Welcome back to our interview series, Incorrect Music, curated by guitarist, singer, and composer Lora-Faye Åshuvud (of the band Arthur Moon). In this series, we present intimate conversations with artists who are striving to push the boundaries of their process and craft. Join our weekly email newsletter to get notified whenever we publish our latest interviews and articles!
Brooklyn’s Paco Cathcart is The Cradle, a solo project in analog. Cathcart’s latest release is Bag of Holding, a nine-song home-recorded missive in the folk idiom which considers the recording medium to be as much an instrument as Cathcart’s guitar or voice. “I’m naturally suspicious of the impulse to try and make recordings sound like they were made in a vacuum,” says Cathcart, “I smell money and twisted ego behind it. I’ve always wanted my music to sound like where I’ve been.”
There’s an intimacy to work produced under this recording philosophy that, in its best moments, can feel like it takes the song and places it in a time and space for you, before you’ve even heard it, as if you’re already nostalgic the first time you listen. Cathcart, a prolific engineer who has recorded much of the band Palberta’s catalog, frames this as an integral part of his musical ethos:
“I’m generally drawn to music that contains in some way within it the time and place that it was recorded, momentous music, music that reflects the actual circumstance of the people making it at the time they made it. So I guess if the ‘right’ way to record is in a studio that is treated to make it sound like an acoustically perfect vacuum, then I like things that are incorrect.”
Well, exactly. The Cradle’s latest album, Bag of Holding, is out now via NNA Tapes.
– Lora-Faye Åshuvud
Interview by Lora-Faye Åshuvud
I see that NNA Tapes is calling your album “home-recorded music,” which — given that you’re a prolific analog-leaning engineer yourself — I’m assuming means something a little different than GarageBand and a USB mic. What was the recording process like for Bag of Holding?
Bag of Holding is very literally a home-recorded album. It was recorded entirely at 1278 Prospect Place in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, where Sammy (Weissberg) and I lived together for a few years. I think this is the last album I recorded on my old 4-track TEAC 3340 reel-to-reel. I recently came into a half-inch machine, so I gave the TEAC to my friend Raffi and it now lives upstate with him. But in late winter 2016 when we were recording this, I was rolling with the 4-track, as I had been for a few years.
Beyond that, my “rig” is really a slow-growing hodgepodge of whatever stuff I can find or be given for free or for cheap. I’ve got a really light 12-channel mixer that’s easy to bring around, a bunch of random microphones I’ve slowly accumulated over the years, the tape machine, and recently I sprung for a tube compressor and a spring reverb because I was getting so sick of the GarageBand compression and reverb presets. It’s funny you should mention GarageBand, because I’ve never moved beyond that on the digital side of things. I still dump the tracks from the tape into GarageBand. I figure if I spend the money to get ProTools or get someone to properly pirate it for me, I’ll just end up nerding out too much and wasting time trying to learn about esoteric finicky techniques… Like, plugins that emulate tape warble and stuff? Sheesh…
To follow up on the recording process, what was your gear set-up like?
I borrowed my friend Jordan’s nylon string guitar, put a condenser mic in front of that and a dynamic mic on my mouth and did the guitar and vocals in one take, just playing and singing the song through. Then I’d double that, so that was all four initial tracks right there. I can’t really remember what mics I was using to record all the extra instruments; probably the SM7, which I always borrow.
How foundational was the use of the TASCAM Portastudio for you?
I didn’t touch the Portastudio for this album, but in the sense of the Portastudio being kind of the gateway machine to analog recording for me, yeah, it was foundational. My stepfather gave me a Portastudio 414 when I was 12 or so and we sat down and tried to figure out how to record a cover of that Jesus and Mary Chain song, “Cracking Up.”
That machine was especially important for the early Cradle stuff, which was very much about playing the machine — lots of backwards tracks, lots of pitch-shifting, slow downs induced by holding the capstan with my finger… Anyway, I still use the Portastudio all the time. I’ve owned and borrowed countless different versions at this point.
“I was pursuing some kind of document of where I was at the given moment, more than a well-rendered song. I’d drop a microphone down the chimney and sing into it, not because the reverb was good, but because it was my chimney, it was the fucked up reverb from the chimney at the house that I was spending my life in at the time I chose to sit down and begin to make this particular recording.”
Do you ever find yourself migrating towards recording or songwriting practices that introduce an element of the unpredictable to your process?
Yes, that was really the premise of The Cradle in the beginning — songwriting on the fly, occurring during the recording process, in reaction to what the machine was giving me. The idea was to put in some scrap of melody or whatever I had in my head, a riff and a short poem, then just listen to the electricity. I always left the windows open when I recorded. I wanted “full permeability.” I was pursuing some kind of document of where I was at the given moment, more than a well-rendered song. I’d drop a microphone down the chimney and sing into it, not because the reverb was good, but because it was my chimney, it was the fucked up reverb from the chimney at the house that I was spending my life in at the time I chose to sit down and begin to make this particular recording.
I’m naturally suspicious of the impulse to try and make recordings sound like they were made in a vacuum. I smell money and twisted ego behind it. I’ve always wanted my music to sound like where I’ve been.
Sammy Weissberg’s arrangements are a really wonderful addition. They create contrast to the minimalist sound of guitar and voice in a very tasteful, thoughtful way. Not only are they performed, mixed, and recorded beautifully, they also really just brighten all the colors of your compositions. I’m wondering how that collaborative process worked. Was it hands-off, or was there a lot of back-and-forth between you during his writing process?
Thanks a lot for saying that, I think so, too! All credit to Sammy and his team of jazz friends. I literally recorded the guitar and voice, bounced the rough mixes of that, handed them to Sammy and said “do your thing.” I didn’t even want to hear his arrangements before we went to record. I was very intent on giving up creative power in this project. I just figured it would work out better that way. I gave Sammy the tracks and he went to his room (we were living together at the time) and I’d just hear little snippets of the guitar as he sussed out the changes and bits of MIDI clarinet and violin as he wrote out the accompaniment in Sibelius or whatever program he used for the notation. Then one day at a time, these blaster musician friends of Sammy’s that he knows from the jazz world came in and just read down the charts. I just set up the mics and hit record.
It seems like this record was a kind of back-to-basics gesture for you, moving away from some of your more experimental work of the past. How did you end up here? How did you decide what was essential and what wasn’t?
I’ve always written songs on the guitar, ever since I started playing. It’s just that in the beginning, recording as The Cradle implied a specific methodology — one that really emphasized spontaneous creation, nothing too well-planned out. So the decision was less to write the songs as much as it was to record them in this very well-prepared, meticulous way under this moniker. I don’t remember when it was, but there was some specific moment a couple years ago when I decided, I’ll just put out whatever I want under the name The Cradle, and perform live however I want under The Cradle, it doesn’t have to have any methodological perimeters anymore.
“I interned at a studio once a few years ago for a while until I realized I hated the way things sounded that were recorded there. We’ve transcended a comfortable realism with the digital tech, and the ultra-realism just sounds disgusting to me. Sound is sound and good is good.”
What’s the role of influence in your process? I hear tons of lyrical references to literature and city and culture. Were you reading and laughing and living hard when you were making this music, or does it happen in isolation? And I have the same question about listening — were you listening to other musicians’ work when you made this, or were you tuning it out? If so, what were you listening to?
Ooh, it’s all about influences. If I’ve got a unique voice that just exists sans influence, I don’t know what it sounds like. My work has almost always been spurred on by getting really into some new music or book or traveling to some place that excites me, and wanting to respond to it. As far as isolation versus submersion, this album was written over a period that spanned extremes of both.
In December 2016, I went down to South Florida to visit my grandma for a week and found myself doing a lot of writing there. It was just she and I, and we speak Spanish to each other — which, honestly, I speak very poorly despite my Colombian heritage — so there was relatively little human interaction and I had a lot of time to myself. A bunch of the songs were written there — like the title track and “Rememberer’s Heaven” — some of them directly about experiences I had at the time. I wrote “Sweet Dreams,” while flipping channels on New Year’s Eve between coverage of the Istanbul terrorist attack and the ball dropping in Times Square; “Cell Games and Beyond,” while reading William Gibson’s Neuromancer novels and falling in love with the aesthetic and lingo and for some reason deciding to use that lingo to describe a love triangle I found myself in back in New York.
Other tunes are traveling tunes, songs that happen on the street: within New York City (“That Place Unique,” “A Thought That Deletes”), on a Greyhound home from Cleveland (“The Opposite Way Pt. 3”), waiting for a friend to pick me up from the bus station in St. Petersburg, Florida (“St. Pete Station”).
At Soundfly, we use the term “Incorrect Music” to describe the things an artist does that might go against people’s assumptions about what constitutes the “right” way to do something, but which yield exciting and unique results. Is there anything about your music might you consider to be “incorrect?”
As I mentioned before, I’m generally drawn to music that contains in some way within it the time and place that it was recorded. I think of it as “momentous music,” music that reflects the actual circumstance of the people making it at the time they made it. So I guess if the “right” way to record is in a studio that is treated to make it sound like an acoustically perfect vacuum, then I like things that are incorrect. I usually just don’t like recording in studios I guess (pay some ego-tripping engineer who you have no intimate relationship with a zillion bucks to record in a really dead room… blech). I interned at a studio once a few years ago for a while until I realized I hated the way things sounded that were recorded there. We’ve transcended a comfortable realism with the digital tech, and the ultra-realism just sounds disgusting to me. Sound is sound and good is good.
What’s the best mistake you made while making Bag of Holding?
Hahaha, probably handing the whole damn thing off to Sammy after recording the guitar and vocals!
What’s next for The Cradle?
Well, there’s a direct follow-up to Bag of Holding, which is gonna come out on NNA sometime soon. It’s a new album made of samples from Bag of Holding, called The Glare of Success: A Dub of Holding. Completely different songs, lots of backwards vocals samples of the Palberta backups, and chopped-up loops of the woodwinds and strings with drums and bass over them and stuff. So that’s next.
After that comes out, I have to figure out what to do with Laughing in My Sleep, which I think is my most comprehensive and consistent work to date. That album’s almost an hour long and has all kinds of stuff going on — guitar songs, drum-machine songs, songs sung by other people… Both of these albums are done and will come out at some point, soon hopefully.
For now though, I’m working on the live set, both solo and with the band. I’ve been playing solo sets with a highly amplified acoustic guitar, which has been really interesting; set it on the verge of feedback and really play with the space, the distance from the amp, feedback drones. The band is an entirely different thing though; Sammy plays electric bass and Matt Norman plays drums and samples, and lately Lily Konigsberg has been singing and playing percussion. I play the mbira and sing. It’s dance music. I want people to feel like I felt when I saw Janka Nabay (R.I.P!) a few years ago.
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