was in a Boston band who was around in the early 2000s knows Erik. J.R. and I share the same practice space, the same one when we were in Cave In together. But Cave In isn’t really active anymore; Steve’s in New York, Caleb lives in New Hampshire, and J.R. was just kinda like, “What the fuck am I doing in this space if I’m not playing in a band actively?” I was in there, too. And I’m like, “You know, man, I’m here with you; if you want to set a schedule … ” Because J.R.’s very good with schedules. If you say, “Hey man, I’ll be down here every Thursday,” he’ll make it happen. So, that’s how we started writing Nomad Stones songs. I think we started last May.
Your influences are broad, but they make sense once you hear the record. Have you been waiting a long time to scratch this itch?
I would say yes and no. Again, going back to playing solo acoustic, I found the best songs that would go over for me were the simplest ones. If I got too intricate or too fancy, I just felt like the songs just didn’t go over that well. Dinosaur Jr, believe it or not, I didn’t listen to them growing up. I know I’m from fucking Massachusetts, but I was more of a Sebadoh guy. [Laughs]
So, Dino, I would say in the last four or five years, also Deep Purple, two bands that are new to me, but old to everyone else: I got heavily into both those bands like crazy. The guitar solos are me trying to be like a poor man’s J Mascis or Ritchie Blackmore. The songs are like fake Dinosaur Jr, you know what I mean? I kind of liked that east coast grunge sound. I didn’t grow up with it. I was more of a Nirvana/Sebadoh guy. Just seeing [Dinosaur Jr] play over the past few years, I just loved it. It’s kinda like, you know, with grunge and all that early ’90s music, there’s so many fucking sad stories. I mean, Kurt Cobain is dead, Sonic Youth is gone, Soundgarden doesn’t really exist. Dinosaur Jr is still great. I think that’s what inspired me a lot.
It’s interesting that you say that the simpler songs worked better. Were you still playing cosmopolitan clubs, for people who would appreciate something like Cave In, or was it more bro bar open mic-type shit?
Everywhere. I think that’s funny, because any time Nomad Stones has played in front of —what would you call it—norms, I swear to god, people go fucking crazy. Our best shows are in front of random people. [Laughs] I don’t know the answer to that. I’ve played shows in front of Cave In fans and I’ve played shows in front of randoms; I guess, with me, singing and playing, I always felt like the simpler ones always just sounded better, they always came off better. Playing solo … you’re playing a song, rather than riffs tied together. All the power would just come from me and keeping it simple with power chords. I felt it was coming off way better than trying to do fancy shit.
What’s the status of your other projects? Are you still doing stuff with Clouds, Zozobra, Cave In?
Zozobra is Caleb’s thing, so that’s more of a question for him. I don’t know if I’m invited back, you know? [Laughs] We’re still great friends; I’m not worried about it. Clouds, we haven’t played in years; we talked about doing a reunion two summers ago and it never happened. Same thing with Cave In. I mean, we talked about doing it, but it never happened. At this point, it’s like, I just kinda go with what my eyes tell me. In reality, my eyes say nothing’s happening, so I have to move on with my life.
So, everyone in Cave In gets along, but you’re on hiatus and that’s that?
The way I look at it is, we spent 15 years together. There’s no manual to have four dudes who grew up together just keep on going 15 years later. Everyone has different lives now. Caleb has two kids in New Hampshire, J.R. is married with two kids, Steve’s in New York City. I’m not sure if our goals align with music these days. I know Steve is still very curious, and it’s obvious that he’s working very hard with Mutoid Man, and I commend him for it.
Myself, I can’t say that I’m gonna throw it all on the line for music again. I’ve already done that, and ... I don’t need to get back in the hustle. I spent like five years of my life traveling, some of the best years of my life, but, you know, I’m married now. I really enjoy my home life. I love being with my wife, I love being home. Music will never stop. It’s too in me, I have to play. But as far as getting back in the hustle and selling records and trying to figure out ways to get people to like me, I don’t have it in me anymore. I just don’t. [Laughs]
That’s a pretty special place to be, where you’re comfortable with it and it’s not a midlife crisis.
I know; I’m doing this because I love it. I know J.R.’s on the same page. His priority is his family. He just wants to have fun and keep on playing. If it doesn’t make sense, we’re not gonna turn our lives upside down to make it happen like we would in the old days.
Maybe Coachella will call in 10 years and offer Cave In a mil to do a one-off. [Laughs] We did some shows last summer. You know, it was fun. One was better than the other. I’m more interested in moving forward. Cave In was a band that always moved forward, and I just can’t … I can only be in a tribute band for so long unless we’re doing new shit, you know what i mean? I don’t wanna keep on going out every summer and playing fucking Jupiter over and over again. I’d be happy to try to do some new songs and whatever, but the stars have to be aligned for that. Never say never, but I don’t see it happening any time soon.
As for these new songs, the lyrics to “Dirty Boots and a Friend Named Goo” are almost entirely references to Sonic Youth albums and songs. This is clearly a love letter, right?
I wrote that after I read Kim [Gordon]’s book [Girl in a Band]. It just made me sad. I didn’t really want to know any of that. I mean, it’s stupid to say, but I loved Nirvana; I was the perfect age for it. And that legacy turned into such a nightmare. Sonic Youth seemed like they were better than that. I thought they were better than throwing themselves under the bus and shitting all over each other. I’m sure some terrible things happened, and I’m not taking anyone’s side because I’m sure being in a band with your partner is not an easy thing. It's just that they were kind of untouchable in terms of drama and tabloids and bullshit. But then again, they’re only human, you know?
For a second, I was thinking you took this approach with eight other bands for every song on the album. Like, maybe there’s a Dinosaur Jr tribute and I just didn’t hear it in the lyrics.
That’s actually a good idea. I might have to take you up on that! [Laughs] The funny thing [with “Dirty Boots and a Friend Named Goo”] is, I know Kim Gordon is Kim Gordon, but in the song I said Kim Deal, not Kim Gordon. [Laughs] I know the difference — of course I know the difference — but I said Kim Deal on the recording. Every time I listen back, I think, “I totally messed that up, but I think i’m gonna leave it.”
So, the last song, “The Sandwich Police": That’s not a Zappa cover, right?
No, no. Evan Dando lives on Martha’s Vineyard. He has a new band — when I wrote that song, they didn’t really exist yet — he was joking that he was gonna put out a band called Sandwich Police. Sandwich is actually a town on Cape Cod, so the Sandwich Police is a thing that exists. I thought it was just fucking funny, so I wrote a song called “The Sandwich Police.” Since then, Evan [put out] a band called Sandwich Police. They only have like three songs. It’s on Spotify. It’s cool, it’s folky. But [the song] is just about summer in New England — summer travel in New England, basically — and weird offseason trips I take with my wife.
Was it understood going in that all these songs would more or less max out at three minutes?
I just wanted to make barn burners: fast, fun barn burners; simple; every song should have a ripping solo, mostly at the end. It wasn’t really a conscious effort to keep them under three minutes. It was kind of like trying to be like Descendants or Dinosaur Jr or even the Misfits. I know we’re getting a lot of Misfits [comparisons] now that the reviews are coming out. Danzig’s a heavy influence on me, to the point where I’ve tried to shake it. But he’s one of those influences I just can’t shake. It comes out when I’m not even trying, but that guy can be a disaster sometimes. I don’t wanna be associated with modern Danzig, let’s put it that way.
I saw online that there appears to be a French band called Nomad Stones.
We didn’t know about them until we put all this stuff into motion. I don’t even know the story. That dude, I think, has moved to Montreal. I think we both mutually found out about each other on the same day because we both did a mad dash to grab, like, “We gotta get the Instagram, gotta get the Twitter.” We did a mad dash to try to pull shit from each other. I honestly didn’t know they existed. I actually checked out their music; it seems like it’s kinda world folk music or something. I had no idea. When I came up with that name, it was kind of a weird tribute to the Rolling Stones, like the “wandering stones.”
The cover art is credited to Jake Bannon, but it doesn’t exactly seem like his house style.
I took that picture out at Provincetown last summer, which is another part of Cape Cod. There’s a lot of living-in-New-England themes in all of those lyrics and all of those songs, so I kinda wanted a New England cover. That’s a place in Massachusetts that’s very much the end of the earth, which was the vibe that I wanted. Jake laid it out — something I have no clue how to do. He did the fonts and the color schemes. It’s awesome for me at 37 to be able to call him and have him do things for me like that. We’ve been working off and on together since I was a kid.
You still live roughly where you grew up. What’s the call of writing about New England just now at age 37?
My life in my early 20s, I was traveling like crazy, you know? From the age of 20 onto like 25 or 26. With that life kind of ending for me, trying to figure out what’s next as far as, like, you don’t bring many skills with you touring the world. You could drive a van for somebody, essentially. [Laughs] So, it’s like trying to figure out how to make a living and being an adult. I didn’t get many of those skills traveling with Cave In for years. I was really young and naive. I had to come home and get job skills and build a resume and try to get myself on my feet. And also, my wife — my girlfriend at the time — I can’t be a deadbeat partner in a relationship.
Building a life for myself in New England, I think that being here the past few years and also spending time soaking it in … I feel like in my early 20s, I moved around like crazy. I wasn’t really soaking in my home life. I was always gone. It definitely ended about 10 years ago, but really spending time here … I’m inspired by still being here, still wanting to play music. I didn’t grow up going to Cape Cod. That’s more of my wife’s world. She’s kind of introduced me to that in the past five years.
So, all these things are kind of new to me. I also think by reading Kurt Vonnegut books, [he] has a really funny way of writing about New England. A lot of it comes from that, too: his weird way of looking at New England. I know he wrote a lot of books here. There’s an old building that used to be his [Saab] dealership where he allegedly wrote Slaughterhouse Five in the back. It’s kind of a whole life that’s really untapped for me: new New England things. You know, I’ve been here my whole life. As far as Boston goes, I could [take or leave] it at this point. It’s absolutely a college town; it’s filled with college kids. All my friends are gone, all of Cave In’s gone, Hydra Head’s gone, everything that was here is gone. But as far as New England beauty, I mean, Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine — there’s beautiful places. Worlds and worlds of inspiration. There’s so much New England I still haven’t seen.