Matt Iwanusa, Caveman

Back in February, I got an email from Dylan Von Wagner of Linfinity.  I interviewed Von Wagner for this site a while ago and reviewed the band's album Martian's Bloom for the Washington Post.  His email carried a sense of urgency: You've gotta check out this new band Caveman, he wrote.  He told me how talented they were and that Matt Iwanusa, their songwriter, would be a good interview for this site.  I liked what I heard and filed that thought away.

The music blogosphere is littered with failed "the next big thing" or "these guys are gonna be huge" tags.  Most of these promises never pan out, of course, which is why I'll never say that.  But I will say this: Caveman are good.  Really good.  Their debut album CoCo Beware comes out September 13, and they are on tour now with The War on Drugs.  Read my interview with Matt Iwanusa after the video, where he talks about how both walking the streets of New York City and the video game Galaga influence his songwriting process.  Naturally, he talked to me while walking those streets.  

Do you have any other creative outlets besides songwriting?

I do some painting and drawing.  I went to school for film editing and did a lot of that for a while.  Now, I do a lot of drawing, but it's been tough to do with the music.  As we get into touring more and have blocks of time free, I'd like to get into it more.

Any idea why so many songwriters are also visual artists?

Drawing is something that you do alone, so it's nice to have a creative outlet that is truly solitary.  I mean, I can write songs alone, but since I'm in a band, there are other people involved.  Some of the art I've done we've used for posters, and the record cover is my art.  But most of what I've done is stuff in notebooks that I would never show anybody.  So I guess I like it because there's less pressure and need for approval from others.

When you start to draw or write a song, are you driven by the same quest to get across an idea?

Yeah, I see that.  With drawing, I'll get obsessed with an idea for like three days and really focus on it.  It's the same type of energy as songwriting.  The difference is that I want to write music all the time, but with drawing it's like there's something that all of the sudden I have to get out.

I've talked to other songwriters who are interested in film as well, and they talk about how a song starts as an image for them.

Totally.  That's a good point.  With a lot of  our songs, I think about movies they might work in.  Also, they seem to connect well with old video games.  I come up with keyboard parts that sound like they belong in an old Nintendo game.  I don't know if you could call video game knowledge a skill, but it's definitely up there for me.  I'm obsessed with old Nintendo games and old arcade games like Galaga.  It definitely influences the music for me.

How do video games make their way into your songwriting?

I'm 25 and my sister is in her late 20s.  When she was a kid, she played a lot of video games.  So ever since I was born, I've heard these 8-bit songs.  The developers were so limited with what they could do, so they came up with elaborate melodies that always mixed with each other.  The melodies were always really well thought out.  When you go back to listen to the old games, it really makes you think about music in a different way since they didn't have as much to work with.

Take me through a somewhat typical songwriting process for you.

It depends.  When I'm writing something, it's usually always about the moment I'm in.  I write a lot of songs when I'm walking around observing and listening.  Usually I'll either start by humming a drum beat, since I started as a drummer, then a bass line comes in my head.  This doesn't happen often, but I might be home watching tv and hear a couple of sounds, anywhere, that are unrelated but that somehow go together.  If it sounds like a rhythm, I start playing it in my head and then do a melody over that. 

I've also had times when I'm sleeping and a melody comes to me.  I'll wake up and try to remember it, and from that I'll write something.  Now that you mention it, a lot of my songs start when I see something and hear the sounds associated with that event.  Songwriting for me almost never works when I sit down and try to write a song. I've even gone as long as three months without writing anything, though when I'm busy is when I seem to write the most because I'm doing so much stuff.  If I'm sitting at home I usually don't write a lot. 

Sometimes I write tons of parts, but other times it's just a melody, chord progression, and a rhythm that goes with it.  Everybody in the band comes up with something I would never think of.  I'll often write something on Garage Band and send it to the other guys, and they make suggestions as to what needs to be changed.


It's funny you talk about getting ideas by walking around, because yesterday I interviewed Craig Finn of The Hold Steady, and he told me that he also likes to walk through neighborhoods to get song ideas.

Totally.  I don't really like the subway since I get kind of claustrophobic there. Our keyboard player and I have walked the Brooklyn Bridge to get home probably 100 times.  In a week, I'll walk at least 15 miles.  It's great.  I love to walk.  I don't really do any jogging, but I think it's similar in the sense that when I walk, I get through everything I need to think about, then my mind clears.  There's a point when I'm walking through the city when I've obsessed over everything I need to think about, gotten it all out of my head, then there's a freedom to start being creative.  Walking is about seeing things around me, but it's also about getting all that other shit out of my head that interferes with creativity.

Do you hear sounds when you are walking that you use in songs?

Oh yeah.  There's this guy named Giorgio Gomelski.  He's worked with the Beatles, the Stones, and he owned the Crawdaddy Club and managed the Yardbirds.  My old band used to rent a practice space from him in New York.  His whole thing was to stand in the middle of a subway car and record the sounds, then build over that.  I've never done it, but it's a really cool way to think about how the sounds in your environment can influence your songwriting.  If you can come up with a cool melody from a random sound, it's usually better than sitting at a drum set trying to come up with a beat. 

When do lyrics come, then?

A lot of it is just stream of consciousness. Whatever is on my mind just comes out.  There's one song on the album about me being pissed at my landlord. Instead of trying to come up with great ideas, I'd rather work with what's on my mind at the moment.

Do you revise a lot, or does that interfere with the stream of consciousness method?

There's a lot of time when I have a loose idea of the words, and then revising comes when I'm playing the music.  I might have two words in mind, and I switch them to see what works better.  Whatever feels more comfortable by maybe the fifth time playing it is the one that stays.  The meaning doesn't change; it's just whatever fits better with the melody.  So it starts off with the mood I'm in, then comes the melody, then some random words; once I get the clear sense of the idea or emotion I was going for, I make sure that doesn't change. 

Are you willing to sacrifice a word for the melody?

Totally.  For me, it's all drums and melody. Melody is the most important thing. A person's voice is the one thing everyone can connect with.  I could come up with some fancier words that sound better, but if it's going to affect the direction of the melody, it's not worth it. I guess there's a lot of times on the record where I'm singing and not saying anything. Laughs.

Do you try to write every day?

No.  I try to play music every day, but I don't want to force anything unless it feels right.  It might take me two months to write a song.  There are times when I write so much that I need a break, and then I'm not too excited to sit down again.

I usually write songs in sets.  I'll write two or three that are similar, then take a break for a few days or weeks.  Then I look back at them and see how they look after setting them aside.  I would never want to write a record where everything sounds the same, so when I take a break and start again, the next set of songs usually sounds different. 

In what writing environment do you get your best writing done?

When I'm the most hungover I've ever been. I've written a lot of great stuff then.

How about time of day.  Does that matter?

It's usually at night, around 4am.  I don't think I've gone to sleep before 4am in about two and a half years.

What's the easiest part of your songwriting process?

Definitely the drums.  My uncle was a drummer and I grew up playing drums.  Some of the coolest songs on this record happened when a bunch of us got in a room and started a drum circle.  If I can take twenty minutes and lay down four different percussion parts there are different rhythms all going in with each other, I can write any song over that.  After writing all those drum parts, I'm always really inspired to create.

What have you learned from your bandmates about your songwriting?

We're all coming from different places in this band.  We're all different ages and we listen to different music.  Jeff, our bass player, played in this pop band called Elephant.  Stefan played in this Walkman-style band.  With my old band, I was nervous to bring in songs, because if I brought something in that they didn't like, no one really talked about it. All of the sudden, you just wouldn't be playing the songs.  Now, we talk about everything.

Last, who are some of your favorite authors?

I'm a huge Raymond Carver fan.  I'm also a big fan of Denis Johnson's short story collection Jesus' Son.

Listen to Caveman's "Old Friend here":