Gilded Pop: Caviar Gold's "Melancholia" aims for perfection
Caviar Gold's Melancholia is the soundtrack to the imaginary sequel of Pretty in Pink. You can imagine Duckie and Andie sitting in her bedroom and listening to the eight songs on the Ann Arbor trio's debut album as they write poetry and wonder whatever happened to Blane.
Created over the course of nearly six years, Melancholia is awash in moody synths, melodic bass lines covered in chorus effects, and plaintive vocals crooning sorrowful tales. Jason Lymangrover handled the music; Josh Thiele the vocals. Crystal Collins also sings on the album and she's also now a member of Caviar Gold, which celebrates the release of Melancholia with a concert at Ziggy's in Ypsilanti on March 15.
Stream Melancholia below as you read Lymangrover's answers to some questions about how the album was created and how Caviar Gold came to life.
Q: How did the project come together? Did you specifically talk about a certain sound?
A: For fun, back in 2012, I had been making a lot of beats in my spare time using Ableton Live, guitar, bass, an Alpha Juno Synthesizer, and an EMU SP-12 Sampler. While getting my haircut downtown Ann Arbor at Orbit, my barber Josh Thiele and I got to talking about music, inspired by some interesting playlists playing in the background. We were going on about this wave of modern artists that were making this dreamy, retro sound that we liked: Twin Shadow, Toro Y Moi, Future Islands, Washed Out, Chromatics, Neon Indian, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Panda Bear, Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti, Tycho, Wild Nothing, and on and on.
I was working as a music critic at the time, so I was really paying close attention to this flock of new Chillwave acts that all had started breaking around 2009 and were all crossing over by this point. Although the genre name was undeniably lame -- as was its other name, Glo-Fi -- I became really infatuated with that style of music. I especially liked the way it touched on the ‘80s and captured the feel of a John Hughes VHS tape that had been left in the sun too long. Pretty sure this is when I made a mental note that I was going to make music that was similarly nostalgic.
Anyway, back to Josh. I was aware of his ability as a vocalist because his band, Thrill Train, and mine, Cheat Sheet, shared a bill in Lansing, where I realized he was kind of a goofball like me and he was a versatile vocalist. So, we made plans to hang out and I started trying to convince him to assist with these songs that had been making that I had tried to sing but were in a register I couldn’t hit myself. As soon as we did our first recording session, it felt like we were doing something special. I remember a lot of high fives when he started overdubbing harmonies. Later down the line, when Crystal came on board to sing background parts, that’s when everything really gelled and it seemed like we had connected the dots to form something singular.
Q: Where does the band name come from?
A: At a certain point, we had the bulk of the album finished and it became kind of an inside joke that we were only allowing the highest quality songs to make the final cut. I was pretty hellbent on making an album that felt like it was comprised entirely of hit singles. All killer, no filler. Duran Duran’s Rio and Prince’s Purple Rain was mentioned often, as was Def Leppard’s Hysteria, which, say what you will, had an insane number of Billboard hits. At that point we decided we wanted a name that represented music of the highest caliber.
I remember when Beastie Boys explained why they called their label/magazine Grand Royal, it was based on a phrase Biz Markie would say, meaning “the best,” and this the same sort of idea. We had a couple other names early on. I think one was Corinthian Leather, based off those old Ricardo Montalban Chrysler commercials. Champagne Wishes was probably another contender, but looking back, that simply sounds like a flat-out horrible band. Caviar Gold just seemed to have the right ring to it. Recently we discovered there’s a strain of weed with that name. And after investigating further, we found that it is outrageously expensive. I wish I could say it’s ours, and that we’re doing a Wiz Khalifa-type of business venture, but unfortunately, it’s not. I would say though, with great confidence, that our music probably sounds pretty good after a few bong rips of Caviar Gold.
Q: How long did you work on writing the songs before you recorded them? Where did you record?
A: Funny enough, we didn’t do much writing before we recorded. Most songs were conceived as we worked in my bedroom studio; built from the ground up, starting with drum beats and synth patches. Usually, hooks came later after the raw loops were constructed. One of the exceptions was “Puppet Master,” which I wrote on acoustic guitar in a peppy “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” Johnny Marr strumming style. While recording it to a computer I got the idea to pair it with a slower Billy Idol “Eyes Without a Face”-type Linn drum beat, which completely changed the tone. Most of the songs changed shape completely in this same way as we went. For us, recording was more like sculpting with clay than oil painting. Piling it up until it feels right. The only problem was that this process of stacking track upon track is that it makes it nearly impossible to know when a song is done. There’s always one more thing you can add. Often I would just go until the computer was overloading, and then determine which ingredients were unnecessary and remove them. That’s when you start picking and choosing the best of your nine kick drums. This way of working is a colossal time waster, and a technique I would never ever recommend. But as an oblique strategy, it does provide a way to slowly, methodically, shape a song into exactly what you envision. So, there’s that.
So, to answer your initial question, writing didn’t take long at all. Mixing, however, took forever. I think five years. It may have been six. A lot of this time went into icing the cake. For example, a bunch of hours were spent fine-tuning the snare drum to make it sit just right in the mix or automating the reverb to swirl around in the background at a key part. These are the type of Easter eggs that are hardly noticeable, even with good headphones, but seemed so important in the moment. It makes me think of My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless; one my favorite albums of all time due to the high level of detail. I’ve read stories about how it supposedly put the nail in the coffin of the Creation label because that record went so far over budget. Kevin Shields is a personal hero, but I think we probably share that same trait of leaning too hard towards perfectionism. I totally understand why he took such a long break from music after that album. Recording this one surely left me exhausted. This probably played a part in the title.
Poor Josh had to deal with my odd, compulsive way of working, and I should give him a bunch of credit for sticking it out. Usually, the process started with me building a song up using my gear, then taking it to his apartment where we would overlay all his vocals. Then back to my crib to mix. Often this would lead to repeated return visits if the mix didn’t come together properly. Now, sitting on the other side of it, it was a totally backward way of working.
Q: Who are some of the bands you looked to for inspiration? There's an '80s New Order / OMD thing but also a Perfume Genius vibe, especially in that the vocals are more on the impassioned side.
A: This is a great question. The New Order/OMD thing is no coincidence. I’m a huge fan of both bands. “Deaf” is a straight-up attempt to make something that would fit on Architecture & Morality and I was trying my best to specifically dial in a Peter Hook bass tone with my chorus pedal. As for other bands … sheesh. Hard to whittle it down. The Cure played a big part. I remember fanatically studying the production of Prince’s “The Beautiful Ones” and David Bowie’s “Without You” one weekend, only to have both artists die later during the making of Melancholia. Makes me think I shouldn’t credit anyone for fear of cursing them. There was a c90 mixtape that I made called Blue Slush Pop that I listened to quite a lot. Hell, I should turn that into a Spotify playlist and share it.
As far as the Perfume Genius vibe, yeah, that’s certainly there, too. Not sure I was fully aware of his stuff when we were recording. That said, I was watching a #Mr. Robot# episode after mastering, and there’s a song where the song “Queen” is used during this big dramatic slow-motion scene, and it’s super effective. And, strange to say, but it did remind me of us. Hard to speak about the impassioned vocals, because that’s just the way Josh naturally sings. In fact, he tried to hold back for many of the songs and be more subdued. Since time has passed, we’ve been talking about doing more in the style of “Self Inflicted Beatdown.” That song is a personal favorite. It always blows my mind, because the take you hear was his first crack at vocals and the way he sings it is just so damn urgent and emotive. An air conditioner humming loudly in the background almost ruined the mix, but during playback I decided the take felt so right that I couldn’t let him redo it.
Back to Perfume Genius, I just added his song “Queen” to another playlist that inspired us during the making of Melancholia.
Q: What's the live lineup? I've seen photos with a female vocalist & a guitarist.
A: We played our last show at The Blind Pig as a five-piece. Since then, we’ve decided to pair it down to the three of us: Josh Thiele, Crystal Collins, and myself. It’s super fun to do it this way, but also extra challenging because we are all trying to multi-task. For instance, Josh is often singing, playing keys, and picking up the guitar for solos. Along with laying down background vocals, Crystal plays guitar, bass, or beats on a Roland sampler pad. I’m trying to hold it down on bass and samples, but I expect I’ll be picking up other instruments down the line. All in all, it’s a tricky way to go about it, but it’s entertaining to watch us juggle, and it seems to land us closer to what we sounded like sonically on the LP.
Q: What are the other bands you play in? Does Josh play in another band?
A: I play in False Figures along with Jim Cherewik, and Joel Parkkila and also in Hydropark with Fred Thomas, Chad Pratt, and Chuck Sipperly. Feel like between these three bands I’m keeping busy and covering a lot of ground musically.
On record, False Figures is pretty pastoral. For our live show we’ve included drummer Stefan Krstovic and are forgoing acoustic guitars, so we still have that classic Neil Young-type vibe, but are amped up and are something more akin to Crazy Horse now. Our first album came out last November and we’re closing in on finishing our second.
Due to our love of synthesizers, Hydropark is another ‘80s child, but unlike Caviar Gold, the songs are built around live improvisational jams and motorik grooves. This always lumps us in the Krautrock category, which doesn’t seem totally accurate, at least not any more so than say, Italian Disco, but I’m not complaining because I absolutely love Can and Kraftwerk. We just released an EP and are about to follow it up with a crazy vinyl release of B-Sides that we’ve been stockpiling for the last couple years.
Josh is still doing absurdist boy band stuff with his best pal John Doroba in Thrill Train and they’re looking to have a record finished by 2020.
Meanwhile, Crystal is singing and playing guitar with Warlock’s Grave, which has a bit of a ‘70s classic rock throwback feel a la Black Sabbath and Blue Oyster Cult. They have a neo-psychedelic garage rock feel to their music that really feels authentic and hard to pigeonhole.
Q: Will there be CDs/LPs/cassettes available?
A: Yes! In typical DIY fashion we made 100 CDs, hand labeled with magic markers. Also, we’ve got some pretty cool stickers. Hope to do cassettes and purple vinyl in the future!
Christopher Porter is a library technician and the editor of Pulp.
Caviar Gold celebrates the release of "Melancholia" at Ziggy's, 206 W. Michigan Ave., Ypsilanti. Flight Team Entertainment, Grant Cyphers, Ki5 Loops will also perform. Sounds by DJ Nitro. 18 and up to enter. Doors open at 8 pm. "Melancholia" is available to purchase and stream at all digital retailers: iTunes, Spotify, Bandcamp, CDBaby. Follow Caviar Gold on Instagram.