Cardinal play Washington, DC’s Velvet Lounge tonight, 5/15.
The baroque, neo-psychedelia of Cardinal’s classic, self-titled debut album couldn’t have been more out of step with the indie rock world when it was released in 1994.
The album paired the prodigious talents of Australian songwriter Richard Davies, who had previously been a creative driving force in The Moles, with Eric Matthews, a bravura arranger and multi-instrumentalist who plays everything from harpsichord to trumpet and marimba.
Critically acclaimed upon its release, the record was both strangely anachronistic and remarkably prescient––it’s hard to ignore its influence on much of the chamber pop that followed (Belle and Sebastian and The Flaming Lips, in particular).
Despite the album’s unexpected success, Davies and Matthews went their separate ways shortly afterward to concentrate on vibrant solo careers and other collaborations.
Fast forward to 2012: Davies and Matthews surprise and delight music fans by announcing they have reformed Cardinal and are putting out a new album, Hymns, through Fire Records. To celebrate the album’s release, Cardinal is embarking on a short tour, which thankfully includes a stop at the Velvet Lounge tonight with Kuschty Rye Ergot and Cigarette.
To find out more about this most unexpected (and hugely welcome) reunion, I asked Davies and Matthews some questions via e-mail.
I’ll start with the obvious question: It’s been nearly 20 years since Cardinal released its debut album and you guys subsequently went your separate ways. What can you tell us about the circumstances surrounding your decision to start working together again? And why did it take so long for a second album to happen?
Eric: Really, it was a deck of cards that just sort of fell into place. Richard and I started talking again in 2004 in preparation for the reissue of the first record. We had legal stuff to work out and then work to do on the content. It was a pleasant enough experience for the both of us that a couple years later, Richard approached me with the idea of hiring me to write and record some orchestrations on a solo project he was working on. That project got put on hold but the work we did sounded pretty great so we started talking about making new Cardinal songs.
Richard: It took long because I was establishing my law practice and because we worked at our own pace. When we make music we do it how we want to, not dictated by fashion or the latest fad. We are both demanding and want to produce music that makes sense to us.
In listening to your new album Hymns, it’s obvious that the magic between you both is still there. As musicians and as individuals, has the chemistry between you changed much since the mid-90s?
Richard: I think chemistry is something that either happens or doesn’t. I think we worked in some different ways this time e.g. on the first album we did not have Eric writing a piece of music and me writing words and melody, but on this one we did “General Hospital” like that. I think we still have not worked in all the ways we are capable of in terms of exploring the chemistry.
Eric: Chemistry? I think Richard and I had good chemistry in our first year together. We were great friends and co-conspirators in the great goal of making some pretty music. We were young in 1992. But then I left Boston and so far, we are rarely within 3000 miles of each other. The “chemistry” is still there musically though. I love writing to Richard’s songs and we have a sound. I love that people hearing this record identify what is new in the music while noticing what is exactly the same.
The 1994 self-titled Cardinal debut album is rightly considered a classic by in-the-know pop music lovers. How much of a shadow did that record cast on you as you were writing songs for Hymns? Did you ever feel an unhealthy pressure?
Richard: No unhealthy pressure. If we felt pressure we would have desperately chugged out a follow up immediately. An 18 year gap infers a certain self-confidence and an approach that indicates a knowledge of what we are doing––we dictate how the music sounds, rather than to anyone else’s expectations.
Eric: Richard wrote the songs but I felt the pressure. The key for me was making sure that we had 10 songs that would meet the quality mark achieved on the debut. I can shine almost any song up but with Cardinal, because of the musical legacy and respect from the fans over the many years, I considered myself the guard dog. We went through many songs to get to what you have on Hymns. I think we found the proper mix to present.
The new album includes a lot of classic Cardinal touches, but also veers into edgier territory on a few numbers, like “Carbonic Smoke Ball” with its angular guitar attack and “Love Like Rain” with its shadowy, garage feel. What can you tell us about these tracks?
Eric: For me, as producer I chose to move those two songs in an edgy direction. The first record was very clean and pretty for the most part. Richard has a history of making some rough and tumble records, especially when he had The Moles. On “Love Like Rain,” I was referencing in my mind the stories about his New York period with The Moles. So I went with some crunchy guitars, thumping bass, and bashing drums. I am a classical guy but I can rock out a little. When Cardinal “rocks” it’s a gentleman’s kind of roll.
Richard: “Carbolic Smoke Ball” and “Love Like Rain” were more aggressive songs that came along early in the process. I was writing stuff for Bob Pollard and the Cosmos record and those two came out of that firmament.
Eric, can you talk about your philosophical approach to constructing arrangements? A track on the new album like “Surviving Paris” features trumpet, harpsichord, and timpani. How do you decide which instruments are appropriate and where to place them?
Eric: That’s a good question. I wrote “Surviving Paris” as a sort of musical poem set to an ensemble reminiscent of some of the chamber music that I was raised on. Harpsichord is the main instrument, like a piano but more sharp and chimey. I knew I wanted the primary melody to be carried by a combination of my trumpet solo and various woodwinds.
The end portion (the chords) is so brooding and dramatic that I cranked up the stakes by the way I bring in the low brass and timpani together. It’s the crescendo of the work and then, quietly, it calms down and whispers the end. The other consideration was the notion of paying homage to the instrumental on the first record. Some of this same instrumentation was used on “Public Melody #1.”
Richard, what is it like to have someone like Eric flesh out songs you’ve written with his arrangements? Has your way of working together changed much since the mid-90s?
Richard: Not much. I write lyrics, chords and melodies for the most part. Eric infers the emotional/aural touchpoints of the songs.
Do you think the changes in the music industry that have taken place since the debut Cardinal album means you have a better chance to reach potential fans with Hymns?
Richard: Probably. I can take the records on the road more easily now. Also the fact that I’m established in America with my law practice actually makes it easier rather than harder to tour and then tour some more a few months later. They won’t be long tours, but short tours are fine and repeatable.
Eric: If there is any advantage to this new world of the way music is distributed it’s that the kind of people who are most likely to want this album, are the people who live on the internet. Our record is being well covered by most of the major taste-making websites who promote music. Getting people to part with 14 bucks is a nifty trick these days. I think we should hold a fundraising dinner at George Clooney’s house, $33 per plate and a signed CD. I don’t know what’s going on this century. I am busy looking at 70’s episodes of Frontline and reading old William F. Buckley transcripts. Rod Serling and the old information is all I am up to.
What can you tell us about the tour you are embarking on? My understanding is that Eric will not be there physically but his arrangements will be represented via modern technology. What can you tell us about the backing band?
Eric: You have your facts straight. I have asked the label to pony up for the Eric Matthews hologram but they said it was too expensive. Tony Lash and I are finishing up pre-production for the live mixes. It’s gonna be a scream.
Richard: I have a husband-wife from Brooklyn, David and Caroline Gould, a Berklee senior, Kate Atanian, Malcolm Travis drummer (Sugar), and Corin Ashley (the Pills) bass. The live band and the orchestrations are working superbly together. It is even better than I expected. It takes some players to get it done right, but that’s what we have.
On the subject of the setlist, will it be all Cardinals songs or will fans get to also hear some Richard Davies solo material as well as some Moles?
Richard: For the first couple of jaunts I’m going to focus on Cardinal stuff. As I go along I may add some other tunes from the catalog, but for now it is mainly Cardinal. It is a chance for people to see and hear the Cardinal songs as they were written, live.
What are your thoughts on a third Cardinal album? Any chance we won’t have to wait another 18 years to hear it?
Richard: If we do another one, it won’t be 18 years. We don’t know if we will or not but it would certainly be sooner than that!
Eric: If there’s another one, it will be in a timely manner. I think it depends on the success of this one. So far so good, so who knows…
Thanks very much guys!