At around noon on Thursday, September 15, local four-piece Cave kicked off a show on the back of a flatbed truck. They played their first couple of tunes parked at the Logan Square Monument and then headed southeast on Milwaukee to the intersection of North and Damen, driving at a gingerly ten miles per hour with the truck’s hazard lights flashing. They planned to finish their set parked in front of the Double Door, but they were so loud—they used the same setup they do onstage, with their three amps powered by a generator on the truck—that the police intervened to stop the music just as Cave wrapped up a 14-minute rendition of “This Is the Best.” All told they played for about half an hour.
“It was difficult, but it was fun,” says synth player Dave “Rotten Milk” Pecoraro, 30. The idea came from Brett Sova, an employee of the band’s label, Drag City. Sova says he tried to see if there was an applicable permit to be secured—he didn’t want to get anybody in real trouble—but when he called the city, he got passed from department to department for days. As it turned out, the police didn’t even issue a citation when they cut the show short.
I talked with Cave the next day on the garbage-strewn roof of Mortville, the underground venue where they’d played the night after their truck trip. They were about to leave for a month on the road, with at least another five weeks of tour dates booked in November and December. They seemed bummed that they hadn’t been able to finish their set, but it’s not like they needed the practice. That afternoon, they played under the big top at the inaugural Brilliant Corners of Popular Amusements festival, and their performance was a model of lean efficiency from an instrumental combo firing on all cylinders.
Cave isn’t the first band to play on a moving flatbed truck, of course. On May 1, 1975, the Rolling Stones famously announced a U.S. tour with a brief performance on a truck driving down New York’s Fifth Avenue. But Cave’s latest and best album, Neverendless, seems ideally suited to forward motion. (Released September 20 on LP, CD, and cassette, it’s Drag City’s first tape release since Palace Music’s Viva Last Blues in 1995.) It would’ve been more fitting for Cave to perform atop a Japanese bullet train, but the truck made the point well enough. Their ferociously rhythmic music makes a powerful impression in a hurry—even on, say, a pedestrian who can only hear a moment of it. Cave’s songs, which collide psychedelic colors with tense motorik grooves, are long and repetitive but hardly self-indulgent; the band plays with pinpoint precision, never wasting a gesture. Neverendless has been the soundtrack for my morning runs for the past month—when it’s on my iPod, I feel faster and less tired.
It’s a long way from the ragged, haphazard sound of Cave’s early days in Columbia, Missouri. The group was so fluid at first that it’s hard to say when it really began, but in 2005 drummer Rex McMurry, now 24, and guitarist Cooper Crain, 26, began playing together for hours at a time. They were bandmates in the hard-rocking Warhammer 48K, and they jammed with a revolving cast of musicians from Columbia’s underground scene. The songs on some of Cave’s earliest releases were edited down from improvised 30-minute freak-outs they’d taped at sessions like these.
“Written songs, doing tours . . . that’s the normal trajectory for a band,” says McMurry. “But we would do the opposite things with Cave. We would spend most of our time messing around with recording stuff and then do shows that were kind of on the fly.” The band might never have evolved further if Lance Barresi and Liz Tooley of Permanent Records hadn’t released the second and final Warhammer 48K record, Ethereal Oracle, in 2006—during that process, Crain gave them a recording of Cave’s music. In 2007 Permanent put out a single album that combined two early self-released Cave titles—the cassette-only EP Jamz and the CD-R Hunt Like Devil.
To support that release, Cave attempted their first national tour in fall 2007. By then the core lineup was McMurry, Crain, and bassist Zach McLuckie (who currently leads the Columbia band Heater). Crain had moved to Chicago, and he helped the group recruit two members here: keyboardist Adam Roberts, a friend from Columbia, and Rotten Milk, already a Chicago fixture from his days at Wicker Park space Buddy. Unfortunately, the old van they’d rented from a friend had more than its share of problems, and in Connecticut its transmission broke down, stranding them. They talked some folks they knew in the area into picking them up and driving them into New York for one more show a few days later, then rented a U-Haul and bailed on the rest of the tour. McMurry and McLuckie returned to Columbia, the other three to Chicago. They didn’t start working together again till spring 2008, when McMurry moved here.
A Chicago lineup soon came together: McMurry, Crain, Rotten Milk, Roberts, and bassist Dan Browning, 31, another Columbian who’d been part of those early jams. (He’d relocated to Chicago in 2005, and these days he’s also in the thrash band Zath.) The stream of underground musicians who’ve moved here from Columbia over the past decade includes not just most of Cave but also members of Mahjongg and Lazer Crystal. “If you’re from Columbia,” says Crain, “you don’t really see Saint Louis or Kansas City as a place to move.”
Late in 2008 this new quintet cut Psychic Psummer, released by Important Records in May 2009; it treated stronger, more focused songs to relentless, meticulous performances. More touring followed, and before long Drag City signed the band. In 2010 the label released the EP Pure Moods, Cave’s only album with proper vocals—and thankfully so. Rotten Milk’s tuneless singing sounds so out of place in Cave’s songs that it damages their intensity. (Neverendless has some chanting and screaming on a couple tracks, but nothing you could call a vocal melody.)
On the eve of a west-coast tour in summer 2010, Roberts announced he was quitting. They convinced him to stay till after the tour, then brought aboard Jeremy Freeze (another old Columbia pal, from the group Jerusalem & the Starbaskets) to fill in for him a trip to Europe that fall. Once that tour was over, though, Cave decided to carry on as a four-piece. Because they didn’t want to lose the heavy organ sound Roberts had brought to the band, Crain started alternating between guitar and keyboard, investing in some new pedals so he could play both instruments through the same amp. Rotten Milk also had to step up. “The transition to playing without Adam was really good for me,” he says. “When there were five of us, I could lurk in the background if I was uncertain about a part.”
McMurry, Crain, Browning, and Rotten Milk recorded Neverendless in early January 2011—even though Rotten Milk had been hit by a car while riding his bike less than a week before. He broke his left hand, and between his cast and his pain medication, he couldn’t quite keep up with the session—he had to overdub most of his parts late in the band’s eight-day stretch in the studio. Drag City’s website calls the album a “motorik masterwork,” but Cave are a little reluctant to acknowledge the influence of seminal Krautrock bands like Neu!, who developed that approach in the 70s—they seem almost defensive when I bring it up, as though I’m calling them copycats. Much like Neu!, Cave write epic songs that revolve around hypnotic, repetitive passages in constant metamorphosis, but their clipped, tightly wound rhythms and dry, almost airless funk are distinctively their own. And Cave has a very particular way of subtly changing the focus and emphasis of a groove, so that during a ten-minute track each instrumental voice—Browning’s thick, nimble bass lines, Crain’s blammo guitar solos and spell-casting organ licks, Rotten Milk’s sound-burst synth patterns, McMurry’s ferocious yet imperturbable drumming—seamlessly shifts into and out of the foreground, taking turns propelling the music.
Cave still develop all their material in jam sessions, but the results have never been more coherent, diverse, and controlled. The band likewise manages to balance power and exactitude live, whether in a dank basement or on a huge outdoor stage. Cave played the Pitchfork Music Festival in 2010, and on July 4 of this year they opened for Mucca Pazza in Millennium Park as part of the city’s Downtown Sound series. “It’s nice to know that the music can adapt to different venues,” says Browning. “It could make sense at the Pritzker and it wasn’t awkward.”
Cave’s next local show—their first in town since Neverendless came out—is at an especially congenial venue. They play the Hideout on October 15 to close out the first leg of their current U.S. tour.