Andrew Cedermark makes himself at home

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andrew cedermark

With a new album releasing in under a week, a show at Shea Stadium tomorrow to celebrate, and a subsequent mini-tour to feel out the songs among eager, East Coast fans, one would think Andrew Cedermark would seem harried. When we meet on a Wednesday morning at Mojo Coffee in Manhattan, a block off of the roaring West Side Highway, the man is anything but. We sit on a bench outside of the shop and talk for a long spell about the new record, cozily titled Home Life, aspirations for life's more normal achievements, misrepresentation in the press, and why recording in a studio is a better home for Cedermark's version of American rock and roll than a bedroom. Not once does the Tri-state musician appear ruffled or overworked, and in his pleasant demeanor and thoughtful answers, it is easy to see where the mastery in his potent lyrics is bred.

Home Life, Cedermark's sophomore album, is a monument to youthful uncertainty, transition, and the tugging between life at home and a journey into the big, wide open, both metaphorically and literally speaking. It drips with Whitman-esque elegance in its wild, American imagery, imagery that it uses to confront the fears of a misdirected paranoia and an elegiac hopelessness. Despite Cedermark's suspicions, the record does not feel depressing or heavy—in his ability to craft rough-hewn tributes to Americana and the perfumed seduction it toils, Cedermark has made an album at once swiftly poetic and captivatingly honest. It champions finding one's place in the world, whether that place is at home or afar.

You live in New York now. Are you playing music full-time?

I’m actually a graduate student at Hunter College.

Oh, great—what are you studying?

Education, actually.

Do you have plans to do something with that?

I'll be teaching English to high school kids.

And did you study teaching in undergrad as well? How did you decide that was what you were going to study?

Well, I studied English as an undergraduate. I’m from here, and I was in journalism for a couple of years and it was unclear how I was going to support myself and be happy trying to write things, though I admire everydoby who sticks it out.

I’m assuming you like kids or is it more just about the teaching itself?

I guess teaching represents to me a way to remain engaged with the things that I care about without having to do a lot of the things that I don’t like. Teaching also comes packaged with a lot of time off so I can play music, too. (I also understand that that’s probably a pipe dream.) Anyway, being in school buys me a couple of years to see where the music takes me, too, which will be nice. And I haven’t talked to a teenager since I was a teenager myself, so that should be interesting.

They’re an interesting species, teenagers are. They are some of my favorite people because they’re so complicated and so green.

Right, yeah, they are. When I was a teenager, I loved music, for sure, in a way that I don’t now.

Is there a reason why you wouldn't want to teach music?

I don’t know anything about music, necessarily. It would be nice if high schools had a rock and roll department and I could come in and be some sort of Jack Black character.

Right, that’d be great. So you studied English and you’ll be teaching English—do you have a subset of literature that’s your “steez”?

My steez [laughs]. Uhhh, no. I guess that makes me sound dumb.

How about a favorite writer, contemporary or non?

I took a great class this semester on Thomas Hardy and D.H. Lawrence, which was amazing.

Oh that’s great, my friend wrote her thesis on D.H. Lawrence.

Well I gather that he’s a pretty vexed character. [Her thesis] was probably something to do with his sexuality, I’m guessing. One of the introductions to the books we read said that he was tubercular, which had the effect of heightening his sex drive while making it impossible for him to do anything bout it. It contributed to the sense of sexual mania that pervades his stuff, so that was really interesting. That’s always a tough question, though [regarding favorite books].

Anything you’ve read recently that’s stuck with you?

Yeah, do you know the writer Russell Banks? I was just on vacation and I read a historical novel that he wrote about John Brown, the famous abolitionist/terrorist, which was phenomenal. I also read Disgrace by Coetzee and that was excellent. Those are two recent things that I’ve read and loved, though they don't necessarily have much to do with what I would be teaching or learning.

Disgrace I actually read in high school, so maybe it is pertinent.

Ah, some adult themes! It takes a wild turn.

It certainly does. Are you done school now or are you out for the summer?

Yep, we’re out for the summer, so I’m sort of on vacation and then we’ll be on tour for a few weeks.

That’s great—it feels like touring isn’t something you’ve done a ton of.

Yeah, I feel the unfortunate narrative I’ve established for myself in these interviews is that I don’t tour.

Do you enjoy it?

I think it’s one thing if you’re playing in your own band and it’s your life and your music, and there’s a little bit more continuity between those things. But being on tour with somebody else’s band and playing someone else’s music is difficult to enjoy, or at least it was for me, especially when it was my life. I suppose the major project of this record is to create a rock and roll that is a natural extension of what it means to be a person now. A person who is not necessarily a “rock and roller.” It’s about human beings struggling in the world.

Do you feel that that’s different from the kind of music you were touring with before? Like in Titus Andronicus?

That’s not to say that—hm, let’s see. Everybody expresses themselves in whatever way that makes sense to them, right? Of course. It seems to me that maybe touring breeds a sort of dissociation with the kinds of things people deal with in their own lives. I suppose that seems worthwhile territory to explore, ridiculous as it sounds in the context of my music. I’ve lost it a little bit. Does that make sense?

It does. I’m sure it feels more comfortable to be at the helm of your own destiny when you’re on tour. With your music, your choices, what you know.

Yeah, absolutely. That’s pretty much it.

How long is this tour you’ll be going on? Who are you bringing?

Just two weeks. And I’m bringing my friend Jacob, who has been playing with me for about four years and he also books our shows, he’s a great pal. My friend Evan Brody, who also helps run Underwater Peoples and who was in Family Portrait, and he has another project coming out called Evan Only, but he’s playing guitar in my band for now. And then my friend Alex Tretiak, who I grew up with.

And how does that work in terms of you writing the songs and knowing the basis of everything—do you feel like it comes together nicely having an amalgam of sounds and influences coming in?

Yeah, I do. The band for a while was a three-piece and I think I sort of got used to having the guitar as my territory, but having to share it I suppose has been a bit of adjustment. I do go into practices with pretty clear ideas of how I want things to sound.

Are you quite bossy?

No, I don’t think so! I try to be diplomatic. I think I’m diplomatic. I think if you’d ask the other guys, they might not agree. But yeah, you know the way you think something is going to sound never really sounds that way anyway.

Do you think when you play live that sound is reminiscent of the sound on the records? Do you try to make it any different at all?

I think just by virtue of things not sounding the way you expect them to sound, there’s always a difference when we play live. But within that, we try to do our best I suppose to recreate the way things sound on the record. For some songs that’s kind of impossible, and also for some of the things on the record, it might not be very exciting in the concert context. It’s nice, though, trying to tour this record since it was recorded with actual instruments in a real studio, which is unlike the first one, since I tried to record it in my bedroom through my laptop by piecing things back together backwards. It never really worked. It was another kind of concert experience for that record.

How did you feel about that? Was it uncomfortable for you to be in a studio recording?

Well, we recorded with this guy, Kevin McMahon, who recorded Real Estate and Titus, and when I was in high school, I was in a band with Martin [Courtney] from Real Estate and Patrick [Stickles] from Titus, and we recorded at this studio that he ran in New York. He's since moved the studio to New Paltz. I’ve known him for ten years, and not that we come into everyday contact, but he represents a lot of the way I think about recording music in a studio, so it was very comfortable.

So he produced the record, but do you go in with your own voice and ideas?

As far as guitar tones and stuff, he just has a bunch of amps that he can stack up and plug in and I don’t really know how to do anything like that. [Laughs] I just have a guitar and a distortion pedal. I’m not really into gear all that much so it’s nice to have somebody involved in that process, which depends very much on having nice things involved. If it were up to me, I’d make another bad-sounding record.

I don’t think your first record sounded bad at all.

Well, I guess it was more like, you try to make your limitations sound like they were intentional.

I know that record came out in 2010—was there a reason behind the three-year break?

I was living life. It takes me a long time to write songs. That’s another thing that I feel pretty strongly about—it’s that I don’t like relying on this to make me money. A few years ago, I got into journalism because I loved writing, and as soon as I relied on it to make money, it was no longer fun for me. So once I started to feel that happening with music at the same time that it was happening with writing, perhaps I made the conscious decision to not do that. Also, I have pretty conventional lifestyle ambitions. Like I want to have things that most people want and my life is not well suited to being lived in a van. That also means its more difficult to find time to do all that stuff in the context of work and life and relationships. Maybe I’m just justifying it but I’m trying to make my art an extension of that.

I kind of like that balance, though. I feel very concerned for my friends who are on tour all the time. In writing this new record, since you’ve been doing it on and off for the past three years, what’s the process been like? Do you sit down with your guitar by yourself and then build it out from there?

I pretty much do everything by myself in my bedroom and I just sort of come up with a guitar part that I like, and I gather that when people are writing a record, they write a lot of songs, but my process is to come up with a lot of things and to just always be playing guitar and then when something strikes me as good, I rely on myself to remember that thing. So once I’ve remembered it long enough, I have a good idea that will probably turn into a song. Inevitably there are many of these pieces and some of them end up fitting together and that is sort of how a song comes together on a musical level. On a lyrical level, it seems that a lot of people use the voice as another instrument, not just the voice but the words themselves. It was my ambition with this record to find things that work both to make my voice to sound like an instrument but also to be saying something and to have that something that I was saying stand out.

Are you writing lyrics at the same time as you’re writing the songs?

That part is so much harder, so it always happens last. I wrote a set of lyrics and then I recorded them in the studio and then I sort of threw out most of the vocal melodies and then most of the lyrics and then I went back and did it by myself later on. That also accounts for about a year of the down time.

The record is called Home Life—why did you give it that title?

I wanted to originally call it Lean On Me. Let me think about this for a second. I think I remember why I wanted to call it that. [Pauses, thinks] Basically, for all the reasons I mentioned before. Because I wanted it to be an extension of life as it is lived. I guess that sounds sort of ambitious and silly in the context of rock and roll, but that’s also something I struggle with—taking rock and roll seriously.

Yeah, I mean the term “rock and roll” feels pretty antiquated.

Yeah, totally, but let’s call a spade a spade here. Four dudes, two guitars, one bass, one drums, one man yelling—that’s rock and roll. Antiquated, well I think that’s insightful that you’d say that, because rock and roll itself is quite antiquated, especially guitar rock. It seems like people care about it increasingly less.

I think that’s why people respond to your records, though. There’s just so much music without heart behind it, and I think that’s what rock and roll has always been to me. It feels like there’s a soul there, and I think that’s why people like your music.

Do people like my music?

[Laughs] Yes.

So I would say that I called the record that because it was all written in my home when I was not leaving and people our age are all sort of—hm, I’m certainly not alone in feeling cagey in having all these things that I fucking have to do now. I guess whatever it means, that’s what it means. And I think it also sounds like more of a statement than I can clearly make for myself. To call it that sounded somewhat grand to me, like I was applying a label retroactively to a series of things that I had done that made sense on an intuitive level, even if I cant exactly verbalize it.

I like that. Do you feel that the record has clear themes that you aimed for?

Yeah, there are a lot of themes. In the songcraft itself, I wanted to explore the continuity between the music that I listen to and the music that I make. So there are a lot of borrowed things musically and lyrically.

Especially with the Bill Withers cover, how do you draw the line between what’s yours and what is someone else’s?

I think that’s part of the experimentation. My girlfriend tells me that I always have other people’s music in my head, like P.L.J. and KC and the Sunshine Band, and I walk around with these songs in my head, I suppose. Things just bubble up, I guess. If what I told you about my process is true, if I come up with things, and they last in my head long enough, and then I turn them into a song, then they’re sort of living in the ether alongside these ideas that are not mine. It becomes part of a larger pool of things that I’m drawing from, some of which is mine and some of which is not.

[I struggle for a while to make a point here.] Do you remember the band Jet? They were ostensibly a cover band.

Yeah, yeah.

How do you know you’ve been influenced by someone else while also remaining authentically you?

I mean, I guess that’s just something that you have to let your intuition guide you through. I think that by being honest about the things that influence you, it's a way of being more honest about how music or art lives in the world. Not to place these things that are influencing you alongside the music that you make might be called a form of dishonesty because everybody who makes music is probably having the same things happening in their head that I do. But drawing the line, I don’t know. The cover of “Lean on Me” I did is called “On Me”, so you slice off the first word of the song and it becomes a song about a guy living in the suburbs getting drunk with his friends from high school, which is much different from the Bill Withers song. It takes the refrain from that song and it knocks it off kilter a little bit.

So you think the process of doing that is intuitive?

Yeah, I think that’s it.

I know you listen to a lot of older music and you have a lot of influence from times past. Is there anything you’ve been listening to now that influences you? Any contemporary music?

Yeah, I like Kurt Vile a lot, like everybody else does. My friend is in a band called Liquor Store, they’re playing our release show, and they’re one of my favorite bands. I still listen to a lot of Titus. In the modern indie rock landscape, there’s really not that much, I guess. The Babies, I saw them recently and they were really good.

It feels like your records and your music kind of stand outside this current landscape in music. Maybe that’s in part to you wanting to have other life things happen, but it feels like you could put out another record in ten years and still have the same reception. It’s not like the way a new band puts out a record, they have to put out another record the following year, they have to go on a huge tour. I know “outsider” is considered a bad term, but it seems like you’re not so much in this as other bands are.

I don’t think I’m a particularly cool-looking guy or a “cool guy” in any sense, actually, so on that level, touring is a bit of a struggle, too. I’m not good with talking to strangers and all that stuff. Most people like me, who have ambitions of making high-minded guitar art, give up a long time before I do. But because I have people in my life like Patrick, who urged me to do this thing from when we were very young, and I have all these friends who are doing this kind of thing around me and playing music, it gives me the will and the positive example of people doing it in a good way. It makes me want to continue to do it myself, even if it isn’t necessarily my social circle or whatever.

This is maybe a heady question, but do you feel like you do it for a reason? Do you have a specific motivation?

I think it’s hard to draw the line between this and any other thing that I might want to do, as an ambitious person who wants things for myself in my life, and who wants to achieve a certain level of “whatever.” On that level, it is a compulsion, and the compulsion to make music is amplified by the more general compulsion to do something or be someone. It’s also something, like if I have any down time, I will go nuts, so I have to have something to do. This summer, I have off, and if it weren’t for you sitting here right now, I’d be sitting at home like slapping the walls or something.

Do you find that when you have down time now, are you practicing? Are you actively writing songs, even though the record is coming out?

I do feel like I’m getting to a certain age where my connections in the music industry are getting a little older and I’m sort of waiting for the people who are supporting me to quit and do other things. I think that now, more so than when I was 22 and lollygagging my way to putting out my first record, time is of the essence. I’m hoping that it’ll take me a shorter amount of time to put together the next record.

Ah, so there’s going to be a next record?

Yeah, I think so! As I said, it remains sort of a compulsion, so we’ll see. I think there will be. This time of my life, being a student again, and also touring, somewhat feels less like a real time in my life. I have less things to yell about into a microphone.

Maybe once you start teaching high school students, you’ll feel differently about that.

A few more years until that happens.

I wonder what teenagers will think of their rock and roll teacher.

I’ll have to change my name.

If you had to change the way that people saw you and how the press presented your persona, how would you change it?

I think that there’s something about the way I present myself in interviews that makes it difficult for people to get excited about my music and about who I am as the person making this music. I suppose, while being reticent about a lot of stuff and being sort of skeptical of a lot of rock and roll lifestyle tropes is central to my task as a person making this art, I also feel like I present myself as an unwilling cipher for these things that are passing through me. I feel like I present myself as being ravaged by my compulsion to make music, which in a way it’s true, I guess. I just wish people didn’t see it that way. Music can be a pleasant diversion, and that’s not really the way I write my music. But I wish it could be consumed in that way. That’s the real uphill battle. I wonder if people hear my music sometimes and are like, “Whoa, this is depressing” or “This is too much.”

That is the opposite of how I would describe it!

Oh really? Oh, okay, that’s good then.

I feel like your music is very hopeful and there’s something about it that is very easy to identify with. Maybe because it’s unpretentious. There’s so much music that is pretentious and that makes it hard to get to any real feeling, you know. There's a very direct connection in your songs.

Oh, wow, okay. That’s really the nicest thing you could have said. That’s the whole goal. It brings me happiness, certainly, to make music, and to have this thing to do with my time. But that’s really the nicest thing, if somebody likes it, then it’s great. For whatever reason, I fell ass-backwards into some opportunities where people could hear my music and that is why I still do it. There’s no reason why I should still be making music, if not.

Home Life releases through Underwater Peoples on July 16.