Interview by Adam McKibbin
Photograph by David Belisle
Sub Pop was faced with an embarrassment of riches when it came time to write the bio for Sera Cahoone. She sabotaged her own saxophone because she hated band practice, preferring the sweet sounds of Slayer and Megadeth. She wasn’t even a teenager and was drumming for veteran Rocky Mountain bluesmen. Her father sold dynamite. She had kid cred in spades – not to mention plenty of fodder for a future biopic.
As an adult, she found her way to the Great Northwest, and wound up playing in Carissa’s Wierd, a sad-sack Seattle favorite that never gained much national traction. They were brilliant. Sub Pop knew this, too, and gobbled up the fragments: Ben Bridwell started Band of Horses, Mat Brooke left Band of Horses to lead Grand Archives, and Cahoone played with both of them while establishing herself as a solo artist. Her second album (and first for the label), Only As The Day As Long, is a smart and sophisticated collection of slow-burning, country-kissed rock and folk.
Cahoone caught up with The Red Alert to talk about emerging from behind the drums, embracing heavy metal at an early age, and running into technical difficulties at South by Southwest.
I read that when you stepped out from behind the drums and started writing songs for your first album, you realized that drums really hadn’t been satisfying your creative impulses. You’ve been involved with music for a long time – so how early on did you recognize that you were having fun but eventually wanted to step out on your own?
I always wanted to sing and play guitar, in a way – even when I started playing drums around 11 or so. But I never actually thought I’d be doing what I’m doing. I was drums, drums, drums and was very focused on being a drummer.
It’s interesting about Ben [Bridwell, now frontman of Band of Horses] that he never thought of himself as a songwriter, and kind of became a songwriter out of necessity, because Carissa’s Wierd had broken up and he was like “Now what do I do?”
“I guess I’ll be amazing!” [laughs]
Yeah, what a bastard.
[laughs] I know, it’s crazy.
Going back to your formative years, when you’re starting with the drums, what were your early influences?
My mom always played music, so I was basically always listening to music. I went through some weird phases. When I first started playing drums, I was really into rock and roll and heavy metal. I got into junior high and I thought I was really cool and I listened to heavy metal. My first band, when I was playing the drums, was a heavy metal band – we did Slayer and Megadeth and all these covers. It was pretty fun. I was pretty into rock. I go through weird phases where I only want to listen to certain music at certain times. I got into folk and all sorts of things. My mom would always play Fleetwood Mac and Fairport Convention.
How did you get hooked up with Carissa’s Wierd?
When I moved out here, I didn’t really know many people. I was doing open mics, just playing guitar – pretty horrible at it. [laughs] It was a really scary thing. But I placed an ad in The Stranger because I wanted to try to get a band together. Some people replied. Jeff [MacIsaac] and William [Wilson] were in Aveo, and William called me from the ad and we started talking and became good friends. Jeff is actually the drummer of Aveo, and he was the Carissa’s Wierd drummer right before I joined – [laughs] – they had a lot of drummers. He recommended me, and I was a huge fan of theirs beforehand. It just kinda worked out.
I asked Ben this same question: Do you feel like your time onstage behind the drums helped you with your nerves and confidence when it was time to step out solo?
In a way. Being on stage and having people watch you will help you get in front of people, but it’s definitely a very different experience. When you’re behind people, there’s not that much stress involved – and they aren’t your songs necessarily. People aren’t listening to everything you say. It took me a really, really long time. I’m still getting comfortable. I’m very shy. So, yeah, it’s a weird experience.
Are you developing a repertoire of between-song banter?
I tend not to banter too much, because I tend to say nonsense. But if the crowd is being rowdy, I might be rowdy or something. I try not to talk too much.
We get a lot of SXSW coverage from writers and bloggers. What’s your take on it having performed there this year for the first time?
Well, you know… it’s kind of like you just have to set yourself up and you have to play. We definitely had a lot of sound problems, which was really unfortunate. A good four songs in, we were having some feedback. That’s always an unfortunate distraction. It was kind of a bummer that it had to happen; all of us, I think, were having a hard time hearing ourselves and getting in the groove. It could have been a lot better. From what I hear, we kept our composure okay. But we have a dobro and some instruments that can be a little fussy if you don’t have the time to get them drilled in. And there are so many good bands on Sub Pop that I didn’t want to disappoint. [laughs] I think our show could have been a lot better, but what can you do?
There are a lot of good bands on Sub Pop – and you’re somewhat of an atypical act for them.
How did that come about?
I knew Megan [Jasper] at Sub Pop, and they started distributing my first record. We slowly built a relationship that way. It was a slow build. Then there was the whole Band of Horses thing. I was like “Are you guys sure you want me on your label?” [laughs]
Is the touring band the same band that we hear on the album?
Yeah, it’s all the same.
A song like “Shitty Hotel” begs the question: after all of this touring, what is the shittiest hotel you’ve ever stayed in?
[laughs] Wow, shoot, I don’t know the city. It was on tour with Carissa’s Wierd and it was in Texas somewhere. But… it was pretty shitty. It was pretty shitty. [laughs] There was one in Eugene recently that was really horrible; that could almost take the cake. But there have been numerous amounts.