The RFT Music Showcase is built around beautiful incongruities. This year's installment found jean-shorted punks playing on the sunny Washington Avenue outdoor stage, power-pop bands taking over sports bars and indie rockers playing on dance floors usually reserved for high heels and popped collars. But inside Rue 13, CaveofswordS (nominated for "Best New Band") was making one of its initial live outings in a dark dance club that seemed to fit the band's beat-driven, icily cool sound.
To a point, at least.
As husband-and-wife bandleaders Sunyatta and Kevin McDermott played guitars and triggered samples, the club's sound man flashed a low-budget version of the Pink Floyd laser light shows of years past — a fog machine bathed the crowd in a stinky cloud, stage lights pulsed in time, and the vibe briefly had the air of a sinister roller rink. But the crowd either laughed off the ambience or ignored it in favor of CaveofswordS' set, which featured live re-workings of the studio-crafted songs found on its debut, Silverwalks, which will be released this Friday with a show at the Heavy Anchor.
CaveofswordS' sound is a little hard to pin down — there are hypnotic loops, spy-movie guitar licks and a heavy dose of chilled-out ambience in these tracks that made Rue 13's dim vibe a fitting venue. But Sunyatta's vocals refuse to be buried under too much clutter, and her voice becomes the centerpiece of these moody, evocative songs. The band is not quite rock & roll and not quite electronic — it occupies an in-between space that has made genre tags and booking fitting local shows a bit of a challenge.
A week before their showcase premiere, the McDermotts were sitting on the gravel patio at the Civil Life Brewing Company on the city's south side, taking in the gloaming and the craft beer as they discussed the intersection of love, marriage and music. For many St. Louis fans, Sunyatta McDermott is best remembered as Sunyatta Marshall, a member of Fred's Variety Group and the lead singer and rhythm guitarist for the Helium Tapes.
Her husband, Kevin, has led a less visible but no less active existence as a DJ and beat-maker, and CaveofswordS is his first foray into guitar-led rock & roll. The project began when Kevin and Sunyatta were friends and acquaintances; the romantic relationship grew as the music evolved, and the pair was married last year. Kevin describes the long gestation of the couple's friendship and their musical collaboration.
"We've known each other for fifteen years but at vastly different ends of the spectrum — I was DJing, and she was playing in folk bands," says Kevin. "So it wasn't until a few years ago when we hung out a little bit more and talked about our mutual interests."
CaveofswordS sprung from his computer-driven compositions — snippets of songs heavy with samples and loops, no longer than 90 seconds in length — which he handed off to Sunyatta as he attempted to pair local vocalists with his tunes.
"Initially, there was not going to be a band at all — it was just going to be a recording project," says Kevin. "As far as I knew, she was still in the Helium Tapes, which I obviously enjoyed. I had been writing hip-hop instrumentals and just instrumental-soundtrack mood stuff for years and releasing them to no one, and thought I might get a vocalist to open it up."
Those early sessions consisted of combing through Kevin's songs and looking for ways to create space for Sunyatta's voice — a clarion instrument that can broadcast fragility, seduction and longing with strength, nuance and precision. For Sunyatta, working amid loops and drum-machine patterns was a step outside her roots in errant folk and garage rock.
"As a vocalist, you need to give the song time to breathe before you launch into the next part," she explains. "Nobody wants to hear a vocalist sing over an entire song — at least I don't particularly want to."
She continues: "It's still a learning curve for me because I've always written songs with a band in a basement while you're doing it live, instead of interfacing with a computer, which is a weak spot for me. I come from a rock and folk background." However, these studio compositions offer a quieter palette with which to work.
Kevin has likewise adjusted his compositions — many of which have the mood and pace of trip-hop — to include Sunyatta's voice. "It's nice now that I have to think of space — I have to do things very minimally," he says. "I'm not the greatest player, but I am very specific about what I want to hear. I'll spend two hours dialing in a guitar tone so it sounds like a movie I heard from the '60s, or like the drums have to be this certain sound. The process in the back of my head is saying, 'Where is Sunyatta gonna sing?'"
Silverwalks is the band's first release and, to date, CaveofswordS has played fewer than ten shows in town. Despite its pedigree of two scene veterans, the members wonder about their place in the St. Louis music community.
"We haven't found our scene here, so playing onstage is a little bit different," says Sunyatta. "The Helium Tapes, by our first or second show, were already drawing pretty well. It was a somewhat rare show that we didn't have a decent draw. What we're doing now, in part because there are fewer people on the stage or because we run beats and samples and stuff, it seems like the audience isn't exactly sure what to do with us, and so we haven't found our audience. But we've also been playing a lot of places that might be the wrong places for us. I love the music, so to me there's no way it's just the music!"
Kevin explains that it may be a matter of sharing the bill with more rock-centric bands. "We've been playing with a lot of alt-country and Americana bands, just by default from the people we know are in those kinds of bands..."
"Because we're in St. Louis, and south St. Louis!" Sunyatta interjects with a laugh.
They highlight some similarly minded artists in town, like Adult Fur, Ou Où, Scripts 'N Screwz — musicians who work in electronic media but imbue it with their own personal, human stamp. Kevin is particularly looking forward to a proposed remix album of the Silverwalks material with contributions from the aforementioned artists and others.
"We're in an odd spot in St. Louis, and that's fine with us. I think we'll find our crowd; it may or may not be here," says Sunyatta. "I'm not that worried about it, because I still love to play shows and make music, and now we have a station wagon that we can tour in."
Station wagons carry a bit of domestic cachet with them as well, and the McDermotts have experienced both the graces and challenges of making music with one's partner. "Life gets in the way a lot," says Kevin. "When you don't live with the person that's in that band, you make a schedule and stick to it. I think a lot of times we're beat when we come home, and we want to hang out and just enjoy each other instead of working on the next set of twenty tracks."
So CaveofswordS is a band without a readily identifiable genre, a project of seasoned performers trying on new ideas and a juggling of love, live and music. And the McDermotts wouldn't have it any other way.
"You're hanging out with the person you want to hang out with," says Sunyatta, "and it's fun to make music..."
"But it's fun to watch a movie! It's fun to go see another band," adds Kevin. Later, he reflects on how their relationship, which began as a musical project and bloomed into love and, eventually, marriage, reveals itself in CaveofswordS' music.
"They informed each other," says Kevin. "I write a ridiculous amount of stuff — there are hundreds of songs that I am in the process of working on. But it's really nice to have someone to write for. The truth is that I really do enjoy thinking of someone that I'm writing for. Now I think, what would sound good with Sunyatta's voice? What can reflect how we live day to day?
"I don't write that much sad music anymore."