For the last four years, St. Louis' CaveofswordS has walked an uphill path paved with dub wave — a style lacking the kind of support network that comes with playing broader, more accessible genres like pop or rock. The duo of Kevin and Sunyatta McDermott welcomes reinvention as the gold standard, taking an approach of constant evolution. The band released its sophomore effort, Sigils, on Boxing Clever Records earlier this year, and its upcoming remix album, GLiiSS, set to drop October 30, offers a fresh look at the band through the eyes of its friends and favorite artists.
For some, a remix album might seem like a side note, but the concept of sampling and rearrangement is firmly embedded within CaveofswordS' DNA. While he can be seen onstage wielding the lead guitar, Kevin also works on the backbone of every song: Densely layered tracks offer a bedrock of samples and synthesizer — an approach carried over from his days as a DJ.
"All the stuff that I did before this band was me making sample-based music. Literally, there were whole records where I didn't play anything original. I wouldn't play an actual note," Kevin says. "I had been doing hip-hop instrumentals and I had a lot of stuff that I thought would work for a band, and so I made a CD and passed it around."
Sunyatta liked what she heard and joined up, picking out her favorite pieces while expanding upon the melodies and progressions. In that way, she remixed Kevin's original ideas, pulling the tracks apart to make space for vocals. Released in 2012, the group's first album Silverwalks was built out of that initial demo, which featured more than 70 tightly wound minute-long concepts for possible songs.
"The first record was a complete learning process, which is why it sounds the way it does. Everyone's like, 'Oh you guys did that lo-fi shit.' And it's like, 'No, we did that recording-in-our-house shit, and didn't know what we were doing,'" Kevin says. "There were no accidents on this record. Everything that was done was literally painstakingly pored over."
The album feels like a succession of slow burns that keep a constant peak, with sinewy riffs riding atop a bright rhythm section. Sunyatta sings with depth, conveying clear melody while concealing a propensity for wilder rock leanings. The beats feel concrete, owing to a busy mixture of booming bass and soft snares. Each song shares distinct tweaks, helping the album to feel greater than the sum of its parts — a whole built with special care to each and every piece.
"There are 70 or 80 tracks in each song," Kevin says. "It might not sound like it, but there are tons of tracks in everything. I would mix something, listen to it, it wouldn't be right, then I would ask a couple people questions, and they would say, 'Well, you could do this.'"
"The recording project came before our understanding of ourselves as a band," Sunyatta adds. "The initial goal was to make a record and put it out, and then as we started writing it, we thought, 'Well, this would be fun to do live, too.'"
The transition from studio to stage saw the pair using a borrowed keyboard and an iPod nano blasting backing tracks under Sunyatta's voice. She calls the first few shows a "mess," citing thin and tinny tones. CaveofswordS then brought in new players to flesh out its low end. Sunyatta relied on her bandmates from the now-defunct Helium Tapes — Brandon Mason and Jarrod Burkemper — for short stints on bass guitar before Sunyatta picked up the instrument herself. After the first album was finished, Kevin's cousin Eric Armbruster joined as a permanent fixture, helping to expand the sound as a multi-instrumentalist.
While working through its reinvention, the band approached other artists from St. Louis and beyond to contribute their own takes on songs from Silverwalks.
"When I DJed I always liked remixes. A lot of the time, more than I liked the originals," Kevin says. "The originals are great, but I always liked what other people did when they filtered that song through their heads."
The members of CaveofswordS liked the reimagined tracks so much, in fact, that they've decided to do it again with their latest record. While the first album showed Kevin and Sunyatta experimenting with structure and recording, Sigils finds a full-fledged band immersed in tonal exploration. By inviting artists such as Golden Curls, Abnormal and the Pat Sajak Assassins to reinvent the album one song at a time, CaveofswordS gladly welcomes outside influence. The group might even take a remix and play their friend's new version live.
Though some bands close the book once a record has been cut, CaveofswordS prefers to tear the pages out for its own sonic collage. Armbruster might hear one section that needs a bright riff drenched with delay, and so he adds them. Kevin and Sunyatta even joke around about returning to Silverwalks, saying that it would be "a fun winter project."
As for the future, CaveofswordS intends to tour. Its recent two-week jaunt through the Midwest saw strong support, so the band hopes to press on. Musically speaking, the duo says they have no set plans — but that's the just the way they operate. Everything is open-ended.
"I've never gone into a project trying to make a certain thing," Sunyatta says. "I go into a project with certain people whose aesthetic I love. My goal is to continue to work with that alchemy."